66th IFLA Council and General
Jerusalem, Israel, 13-18 August
Code Number: 137-98(WS)-E
Division Number: I
Professional Group: Library and Research Services for Parliaments: Research Seminar
Joint Meeting with:
Meeting Number: 98
Simultaneous Interpretation: No
The creation of a Parliamentary Research Centre
M. Alim Garga
Centre for Parliamentary Research
Jean Fabre said that: "What justifies the establishment of a parliament that makes the law on behalf of the people is the hope that the debates of the parliament, the collision of ideas, the dispute between different interests will cast light on the proceedings." This means that the office of the Secretary General, the administrative agency that provides technical support, has a challenge that needs to be met: that of preparing the members of the parliament to make the correct decisions, to make a positive contribution to the search for this enlightenment in a country that is resolutely committed to the path of democratization. What we are going to say here today is designed to show the importance of creating a Parliamentary Research Centre, the only guarantee that the work of the parliament will be carried out with all due seriousness. We hope that this presentation, which will focus on five main points, will provoke many reactions among the professionals that you are and that it will be followed by a discussion that we are sure will be candid, friendly and rewarding.
I - CAMEROON AND ITS PARLIAMENT
Cameroon is located in Central Africa. Its population is estimated to be about 14 million and it is made up of various peoples who have succeeded one another, rubbed shoulders with one another and buffeted one another over the centuries to create an inextricable puzzle that consists of almost 200 ethnic groups and about a hundred vernacular languages. The country has two official languages (English and French), which were inherited from the colonial era. The fact that it is a member of both the Commonwealth and of la Francophonie means that it shares the ideals of democracy, respect for human rights and progress that these two organizations share. To put it in a nutshell, it is a complex and diverse country that is often put forward as a symbol of Africa in miniature. In our country, diversity is regarded as being a factor for cultural enrichment although it can, in other respects, also be a handicap in terms of information and democratization.
With respect to politics, Cameroon has moved gradually from a system that was authoritarian in essence to one of so - called pacified democracy marked by a recognition of and respect for others, dialogue and tolerance. As a result, it has progressed through the stages of having only one party and a single - party system with a plurality of candidates and has now advanced to the state of having a complete multi - party system. The result is that at the present time seven political groupings are represented in the National Assembly. Pluralism appears to be a positive and creative force rather than a negative factor. The existence of these processes and of adequate democratic institutions must accordingly provide the parties that oppose one another with the possibility of resolving their differences by means of dialogue and negotiation. The parliament of Cameroon has also witnessed many changes since the law governing the constitution, No. 96/06 dated January 18, 1996. It is now a bicameral institution in that it consists of two chambers, namely the National Assembly consisting of 180 members elected by universal, direct and secret suffrage for a term of five years, and the Senate, which consists of one hundred members. Of these Senators, seventy are elected by indirect universal suffrage on a regional basis while the other thirty are appointed by the President of the Republic. Since the Senate is not yet in operation, the National Assembly enjoys all of the prerogatives that are conferred on the parliament in accordance with section 67, paragraph 3 of the Constitution until the Senate is actually put in place. This explains the vital need for the on - going provision of information to the parliamentarians.
II - INFORMATION: AN ESSENTIAL NEED OF HUMAN BEINGS AND A LEGISLATIVE PRIORITY
It is not possible to understand and to experience democracy as long as the essential and sufficient preconditions of freedom and above all of freedom of choice do not exist. Only this form of freedom can make possible participation by the people that is effective because it is voluntary in the conduct of the affairs of the polity. Information can be defined generally as items of fact, a new element of knowledge that an issuing agent (I) conveys to a receiving agent (R) by means of a channel the nature of which will depend on the communication process. At this stage and in this sense the purpose of information is to combat ignorance, to dispel the obscurity in which the members of a group may find themselves and which as a result is capable of preventing them not only from understanding their environment but also from playing a full and effective role in the life of the community. Thus, information appears to be not only an indispensable social need but also an inalienable human right and a system for training some individuals. If an individual needs to become informed in the same way as he or she needs to be fed, to be clothed, to take care of him- or herself and to educate him- or herself in order to be in a position to participate in the life of the community, society itself must in turn organize itself in such a way that it can meet this irreducible need by setting up a system that is designed to provide this information in a valid manner. Since the members of the public are thus better informed, they would be better equipped to provide one of the dimensions of development that is of a competitive nature.
