Oireachtas Library and Research Service: ‘The vision remains the same’
The Oireachtas Library and Research Service (L&RS) provides objective information services to Oireachtas members and committees. Ciarán Galway discusses the role and remit of the L&RS with Madelaine Dennison, the Principal Officer who leads the library, research, and records management functions in the Houses of the Oireachtas.
“Recognised as a high-performance team, the 50 staff of the Oireachtas Library and Research Service exhibit a real sense of pride in working for the national parliament and are ambitious for the services they deliver,” Dennison begins, adding: “Led by a management team of four assistant principals, the L&RS has five priorities. Namely: people; partnerships; digital transformation; corporate governance; and delivering on the Houses of the Oireachtas Service Action Plan 2022.”
Amid a recent influx of new staff following a period of turnover, the L&RS’ people priority is largely defined by recruitment and the onboarding of fresh talent. “As we build new teams, we are implementing a high-performance framework to ensure alignment with the objectives of the L&RS,” she articulates.
Simultaneously, in response to the workplace changes catalysed by the Covid crisis, the L&RS has introduced a blended working charter for staff across its three units. “The pandemic experience caused us to reconsider the ways in which we work. Alongside embedding hybrid working, this includes using on-site days creatively; bringing people together to collaborate, rather than having people come into the office sitting at their desks and not seeing anybody. Having introduced the charter in late 2022, we will observe how it works in practice during 2023 and amend it as necessary,” the L&RS Head explains.
Seeking to “make the most of partnerships”, Dennison indicates that the L&RS will continue to work collaboratively with all units across the Houses of the Oireachtas Service, as well as strengthening external relationships.
“L&RS will enhance its collaboration other library and research services in other parliaments. Meanwhile, the Parliamentary Research Service is pursuing a programme of engagement with the wider research community. In 2022, for example, through a partnership with Science Foundation Ireland, six researchers were seconded to L&RS as researchers in residence to undertake scientific research briefings for members on range of topics including eHealth, nanotechnology, and geothermal energy,” she adds.
The Records Management Unit also engages with the Civil Service’s Data Protection Officers’ Network, the Department of Public Expenditure, NDP Delivery and Reform’s FOI Central Policy Unit, and the OGCIO’s eFOI and eDocs interdepartmental working groups to share its perspective, contribute to systems development, and ensure a consistent approach to compliance.
Implementation of the Houses of the Oireachtas Service’s Digital Transformation Programme facilitated the rapid transition to a hybrid working model and it remains a key priority in the Oireachtas Strategic Plan 2022-2024.
“The L&RS has completed a significant amount of work relating to the Digital Transformation Programme. For example, we rolled out the online Documents Laid application (DocsLaid) – the first module developed under the Digital Transformation Programme to allow access by external users – which make it much easier for government departments, agencies, and Oireachtas committees to lay documents before the Oireachtas.
“Over the coming months, I will be working with the ICT unit to refresh, re-imagine the digital vision across the Oireachtas Library and Research Service, setting out digital transformation trajectory for the next couple of years,” the L&RS Head says.
The Records Management Unit (RMU) is responsible for strengthening records management across the Service (parliamentary administration). The RMU is working with the ICT Unit and the Office of the Parliamentary Legal Advisers to consolidate a records management programme for the Oireachtas.
Delivering the Action Plan
Within the Houses of the Oireachtas Service Action Plan 2022, the L&RS is responsible for over 30 deliverables underpinning three of the five strategic outcomes, namely: an effective parliament; an inclusive and well supported parliamentary community; and an open, engaged, and sustainable parliament.
Within the Oireachtas Library and Research Service, there are three distinct units encompassing a total of 50 staff. While the Oireachtas Library has been in existence for 100 years, the Parliamentary Research Service is a relatively new unit, established in 2006. Similarly, the Records Management Unit was set up in 2016. Heading up the Oireachtas Library and Research Service, Madelaine Dennison has remit over all three units.
First and foremost, the Oireachtas Library is a workplace library supporting Oireachtas members in their parliamentary duties, as well as providing services to the wider parliamentary community and selected services to the public. The library also has a significant heritage collection and, as such, it has an international profile.
“We have digitised, more or less, the entire heritage collection,” Dennison remarks. “Available via the Oireachtas website, the collection has about 9,000 items dating from the 16th century to the early 20th century. The largest and most significant collection is the Dublin Castle Collection, which includes the former reference library of the British Chief Secretary’s Office in Dublin Castle.
“Very much a modern parliamentary library in terms of its use of technology, the Oireachtas Library is state of the art. The librarians acquire contemporary collections, in both digital and print format, to support research activities across the Houses.”
Parliamentary Research Service
Upon joining the Houses of the Oireachtas Service in 2006, Dennison’s initial brief was to establish a Parliamentary Research Service that would provide all members with impartial and authoritative research and to modernise the Oireachtas Library. Managed by two assistant principals, the Parliamentary Research Service is a centralised, multi-disciplinary function which provides impartial research, such as policy analysis, to support the two Houses, as well as members and committees in executing their parliamentary duties.
