Review of Management and Services: Report to the House of Commons Commission Part 11



Better information for Members

The problem

11.1    The absence of clarity and order which characterised the House’s management structure meant that Members did not understand how decisions affecting their services were made. Ibbs found that Members lacked confidence in the means of solving problems or achieving change even when they knew what these were. The result was a scattergun approach, raising matters on the Floor of the House or with the Whips, asking Questions or writing to the Speaker (or a combination of some or all of these steps simultaneously), rather than going to officials in the first place. In Ibbs’s view, this wasted time and added to confusion and delay.

The Ibbs recommendation

11.2    If the mechanisms for deciding policy and carrying it out were set out clearly and unambiguously, and then adhered to, Ibbs thought that Members would understand how the system worked, and how they could influence it. Matters of policy would go straight to the relevant committee, and criticisms of performance would go to the Head of the Department concerned. Ibbs predicted that this would lead to a decline in the number of Questions on domestic matters, and that frustration and duplication would be reduced. He also recommended the production of a guide to services, with contact details.

What has happened?


11.3    The use of Questions as a means of raising domestic matters — sometimes of an extremely trivial character — has declined significantly over the period since the Ibbs settlement, and sharply over the period 1996–98. The trends are shown in the table below, which covers both written and oral Questions.

Chart Questions on House Administration Matters 1991 - 1998

    Ibbs expected that his proposals would lead to a “marked reduction” in Questions on domestic matters. This aim has been achieved.

Knowledge of House management

11.4    It appears from our inquiry, and from the JLA survey, that Members’ knowledge of the overall system of management and provision of services is not significantly greater than at the time of the Ibbs review. Just over half (51%) of the Members who responded to the survey said that they understood how the House was managed, compared with 58% in 1990. The difference may well be accounted for by the higher proportion of recent entrants (39% of those elected in 1997 expressed understanding). An interesting and important finding of the survey was that a very high proportion (79%) of those who said that they understood how the House is managed also said that they thought it was well–managed.

11.5    Provided that the governance arrangements are correct, that Members’ views can be taken proper account of, and that information is forthcoming on demand, we do not think that detailed knowledge of the management arrangements is particularly important to Members. Nor do we think it ought to be. Members have only so much time available, despite the very long hours that many work; and it is of far greater importance to them that they are helped to be effective in their Parliamentary and constituency duties, and in running their offices and staff, than that they should be familiar with what will always be a complex system of House management.

11.6    Our recommendations are designed to produce greater clarity than in the present operation of the system, but there is a practical limit to how clear and simple the arrangements can be made. The support of Parliament is always going to be a complex, sophisticated and reactive business — indeed, some of the complexity stems from the need to respond to a wide range of unpredictable demands from Members, and the importance of involving them in the governance arrangements. The flexibility of the system, and its personal and informal elements, can serve better than a more directed and rigid system — even if the latter might be clearer.

Knowledge about the provision of services: making suggestions or complaints

11.7    As we have already seen, the committee structure has not operated with the clarity which Ibbs prescribed; and the lack of progress until recently towards setting strategic policies has not helped.

11.8    However, Departments have made substantial and continuing efforts to inform Members about the provision of services and the means of making their views known. The Members’ Handbook and induction briefing for new Members (a very extensive programme was available for the 1997 intake) have been important elements. Existing convenient contact points for some Departments (for example, the Oriel Room for the Library and the Table Office for the Clerk’s Department) have been supplemented with helpdesks and telephone contact points for other services.

11.9    The JLA survey highlighted 17 subjects on which there were perceived gaps in information provision. The top five were:

  1997 Members (77 respondents) Pre-1997 Members (81 respondents) 1997 Members’ Westminster Staff (45 respondents) Pre-1997 Members’ Westminster Staff (84 respondents)
What to do if you want to make a complaint 75% 40% 71% 51%
Access rules 66% 38% 78% 53%
What to do if urgent medical assistance needed 65% 31% 69% 47%
Geography of the Palace 39% 20% 56% 33%
Parliamentary procedure 38% 19% 40% 31%

11.10    The JLA survey contains a huge amount of information on which Departments of the House will want to draw in planning their services; and the survey has played its own part in improving the information exchange with Members and their staff. We note that the Board of Management intends to address the survey’s findings through an action plan covering all Departments. We think this corporate approach is the right way forward. The implementation of the action plan should be followed by further survey work at appropriate intervals to confirm progress. Staff of the House should be fully consulted in future surveys. They are users of services and facilities as well as providers, and such consultation would be in keeping with the House’s role as employer as well as in the spirit of Investors in People.

Effective information

11.11    Those who provide information in the House, and those who seek it, are too often frustrated by the difficulty of making the connection. The problem is not the availability of information — a staggering amount is produced by House Departments. The JLA survey suggests that the difficulty lies in reaching the audience. The survey even elicited desire for particular publications, or criticism of the non–availability of information, when both were widely advertised and available. There was also criticism among the 1997 intake of not being given some information early enough — despite the fact that personal letters about it were sent to all new Members at the first opportunity.

11.12    We do not therefore criticise Departments on this account; they are not telepaths. And we venture to suggest that very little effort may in fact be required of Members and their staff to find out a great deal of the information that they need.

11.13    Improvements could nevertheless be made. Much information produced at the moment describes rules, arrangements or procedures, often in great detail, but is not directed towards outcomes — how to arrange, obtain or do something.

11.14    There should be a House–wide approach, with common print standards and presentation (the current Members’ Handbook is not a good example of this). It will be important to provide information and contact numbers for related services, even — or especially — if these are provided by different Departments.

