ASSOCIATION OF PARLIAMENTARY LIBRARIANS
OF ASIA AND THE PACIFIC (APLAP)
EIGHTH BIENNIAL CONFERENCE
NEW DELHI, INDIA
18-22 JANUARY 2005
19.1.2005 (1400 Hrs)
RESEARCH AND REFERENCE
SERVICES FOR MEMBERS
COUNTRY PAPER OF FIJI
Ms. Rasieli Bau,
Parliament of Fiji
RESEARCH AND REFERENCE SERVICES
FOR MEMBERS OF PARLIAMENT
Ms. Rasieli Bau
Library, Research, Information & Advisory Services
Parliament of the Fiji Islands
The importance of providing Members of Parliament with relevant information along with impartial and independent quality advice and analysis, on issues being dealt with by their respective Parliaments is generally accepted as an imperative. We all know that the timely and efficient provision of these services enable Parliamentarians to successfully perform their functions, as elected representatives of the people.
My address to you this morning will focus primarily on the provision of parliamentary research services in the Fiji Islands, from its early development to where it is today as it attempts to deal with some of the issues under discussion in this session. Those of you from small developing states like Fiji should be able to relate to the experiences of our Parliamentary Library, Research, Information and Advisory Service which has the added responsibility of trying to provide quality research and reference services with very limited financial and human resources.
Today, Members of Parliament, even those in small developing democracies are now able to obtain information from many other sources most notably the Internet. In Fiji, the explosion of information is still fairly new to us. It was only two years ago that the Parliament of the Fiji Islands established its own IT Computer Network allowing all Members of Parliament and selected staff of the Legislature continuous access to e-mail and Internet facilities. Prior to 2003, aside from Cabinet Members very few Members of Parliament had direct access to the Internet while library and research staff had access only through support from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and connection to their server. Along with the increase in Internet access and use, there are now many other sources of information for Members of Parliament in Fiji that did not previously exist from the increased availability of private sector consultants and the many non-government organisations (NGOs) that have now been established who are now becoming very effective lobby groups for their areas of interest to the growth of our media industry.
It has been noted that when the information explosion began to occur in many developed countries there was some debate on whether parliamentary research and information services were actually still needed and whether resources allocated to them should be utilised in other areas? Of course it has always been generally accepted that parliamentary information and research services are vital to work of any Parliament and are now needed more than ever to ensure parliamentarians receive information and advice that is relevant to their work. However, for a small parliamentary library, research and advisory service like Fijis, the increased availability of other information sources has at times made it difficult to justify an increase and improvement in our limited resources to enhance the quality of our service both in terms of equipment as well as the ongoing training of personnel.
Library, Research, Information and Advisory Services for our Parliament
I have read articles that describe some parliamentary library and research services that employ between 20 and 30 information specialists and about 20 research analysts as being small. Well, research and information services for our Parliament consist of two sections the Library and the Information, Research and Advisory Services Unit, - which currently employs 6 personnel, five library staff, two of whom can be described as information specialists with relevant training and experience and one research analyst. These personnel must respond to the information and research needs of 74 Members (this figure excludes the 28 Cabinet Members who occasionally use our services), sector standing, select and ad hoc parliamentary committees, two presiding officers and the Secretariat of the Parliament and has an annual operational budget of F$20,000.
The Parliamentary Library
The Parliamentary Library has existed since our Parliament was first established in November 1970 when our country gained its independence from the United Kingdom. When first established the primary purpose of the Library was to maintain and preserve records of all parliamentary proceedings including the historical records of the various legislative councils that existed during colonialism. In fact the primary users of the parliamentary library were in fact other Government Departments and to a lesser extent the general public, rather than Members of Parliament, who required access to official parliamentary documents, namely records of parliamentary debates and select committee reports.
In fact it wasnt until the construction of new parliamentary complex in 1992, which provided for adequate library facilities that the Legislative Department began to consider the information requirements and more importantly needs of Members of Parliament.
Information, Research & Advisory Services Unit
Of course one of the most important developments for our Parliamentary Library was the establishment of its own Research, Information & Advisory Services Unit, or at least this would be the case when the Research Unit actually operates with its full compliment of staff. Like many developing democracies the Parliamentary Librarys Research Unit is still fairly new when compared to other parliamentary research services. It was established in 1997 and only through international assistance from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Australian Government through AusAid and the New Zealand Government who provided funding for both personnel and equipment for the Units first two years of operations.
The setting up of the Research Unit came about as result of recommendations made in a UNDP Report on the Information and Communication Needs of our Parliament prepared by a consultant from the Australian Parliamentary Information and Research Service. The Report recommended that the our Parliament should consider as a matter of urgency, the establishment of a small research service with technical support to perform multiple roles, comprising 4 to 5 personnel appointed to meet the research and advisory needs of Parliament.
The current structure of the Research Unit comprises four positions, three research analysts and a media public affairs officer. The functions of the Unit are similar to other parliamentary information and research services. For research analysts their primary role is the production of papers for general distribution in particular briefs on all Bills tabled along with Fact Sheets, Briefing Notes and Background Papers on issues of national importance and to undertake research and advisory services for all Members of Parliament, parliamentary committees and delegations on an ad hoc basis. The media public affairs officer is of course responsible for all public relations for Parliament, which now includes the management of the Parliament website which was also launched in 2003. Currently the duties of this officer have been assigned to library staff who are now responsible for the production of publicity materials for Parliament and our one research analyst who now also manages our website.