Overall, the Parliamentary Research Service provides non-partisan and balanced analysis which is adapted to the needs of parliamentarians.
“While Oireachtas members are not obliged to utilise our services, they trust our impartiality and clarity of our research. As such, we have a positive relationships with members from across the political spectrum.”
“The Parliamentary Research Service balances the research and analysis we carry out for the two Houses, the commissioned research produced for committees, and then research requested by individual members of the Houses,” Dennison explains.
The Oireachtas research librarians primarily source information, documents and statistics for members and staff in response to over 1,000 queries per annum. The researchers, on the other hand, undertake original research. For instance, around 200 research briefings are undertaken for individual members per annum.
“Alongside this, the legislative analysis service produces research for each piece of legislation as it progresses through the Oireachtas. We also complete short, topical notes covering a broad range of subjects, for example recently we have covered long Covid, energy poverty, and gender-based violence.
“Similarly, we have a spotlight series of research briefings which take a deep dive into a single topic or policy area which will be of interest to our parliamentarians. However, we take care to avoid contributing to or directing the debate; rather we inform the debate,” Dennison observes.
Records Management Unit
The Records Management Unit’s functions include administrative records management, records classification, records disposition, and the transfer of historically significant records to the parliamentary archive, which is a priority project for 2023. The RMU also manages data protection across the Houses.
The Records Management Unit has three strategic priorities.
- Protection: Managing the personal data and valuable records of the Houses of the Oireachtas Service.
- Compliance: Ensuring that records and personal data are managed lawfully, and internal policies are adhered to.
- Control: Ensuring that records can be quantified, located, and managed.
Under the Action Plan 2022 for the Houses of the Oireachtas Service’s strategic goal of ensuring high standards of professionalism and corporate governance, the Records Management Unit is tasked with strengthening information governance through a best practice approach to records management and best practice approach to data protection. The unit also responds to around 120 FOI queries each year.
“The Houses of the Oireachtas Service has always managed its records; the establishment of the Record Management Unit centralised this function. Simultaneously, we continue to work very closely with colleagues in the Office of the Parliamentary Legal Advisors, the ICT Unit, the HR Unit, and Members’ Services,” Dennison outlines.
Relative to other modern parliamentary library and research services, Dennison asserts, the Oireachtas Library and Research Service is a leader in some respects, particularly data visualisation. For instance, the L&RS constituency dashboards product, which is available to the public, provides an interactive online visualisation of Census 2016 data for each of the Dáil constituencies. It is possible to explore this data across six distinct themes: demographics; economic status and work; households and housing; transport; education; and families. Work is underway to enhance the product and add the latest data.
“We must keep evolving to meet the needs of our TDs and senators. Increased use of infographics and data visualisation aligns with this evolution and makes our research products more accessible,” Dennison insists.
“Internationally, parliamentary libraries and research services differ in size, structure, and remit. The Oireachtas Library and Parliamentary Research Service compares well with larger services. For example, if you look at what the US Congressional Research Service does, the Oireachtas has the same range of services.”
Discussing the continuity of L&RS work during the Covid pandemic, Dennison pays tribute to her staff for their “brilliant management of the overnight pivot to working from home”, and for “finding creative ways of ensuring delivery of the full suite of services to members”.
“The early days of the pandemic produced challenging circumstances, but L&RS staff really rose to the challenge. Services continued to meet members’ needs and maintained standards,” she observes.
As is the case across the public service, staff retention is an ongoing challenge. Emphasising the interesting nature of its projects, as well as the opportunity for collaboration, Dennison highlights the high calibre and ambitious nature of the staff working with within the L&RS.
“In terms of staff retention, we must always strive to ensure that the L&RS is a great place to work. We empower our staff, and ensure access to continuing professional development, The parliamentary administration has implemented hybrid working and family friendly policies.”
Having been with the Houses of the Oireachtas Service for almost 20 years, Dennison’s ambition for the L&RS has been consistent. “While the Oireachtas and the needs of members keeps evolving, and the definition of ‘world-class’ develops, in many ways, our overarching vision remains the same: ensuring that the Oireachtas has a world-class library and a world-class parliamentary research service. How the L&RS delivers ‘world-class’ is now focused on being creative, building partnerships – both internally and externally, and digital innovation,” Dennison concludes.
Madelaine Dennison joined the Houses of the Oireachtas in 2005 to take up the post of Head of Library and Research Services. Dennison was responsible for establishing the parliamentary research service and for modernising the Oireachtas Library. More recently, Dennison has established a records management unit in the Oireachtas. Prior to working in the Houses of the Oireachtas, Dennison established law library and knowledge management services in the Office of the Attorney General, Dublin Dennison has an MBS in business practice and her professional interests are organisational development and executive coaching.