From this perspective, the parliament offers the best forum for consultation and for making decisions. It constitutes the meeting place between the executive branch and the legislative branch. It is the place in which these two powers look each other over and speak to each other within the framework of that co-operation between the powers that was so dear to Montesquieu with a view to improving the conditions under which the people of a state will live. Moreover, the function of the parliamentarians lies precisely in the mission that is conferred on the parliamentary representative to take part in the management of the state by creating its laws, by voting on the taxes that may be levied and by monitoring the executive branch. In short, information must make its own contribution to the improvement of knowledge, to the education of the citizens of a state, to the entertainment of the members of the public and to the dissemination of the national culture. It is accordingly a vital need and a legislative priority.
III - THE DIALOGUE BETWEEN THE GOVERNMENT AND THE NATIONAL ASSEMBLY
In its relations with the executive branch, the parliament appears to be relatively lacking in power, relatively unfavoured in terms of the deployment of the strength that is at the disposal of the executive branch. In fact, the offices of government ministers are swarming with large numbers of experts with specializations in various fields (law, economics, sociology, among others) and they have sufficiently long stretches of time to prepare and bring to fruition draft legislation or any other document to be submitted to the parliament. However, substantial financial and physical resources are placed at the disposal of these experts in order to carry out their tasks. In the case of which we are speaking, the executive branch is better equipped. Moreover, when the following three (3) factors are combined: human resources, financial resources and time, it is not difficult to see why the executive branch enjoys this supremacy. Moreover, the 21st century will be marked by the inclusion of many political, economic and social problems such as poverty, health, safety, education levels and so on in the agendas of governments and this would suggest as a result that if the actions of government are to be monitored, documentary services for the legislatures will have to have sufficient resources at their disposal in order to meet the needs of their members for information.
What is more, the government has a de facto quasi - monopoly as far as the production of documents is concerned. A parliamentary institution on the other hand, must be able to conduct a more effective examination of the major thrusts of the documents that are put before it. Accordingly, if the parliament wishes to be a genuine partner in this constructive dialogue, it is essential that it change its attitude on pain of simply becoming a "mere rubber-stamping chamber" in accordance with its traditional role. This legislative leap can be undone not only through the monitoring activity of the members of the parliament but also and above all through the quality of the work done by the Office of the Secretary General, which is a technical agency responsible for supporting the actions of the members. In our view, this contribution to the improvement of the work of parliament can be made only if there are highly effective documentary structures already in place.
In a general way, the members of parliaments must be able to understand these major problems, to provide appropriate solutions for them and, in some cases, to put forward alternative solutions. Among the four existing divisions in the National Assembly the Documentation, Archives and Parliamentary Research Division appears to be a charnel house that was created to perform a mission involving close interaction with the parliamentarians. This leads us to hope longingly for this legislative challenge to be met with the support of an active documentary policy. This documentary offensive will constantly be required to meet the requirements of: neutrality, credibility and confidentiality.
IV - THE DOCUMENTATION, ARCHIVES AND PARLIAMENTARY RESEARCH DIVISION
The history of the library of parliament begins on October 15, 1946, when an order of the government of France was issued creating the Representative Assembly of Cameroon (ARCAM). Once it was in place, this assembly established a documentary unit that was given responsibility for "bringing together and communicating to the members of the assembly any documentation likely to be of interest to them in the performance of their parliamentary activities." From a documentation unit, this then became the Library and Documentation Section in 1965. In 1982, it was expanded to become the Library and Documentation Sub - Directorate. Later, in May 1995, it became the Documentation, Archives and Parliamentary Research Division in order to meet the needs of the members of the parliament and to modernize the parliamentary administration.