To date for various reasons there has always been a high turnover of personnel from the Unit, in actual fact apart from brief periods in 1999 and 2003 the Research Unit since its establishment has never had a full compliment of staff. It has therefore not been possible, even after 8 years in operation, to determine whether or not the Research Unit operating with its full compliment would be able to adequately service the research needs of Members. With the information explosion and other information source options now available to Members this issue is now more critical for our Research Unit. Basically, because of a lack of personnel the Research Unit has always struggled with its primary roles. Currently, with only one research analyst the Research Unit only produces one set of papers for general distribution on a regular basis, which are comprehensive Legislation Briefs on all Bills tabled in Parliament, given the fact that our one research analyst has a legal background Members of Parliament are at least receiving independent analysis and advice on the legal implications of Bills proposed by the Government. Due to the need to attend to its second primary function of providing ad hoc advice and analysis to Members, committees, delegations and the Secretariat our research analyst can only produce very few fact sheets and briefing notes on current issues of national importance.
With regard to ad hoc research and advisory services the Research Unit receives on average between 150-200 research requests annually. About 150 of these requests come from individual Members, particularly during meetings of the House of Representatives and Senate who require short briefing notes or talking points, usually one or two pages, on other issues apart from Bills being dealt with during sittings. On an average the Unit usually receives about 10 to 15 requests over each two-week sitting period. The remainder of the research requests is from parliamentary committees and delegations in particular ad hoc committees who usually require advice and analysis on information received during the course of their enquiries and briefings for both local and overseas conferences and seminars. The research requests of presiding officers usually entail briefings similar to those given to parliamentary delegations. There are in fact very few requests received for comprehensive advice and analysis on certain issues with the Research Unit being required to produce on an average 10 to 15 such briefs annually.
The following experiences of our Parliamentary Research Unit maybe considered relevant when dealing with need for new dimensions of research services to deal with the information explosion and the need for effective reference services:
- Firstly, the Research Unit was fortunate to receive the assistance of a consultant from the Australian Parliamentary Information and Research Service not only when being established but also through follow-up visits to monitor its performance. The Research Unit is therefore familiar with the characteristics of the Australian Commonwealth Parliamentary Information and Research Service for dealing with and managing research requests and the standard of quality expected. It has attempted since its establishment to apply these methods within its limited resources.
- Due to these limited resources the use of reference notes or briefs, when appropriate, to respond to requests are now being used in greater frequency by the Research Unit. Where it concerns relevant websites on the Internet, many Members due to lack of experience and knowledge on the use of the Internet still expect the relevant information to be retrieved for them. The staff of the library or Government and Opposition Office staff usually performs this function. Networking and developing contacts within NGOs, Government Departments, Statutory Bodies and other relevant organisations is considered crucial to being kept informed of relevant up-to-date information, reports and other publications that exists on a particular subject.
- As a result of servicing a small Parliament the Research Unit has been able to adopt the personalised service approach more easily. When required researchers are easily able to have direct access to all Members of Parliament. This has assisted the Unit in being able to provide a service that is more suited to the information and research needs of Members. Also, along with the use of reference notes and briefs it has assisted the Unit in being able to manage and cope as best it can with the number of research requests particularly during sittings of both Houses of Parliament and in instances when there are three or four parliamentary committees sitting. Direct access to Members has allowed researchers to more easily adhere to its internal rules regarding its service to Members, such as the first come first served rule and the placing of limitations on the extent of the advice and analysis provided. The Research Unit is also in a position to obtain constant feedback from Members on whether they are satisfied with research and reference services offered, which gives them the opportunity to make necessary adjustments where needed.
- Lastly, another factor that has assisted the Research Unit is that many issues dealt with by our Parliament, particularly in relation to our international obligations, have already been dealt with by Parliaments in more developed jurisdictions. The Background Papers on these issues by research services of these Parliaments have been useful in allowing the Research Unit to quickly determine the relevant issues pertaining to a particular topic and provide advice and analysis on them in the local context. The availability of these Background Papers on parliamentary websites is always a valuable source of information for our Research Unit. Networking with other parliamentary research and information services has also benefited our Research Unit and I acknowledge the assistance of both the Australian and New Zealand Parliamentary Research Services in their ongoing assistance for some of our research requests.
In-House Training and Refresher Programmes
There is very little that I can say with regards to in-house training and refresher programmes for researchers in our Research Unit. Today research analysts are usually recruited from other Government Ministries and Departments and usually dont stay long as better opportunities to advance within the civil service usually present themselves. It has been determined that recruitment from the private sector is unlikely to solve the problem, as the profile of the position usually puts researchers in contact with organisations, in particular international agencies, that eventually lead to better employment opportunities. So a high turnover of staff is a problem that is likely to always affect the capacity of our Parliamentary Research Unit to provide adequate research services for our Parliament. Given this fact, it may seem like ongoing training and refresher programmes would be a waste of time for researchers who are not going to remain in the Research Unit for long. Furthermore, apart from assistance from international agencies, there are not many avenues available locally for in-house training and refresher programmes.
However, there is little doubt that in-housing training and refresher programmes would benefit our research analysts. Attachments to parliamentary research and information services of other Parliaments have provided our researchers with valuable experience in the past and visits by researchers from more developed Parliaments have always been useful. Despite the high turnover of staff, short attachments, in-house training and refresher programmes can still provide parliamentary researchers, particularly in our case, with valuable experience needed to perform their functions at least while they are still employed by the Parliament of Fiji.
There is little doubt, at least in my mind, of the importance of our Information, Research & Advisory Services Unit to meet the information and research needs of our Parliament. However, the increased availability of other sources of information for Members of Parliament the Unit is now under greater pressure to produce quality research and reference services that satisfies the needs of Members. The guidelines put in place for the provision of its services when the Unit was established are still relevant today, however, some adjustments might be necessary in the future as Members become more accustomed to the use of the Internet. I look forward to the discussion and exchange of ideas during this session, which hopefully will provide our Information, Research and Advisory Services Unit with some useful guides on how to improve the provision and quality of its service to our Parliament.