I recently had the honour of being invited keynote speaker at the conference of the Association of Parliamentary Libraries of Asia and the Pacific. It was an invitation as Chair of IFLAPARL, and the conference was open to all interested worldwide – two very welcome gestures at a time when regional associations might benefit from closer links between themselves and with IFLAPARL at global level.
Although invited as Chair of IFLAPARL, the request was to give a personal view – sharing my “knowledge, experiences, and insights on library and research services that are responsive to the needs of parliaments and parliamentarians in winning challenges during times of crisis and the corollary human resource management and information access issues.
The presentation slides are attached here but recordings of the full conference will be available online, as will the same presentation file [links to be added when available].
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.
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)
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:-
They were still needed in the pandemic and could not go dormant
In-person contacts is more or less the default way of working in parliaments and that had to be rethought
Boutique, in-person, services had to be translated to online
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.
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.
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:
An exceptional effort had been made and expectations were now too high – services cannot go on indefinitely at this level of effort
Despite recognised success, pressure on public finances will lead to resource reductions. Onsite office and library space may be questioned.
Established teams are a form of social capital and that capital will be depleted by isolation and by inevitable staff turnover.
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.
Digital & remote service capacity
Library/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 pandemic
Control and/or vaccination permits resumption of normal services
Pandemic not under control – in-person/onsite services cannot resume
Positioning of library/research
High-profile and embedded in the working practices of most Members, support staff and parliamentary bodies
Lack 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?
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?
Social media offers some strategic advantages to parliamentary research services, although many services and colleagues are nervous about its use. Others do not see how social media can be relevant to a ‘serious’ research service, or consider it too time-consuming. Based on experience, however, a selective and targeted approach can bring great value. The attached presentation summarises the case for using social media.
The approach described proved successful for both the former Library of the European Parliament (methods still in use by EPRS) and for a separate research service of the European Parliament. It is based on using Twitter and a WordPress blog. Experience with Facebook and LinkedIn, there and elsewhere, has not appeared very successful.
Twitter is notable for its widespread adoption across policy networks – professionals in academia, think-tanks, institutes, NGOs, politics and government, focused on a policy area. There is active exchange of professional/policy information going on in these networks through Twitter, largely isolated from the froth and politicised debate that rages on the same social media platform. A parliamentary research service can be part of that professional exchange and benefit greatly from it.
Professional use of Twitter is widespread in Europe – although not in every country or language – and wherever English is used as the main or professional language. Many policy specialist individuals and institutions worldwide can be found on Twitter. Critically for a parliamentary research service, however, the Members and government policy specialists are absent in some countries and regions. The network, in that case, is incomplete on Twitter. In those places it may be necessary to use Facebook or another platform, and it would be interesting to hear of experience using such strategies.
It is often imagined that a social media strategy is about promotion – broadcast – and therefore something only for public relations staff. In reality, perhaps the most valuable aspect of social media for a parliamentary research service is listening. The policy network on social media reveals new research and new policy debates perhaps faster than anywhere else. Members and others in politics may be engaged – research services can be awake to upcoming demands for policy briefings and sources of information before any formal request comes through. Social media can also provide expert feedback on research service products.
The blog is important as a place where the research service can present its products and communicate with clients directly, with far more flexibility and speed than is usual with corporate web sites, and more depth than is possible on Twitter (or Facebook, or LinkedIn). The blog provides a base – Twitter communications can refer people to the blog to find out more. Running a professional-looking blog does not require specialist IT staff. (It does require someone with technical, visual and communications flair, however).
One of the main benefits of this strategy is that by becoming more visible to the wider policy network, a parliamentary research service will also become more visible, and credible, inside the house.
Twitter is used by some services as a way to connect with clients (directly or indirectly), with citizens and with expert communities. It is not used at all by other services, partly due to fear of political accidents or controversies, partly due to culture or language, and partly due to lack of awareness. There are misconceptions as to the value of social media and the time required to exploit it.
This is a list of Twitter accounts I am aware of in the sector – I hope to add to it over time. The link will show a stream of the most recent tweets from the accounts on the list. To see who is on the list, click on ‘members’.
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.
IFLAPARL has created a closed discussion group to share experience in dealing with the crisis and information resources. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org 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).
The challenge of managing libraries of International Government Organisations (IGOs), reflections after twelve years managing the Library of the European Parliament and six months managing the Dag Hammarskjöld Library of the United Nations (the headquarters library, also considered a parliamentary library). The two libraries were quite different – in particular here, the library of the UN had responsibility for millions of official documents from decades past while the Library of the European Parliament had no responsibility for official documents. But there were also points in common – and with other libraries.
Some key points
IGO documents and information more in demand, both externally and internally, but libraries had reducing capacity to respond – partly loss of status & resources, partly the need to maintain old systems of work while developing new systems of work.
The model of a unique document publication flow which could be managed by the library was being superseded by multiple flows in different media from many sources
The status of the library as signifier of knowledge-based decision-making had diminished, and the reality of fast & frugal decision-making become accepted
Libraries need to adapt to real-life decision-making, abandon volume (giving as much information as possible, reaching as many people as possible, satisfying everyone, measuring the number of transactions) and instead focus on strong relations with key clients, supporting fast and frugal decision making by being, well, fast and frugal in delivery.
Many IGOs are relatively recent creations (c. 70 years or less) and could rely on first or second-hand human memory to manage their knowledge. (The ability of Dag Hammarskjöld Library staff to find information in a mountain of documents was extraordinary – but there were very few of them, very few new people joining them, and no-one else could do it. What happens if…). As scale, complexity and time have increased, the IGOs need a more systematic approach to managing their knowledge and documents. IT services are always ready to offer ‘solutions’ but they are not grounded in real knowledge of the content or of information users. If libraries and archives do not address the topic – and get support and get increased human resources to safeguard memory – then no-one will do it effectively.
For the future:
Abandon the struggle to manage all documents and instead provide consultancy on document management to the creating units and provide knowledge for the document management systems
Shift from role as guardians of all documents to providing selected external information in support of decision-making, and adding value to internal and external information.
“If the clients understand what ‘policy analysis’ should be, a parliamentary research service which promises to do it is creating an expectation that cannot or should not be fulfilled”
Do parliamentary research services do “policy analysis”? I was asked that recently and my answer was “no” and if both question and answer seem strange, I agree. My answer would have been different a few years ago – we even created posts titled ‘Policy Analyst’ in my then service. So what’s going on?
Firstly, there is no disagreement that parliamentary researchers analyse policy. But, strictly, that is not the same as “policy analysis”. Saying analysis of policy is not the same as policy analysis may sound very like the “Yes, Minster” official making the difference between the policy of administration and the administration of policy. It is, though, an important distinction.
Posts on ‘Service development’ cover everything from good ideas for improving daily operations to methods for long term programmes to turn round a service in crisis. There is a mix of conventional presentations of management methods and tools with short notes on operational issues and more personal reflections in the ‘Lessons learned’ series.