66th IFLA Council and General
Jerusalem, Israel, 13-18 August
Code Number: 096-98(WS)-E
Division Number: I
Professional Group: Library and Research Services for Parliaments: Research Seminar
Joint Meeting with: -
Meeting Number: 98
Simultaneous Interpretation: No
Issues for smaller legislative research services
Department of Information Resources, Library of the National Congress
When I was invited to participate in this workshop by giving a presentation on "issues for smaller legislative research services", my first obvious question was: what is a smaller research service? The question could be interpreted from several different points of view, so let us begin -- for today's purposes -- by considering common sense definitions of "smaller":
- small as opposed to large, like the CRS;
- small meaning new and not yet consolidated in time;
- small meaning with budgets that are small compared with those of other countries;
- small as being in smaller countries (i.e., those with fewer than a certain number of inhabitants or members of parliament);
- small as being situated in less developed countries;
- small meaning that few people work in the research service; and
- It can always mean that small is beautiful, too.
For this workshop, then, we shall keep the concept of small rather flexible to encompass any of these alternatives, or even new ones that may be suggested in the course of the day. Small can mean all of the above, and can include a wide range of legislative research services. Indeed, large legislative research services would seem to be the exception and to occur less frequently than smaller ones, which are those most usually encountered in the parliamentary information environment.
Even though we all have a common understanding of a research service, I will make it somewhat more explicit for the purposes of this workshop:
- A legislative research service implies the provision of value-added research products and services, as distinct from traditional library information services offering access to sources (books, serials, documents, data bases etc.), bibliographies, quick reference and assistance. Thus, a legislative research service prepares and provides information dossiers; in-depth subject studies; pro and contra arguments; briefings to parliamentarians; and other services or products of similar breadth and scope, published or not.
- The word "research" in the name implies an aggregation of knowledge beyond that found in traditional library information services.
The third element of our subject, "issues", includes aspects such as workload, resources, technology, non-partisanship, political intervention, attracting good staff, familiarizing members of parliament with the service, relations between library services, relations with other legislative staffs, competition, accommodation, and plans for the future. This leaves us with a rather open-ended and very flexible structure for this presentation in order to facilitate discussion, questions and participation, and, it is hoped, to be provocative.
I apologize, because I know this is nothing new; nevertheless, it is useful to start this workshop on common ground and words have the mysterious and sometimes fatal quality of meaning different things to different people.
Within this framework, I will quickly describe two recent cases: the Research Services of the Chilean Library of Congress and the Legislative Assistance Services of the Guatemalan Congress.
Research Services: Chilean Library of Congresss
In 1990, the Chilean Library of Congress set up a Research Service based on the CRS model. It consisted of:
- a Parliamentary Library with traditional services (mainly collections and reference work);
- a group of non-traditional services and databases (legislative and legal databases as well as other databases);
- an electronic / virtual library;
- a research department with nine researchers to prepare research papers on demand for 120 deputies and 48 senators. (These researchers are themselves major users of the Library's information resources and reference services.)
Initially, the service generated studies as requested by individual members of the Chilean Congress, with labour- and knowledge-intensive products being prepared by the researchers. This model, which had aimed at creating a demand for research studies, was so successful that it had its own doomsday virus. As the research group made itself known, the basic research staff was ever more unable to respond to all of the requests; thus the danger of offering an inadequate service became a real problem. When you cannot meet to all of your requests (because of too few people and resources), parliamentarians are left dissatisfied and form the perception that the service is not good enough; moreover, budgetary restraints mean that unimpeded growth to accommodate increasing demand is not an option. Secondly, this one-on-one basis made the client - researcher relationship mutually dependent but without necessarily balancing all the users or the major issues for Parliament or the Library. A few clients were getting all of the service and quite a large proportion were left with none.
As a result, this model is currently being questioned and is facing a possible restructuring.. Some options being considered are:
- To infuse more resources into the research group and increase the number of researchers;
- To outsource some research to universities or think-tanks;
- To change editorial direction and provide more general briefings and fewer individual in-depth papers;
- To shift client focus to legislative commissions and away from individual members.
All of these options have strengths and weaknesses and not all are equally feasible. For example, to infuse more resources would involve a change in the budget structure, which would be difficult to attain. Outsourcing would require management capabilities and quality controls. Changing editorial direction would be possible, but could leave some clients dissatisfied because of the lack of legislative assistance. To shift client focus, an option also being evaluated, would result in a very loose structure, within a networked organizational model (almost a matrix structure), in which a group of people would provide information, consulting services, and research directly to the legislative commissions.
This major change from serving individual clients to serving groups of clients would enable the Library to cover more areas, provide more satisfactory services and collaborate directly within the legislative process rather than from outside it. There are some caveats, though, which are probably common to all parliamentary environments. For example, the lifelong clerks and permanent staff (the ones who stay while the politicians come and go) are generally quite conservative and not amenable to change. In the Chilean case, the movement for change came from within, after public debates on the quality of the laws being passed by Congress. This need for better laws, with more knowledge added, created a niche of demand that the Library could fill if by refocusing its research efforts.
