Concepts and issues

The texts in the ’Concepts and issues’ category are reflections on some neglected and emerging issues in parliamentary library & research service.

The topics so far in the ‘Concepts and issues’ category’ are linked, and indeed the main papers highlighted in the category were built in sequence and overlap in their content:

  1. The historic and present relation of the services to Member decision-making;
  2. The concept of value in these services and how to increase value;
  3. The management of ignorance;
  4. The significance of ‘evidence-based policymaking’ and the contribution to the UN SDGs. (Not yet a full paper)

The thread running through these papers and presentations is a challenge to the way parliamentary library & research services have traditionally presented themselves – and their key clients, the Members.

This traditional presentation is, I am sure after twenty years of working in the sector and also visiting many other services, a myth. Myths can be useful, but this one misleads new and developing services and is anyway of diminishing value even to its proponents. It is a very persistent myth which is still strong and a source of confusion in 2020, ten years after it was first challenged.

The myth in a nutshell is: that Members undertake “full information” decision-making; that library & research services are an essential aid in this; that Members are overwhelmed with information; Members have a close and appreciative relation to the library & research service; it is Member demand that has driven the evolution of services. Here are some quotes from the standard ’Guidelines for legislative libraries’, a fine piece of work setting out sensible advice but also representing the established professional ideology:

“Parliamentarians depend heavily on information and if the standard of parliamentary and public debate and discussion is to be high and if parliaments are to be effective in their role of legislating and holding governments to account, then they need high quality information and analysis.” p. 67

I would guess that some or many colleagues in all services would ask, privately, if this statement is true then why do so few Members make consistent heavy use of the information and research available to them, and why is our impact not more obvious? The public claims by services of how many Members use their library/research service and how much it is valued can be set aside for later scrutiny.

“In recent years pressures on parliamentarians have increased and the demands on them have become greater. There are increased pressures from lobbyists, more scrutiny by the media, greater demands from constituents. This leads to greater expectations on their part of the services that will be available to them.” p. 67

It would be interesting to see solid, independent evidence of these new expectations of the library/research service. Apart from some rare individual Members, in the historic record as much as today, it is hard to find evidence of Members’ expectations and practical demands for service reform. What you can find is the ideas of reformers outside parliament, with some internal allies – notably the professionals – pushing the latest version of a modern service. The institution as a whole, through its governing body, may also back reform, but as a matter of ‘good practice’ copying other parliaments and achieving modernity rather than reflecting mass demand from Members. This thesis is put forward on limited evidence, but there is more visible evidence for it than for the idea that service development has been driven by expectation.

Members are “overwhelmed by information” p.74

The implication elsewhere in the Guidelines is that library/research services provide a haven of relevant, safe, information. It is certainly true that Members could be overwhelmed by information. Any of us could be, over even quite minor matters, if we try the approach of ‘full-information’ decision-making. (Which is the best PC to buy today?). Members, if asked, might well say there is too much information to deal with. But are Members actually overwhelmed, or do they have the skill to select just enough information to make mostly reasonable decisions? Are the decisions only about information anyway, as then we would not need political judgement, only scientists or technocrats? Personally, I have not witnessed anyone in real and permanent despair about volume of information, nor have I heard of cases or seen substantial evidence for such a phenomenon.

The reality, at least for most services, is that Members rarely if ever pursue full information decisions, they are not overwhelmed with information (though they could be), the library & research service is used only occasionally and often by support staff rather than the Member in person, the output of many services adds to information overload rather than assists with it, the impact of library & research services on policy is generally undetectable even for the best funded services; and services have evolved due to wider fashion and external/institutional reformists rather than Member demand.

Members can be rather effective with limited information – which they find from many sources – and the role of the library & research is to adapt to their style and find opportunities to deliver ‘evidence’ where and when they can. Success is possible but not easy, always limited and always temporary.

To be fair to the authors of the Guidelines, the practical guidance does reflect a more realistic view of Members and how they might be served. But the ideology that Members are reliant on library/research because of their need for full information and that they are consequently routine and ardent clients – demand to which the service must simply respond – has been a permanent feature of conferences, training and professional publications.

The value of the myth was that it presented the parliament as a modern institution based on knowledge and gave library and research services a symbolic value even beyond the practical support they offer. The problem with the myth is that the rosy picture it gives is completely misleading, and demoralising, for new and developing library & research services. It misguides strategy. Myths can be useful but too much belief in their own myth may be a risk for the longer-established services. The other problem is that library and research services no longer signify modernity, and knowledge is freely accessible elsewhere, so their value to the institution as signifiers is diminished. “Why do we need a library now?” is heard in parliaments as elsewhere.

Some in the profession were scandalised when the existence of these myths was first proposed in 2009. The literature on ‘evidence-based policymaking’ (EBPM) in parliaments has developed since, however, and appears so far to confirm the model of Member decision-making proposed. If Members work as the evidence suggests, the traditional concept of how they relate to library and research services is simply not viable. Some services do not conform to the traditional model for the simple reason it does not work for them. There are signs that this questioning attitude is spreading. In any case, how the services operate is now on the academic agenda and more insights will surely emerge.

Ironically, even if work on EBPM has confirmed the lack of evidence for the traditional model, it also offers a new effective myth for parliamentary library and research services. First, by emphasising the strategic value of good information for Members. Second – at least in the more sceptical takes on EBPM – by a much more realistic presentation of how messy the information ecology is, and must be. This strategic and realist version of EBPM offers a future direction for parliamentary library and research services, as colleagues in Africa have been demonstrating.

This blog is not intended as a comprehensive guide to concepts and issues in parliamentary library and research services. See the IFLAPARL Guidelines for legislative libraries and for research services for that.