Public Affairs

Parliamentary services: Responding to the challenges of the 33rd Dáil

While the function of parliamentary services has grown and developed, at its core it still fulfils a traditional role. Ciarán Galway engages with Elaine Gunn, Assistant Secretary of the Parliamentary Services Division (PSD) and Clerk-Assistant of the Dáil, to discuss operational and strategic priorities, managing in the pandemic and the expansion of the committee system.

The Parliamentary Services Division, comprising House Services, the Debates Office, the Committees’ Secretariat and Rannóg an Aistriúcháin (the Translation Section), provides services to both Houses of the Oireachtas relating to the legislative process, parliamentary procedure, Committees, debates, and translation. House Services provides support for the Ceann Comhairle, Leas-Cheann Comhairle and the Dáil Chamber through the Journal Office, the Bills Office, the Questions Office and private offices. House Services also supports the Business Committee, the Dáil Reform Committee and the Committee on Parliamentary Privileges and Oversight.

Operational

Heading up the Division, Elaine Gunn’s first priority is operational, ensuring “the smooth running of the Chamber and the provision of services to the Houses and their Committees”.

In one sense, the work of the Division is public facing, with staff present during meetings, in the Dáil Chamber or in committees. “We are present in a live context; therefore, any failures are very public. It’s important that the staff have the required skills and knowledge to advise the Chair and a huge amount of time goes into ensuring that everything runs smoothly,” the Assistant Secretary outlines.

Simultaneously, much of the work of the Division is ‘invisible’. “The public are unlikely to know what the PSD does because it provides back office support services to facilitate parliament to do its work,” she adds.

Dáil reform

The second priority of the Division is strategic, supporting the ongoing Dáil reform process. “I’m in the Houses of the Oireachtas Service long enough to know that each Dáil has its own distinct characteristics. We adapt from Dáil to Dáil and each one brings its own challenges,” Gunn says.

For instance, the 32nd Dáil ushered in a minority coalition government supported by a confidence and supply agreement. It heralded several institutional changes, including the election of the Ceann Comhairle through secret ballot and the establishment of a Business Committee to set the agenda for the Dáil.

“That’s a very significant change,” Gunn states, adding: “It is also a driver of reform through ongoing engagement between the Ceann Comhairle and the parties and groups on how the Dáil is working. While we have a separate Dáil Reform Committee, the genesis of change often emerges from the Business Committee. In that context, the Ceann Comhairle assumes the role of honest broker and consensus builder.”

“It has been extremely busy, but it is at the core of what we do: facilitating, problem solving and keeping the show on the road.”

The PSD supports this role and conducts analytical research into how particular Dáil procedures are working. “Driven by the Business Committee and the Dáil Reform Committee, procedures are being continually reviewed. Our role is evolving to include producing analytical papers to support these Committees in examining how the Dáil is working,” the Assistant Secretary reflects.

For example, the Dáil Reform Committee is currently reviewing the operation of the Questions on Promised Legislation procedure. The Division has received submissions from parties and groups, and will analyse speaking times to facilitate debate aimed at reaching political consensus on any changes. The Oireachtas Research Service is a key source of information on the procedures in other parliaments and PSD will frequently commission a research paper or benchmarking survey to feed into its analysis.

Additional priorities

Further strategic priorities include the delivery of the Rannóg 2024 and Digital Parliament programmes. Rannóg 2024 is a five-year plan to build capacity within the Translation Section to address a significant arrears problem that has developed over many years in the publication of official translations of Acts, while also maintaining and developing translation services for the Houses and members. Meanwhile, Digital Parliament is a major programme forming part of the Houses of the Oireachtas Service’s overall digital transformation agenda.

“Ultimately, this strategy will build and deliver a Dáil business system which will bring us to ‘best-in-class’ in the use of technology for parliamentary processes and will move us from our current systems which are largely paper-based processes supported by standalone ICT systems.

“It’s ambitious and has been underway for three years, comprising detailed business process analysis and development. A number of interlinked systems have been built and the first major value point will be delivered later this year with the digital Order Paper, moving the Dáil agenda on-line and updating in real-time. This should be transformational and will be the start of embedding digital capacity within PSD,” Gunn asserts.

Covid-19 pandemic

The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic and associated public health restrictions in March 2020 challenged the PSD to act quickly to ensure the continuity of sittings. “The key problem, initially, was that we couldn’t safely or effectively conduct votes of the full membership due to social distancing requirements. The pandemic necessitated a swift and intense adaptation period where we moved many back-office activities and meetings online and had to run sittings with reduced numbers in the Dáil Chamber. There was a lot of redesign of procedures and re-working of the sittings schedule to meet health and safety imperatives,” the Assistant Secretary details.

Given social distancing requirements, two types of sittings were devised. The first is a reduced sitting with 45 members and associated arrangements. “The Chamber team and Business Committee had a substantial volume of work in engaging with members on all of the changes, including seeking lists of the 45 members for each sitting day. “This continues to be needed to conduct reduced-numbers divisions, and we need names in advance to complete the rollcall,” she explains.

At the same time, a cross-Divisional team identified the Convention Centre Dublin (The CCD) as the best alternative location for full Dáil sittings. “They turned this around remarkably quickly,” Gunn says, adding: “We also owe a large debt of gratitude to The CCD, who worked with us every step of the way. Their assistance has been key to conducting sittings and voting safely.

“Overall, our response to the pandemic has required collaborative working, moving swiftly to technology solutions, and adapting our procedures to reduced-numbers sittings in Leinster House and full sittings in The CCD. It has been extremely busy, but it is at the core of what we do: facilitating, problem solving and keeping the show on the road. The crisis has shown our staff at their very best, but it has been challenging to say the least. There is constant revision and review of the agenda to meet the current demands of the pandemic. It’s ongoing change.”

