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61st IFLA General Conference - Conference Proceedings - August 20-25, 1995

The Future of Parliamentary Research Services: To Lead or to Follow?

Dr. June Verrier, Head, Parliamentary Research Service, Parliament of Australia



What is the most appropriate role for a Parliament Research Service (PRS) in contemporary parliaments? Is that role to be responsive to requests to the degree required by individual members on an ad hoc basis? Is it to anticipate the major issues of the day likely to be of interest to parliamentarians and write general briefs on these issues that will be made available to all members? Is it to contribute to the work of committees by providing needed expertise? Is it the role of a contemporary PRS to provide the kind of research, analysis, commentary, policy options or advice, free from the constraints of the policy parameters of governments, oppositions, small parties and interest groups, which will assist members comprehend current debate and make a contribution to it should they choose to do so? Is it some combination of the above, in all cases avoiding issues of controversy and in the process taking account of PRS' place in the panoply of parliamentary institutions and its potential to play a part in the perennial battle for power between the executive and the legislature?

It appears that there are no clear answers to these questions other than those that have evolved in the practice of different research services, not least because the role of PRSs has been relatively little considered in the literature on the institution of parliament. Consequently, this paper focuses on Parliamentary Research Services (PRSs) in general and the Australian Parliamentary Research Service (APRS) in particular. While a number of issues raised in this paper may be pertain to them, this paper is not about parliamentary libraries.

The Significance of Parliamentary Research Services

The seminal modern literature on the reform of Parliament calls for strengthening parliamentary institutions, including committees, but also including research and information facilities. Numerous authorities point directly to the potential of research and information services for restoring the proper balance between the executive and legislature. Three of particular note are: Gough Whitlam, perhaps Australia's most intellectual and reformist Prime Minister to date, Bernard Crick, author of the seminal work on the Reform of Parliament, and Barry Jones, a former Australian Minister and sometime visionary, who makes the case for the post information revolution period.

Bernard Crick, for example, argued that parliaments must establish facilities to assist politicians participate more fully in the processes of "examining and publicising the broad outlines of future legislation and policy and examining the efficiency and effectiveness of day to day administration."

More recently, Barry Jones, concerned about the democratisation of information, concluded that "...the effective working of democracy depends on the availability of adequate information and the capacity for its independent evaluation..." . Jones also sees such access as a major contributor to restoring the significance of the Parliament.

Perhaps it was this potential to check the executive by providing an alternative source of advice to the bureaucracy that caused resistance to the creation of parliamentary research services. In Australia some Ministers of the day and others were no less skeptical of proposals to provide research support in the 1960s than their counterparts in the House of Commons were about the appointment of specialist advisers on committees in the sixteenth century. Some Australian State Parliaments appear to remain skeptical even today.

Political pragmatism was one reason. Parliamentary research services inevitably provide greater assistance to oppositions and small parties with no access to the immense resources of the public service than they do to governments. However shortsighted resistance to research services may seem, given that governments invariably become oppositions sooner or later, the sensitivities involved undoubtedly led not only to the very careful attention given to a code of conduct for parliamentary research services, but also contributed to the reactive style that characterised their operations, at least in earlier days.

Client Specific Requests

The characteristic that most sets the APRS apart from other PRSs is the emphasis that continues to be given to the confidential one on one Member's brief, a professional consultation of one kind or another, which accounts for more than 50 percent of workload measured qualitatively by hours. While there is obviously great appreciation of the increased range of common purpose products that are also being produced, even these are often used as background documentation for the personalised brief.

The centrality of the confidential, individually tailored brief is the single most significant feature of the APRS and has widespread consequences including the attraction of the work (an extraordinarily high level of commitment and motivation), the particular characteristics of recruitment policy (much greater emphasis on exceptionally strong communication skills and an extraordinary capacity for objectivity for research officers) and even the use of office space which, against the general public sector trend of an open floor plan, favors individual offices due to the requirements of confidentiality.

There are also, naturally, resource consequences. It is undoubtedly more resource intensive to provide a tailor made service than a fully common purpose one. However, while careful consideration has been given to arrangements to reduce this as much as possible, i.e. to avoid individual Members locking up research that may be required for other clients, the willingness to bear this cost and the commitment to this characteristic in the Australian Parliament is perhaps a comment both on where it sits in Robinson's and Miko's typology of Parliaments, and what contribution it can make to the effectiveness of a parliament vis vis the executive.

Fred Chaney, a former Senator, has argued strongly for the personal research service, concluding that its availability plays no small part in enabling a backbencher to run on an issue. In his Foreword to The Sausage Makers? Parliamentarians as Legislators, he takes issue with one recommendation of the author for the reform of Parliament that the APRS assist parliamentary committees before backbenchers. "Courageous and heretical backbenchers are rare but they are the stuff of which a good parliament is made and they, above all, need servicing ahead of any group structure." Another former Senator has said:

The human contact is invaluable. A specialist's point of view on certain technical aspects of an issue are always welcome. The ability to talk a problem or a concept through gives one a grasp of the subject matter that often cannot be gleaned from written documents alone. However, more importantly, a specialist has the ability to bring matters to one's attention which would otherwise have been missed, or help the member see issues from a different perspective.

The benefit of the priority given to the provision of individually tailored research requests is the contribution it can make to a more effective parliament. The disadvantage is relative cost of service and the leeway such confidential work allows the (rare, less diligent) staffer who must self manage.


Parliaments are at least mighty symbols and at best critical, potential sources of power. To what degree that potential is realized can depend on political will. It can also depend on maximising the effectiveness of the institutions of Parliament, including Parliamentary Research Services.

Clearly research services cannot be out of step with the parliaments they serve. There is thus a requirement for fine judgment to determine PRSs' priorities, and to do this in an environment of increasing complexity, pressure, and need to stay in tune. Because of growing constraints upon Members' time, increasing emphasis is being given in APRS to presentation of information in easily digested, succinct forms, including electronic and visual formats. The APRS is continuing to experiment with new products, such as the Research Note, a single sheet distillation of research findings.

Client focus is central and will remain paramount in service, resource and recruitment considerations. Moreover, this focus requires a PRS to take the lead in creative resource management, including the development of is staff, to ensure that the very best range of expertise is available to meet the needs of the parliamentarians. While fixed for the forseeable future at approximately a 1:4 ration of full time APRS staff to Members, there are at least three options particularly suited to the APRS that make it possible to make available to clients a broader range of expertise. These are the flexible use of external consultants, short term staffers, and permanent part time employment arrangements.

A PRS must also anticipate the parliamentary marketplace, including writing those briefs that may be contentious. To do so is a sign of a mature, confident, well established service whose ethical, independent, and confidential credentials are well established and whose work is well accepted and respected by governments and oppositions. If a comparable typology were to be designed for research services as has been designed by Robinson and Miko for parliaments, such a research service would fit into the "independent legislature" end of the scale.

Wherever they are provided, effective delivery of research services will assist parliamentarians to hone their skills, develop their knowledge, and think through the policy issues and options by seeking advice and support in a confidential, individual, and unthreatening way. Research services exist to serve the needs of Members across the spectrum from developing the policy option to providing background for a speech to constituents.

The future of PRSs is as certain as that of parliaments. But how they develop in relation to typologies of parliaments will depend upon their attention to Member needs and the maintenance of that modus operandi which sets them apart from alternative sources of information and research analysis.