Why Parliaments Need Good Access to Information

This blog was written by Adrian Crompton, the Auditor General for Wales and Rob Clements and Former Head of House of Commons Research Service. He exposes why members of parliaments as individuals need access to up-to-date and reliable information in order to perform their civil duties in the parliament. 

Members of Parliament need access to up-to-date and accurate information and expertise in order to perform their parliamentary duties, whether as individual representatives or as members of committees, delegations or other groups. No Member of Parliament can be expected to be an expert on every subject on which he or she may need to take a view, so providing them with good access to expertise is crucial.

At the simplest level, good access to reliable information can improve decision making on specific policy issues dealt with by a parliament. Relevant facts and analysis can contribute both to a better understanding of problems and more realistic and effective legislative solutions to those problems. It can also help improve the institutional dynamics within a legislature: a commonly accepted body of authoritative facts, provided for example by the parliament’s own research service, can improve the quality of debate by allowing that debate to focus on differences in values, rather than disagreement over the facts of the case.

More broadly, the use of high-quality information by a legislature can improve the public perception of its actions. The work of parliaments is under close scrutiny by citizens, so must be seen as being soundly based in fact and high quality analysis in order to be perceived as being legitimate. And having good direct access to information also helps a parliament check and oversee the actions of government, which often seeks to monopolise the ownership of data.

Parliamentarians can be deluged with information, the quality of which can be very variable.  They often do not have the time or the resources to scrutinise or assimilate what they receive or work out what is useful and what is not, nor to distinguish the biased from the reliable.  Access to sources of analysis and its underlying facts that are dedicated to the parliament, and therefore both safe and straightforward to use, can help them manage their time more effectively and enable them to understand and debate important issues more quickly.

In-house expertise

Central to the provision of information and analysis in most democratic parliaments is a parliamentary research service. The International Parliamentary Union, which represents some 170 parliaments worldwide, describes a well-resourced parliamentary research service as ‘one of the building blocks of an effective parliament…of incalculable value as a source of independent, neutral and non-partisan analysis…(that) provides parliamentarians with the information they need to do their job well.’[1]

Such services in parliaments around the world vary enormously in size, structure and the range of services they offer, but common to almost all of them is that they are impartial, providing a non-partisan service for all parliamentarians, and that they are dedicated to parliament.

The main purpose of a parliamentary research service is to provide objective information, analysis and advice in which parliamentarians from all parties can have confidence.  Its aim is to save busy Members of Parliament considerable time by sorting out what information is useful and relevant to their work from the enormous amount of information to which they potentially have access. It offers Members the collective memory, experience and dedication to parliament of those who work in it.  It can provide easy access to reliable and useful sources to support the work of the parliament. It can improve scrutiny and the quality of policy making by providing contrary arguments to those provided by purely political sources. And it can tailor its work to the timescale to which a parliament operates and anticipate the issues that are debated.

A well-run parliamentary library can be an invaluable source and organiser of information that can be used by all those in parliament. However, the research capacity of many parliaments goes beyond the typical work of a library, which will usually find existing material on a topic and present it to the user for evaluation and further study. In these parliaments, the legislative research service assesses the information available and adds value to it by creating a new information product which analyses, or at least synthesises, information from a range of sources in a form that is useful for busy parliamentarians.  The work of a parliamentary research service can be seen as that of an ‘information broker,’ scanning the world of knowledge for information that can throw light on the nature of public policy issues and then recasting that information in a way that can be readily used in the parliament.

The nature of parliamentary research

The provision of written research and analysis to individual Members of Parliament is the core work of almost every parliamentary research service.  Most do this both reactively, in response to specific requests from users, and proactively, where the needs of users are anticipated, such as in advance of the key parliamentary stages of a piece of legislation.

The other major area of work of most parliaments’ research services is responding to requests for information from individual parliamentarians. The requests that MPs put can range from a substantial written briefing on a significant policy issue to a question requiring an almost instant oral answer in anticipation of a question to a minister or a media interview.

Another important role of the research service in many parliaments is to facilitate the connection between the parliament and civil society. This is increasingly seen as an essential aspect of parliamentary work: enabling Members and committees to benefit directly from the expertise and experiences of civil society and members of the public directly affected by public policy, and reflecting the work of parliament back to the general public.

[1] International Parliamentary Union: Guidelines for Parliamentary Research Services, 2015

This blog was written for GPG by associates Rob Clements & Adrian Crompton