Parliamentary library & research services in a pandemic

‘Tbilisi’s Parliamentary Library gearing up for post-pandemic reopening’ May 2020. Photo courtesy of Agenda.ge.

Thirty parliamentary library and research services worldwide responded to an IFLAPARL survey between May to August 2020, describing their responses to the pandemic. The survey was followed in December by an online event sharing experience in person. Some key points from the survey are highlighted in Part 1 of this post. Full details on the survey and its follow-up can be seen on the IFLA website.* The survey report was deliberately neutral, intended to report what respondents had said without editorial comment. In Part 2 of this post I add some reflections that could not be included in the formal report.

Part 1 – Key points from the IFLAPARL survey

Impact of the pandemic

As an overview of the impact of the pandemic, around one-third of services said they had been affected ‘a great deal’ – but for two-thirds the impact was judged only moderate or small. This frankly surprised me but probably reflects the degree to which services were already working digitally and remotely.

Opinions varied as to whether the pandemic represented a decisive shift towards digital service and new ways of working – some saw it as a parenthesis, others an acceleration of existing trends, while a few saw it as a transformational moment – even an opportunity to accelerate radical changes that were anyway happening. This is one of the most interesting questions and a strategic choice that service managers are making.

Specific issues for parliamentary library & research services

The pandemic raised many generic issues for all kinds of organisations. For parliamentary library & research services a few specific features stood out:-

  1. They were still needed in the pandemic and could not go dormant
  2. In-person contacts is more or less the default way of working in parliaments and that had to be rethought
  3. Boutique, in-person, services had to be translated to online
  4. Services depending on extended integrated service production had to translate that to remote-working – or find new methods.

Adaptation had to be made at short notice

Four key issues stand out from the survey responses: digital services; working from home; innovation; business continuity planning.

Digital services

Context is all – impact depended on how far digital services were already established in the institution and in the country at large:-

  • To what extent were digital services accepted and already used?
  • Even if not necessarily much used before the pandemic, was it already feasible for services to be used digitally, and delivered by staff working remotely?
  • Was there capacity available to make rapid adaptations? (Capacity meaning people with skills, IT equipment and any necessary IT support, with a will to change IT systems and access)
  • Negative impacts could be reduced by creativity in many services – they found ways to work and to design staff tasks to match capabilities.

Working from home

Impact varied according to:-

  • Past experience of home-working. Some services had done it routinely as an occasional activity and found it easier to adapt to long-term use.
  • Environment – e.g. typical domestic arrangements such as the possibility of a ‘home office’, ownership of IT equipment and capacity of internet connection
  • Resources/adaptability – e.g. some services had resources to provide IT equipment and even office furniture at home, and the IT support to adapt work processes
  • New ways of managing – communication, isolation, family pressures,
  • Gender issue – often with a largely female workforce, the general tendency for e.g. home-schooling responsibilities to fall on women was an additional source of stress for the staff.

Innovation

There were many individual stories of innovation reported in the survey forms and presented at the virtual event. Parliamentary library and research services found ways to keep on delivering.

There were two notable areas that appeared repeatedly:-

  • Services responded to the need for more scientific information/advice in the pandemic, and for comparative information on what other countries and other parliaments were doing.
  • Re-using pandemic-related content, created to inform Members, to inform citizens

Business continuity planning

While ‘Business Continuity Planning’ (BCP) has been a widespread interest of public administrations worldwide – notably since the events of September 2001 – in this survey only one service had an already established plan which they actively implemented and found useful. Some services had plans but found they were not complete solutions. The issue can be that such plans focus on past events – known risks – and not enough on future risks (many and uncertain). Or that they focus on some corporate functions and do not take account of specialist services like library/research – which may nevertheless have a role to play in a crisis, as the pandemic has demonstrated.

Some library and research colleagues were unaware of the concept of BCP. That being said, aware or not, many improvised a plan and found it satisfactory. A pandemic is a slower-moving crisis than some, and so improvised responses were feasible.

There are several issues with BCP – what it is, how useful it is, how to do it – and it might be a topic for to explore at a future IFLAPARL conference.