11.15    Hard copy should be paralleled by Intranet availability (although, as we note in paragraph 11.21 below, this is not as effective a medium as one might suppose).

11.16    Questions which would determine and update what is regarded as useful information, and which would help improve methods of presentation, might be included in the follow–up surveys referred to in paragraph 11.10.

11.17    In an effort to improve the service they offer, Departments have established a number of helpdesks — whether or not by that name. Efforts should be made to co–ordinate these where appropriate, and improve their mutual awareness, so that misrouted inquiries can be directed to the right target rather than ending in frustration. The long–term aim should be to minimise the number of helpdesks through amalgamation. The role of the switchboard also needs to be considered. As in any organisation, it is often the first point of contact and has a major influence on perceptions of the organisation as a whole (with Members as with the public). The level of House knowledge among the Palace switchboard operators needs to be improved. High priority should be given to appropriate briefing, and rapid updating of the information from which they work.

Information about administration issues

11.18    There is a clear requirement for an effective means of keeping Members, their staff, and staff of the House informed about the management and direction of House services — both on matters being considered and possible changes. The best means of representation are useless without a knowledge of the agenda. This no doubt prompted the Ibbs recommendation for the publication of Commission and committee minutes.

11.19    Categories of information might include:

  • agendas and conclusions of domestic committees
  • relevant decisions of the Commission and the Finance and Services Committee
  • appropriate information from the Board of Management and Departments, for example on significant changes to Departmental plans

11.20    The information should be given in the shortest possible form, with inquiry contacts where necessary. The suggested categories will from time to time contain information which is confidential for personal, commercial or security reasons, and it would be at the absolute discretion of the bodies concerned whether to release information or not. This would also be an appropriate way of providing the right contact points for criticisms or suggestions on services, whether or not they were under current consideration.

11.21    The question of the most effective medium then arises. A dedicated page on the Intranet might seem the obvious solution; but the JLA survey found that only 7% of all Members said that that would be the medium most likely to attract their attention, compared with 52% opting for the Whip. The 1997 intake were no more attracted by the Intranet than were Members as a whole; and Members’ staff (whether at Westminster or in the constituency) were even less likely to pick up news from the Intranet, although they used it extensively for other purposes. House Departments, on the other hand, use the Intranet routinely as a means of communicating with staff. These patterns suggests that the medium should be a supplement to the Whip (published when required, not necessarily every week), and paralleled on the Intranet (which would also be able to carry back numbers). The experience of other organisations suggests that Intranet use, once established, will rise substantially.

11.22    One aspect of the present arrangements, reflected in responses to the JLA survey, is that services are seen by some Members as impersonal, and those responsible for them anonymous. A modest improvement might be to adopt the practice of some other Parliaments of a “mugshot” board in key places around the House — photographs of forty or so of the most senior managers in the House administration, perhaps linked to organisation charts.

Departmental culture and communications

11.23    In paragraphs 4.51 and 4.52 we noted the continuing strong identification of staff with their Departments and the high motivation towards providing Departmental services which was clear to the Ibbs inquiry. Departments of the House have committed to achieving Investors in People (IiP) accreditation; gap analyses have been conducted, and work towards IiP status is well under way.

11.24    These are positive developments; we are confident that achievement of IiP standards of staff involvement and better information at all levels will greatly benefit Departments and their staff, and will be in line with best practice elsewhere.

11.25    We also noted in paragraph 4.53 some undesirable effects of the federal structure and self–contained Departments. These included lack of knowledge of the work of other Departments, leading to that work being under–valued; and a lack of knowledge of the core business of the House in those areas not directly involved in it.

11.26    This may to some extent be addressed by the IiP process, which should make staff more aware of their role within the overall organisation, and their contribution to its aims. A more corporate structure and way of doing business, and the handling of “cross–cutting” issues across Departments, may also help.

11.27    A practical barrier is that, although in legal terms the House service may be unified, in practice it is not. The scope for change is probably limited; high levels of specialist skill are required in most areas, and retraining and refamiliarisation might incur costs of time, resources and efficiency which would not be justified.

11.28    A modest increase in cross–posting (not necessarily on an exchange basis) would nevertheless be possible and beneficial. It would increase knowledge and understanding of different aspects of the House, and it could also contribute to developing and disseminating management skills which will be needed more in the future. It should be supplemented by shadowing and mentoring, which could prove extremely valuable. Development of the ways in which finance and personnel services are provided may also play a part in the longer term (see paragraph 6.10).

11.29    Initiatives of this sort could be supplemented by a “foundation” period for new House staff, early in their careers, during which they undertook short attachments (perhaps only of days or a week or two) in other Departments. This would need to be managed carefully to avoid disruption, but would in our view be both feasible and beneficial.

11.30    It might be appropriate for the Planning and Management Committee to work up an approach to these matters, for presentation to the Board of Management.

Talks and seminars

11.31    In addition to their professional development and training, most Departments arrange talks and seminars on subjects which are not part of their core business. We think that the majority of these should be undertaken on a House–wide basis, open to all Departments.

11.32    It is important that these talks or seminars are given by people with operational responsibility for the subject covered — partly because this needs to be done with first–hand expertise and authority, and partly because it increases awareness of who is responsible for what.

11.33    The results of the JLA survey suggest that talks of this sort (appropriately publicised), might also be valuable to Members and their staff. The 1997 induction course was comprehensive, but this “one–shot” approach needs to be complemented in the longer term, when Members (and their staff) will have been able to decide on the basis of experience what information and briefing they need. This should be of mutual benefit; better understanding of the House and its business, and what Departments do in support, should make for more effective and focused use of advice and services.

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Prepared 26 July 1999