At the present time, it consists of 23 individuals, eight of whom are professionals who are taking part in the implementation of a true system of documentation. The Division, which is under the management of a director who is assisted by three unit heads, is primarily responsible for: the creation and management of the body of documentation that is required to provide information to the members of the parliament and the services of the organization; the conservation and management of the Parliamentary and Administrative Archives; studies on the subject of parliamentary law and facilitation of the training of the staff in the parliamentary administration. In order to perform these tasks effectively, three separate but complementary structures have been put in place. They are: the Library of Parliament; the Archives of Parliament; the Parliamentary Research Centre. Given this situation, there is nevertheless an interactive logic that governs the relations among these three independent structures. The Library and the Archives appear to constitute firm foundations and indispensable pivots on which research can by and large be based.
THE LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES AS FOUNDATIONS FOR RESEARCH
- The Library of Parliament
This institution is responsible for the conservation and management of documents and for providing any support that is required in order to provide information to parliamentarians and administrators. With a collection of about 5,000 works covering the various areas of knowledge, its goal is to succeed in meeting the needs of all of its potential users. Its regular activities revolve around the provision of reference services, the daily distribution of newspaper and journal articles, and the selective dissemination of information (SDI). It is a library to which the public may gain access and that makes available to its readers all the works arranged on the shelves in accordance with the DEWEY classification system. Free access is a technique that makes it possible for the users to make direct contact with the works and, in a natural way, provides a certain stimulation and a definite desire to read.
Unfortunately, it should be noted that all the management activities (ranging from acquisitions to loans) have had to be carried out manually again after the fire that seriously damaged the services of the National Assembly in 1995. However, in order to overcome this handicap, the National Assembly has committed itself to a process of computerizing the documentary services in co-operation with the parliamentary assembly of la Francophonie by means of its PARDOC program. This sound partnership will make it possible in the very near future to construct and equip an ultra - modern library.
- The Archives of Parliament
This agency is responsible for the conservation of archives relating to parliamentary activities and services and as a result constitutes the memory of the National Assembly. Its collections of documents include the following: All the documents that are produced by the legislative, administrative and financial services: draft legislation, reports of parliamentary committees, the proceedings and the statutes. As a rule, these include all the documents relating to the legislative process. In addition, the collection also includes in the appropriate location the official journals (OJ) and the parliamentary debates (PD). The administrative documents that have provided a framework for the professional lives of the members of parliament and the staff of the National Assembly (personal files). All the documents that make up the collections in the Archives are usually recorded on a slip of paper and included in the Archives by the bodies that produce the documents (for example, the Legislative Division in the case of documents that result from the legislative procedure (from the point at which a document is tabled in the legislature to that at which it is enacted and then promulgated).
The Administrative Division is responsible for administrative records: for example, for recruitment from the very start of work to the retirement of a public servant or of a member of parliament (from the beginning of his or her term of office to the end). The Financial Division, for its part, prepares an inventory of and deposits all financial and accounting documents. The collections of documents created in this way have real value as information and help to ensure that the Archives are the actual memory of the Institution. As in any similar structure, access to the information by individuals who come from outside the institution is subject to the prior authorization of the Secretary General of the National Assembly. Electronic archiving is expected to be introduced in the very near future. For the time being, however, a chronological listing of the texts of the statutes is the only tool available for research.
- The Parliamentary Research Centre
This is a technical support structure that fully meets the needs of the members of the parliament and of all of the members of the staff of the Office of the Secretary General of the National Assembly (estimated to number some 400 individuals) for information. It includes the officials responsible for conducting studies as well as their assistants and support staff. According to the provisions of the order issued by the Cabinet, No. 95 1006 / AB / AN, respecting the reorganization of the services of the Office of the Secretary General of the National Assembly, the Parliamentary Research Centre carries out research relating to parliamentary law and inter - parliamentary co-operation. Moreover, it takes part in the conduct of the training of members of staff of the parliamentary administration. Thus, two main tasks may be discerned for this particular institution. The first of these relates to studies and a second relates to the provision of professional training for the staff.