Dual role

Of Gunn’s two roles, the Clerk-Assistant function is the older and more established. In the early days of Dáil Éireann, the Clerk and Clerk-Assistant advised the Chair, acted as procedural advisers and recorded the decisions. Over time, these roles have evolved, however the core responsibilities of the Clerk-Assistant remain the same.

“The visible manifestation of the Clerk-Assistant role would be when I’m sitting in the Dáil Chamber or attending the Business Committee. I am there as assistant or deputy to Peter Finnegan as Clerk. In the absence of the Clerk, the Clerk Assistant also stands in for certain administrative or statutory roles assigned to the Clerk, such as certifying bills or the issuing of writs in the case of a general election. The Clerk Assistant role is a procedural role; I review submissions on the application of Standing Orders to bills or motions. It is quite a technical role in many ways.

“While it is an important part of my role, my overall remit is much broader. That reflects the increased complexity of parliamentary activity, particularly the expansion in Committees. The PSD supports 24 committees, and this area of work is supported by over 70 staff under three principal officers. Each Committee has a level of autonomy, yet all Committees are bound by the same rules. There is quite a bit of work in coordination and management of the Committee system as a result.

“The Secretary General has the same dual role as Clerk, and this duality makes both jobs particularly busy. There is a large amount of day-to-day involvement in the running of the House that is essential. It’s necessary to manage the overall workload so that there is time allocated to less urgent but equally essential work in other areas,” she outlines.

Committees

Committees are an integral component of the functioning of the Dáil. The Committee system has produced the greatest expansion in the Clerk-Assistant’s workload when compared to that of her predecessors.

“What is important is not that we are visible, but that the work that we support becomes more visible and is better understood.”

The PSD supports the establishment of Committees through technical drafting and procedural advice, though ultimately the design of the Committee system is a matter for the Dáil Reform Committee and the House itself. Following each general election, the Division reviews the Committee system; examining how procedures have worked and whether there are any gaps or improvements. This includes reflecting on the terms of reference for Committees and whether there are any ambiguities, lack of clarity or inconsistencies. “The PSD brings technical expertise and practical experience to the table and we are trusted by members to provide impartial expert advice and analysis” the Assistant Secretary says.

Indeed, the Division is increasingly relied upon to develop proposals in relation to the establishment of Committees. This reflects the fact that the Oireachtas is taking more ownership of its own business whereas previously this would have been a government-initiated process.

Challenges

This, Gunn argues, is a by-product of the unique characteristics of the last Dáil which featured a big expansion of the Committee system including several Special Committees. “Committees are not going anywhere; they are only going to expand. On the one hand this expansion is a challenge because we have to secure resources for additional Committees to tight timescales; and more Committees also add complexity and potential for overlap. But on the other hand, Special Committees undertook valuable work and produced major policy reports, for example the Committee on the Future of Healthcare (Sláintecare), the Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, or the Climate Action Committee. They prove that when Committees focus on a significant piece of work, they can have real impact.

“Meanwhile, a major challenge for sectoral or departmental Committees is the sheer breadth of their remit; they’re shadowing an entire Department and need to prioritise their workload. I don’t envy them. Most succeed in covering a broad range of topics, however the trade-off is that they can’t achieve the same depth of focus on any particular area,” Gunn suggests.

The most significant challenge currently facing Oireachtas Committees is the 2019 Supreme Court decision that the PAC had acted unlawfully in its treatment of Angela Kerins. “The judgement contains very specific direction to Oireachtas Committees on how they must operate towards witnesses in a way that is lawful under the Constitution. This includes ensuring that they stay within the bounds of their terms of reference, that Committee Chairs manage meetings effectively, and that there are procedures to ensure that witnesses’ and third parties’ rights are appropriately balanced with members’ rights under privilege, including appropriate remedies and sanctions,” the Assistant Secretary states.

“The Parliamentary Services Division brings technical expertise and practical experience to the table; we are trusted to provide impartial expert advice and analysis.”

Consequently, the Joint Report on the Response of the Houses of the Oireachtas to the Judgments of the Supreme Court in the Kerins Case was published before Christmas 2020 and its recommendations are set to be implemented in 2021.

“Implementing the new rules is going to be challenging for Committees as it’s ultimately a balancing act. If we get the balance right, and we should, there is no reason why this will not enhance the way that Committees conduct their work as opposed to inhibit them,” Gunn insists, adding: “It is a protective measure to ensure that we never have another Kerins case and that the Oireachtas can manage its own affairs. Members actively engaged in the process and there was an acceptance that the measures in the report are a balanced response to the Supreme Court’s decision.”

Vision

Looking to the future, the Assistant Secretary identifies public engagement as a key strategic priority for the Houses of the Oireachtas Service. “What is important is not that we are visible, but that the work that we support becomes more visible and better understood. The Digital Parliament programme will facilitate that.

“At the moment, when you watch Dáil Éireann, you will see TDs speaking but you have no sense of the context, the process they are engaged in, or the output. As such, Digital Parliament will better communicate the work of parliament, allowing members to contextualise what they are saying with what they are doing,” she says.

Through the Digital Parliament programme, the overarching vision of the Houses of the Oireachtas Service is to showcase the parliamentary and legislative process, enabling the public to better understand the work of the Houses of the Oireachtas, leading to increased engagement. “When we see what is going on elsewhere in the world, it is very important that the public are shown the detail of parliamentary activity; that it isn’t black and white, that debates are a constructive contest of ideas, and that there is valuable and often collaborative work being undertaken by all members in the public interest,” Gunn concludes.

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