Concerns for the future

Several colleagues expressed concerns about the future of their services. These concerns fell in four main areas:

  1. An exceptional effort had been made and expectations were now too high – services cannot go on indefinitely at this level of effort
  2. Despite recognised success, pressure on public finances will lead to resource reductions. Onsite office and library space may be questioned.
  3. Established teams are a form of social capital and that capital will be depleted by isolation and by inevitable staff turnover.
  4. Existing staff, managers and clients do not all adapt well to this new environment – how can this be managed?

Part 2 – Reflections

Three dimensions affecting pandemic response

The report refers to events of 2020. While the level of impact varied and there has been some resumption of normal business in places, there has been no return to normal in many parliaments and a full return looks unlikely in 2021. The impact on library and research services depends on three main elements: the capacity to work digitally and remotely (including the readiness of Members and support staff to be served digitally/remotely); the degree of control of the pandemic at national level; and the long-term positioning of library/research in the parliament. Best- and worst-case scenarios for the three dimensions are summarised below.

Best caseWorst case
Digital & remote service capacityLibrary/research already operating digitally / remotely or with the resources to develop that capacity
Members and support staff fully equipped and skilled for digital/remote work
Widespread fast internet connections and tech knowledge
Library/research not equipped for digital/remote service and lacking resources to develop that capacity
Members and support staff lacking equipment and skills for digital/remote work
Limited/no access to fast internet connections and limited tech knowledge
Control of pandemicControl and/or vaccination permits resumption of normal services Pandemic not under control – in-person/onsite services cannot resume
Positioning of library/researchHigh-profile and embedded in the working practices of most Members, support staff and parliamentary bodiesLack of recognition, marginal/absent to working practices of many Members, support staff and parliamentary bodies

Services with at least two of the dimensions towards the ‘best-case’ end of the spectrum can expect business to continue, even thrive; those with two or more dimensions towards the worst-case end of the spectrum are potentially facing a crisis. Some services see this as the moment as the time to decisively break out from past models and establish a genuinely digital-first service. They are probably right. But there already was a large gap between the long-established and well-resourced services and the rest; this risks to become a chasm. The situation of those in the ‘worst-case’ also threatens to become a downward spiral: a perceived inability to deliver sufficient value while the pandemic puts pressure on budgets makes those services vulnerable to cuts, re-assignment of accommodation and further loss of status. This matters for the quality of parliamentary decision-making, the authority of parliamentary decisions and, in some cases, the quality of policy information and analysis available to citizens. In short, the quality of democracy is at stake.

What can be done?

First, an ongoing review of parliamentary strengthening support indicates a shift away from aid to parliamentary library and research functions. While in the 1990’s and 2000’s the spread of democratic regimes was accompanied by many actions to develop parliamentary library and research services, in the last ten years that support seems to have become sporadic. There may be a belief the job is done, there may be a sense that there is greater value or urgent need elsewhere. The many ways in which a high-quality information/research service can facilitate parliamentary operations are perhaps not fully appreciated. It would be worth engaging with the parliamentary strengthening community to promote targeted support for parliamentary library and research services hit badly by the pandemic.

Second, can the professional community do more itself to close the gaps? The sharing of experience through IFLAPARL is one way to spread coping and success strategies. Regional associations are also doing this, at least in some cases. Two of the dimensions give opportunities for the better-placed services to assist their colleagues: technical know-how and marketing strategies to raise the profile of the service. Why should they invest in such assistance? Because ultimately, as with the pandemic, we are not islands. A malfunctioning democracy has an impact on other democracies. A further reason is that the services which are struggling with a difficult strategic situation may develop interesting and low-cost innovations. Taking an old example, African parliaments pioneered the use of SMS in enquiry services before any ‘first-world’ parliament. They did this partly because of gaps in infrastructure but turned a weakness into a strength. Learning will be two-way if there is engagement.

One challenge which all services share is adaptation from an environment in which in-person contacts and knowledge sharing were critical – with many opportunities for serendipitous making of new contacts and exchanges – to a largely-digital environment. In the digital environment the chances to influence, to learn, to share information and to build alliances, appear to be reduced. This affects internal team operations – from simple examples like inducting a new staff member to project coordination and product innovation – but also external connections – notably with Members and support staff. If the service already had a weak personal connection to Members then it is unlikely to strengthen in the digital world. How to make that personal connection and establish interest and confidence, in a digital environment, is a key question. Are there technologies which work well for this? Are there successful strategies in use?