When presented in this way, the Parliamentary Research Centre appears as a dynamic structure that makes its presence felt through the products it creates. Moreover, in order to perform its tasks as required, it must naturally support itself on the existing structures such as the Library and the Archives and make the best possible use of the collections of documents and all the research tools available (files, directories, catalogues, bibliographies and so on). Two types of study are carried out by this structure:
Retrospective studies: These make it possible to obtain an up - to - date view of an issue by questioning the near or more distant past. This requires that the data banks be updated and also that we have effective research tools at our disposal. The following documentary products are produced on a regular basis: press files prepared on the basis of available press clippings, bibliographic and iconographic records on the members of parliament,files of all the documents that may be of use in the preliminary study for draft or proposed legislation (accompanying documents). A contribution to be used in the distribution of historical data with the work such as the bibliographic directory of members of parliament or a dictionary of them, parliamentary lexicons or terminology, a collection of the major speeches made by the Speaker of the National Assembly could also be considered.
Prospective studies: The objective in question is to make use of certain studies to increase our knowledge of certain major concepts of parliamentary law, to reflect on anything that relates to the activity of the parliament and, in particular, to examine the major problems of today (debt, poverty, globalization, lack of security and so on). In the case of certain issues that come before the parliament, it is interesting, for example, to know how a given problem was dealt with in the past. Why, for instance, was a particular amendment passed? Which groups were in favour of the changes, which were not and why was this so? In short, it is a question of preparing statistical tables that can be used to provide a better reading of what is going on in the parliament.
Such an approach naturally means that the structure that provides forecasts on certain issues will have an active role to play. As a result, it is even possible to select at the beginning of each parliament a number of topics that may be of interest to those who are responsible for the activities of the parliament. The Parliamentary Research Centre sets up research groups that include specialists in the subject in question.
With respect to co-operation with other parliamentary bodies, the Parliamentary Research Centre is involved in the preparations for intellectual participation by the National Assembly in the various meetings involving other parliamentary bodies. It also contributes on behalf of its users to a better understanding of various interparliamentary institutions (UPI [InterParliamentary Union], UPA [African parliamentary union], APF [French-language parliamentary assembly], Commonwealth Parliamentary Union and so on). In some cases, the Parliamentary Research Centre merely indicates the approaches that a particular research project will take. Professional training is an essential activity, as it is for any organization that claims to be effective and modern. The Office of the Secretary General of the National Assembly includes a training centre in the Parliamentary Administration (PATC) within its structure. This organization, which has been grafted onto the original organization, has the task of providing training and development for the members of the staff. The Parliamentary Research Centre makes a highly logical contribution to permanent training and development activities. Studies that have been prepared by the various units are used in the various seminars that are given.
Strategic, financial and material aspects
The strategic aspects: In its operations the Research Centre can be compared with a consulting firm that works as a team in a competitive, pluralistic society. All this means that, as a consultant, it must on a daily basis answer questions that are linked to the activities of the parliament. Thus, it may be called upon to put forward certain ideas and strategies. As a result, this requires team work that is based on effectiveness, discretion, confidentiality and, above all, a full mastery of all the research tools as well as of the subject being dealt with. Since a member of the parliament is a priori not a technician, it is the responsibility of the research team to attempt to present all the technical aspects of a proposed enactment, for example, in a comprehensible manner because no problem can be so technical that it is not possible to present it with clarity. Is it not sometimes said that what can be understood easily can be stated easily? In any society, the strengthening of a power necessarily requires a mastery of the available information and this fact helps to explain the strategic nature of information. Thus, the communication of this major commodity gives rise to a certain amount of concerns that feed the traditional dispute: Are we for or against centralization? Most of the governments in the Third World are opting for centralization, which, even though it may sometimes seem cumbersome and bureaucratic, has the advantage that it guarantees the quality of the answers given and makes it possible to provide effective co-ordination while at the same time avoiding excessive sensitivity. In the era of the Internet and the information highway, however, is it still possible truly to control access to information?
The financial aspects: There is undoubtedly a cost to every modern information system. As we have indicated earlier, research must be a priority if we are to maintain a viable society. However, in the general context of countries in the Third World in general and of Cameroon in particular, a number of priorities exist and sometimes conflict with one another. A person can certainly not be satisfied with the mere fact that documentary services are set up in a particular division that is part of the Parliament of Cameroon. Obviously, there is a genuine desire to sustain research. However, it would also be desirable for the hierarchy that is aware of the existing documentary needs to provide greater financial resources to reflect the magnitude of the tasks performed by the division.
