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2010 booklet
A guide to doing research in an MP's office

This page last updated: 26 April 2011

The job of a Researcher varies widely from office to office and although it is the job that the majority of new people coming into parliament want to do; very few know what it actually entails.

You very rarely have just one project to research and quite often need to be able to juggle a number of pieces of work, on a variety of topics, with differing deadlines. This guide will look at the sort of work a researcher undertakes and what sources you can use to find the information you need.

Several of the links below are on the parliamentary intranet and will work only if you have authorised access.


  1. General

  2. Casework

  3. Briefings for meetings

  4. Research for speeches

  5. Topical articles and press releases

  6. Conclusion

1. General

One of the first rules of doing research is to see whether someone else has done it for you – one good source is the House of Commons Library (http://intranet.parliament.uk/people-offices/offices-departments/commons-departments/commons-information-services/commons-library/) whose standard notes cover a broad range of topical issues. About 1,000 are updated each year, so there is a good chance they’ve already got something which covers your subject area. The Library also has librarians who you can talk to about finding resources and subject specialists  (http://hcl1.hclibrary.parliament.uk/general_pdf/wdwir.pdf) who can provide briefings, answer your questions or discuss the background to an issue.

If you want to do your own research, there are many tools available. So much information is freely available, particularly from government and Google is an excellent tool if you know what you are looking for – however it is less useful when you want to research more generally.

Press articles are a good source of “leads” for a piece of research, although you should try to find the primary sources if you want to add authority to your work. The Factiva press database is available on the intranet  (http://intranet.parliament.uk/research-online/online-resources/news-and-media/factiva/); this contains national, local and international publications. You can also set up alerts – for instance to track when your Member is mentioned in the press. Training can be provided through the Library.

If you are looking for Parliamentary material, the search on the Parliament website (www.parliament.uk/) has been upgraded and allows you to search by Member and type. Topical issues (www.parliament.uk/topics/topical-issues.htm) pages on the internet give an overview of what Parliament has done on a subject (there are intranet versions that also give contact details for the relevant Library specialist. There is a page for each Bill (http://services.parliament.uk/bills/) showing what has happened on it and linking to relevant documents including Library papers. All of the business papers (http://services.parliament.uk/calendar/)  of the House are available on the internet, as is Hansard. An honourable mention must also go to theyworkforyou.com which gives access to Hansard in a more user-friendly way.

It is absolutely vital that any research you do can be properly backed up, so include detailed references. If there are caveats on any data you are using, include them – it undermines the authority of your argument if you miss these out.  If you’ve taken information from internet sites, note the date you accessed the site.

2. Casework

Even if your MP has a dedicated caseworker you will often be required to draft responses for policy based casework.

This may be where a constituent has written in as part of a specific campaign on behalf of a charity or other organisation; or where the constituent wants to know the MP's view on a particular area of policy.

Before you start trying to draft a response, make sure you know exactly what the campaign is about. Read the correspondence carefully and know what side the constituent is asking you to take (e.g. fox-hunting – make sure you have different responses for those who are pro and anti).

Start by searching for the campaign on the internet, find out who is running it and what it is aiming to achieve. Is the campaign asking for your MP's views, to sign an EDM, to write to a Minister, or to make some other commitment? Make sure whatever response you send answers the original correspondence.

Once you have this basic information you will need to formulate your MP's view on the issue. Is there a Party line that you need to stick to? You can find out by speaking to your Party’s spokesman on that issue, or by searching their recent speeches. Is there any relevance in the campaign that you can relate back to your constituency? Trying to make policy letters more personal to the constituent, or relevant to the constituency, is much better than just reeling off the party line.

In preparation for the new 2010 parliament the Library have put together a 'Constituency Casework Toolkit'. It's here: http://intranet.parliament.uk/research/constituency-casework. Stacks of useful stuff here, including casework guides and pointers to where constituents can find legal help, as well as data on subjects such as unemployment, population and crime in your local area or constituency. Also a useful section entitled 'Casework in context'.  

3. Briefings for meetings

If your MP is attending a meeting with an organisation that s/he is not familiar with, or wants up to date information on, then s/he might ask you to compile a briefing for him prior to the meeting.

You could start by looking at the organisation’s website. Do they have a “latest news” page that will give you the up to date information you require? You could search Factiva to see if they have appeared in any newspapers recently. Or contact one of the library specialists for a more general update on the type of industry or field that the organisation covers.

Remember that your MP may be asked for his/her views at the meeting on policy issues so try to work out in advance what areas of policy might come up and ensure your MP has an up to date report on the party’s position in those areas.

4. Research for speeches

These might be speeches that your MP is giving in the Chamber or Westminster Hall or if s/he has been asked to speak at a dinner or other political engagement.

Firstly, you need to know what the speech is about. Whether it is the topic of the debate or the subject of the dinner make sure you have an overall understanding of the subject.

Then you need to find out what angle your MP wants to take; and what point s/he wants his/her speech to make. Is s/he arguing for or against the topic of debate?

The library has produced a useful guide which outlines what resources can be accessed through their website:  http://hcl1.hclibrary.parliament.uk/general_pdf/usingthelibrary.pdf. Here you will be able to find research papers that have been written on a wide variety of topics, key legislation, statutory instruments and case law which might be useful for the speech, as well as quotes on a range of different subjects.

If you are not familiar with the services the library offers then do get in touch with them as they can arrange for you to have training appropriate to your needs (details here: http://hcl1.hclibrary.parliament.uk/training/training.asp) or can offer you further advice over the telephone on where to find the information.

5. Topical articles and press releases

Your MP might be asked to write regular articles for local newspapers or online political blogs; as well as submitting his/her own press releases to keep up his/her profile locally.

If you are given the opportunity to draft these, be extremely careful in your research. Never plagiarise another person’s work. It can be easy to do if you are looking through the internet or newspapers for ideas of topical stories but whilst an idea is good, ensure the written work is all yours and that you are able to back up the article with research if it is questioned.

If you are quoting facts and figures then always provide a link to these in the article so that can be checked by the editor if needs be. The library website has an excellent statistics database (http://intranet.parliament.uk/research-online/statistics/) that can provide you figures for almost any topic.

6. Conclusion

Getting a job as a researcher to an MP is a competitive business and you will have fought hard to get to this point. Now that you are here you will almost certainly be asked to provide information on topics that you have never come across before and do not know the first thing about. Do not panic - everyone has been in the same position. As long as you know where to start for general information (and the library is always a good place) you will pick up leads along the way that will help you find the more detailed information you are looking for. By the time you leave Parliament you will be an expert in a variety of topics; and able to turn your hand to almost any subject with just a few taps of a keyboard.

 


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