House of Commons Library project to establish a research service in the Burmese Parliament

In June 2012 Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi gave a speech in Parliament. She had spent 15 of the past 21 years in Burma under house arrest, and following her release had been elected a Member of the Burmese parliament.

She spoke of her dreams for her country, its past struggles and the challenges that remain. She asked the UK Parliament to consider what it could do to support Burma’s “nascent Parliamentary democracy”.

A “House of Commons Library” for the Burmese parliament

The Burmese parliament had been re-established in 2011 after decades of military rule. While the parliament has made remarkable progress in a short space of time, a series of politician and staff exchanges between the House of Commons and the parliament identified a number of challenges.

A major issue was a lack of information and research advice for Burmese MPs. In common with all parliamentarians, Burmese MPs are required to scrutinise the government and hold it to account on a vast range of subjects. One day MPs might be required to scrutinise monetary policy, and the next day illegal logging. Without access to reliable, clear and impartial information it can be difficult for MPs to be effective in parliament.

To help address this issue the House of Commons, Burmese parliament and UNDP/IPU agreed to work together to establish a parliamentary research service along the lines of the House of Commons Library. The service would give MPs somewhere to go to request information and impartial analysis, and thereby improve their ability to perform as parliamentarians.

The project is being delivered in the Burmese Parliament by Oliver Bennett, a senior House of Commons Library policy analyst, who is working directly with the parliamentary staff over the course of a year.

The House of Commons Speaker, John Bercow, strongly backs the project. It has high-level political support in Burma, including from the Burmese parliament speaker Thura U Shwe Mann and Aung San Suu Kyi.

The project is also supported by the UK Department for International Development, which provides funding for a project assistant and interpreter, and UNDP/IPU which has a major support programme in the parliament.

Delivering the project

The project began in late January 2014. The first few months were spent developing a plan for the project and intensively training the 30 new researchers. The researchers have participated in over 20 workshops, seminars and practical classes. They now have a good basic understanding of how to undertake research, write a briefing that is useful to MPs and how to be politically impartial.

After this initial training period, the main modes of training have changed. The project now uses coaching, 1-2-1 and small group meetings in order to directly apply the lessons learnt by answering real research questions from MPs.

There have been a few hitches along the way. After being thoroughly assured by the researchers that they could all use computers, three weeks in it was discovered that some did not know how to use a mouse. The training clearly had to go back to basics.

This has been one of the most interesting and challenging aspects of the work; understanding and working with the cultural differences. There appears to be a strong tendency for the researchers to try to please and a strong fear of disappointing superiors.

These traits can result in researchers giving research answers they think the questioner wants to hear. The training has therefore had to stress that researchers should be willing to provide an impartial response, even if the response may not be what the MP wants to hear. Crucially, the researchers have also been encouraged to say if they don’t have all the answers – and to question whether others do too.

Considerable amounts of time have been spent developing the researchers’ confidence and ability to do this.

Political challenges

The parliament is a politically sensitive place to work. Due to the extreme political challenges facing the country the researchers and managers can be very cautious about producing briefing on controversial subjects. They have required persuasion to work on such subjects, even when there is good evidence to suggest that the briefing will be of interest and use to MPs.

For example, the researchers were very reluctant to work on a briefing on constitutional reform. This is one of the most controversial issues in Burma given that Aung San Suu Kyi is not permitted to become president under the constitution. The researchers had to be gently cajoled into producing the briefing.

When it was published the Burmese parliament Speaker reported that the briefing, and the others that had been produced, “demonstrated the critical importance of research for the future of the [parliament]”. The briefing has now been seen by most, if not all, MPs and no negative feedback has been received.

This demonstrated that it is possible to produce parliamentary research briefings in Burma even on the most controversial subjects, provided it is impartial and well-written.

However, it is also clear that the researchers and research managers need significant training to give them the tools to safely and confidently produce research on controversial subjects. They will have many more chances to use these skills with forthcoming legislation on electoral reform and interfaith marriage.

Progress

The number of briefings has steadily grown in number. The researchers have tackled tricky subjects such as the census, monetary policy and hydroelectric power. Thousands of copies of the briefings have been taken by MPs, and the researchers have also responded to around 100 confidential MP enquiries.

Although it is early days, it appears as if the research service is starting to have an impact. A MP told us they participated in debate as a direct result of a briefing, and other MPs have said they may propose new legislation on the basis of the briefings that have been produced.

Nevertheless there is still a long way to go. The researchers need continued guidance and challenge to improve the quality of their work. There is now a need to focus more on the research managers so that the service continues to develop confidently and efficiently beyond the end of the project in January 2015.

Wider lessons

The project has clearly demonstrated how parliamentary research services, such as the House of Commons Library, can help MPs to be effective. In a world where the volume and complexity of information can be overwhelming, MPs need impartial support to identify and understand the information that matters.

It has also become clear that while Burma faces a number of extreme difficulties in its transition to democracy, Burmese parliamentarians are working to do their best for their country. And there are now the beginnings of a Burmese Parliament Research Service to help them to do their job.

Author: Oliver Bennett