The project of redirecting research work is now in a pilot phase in order to evaluate resources, expertise, internal capabilities, organize the working groups by providing them with management, coordination and quality control, and insert them into the legislative commissions or into a pared down editorial framework..
All the possible alternatives are being considered, and one thing is sure: to achieve a very successful start-up service, growth and change have to be included in the initial model.
Legislative Assistance Services (Research Services) Congress of Guatemala
Another interesting model of a research service is that of the Congress of Guatemala. Here, the permanent Technical Assistance Unit, UPAT, offers research and technical assistance to representatives, legislative commissions and other offices within the Congress. It prepares research papers, offers consulting services to legislators, and acts as liaison between Guatemalan and foreign experts and Congress. As well as preparing information files as requested by representatives, UPAT drafts bills for future laws.
The interesting thing about UPAT is that the work is done by university students with a supervising mentor, who is an expert in a particular field. The files can include policy, legislation, and comparative law, and make reference to periodicals, as well as press and other material. The students act as legislative assistants in a voluntary capacity, while the mentor is a respected university professor or expert who directs and monitors the research.
The structure of UPAT is as follows: a Technical Assistance Group receives the request and decides whether the work is to be done or not, while the Academic Council assigns the study to a legislative assistant and a mentor who provides support and supervision.
There are some very interesting aspects of this organization:
- Highly motivated young people contribute to the studies and research services;
- The selection criteria for determining whether a study is to be done and the precisely established editorial direction mean that the parliamentarians knows exactly what they will receive when they request a research paper.
- The level of structure in the work done by the students enables results to be standardized through established processes, procedures and work flows.
- Joint ventures are carried out with external organizations, including the University of Texas.
- The low-cost operation taps into the national resources available, such as university students and research projects within academia.
- The demand for research was created before research capabilities were established within the Guatemalan Congress.
Some of the weaknesses observed are the need to have UPAT formally established within the Congress and the need for students to be remunerated for their work; voluntary work lends itself well to a pilot project but is not appropriate for consolidating a research service for the Guatemalan Congress. The main danger is that the service is vulnerable in that it is not part of the legislative process, has no budget of its own for technology or information resources, and does not have the capability of growing beyond its present state to a more mature level of expertise; moreover, the best volunteers will eventually find work elsewhere. The main strength of the service is that it is flexible, very low-cost, and, as a pilot project, is a good way to convince parliamentarians of the need for such a service, especially as it taps into largely unused services such as students and university professors.
It is a model worth considering by smaller countries that want to initiate a legislative research service and create a need and demand for research among parliamentary clients.
Issues for Smaller Legislative Research Services: A Few Important Points
From these two examples, we can draw some important conclusions.
- Gain the confidence of clients by consistently delivering that which the service set out to do: keeping commitments with respect to content and opportunity (just in case and just in time).
- Have an explicit design for the scale of services and products so as to keep a clear view of editorial lines, products, the breadth, scope and timeliness of contents and resources involved, and to be aware of what should be changed when the time comes.
- Maintain quality control through peer or other review and client feedback.
- Work to meet the needs of tomorrow (bills, projects, etc.) and not for what has already happened in the legislature.
- Have an eye to growth capabilities. For example, what happens if an initial research group is so succesful that it is swamped by requests from parliamentarians?
Management Issues and Value System
- Make costing and budgeting explicit, even if there is no assigned budget. It is a question of management, and may bring the institution closer to obtaining needed funds.
- Maintain flexibility: there should be frequent evaluations and unused or unrequested services or products should be dropped.
- Demonstrate non- partisanship so the service will keep going beyond government and political changes.
- Avoid satisfying one client to the detriment of others; the service must have the image of being fair to all users.
- Grab opportunities: identify information niches that can be filled by the service; access resources from external sources; grants, etc.
- Provide as professional a service as possible.
- Have information sources available in hard-copy, on the Internet or in other formats.
- Train a well prepared, motivated staff, which will not necessarily consist of many people.
- Make use of technology, which is a cost- effective way of getting the work done and providing access to information resources: it is less expensive to have Internet access than to build up entire collections on a subject.
- Maintain contacts, contacts and more contacts with peers in the country of origin and elsewhere. Friends can be extremely helpful in providing current information rather than just donations of last year's reference collection.
- Obtain external resources for projects: for example, GLIN for legal databases.
- Place money, time, resources, collections, etc., where they are strategically most important and address the main business of the service by serving more clients more fully. At the beginning, do not place scarce money where it will not be noticed, used or valued, but concentrate on high user impact areas.
- Obtain and hold on to physical space. Office space is not a trivial issue; it has an enormous impact on information services within a given environment. The bottom line is that everyone has to sit somewhere, have a desk, maybe a phone, ideally a computer with Internet access.