Constitutions assign to parliaments not only the functions of law making and approval of expenditure/taxation but also the role of overseeing the work of the executive branch of government. Focusing on this last function of parliaments Josefa Fuentes, IFLA Library and Research Services for Parliaments (IFLAPARL) Chair, analyzes some of the inherent challenges ensuring public access to information produced and attained by the libraries and research services in parliaments related to government information.

Official publications

The essence of the parliament is to shed light on government management; reinforcing this parliamentary function, the Ombudsman institution exists in some countries to monitor the functioning of public administrations, and to report directly to parliaments.  

Citizens are informed of this through the parliament’s official publication: Official Gazette and Journal of Sittings. Currently, the monitoring actions are reported even by broadcasting the live performance of plenary sessions. This active dissemination of activity in parliaments is ultimately carried out to be a guide for democratic participation. It is part of the raison d’être of a parliament. The mass media contribute to it, since the press has historically been carrying out the social function of disseminating and analyzing this information, which also ensures democratic participation.  

The emergence of the Internet as a tool for communicating information and disseminating documents makes this essential task of parliaments much easier and has made it possible for citizens to be closer to the parliamentary institution, and to have public access to valuable information from government and the public administrations. 

In effect, the documents that the government sends to parliament in this rendering of accounts become part of the files of the parliamentary archives and the citizens have the right to general access to these archives. This is a right granted by the constitutions of countries, always with the safeguarding limits related to the protection of personal data, intellectual and industrial property, data referred to the defense of the states or that resulting from a damage test (statistical or commercial confidentiality). 

The processing of parliamentary initiatives (that is, the performance by parliamentarians of their work: interpellations or questions to the government requiring a written response, summons to appear before Parliament to senior officials or members of the government, etc.) generates the reception of texts and their accompanying documentation full of data sets, important reports, forecasts, government action plans, analysis of the incidence of regulations, report or policy proposals, statistics…; in short, information held by the executive branch of government, endowed with the potential and degree of specificity that can only be gathered thanks to the high budgets and training of teams available to governments. 

Open data and machine-readable documents 

The public sector information constitutes fundamental “raw material” for various digital content products and services. It is an increasingly important resource for companies and services to take advantage of its potential which contributes to economic growth and job creation (e.g. social information, economic, geographical, meteorological, traffic, tourist, education are examples of important thematic areas in this sense). 

In order to reuse and benefit from the information of the executive branch of government, a regulatory framework is required (a harmonizing Directive, in the case of the European Union). This reuse is carried out not only by granting a license to those who request reuse but, in many cases, proactively by the public administrations, at their maximum degree of assimilation, forcing a “translation” into computer language of this entire documentary set, a mechanism that grants automatic access to a large amount of information and data. 

Dissemination of the existence of such information from governments and public administrations is essential. For this reason, the states must ensure the implementation of practical devices that make it possible to search for available documents. They create document management systems and search engines that allow citizens to adequately retrieve information, such as lists, data, or indexes, and also portals that link to decentralized listings. 

So, public sector bodies usually make their own documents available in a format that, as far as possible and appropriate, does not depend on the use of specific programs. The computer-reusable format has been the direct consequence of the implementation of this spreading of the wealth of government information . The open data initiative aims to make the data held by the public sector available and ready to be reused by citizens or companies without technical or legal restrictions. To do this it is necessary that the published data be in open and machine-readable formats, such as XML (Extensible Markup Language). 

Returning to parliament, librarians, archivists, specialists in knowledge management in coordination with ICT services from parliaments work on the analysis, custody, formats, and dissemination of all the documentation received in parliament (linked to parliamentary initiatives).  

What is achieved is:  

  • Make it easy for users (citizens, businesses, politicians, researchers) to find what they are looking for (developing an efficient search engine on the official website of the parliament).
  • Obtaining the maximum number of documentary collections in XML or epub format (mainly and inescapably the Official Gazette and Journal of Sittings).

The spirit behind the desire to ease the access to the information available to parliaments applies worldwide. 

Journalists, academics, and policy experts get data from the official publication of parliaments, a reliable source for not spreading misleading news. 

Briefings by research services in parliaments

To carry out the function of controlling government activities, parliamentarians and their staff have the support of research services (sometimes managed separately from the parliamentary library); those services are units of parliamentary civil servants providing evidence for work on public policy. (“Evidence” corresponds to what the Guidelines for parliamentary research services describe as the rationale for establishing a parliamentary research service: “to provide impartial and balanced analysis tailored to the needs of parliamentarians”). Research services are trusted and publish the result of their work into reports and briefings that, increasingly, are also posted on the institutional web pages of the Parliamentary Chambers to inform the citizens. 

In conclusion the work of the research services, which are deontologically guided by the ethics summarized in IFLAPARL “Ethics checklist“, complements this access to government information explained here. Furthermore, their work contributes data and confrontation of different perspectives, which tries to shed light and sufficient interpretation to avoid deviation or biased presentation of the data. 

Sharing concerns

The Libraries and Research Services for Parliaments Section (IFLAPARL) provides an international network to those parliamentary libraries and research services, all sharing similar aims and concerns. Public access to information is one of the main concerns. 

IFLAPARL has a commitment with UN supporting UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 16 

In fact, the Section is particularly involved with the SDG 16.10, to ensure public access to information. Supporting this goal means adaptation to vanguard in technicalities, which always create challenges. 

The recently published (in co-edition with the IPU) 3rd edition of the  Guidelines for Parliamentary Libraries (p.9) assume that the parliamentary libraries and research services have accepted the adaptation challenge, as “alongside the technological changes and global disruptions, the United Nations sustainable development goals (SDGs) and, in particular, SDG 16 have increased the focus on parliamentary transparency and engagement with citizens”. In this context, as it is stated in the Guidelines, while looking to the future, “We can no longer expect our customers to come to us, we must bring our services to where our customers are, be they Members or citizens. The use of social media, digital services, and open data will be important parts of this”. 

Josefa Fuentes