A ‘service charter’ sets out what clients can expect, in terms of practical service delivery and in terms of the standards and values the service aspires to. This post is based on the IFLA/IPU guidelines for parliamentary research services and on responses to an appeal for examples to the IFLAPARL mailing list in March 2022.
What the IFLA/IPU Guidelines say
The IFLA-IPU Guidelines for Parliamentary Research Services* (the ‘Guidelines’) strongly promote the adoption of a ‘service charter’. The full text of the relevant chapter of the Guidelines appears at the end of the post.
In summary the reasoning is that:
“parliamentarians and the administration may…have different understandings about the nature and the extent of services to be offered by the research service. Establishing a Service Charter may help to reduce misunderstandings by formally stating the scope of services available”Guidelines, p. 24
The Guidelines defines a service charter as
“a document that states what the research service will commit to provide to its parliamentary clientele. It includes the parameters that will guide how the products and services will be provided. Typically, it would spell out the services offered, who can access these services and the manner in which they are delivered…[Elements of a charter] include operating principles and descriptions of what is – or is not – within the scope of the research service. From this charter, it should be clear that:Guidelines, p. 24
• the research service is offered to support parliamentary duties only;
• there is no support for the educational or academic pursuit of a parliamentarian (or a member of
his or her family or staff); and
• personal financial, medical or legal advice will not be provided”
It is not clear, so far, how widespread the use of ‘service charters’ is. Some services have, rather, ‘rules’ which are formally defined by their institution and these may well incorporate at least some of the recommended elements of a service charter. Publicly-available examples of charters and rules are accessible in the links below.
Examples of research service charters and rules
These are available in their original language. (NB Google Translate can provide auto translations even for complete files).
European Parliament – rules of the members’ research service (in English)
Greece – rules of procedure of the scientific service of the parliament (in Greek)
United Kingdom, library & research statement of services (in English)
Lithuania – formal procedure for requesting work by the research service (in Lithuanian)
New Zealand – library and research statement of services (in English)
Thanks to all the colleagues who provided the examples above. Further examples are welcome! Thanks also to other colleagues who provided examples that are not publicly available, and for their feedback on the topic.
A summary of practice on service charters
What are the reasons for having a service charter?
- Reduce risk of misunderstanding of what the service will do, for whom, for which purposes
- Spell out what it will not do
- Set service standards and manage expectations
- Clarify the priorities for service
- Promote the service and its specific products
- Guide staff and management, and offer them some protection
So, while the most obvious purposes are to demonstrate the quality of the service and to manage the expectations of clients, there can be additional and less-explicit intentions to (a) set standards for staff performance (b) manage staff behaviour, reducing the risk over-delivery as well as under-delivery (c) protect staff and the service from excessive and inappropriate demands.
It is worth noting that at least one service went down the road of a service charter only to find their first version too detailed, difficult to apply consistently and a cause of inflexibility. They stepped back to a more aspirational (values-based) approach, more strategic and less operational. in their promise to clients. There is also the risk that, if promised standards are not consistently achieved, client satisfaction and service reputation might even be damaged by a charter. Adopting a service charter is not an automatic and risk-free step – with the undoubted benefits there is a potential downside. One mitigation is to be conservative in the promise to clients: better to promise less and deliver more than the reverse!
What form of service charter?
The main options in use are:
- ‘Rules’, formally approved by the parliamentary authority. This gives the document force but it may be a slow process to get initial agreement and to make necessary updates later. There is always the risk of drafts being modified without full awareness of the operational consequences.
- Guidelines set by the research service and translated into a communication to clients. This has the advantage of speed (to introduce and to revise) and coherence with service management – what is promised should be deliverable. But it lacks the force of Member decision.
- Combination – Main principles in a formal ‘Rules’ but operational standards kept as service guidelines for flexibility.
- Inspirational – A statement of the service’s purpose and commitment to certain values and to service quality. This might be stand-alone or might complement any of the three options above
Which option to choose?
The choice of option depends in part on the culture of the parliament concerned. In some, a set of ‘rules’ is the only format that will be acceptable, in others there is more flexibility.
It also depends on why the service wants a charter, for example
- To set standards for staff
- To make it easier to say ‘no’ to some requests
- To promote your service and improve its image
- How much flexibility you need
- Do you need anyway to review and define your services, products and standards?
What goes into a service charter?
The list of potential inclusions is long. These are some of the main areas typically covered:
- Why – The reason the service exists – mission / vision / values / the essence of what it offers Members and other clients. Essential features such as independence, impartiality, professionalism, confidentiality, and relevance to Members, are likely to be prominent.
- What the service offers – the content, the different products and services.
- Who the service is for (and by implication or explicitly: who cannot access it). Who can make active use (i.e. submit requests) and who can make passive use (i.e. access the published research products)
- How the service is accessed, requested and delivered; description of the request & fulfilment process; if and how research products are published
- When the service is available and how quickly it will respond
- Exclusions, limits, priorities, conditions – services that are not offered; request types that are deemed inappropriate; limits to topics that are covered (e.g. only those under parliamentary jurisdiction); periods when requests will not be accepted (e.g. elections) limits to effort in response to requests; types of request and client that will take priority, especially in times of high demand; number of simultaneous requests from an individual Member; what research is kept confidential and what is published; conditionalities – e.g. if delivery depends on third parties outside the service’s control (e.g. it requires receipt of information from a government department) then deadlines may be flexible
- Commitments, e.g. client satisfaction, confidentiality; impartiality; ethics; quality of content, personnel and processes
- What is expected of the client – a sensitive point, possibly, but some set limits on how clients may use research (e.g. rules about misleading representation) and how they behave in relation to staff and to other clients.
* ‘Guidelines for parliamentary research services’, Copyright © Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) and the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA), 2015.