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.
“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: • 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”
Guidelines, p. 24
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.
This post provides a directory of organisations involved or interested in parliamentary strengthening in relation to library and research services. This is intended to assist colleagues seeking such support and to facilitate cooperation and information sharing. The information was gathered for a review of the issue offered in support of work by IFLAPARL, the global body for parliamentary library and research services.
The directory is also available as a Twitter list – the majority of the organisations are on that platform – which also includes other bodies in the field of parliaments and democracy promotion. (A Twitter list for organisations and people in the specific field of parliamentary libraries and research is also available).
Following the end of the Cold War there was an upsurge in democracy and significant investment in developing parliamentary library and research services in many countries worldwide. IFLAPARL as a body and individual members of IFLAPARL were heavily involved. In the last ten years there appears to have been a decline in calls on IFLAPARL for such involvement – is that because activity has declined or because other sources of expertise are being used? We have been aware of high-cost projects where IFLAPARL might have helped but other actors were used. Equally, there is a perception that democracy support might have a lower priority than 10-20 years ago, and that support for library & research services in particular might be a lower priority now. As voluntary work for IFLAPARL, this desk research project has sought to review information on the main players in parliamentary strengthening, focusing on those known or believed to have an interest in library & research services. Personal knowledge within IFLAPARL, as well as documentary sources, was used to identify an initial list of organisations.
The present research discovered almost 60 bodies believed to have an interest in the field of parliamentary library & research services, of which almost half had some trace in their public information of activity or content relevant to parliamentary library & research services – albeit not always very substantial or recent. This listing may be only a fraction of the bodies actually involved. Amongst the sixty there is not only overlap but also many inter-connections – through partnerships and sources of funding. (As just one example, in the EU-JDID project (pictured) the European Partnership for Democracy (EPD) is listed as a participant; three of the four other participating providers are themselves constituent members of the EPD). As a study on parliamentary strengthening noted in 2015, over “the past fifteen years, there has been a proliferation in the number and types of players that support parliamentary reform, among them international, governmental, and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), national governments, parliaments, and academic institutions”. (Global mapping and analysis of parliamentary strengthening programs‘ study for SDC by Democracy Reporting International, p. 4). It is hard to say if support for strengthening parliamentary library & research services has reduced or if it is only IFLAPARL’s involvement that has declined. Many of the organisations that IFLAPARL had contacts with in the past seem no longer active in our field, while many organisations have joined the field without contact with IFLAPARL. In this complex and rapidly changing landscape it is not altogether surprising that IFLAPARL is unknown to some of the new players.
Support to parliamentary library & research services is going on without effective sharing of expertise and experience. This is not a question of bad intentions but lack of awareness and of satisfactory mechanisms. More transparency and information sharing might avoid duplication of effort, allow the wider professional community to add value (and help avoid pitfalls) and increase learning all-round. There are efforts to address the issue of coordination for parliamentary strengthening as a whole e.g. the Agora project (see below) provides a platform for information sharing, and the IPU Common Principles for Support to Parliaments are an attempt to standardise approaches to parliamentary strengthening. My recommendation to IFLAPARL will be to engage more with the parliamentary strengthening community, to try to build links with them and between them around the concerns of parliamentary library & research services.
What the directory covers
It is not part of this review, but an additional (large) part of parliamentary strengthening activity is carried on peer-to-peer, with a parliament providing direct assistance to another parliament, sometimes with the support of a foreign ministry, development agency or one of the specialist organisations listed below. Some parliaments have internal agencies for such outreach work. This peer-to-peer activity is not always visible or reported beyond the participating institutions. I have not attempted to list the parliaments active in strengthening library & research services. Similarly, many countries have development aid agencies and these might have parliamentary projects. I have looked only at those known to be major players in this particular field: the USA, UK, Norway, Switzerland, Sweden and Belgium. (France is also active but works mainly through its own parliament). And in addition to this individual peer-to-peer parliamentary strengthening, there is the ‘mutual aid’ of collective self-help in IFLAPARL and the regional associations.
The lists below provide the name of the organisation, the country of its HQ and a link to its website. The first list – organisations for which some activity or content was found in relation to library and research services – also includes an example of evidence for that activity/content.
Thanks to Ellie Valentine for her invaluable assistance with the initial identification of organisations. She is not responsible for any errors or omissions here.
Disclaimer: Best efforts have been made to identify relevant organisations and activity/content. The information is provided as an indication only, was as found online in February 2021 and Information@Work declines all responsibility for errors and omissions. Please contact us if you are aware of any error or omission or update required and the list will be revised accordingly.This is not an IFLAPARL publication and it has no responsibility for this content.
Directoryof parliamentary strengthening and democracy promoting organisations relevant to parliamentary library & research services
1. Organisations with activity/content related to library & research services as of February 2021
“From its launch in 2010, the AGORA Portal for Parliamentary Development has played a leading role in the parliamentary development community as a knowledge and learning hub for parliamentarians, parliamentary staff, development partners and academia” Main current partners: UNDP, Inter Pares & WFD.
Current version, relaunched Nov 2020, has, so far, little of interest for library/research. First version (2010-) had content on library & research – some of it still listed
The global association of parliamentary library & research services. Publishes professional guidance; runs capacity-building events sometimes in cooperation with other bodies in this list; individual members may work on parliamentary strengthening events/projects (usually with the support of their parliament).
Co-published with IFLAPARL the Guidelines for research services; World e-Parliament Report has library & research element; co-sponsored conference with IFLAPARL; IPU also provides direct support to e.g. parliamentary research services but not visible online?
Study in 2015 noted that NORAD was third largest bilateral funder of parliamentary strengthening 1999-2009, after US and UK. Its role now seems concerned with evaluation of work done. “Most of the Norwegian development aid is managed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Norwegian embassies abroad” (NORAD website 2021)
Co-publishes Global Parliamentary Report with IPU. One of the founders of Agora and its managers
Active, provides “support to 60 parliaments” though not clear if directly supports library/research service development. Provides info e.g. handbook for parliamentary implementation of SDGs makes several references to research services. Manages Agora which has some library/research content
“Parliamentarians for Global Action (PGA) was established in 1978 in Washington, D.C., by a group of concerned parliamentarians from around the world to take collective, coordinated and cohesive actions on global problems, which could not be successfully addressed by any one government or parliament acting alone.”
Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida)