Parliamentary research and information services (PRIS) come with very different backgrounds, traditions, budgets and sizes. In terms of providing information and research to Members, all face substantial competition from other suppliers of information such as interest groups, civil society organisations, “think tanks” and the executive branch itself. In order to maintain and strengthen their role and to make sure the services they provide are (perceived as) timely, relevant and appropriate, in-house PRIS clearly need to develop viable strategic approaches.
The European Centre for Parliamentary Research and Documentation (ECPRD) recently organised a seminar on “Parliamentary research and the plurality of information sources available to Members of Parliament“, hosted by the Czech Parliament. Participants from 30 Chambers – including representatives from the European Parliament’s Policy Departments and the Library – debated a series of challenging questions, such as the competitive advantages of in-house parliamentary research and information services compared to external information providers, their need to develop strategic approaches and how the individual expertise of Members of Parliament can be better taken into account.
Compared to other external providers of research and information, PRIS have some competitive advantages. Their proximity towards the client MP is usually one of them. Where such a service exists, Members appreciate in-house experts’ availability for personal and confidential high-level discussions. In addition, they are generally seen as providers of balanced, impartial information and can often rely on unique expertise in governmental and legislative areas as well as overarching knowledge of policy areas allowing them to put data into context. Finally, compared to at least some of the competitors, they have access to a multitude of information sources, on a privileged basis or because they have the necessary budgetary means to procure specialised information and research.
Conference participants highlighted a series of interesting issues related to (the plurality of) information sources such as length, comprehensiveness and speed at which information and research is delivered to Members, but also some other interesting points for discussion.
Sources used for research (academic and other)
Common sense indicates that all information included in or used for parliamentary research should be reliable and have been double-checked. Documents produced should not include references to non-retraceable documents. But what about so-called non-papers or sources quoting other sources which cannot be retrieved? MPs are more and more receptive to unfiltered information coming through online social media channels, especially where emerging hot issues are concerned. How can PRIS take those “sources” into account? And then there is a debate to be had on how to handle “outliers” in research: if there is generalised academic consensus about an issue, which place and prominence to give to the isolated academic that disagrees with that consensus?
Information provided by the executive branch
Researchers and information professionals should be aware that the information and research provided by the executive branch can also be considered as a form of lobbyism. PRIS struggling to obtain access to the executive’s full research results or the detailed underlying research data seems to be another frequent problem, although there is a potentially high cost for the executive in not supplying the information and research as required by the legislative Chambers: the risk of the bill not passing.
“Member of parliament – Researcher”
An interesting evolution, made possible by almost instantaneous and omnipresent direct access to information, is the growing emergence of the “Member-Researcher”: Members of parliament and their offices indeed actively wanting to contribute to research and having their own privileged access to information and research. This kind of activity on the “client-side” should not be counted out by PRIS and can be greatly facilitated by the use of online communities and collaborative working tools. In parallel some PRIS have started to develop statistical (and other) data warehouses and linked open data services directly accessible to Members.
Combined expertise and capacity to undertake comparative research
A specific strength of PRIS is their capacity to offer combined expertise to the Member: legal and political expertise combined with a specific policy area, for example. Or combined in the sense of research staff, information specialists and committee staff intensively working together to deliver information and research. Another competitive advantage is their ability to provide comparative research with other countries or parts of the world through long-established parliamentary networks.
Ultimately, a pivotal question for PRIS is how to make sure research and information products and services are valued by Members: they should help Members asking the right questions by putting relevance and reliability into the political debate. On this issue we point to a series of previous posts on this blog by Iain Watt: “The search for value and how to increase it for Members“.