More questions

Several managers highlighted issues of staff mental health in the pandemic – driven by the various impacts of working at home; isolation and issues around communication, teamwork and team spirit; the obvious domestic stresses, concerns and fears in the pandemic. Several respondents mentioned that some staff (also managers?) did not have the skills for the ‘new ways of working’ and had difficulty in adapting – this might be more than a training issue and another source of stress for the individual and the team. Mental health in the workplace was already a sometimes neglected concern of parliaments; the pandemic should put it high on the agenda of people management issues.

There are clear indications that more scientific and social scientific specialist information and analysis has been in demand in the pandemic. Those research services which rely largely on staff with legal and political science backgrounds may have found this challenging. Some have responded by finding expertise externally. A very few parliaments have regularly used contracted experts for research (e.g. the European Parliament ‘Policy Departments’; the Netherlands); a few more have used voluntary inputs by experts (e.g. POST in the UK). It is not necessarily simple and straightforward to use external experts to deliver research in parliaments. There is scope for the experience in management of contracts and external expertise to be shared.

Many services highlighted the re-purposing of parliamentary research/information materials, developed to serve parliament, as information sources for the public. Several services were already actively promoting this secondary use but the pandemic has given the citizen information role a much higher profile. This is another area where experience could very usefully be shared.

It feels like a faint light on the horizon, but there is also a question of how services make the most of the return to normal. When it is again possible to have in-person services and events, how can library and research services make the greatest impact on re-launch?

The IFLAPARL report and event

*The IFLA website has an introduction and link to download the full survey report: https://www.ifla.org/publications/node/93244 . The survey was followed up by a virtual event in December 2020 where many of the survey contributors – and others – made short presentations on their experience. The slide presentations and video recordings of that event are available here: ‘Library and Research Services for Parliaments: innovation and inspiration during a global pandemic’.

Library and Research Services for Parliaments Virtual Event: ‘Innovation and inspiration during a global pandemic’

This online event, conducted on the Zoom platform, is open to anyone interested in parliamentary library and research services. It will take place in two sessions on the 2nd and 9th of December 2020. Registration for the event is via this page. It is intended to record most of the presentations and retain them for future viewing.

Parliamentary library & research services have had specific challenges to meet in the course of the pandemic. According to the results of a survey conducted by IFLAPARL, they have shown resilience, determination and creativity in meeting those challenges. The pandemic has also accelerated existing trends, notably a shift to digital services, and highlighted some key issues and strategic choices for the future. The full text of the report in PDF is available here.

The survey was conducted anonymously, to encourage disclosure of useful problems, but now some of the respondents (and others) will give in-person accounts of their service’s experience of the pandemic.

As Chair of IFLAPARL I conducted the survey and wrote the report; I will present a brief summary at the two events. The report is strictly descriptive of the returns recieved – the services speak for themselves. A deeper interpretation and analysis is for others and for other occasions – including posts on this blog.

The Association of Parliamentary Librarians of Asia and the Pacific (APLAP) also conducted a survey of its members, with results that broadly mirror those found by IFLAPARL. The APLAP survey will be presented at the 9th December session of the IFLAPARL event.

Coronavirus & COVID-19 – the response of parliamentary libraries and research services

IFLAPARL has created a closed discussion group to share experience in dealing with the crisis and information resources. Contact infoiflaparl@gmail.com to join.

Parliamentary research service publications on COVID-19 and Coronavirus

This link
http://bit.ly/2WYxmV7
will run a search for publications on Covid-19/Coronavirus by the parliamentary research services of the European Parliament, USA, UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Ghana. The link can be used any time and will give the latest result.  Change the result sorting to  ‘Date’ to see the most recent.

(The search runs on a topical search engine which can be used for any subject covered by selected parliamentary research services publishing in English. This site has search engines for other services also (English and German language), and worldwide guides to sources of the publications in English and German if you want to go direct to check the sites for yourself).