Like all the other services provided in the National Assembly, documentary services are not the subject of specific budgetary votes. All the relevant expenditures are included in the general budget of the National Assembly, which consists of two parts: operations and investment. The various needs expressed are satisfied only after the Secretary General of the National Assembly, the person who is responsible for the implementation of the budget, has expressed his or her agreement.
The material aspects: It is essential for the documentary services to adjust to the modern technologies of communication (machines, computers, fax machines, telephones and so on) that are likely to provide a better response to those who request information in our high - speed century. ncouraging signs can fortunately be seen as a result of the conclusion of the partnership agreement with the parliamentary assembly of la Francophonie under the aegis of that organization's PARDOC program. This agreement will take concrete form in the construction and outfitting of a modern library. This architectural jewel will be a shop - window for the region, namely central Africa, as a whole. Such a documentary policy will form part of the rehabilitation of the parliament and as such is altogether desirable because the introduction of the micro - computer, which has laid the foundations for the provision of computers on a broad scale to the public, has invaded all areas of human knowledge with respect to the processing of information and communications.
Thus, the digital revolution has now become part of our day - to - day experience and is generating the new knowledge and the models of society that open the door to a future in which we have only begun to dream of the possibilities. Documentary computing is as a result an essential given in the structure of a modern research unit. The veritable explosion in the sector of telecommunications using the Internet and of data banks is some of the many aspects of a single global phenomenon. The speed of technological innovation is quite simply astounding. All of this leads us to ask questions about the ability of the developing world in general and of Cameroon in particular to adjust to this new technological world. However, simply raising objections to the boom in the digital world on the ground that it does not respect ancestral traditions is similar to the battle waged by Don Quixote against the windmills. Africa does not have anything to fear from a technology that is overturning our liberalized world in which globalization is now relativizing our concepts of space and time.
On another level, the power of knowledge is pushing back the boundaries of secrecy and of centralization because, by making distances inconsequential, for example, the INTERNET is becoming a window for the promotion of our Parliament in particular and of the whole of Cameroon. (I should also point out that a committee has now been established to create a website for the National Assembly.)All of this means that it is now the responsibility of the professionals in the documentation field to make efforts to integrate the new technological tools in all the stages of the documentary chain.
V - THE COMPUTERIZATION OF DOCUMENTARY SERVICES
The use of document management software (MINISIS)
The first steps toward the computerization of documentary services were taken in the 1990s with the technical support of the Canadian development assistance program and of the IDRC (International Development Research Centre).MINISIS is a system for the management of bibliographic data bases that was developed by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC). our (4) data bases may be accessed at this time:BIBLIO (a catalogue description of the books that have been received or ordered);CIRCULE (data relating to the circulation of the documents); LEGIS (a catalogue description of official documents, draft legislation, proposed legislation and so on); REGIS (a catalogue description or the texts of regulations, government orders and so on).
Since the object is quite naturally to store all the data in such a way that it will be easy to access and search for information. However, the fire that occurred in the National Assembly in 1995 caused a considerable amount of damage to the central computer and all the other equipment (micro - computers) and this put a stop to the process of computerization. The result was that the institution had lost a major tool for doing its work. Today, hope is returning as a result of the partnership agreement that has now been concluded between the National Assembly and the parliamentary assembly of la Francophonie through that organization's PARDOC program. It is a question of implementing the support program for documentary services in parliamentary institutions in the southern hemisphere (PARDOC) and the information highway program of the parliamentary assembly of la Francophonie, the aim of which is to create Internet sites for the parliamentary institutions. These are of course ambitious programs but their success will place a new emphasis on the importance of documentary services.
In short, the establishment of a Parliamentary Research Centre provides a perfect response to a vital need among the members of the parliament for information that simply must be met. This will necessarily require human and financial resources. Professionals in the field of documentation from the countries of the Third World must as a result integrate the new technological data in order to ensure that the tasks assigned to the research structures in question are performed effectively.