Parliamentary Professional Development: Participants Discuss Their Experiences

Article 6 / 11 , Vol 45 No. 1 (Spring)

Parliamentary Professional Development: Participants Discuss Their Experiences

Carina Alves is a Deputy in Jersey and Chair of the Privileges and Procedures Committee. Buchere Philip Brightone is the Head of the Senate Liaison office, in the office of the Clerk of the Senate and Secretary to the Parliamentary Service Commission (PSC) in the Republic of Kenya. He previously served as the Director Curriculum, Training and Research at the Centre for Parliamentary Studies and Training (CPST) from 2013 to 2021. Alyson Queen, is Chief of Staff for Corporate Services and the CIBA Secretariat at the Senate of Canada. Carly Maxwell is Deputy Clerk of the New South Wales Legislative Assembly. Mateo Lagimiri is a Deputy Committee Clerk for the Public Accounts Committee in the Fiji Parliament. Cherie Morris-Tafatu is the Clerk of the Niue Assembly and the Secretary of the Bills, Public Accounts and Niue Constitution Review Committees.

In collaboration with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) and other international partners, McGill University’s School of Continuing Studies offers two programs for parliamentary professional development. One is tailored toward staff (the professional development certificate in Parliamentary Management) and the other focuses on newly elected MPs (the professional development certificate in Parliamentary Governance). In this modified roundtable*, the Canadian Parliamentary Review gathers six past attendees of these programs to discuss how it helped them to get a good or even better understanding of how Westminster parliamentary institutions work. *Due to time zone challenges, this roundtable merges discussions from multiple conference calls and email submissions. Participants were able to add to or alter their comments after reading a draft of the merged transcript.

Canadian Parliamentary Review: How did you hear about the program and why did you decide to enroll?

Carina Alves: I was first elected in 2018. It was all very new to me. We don’t have established party politics over here. I did stand with the only official party that we had on the island (some more have emerged since because we’ve had some electoral reforms).

Previously I was a maths teacher and I had never done a job where I didn’t have some training on the job, some education or a course, or some voluntary work in advance to help me prepare. Becoming a politician is a unique experience. I felt very insecure in my knowledge if I’m being honest. I did have the support of my party which was brilliant, and I would not have stood without them. But having only basic knowledge, I really did feel out of my depth. So, the opportunity to do a course that could equip me with some skills was the main reason I chose to do it. It enabled me to feel more comfortable in my role.

I learned about the program through the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA). The person in charge of the administrative side of our parliament, known as the Greffier, was the one who disseminated the information to all the new members and two of us signed up.

When I started the course, I had already done a year, so a lot of the elements of the course I had already learned about on the job. It would have been nice to have done the course closer to being elected. It was beneficial. But I think if I was able to do it earlier on it would have been even more beneficial.

Alyson Queen: I’ve worked in and around Parliament Hill for over a decade. I started this current position in 2019. I was aware of the program through various channels. I researched it on my own just to get a better sense of it.

I was really interested in expanding my parliamentary knowledge from an administrative lens. It was the right time for me to take on some additional professional development. And then the pandemic hit. I think one of the highlights for me was being able to do it online. In a way it was interesting timing because having it online meant we could continue as other things shut down. The ability to discuss what was happening in various parliaments, as the pandemic evolved, with the people in the course was invaluable.

One of the fundamentals of parliament is to be able to debate and discuss. One of the highlights for me was being able to have those side discussions with colleagues who I’m now able to keep in touch with or send a note to. These are the informal channels where you gain a greater understanding of what’s happening around the world – or specifically in this case, parliaments. The course was reasonable in length as well, so I was able to accomplish my objectives for the course while balancing a very busy time at work and at home.

Mateo Lagimiri: The initiative came from the UNDP Pacific Office based in Fiji run by one of our former consultants, Dyfan Jones. He brought the McGill course to the Pacific. This was one of its first initiative for Fiji and most of the Pacific region. In 2018 there were about 10 Pacific Islands that had registered and attended the McGill Course.

Prior to this, in Fiji, we’d have some staff who were able to travel to Montreal to attend the course and return and complete the other modules online. We have two projects for professional development: the Fiji Parliament Support Project and Pacific Parliamentary Effectiveness Initiative. In 2018, Fiji had hosted the first McGill Course Training. In 2019 it was held in Vanuatu. Unfortunately, because of the pandemic, we had to complete the last two modules online.

Carly Maxwell: I first heard about the program when one of my colleagues completed it in the cohort before I started the course. I had spoken to him about it, and he had really valued the experience. I guess you could say it was word of mouth, and also McGill University has an excellent reputation. When the email came around from the CPA again offering a potential spot or scholarship in the course, I put my name forward.

Buchere Philip Brightone: By virtue of my position as Director Curriculum Training and Research, I came across a number of colleagues who had done the McGill program, so I took further interest in the programme. I initiated a paper that led to the formal signing of a memorandum of understanding between McGill University and the Parliamentary Service Commission of Kenya. This began in 2015.

As a curriculum developer, I looked at the programme or course brochure and I quickly made the decision to do the course because I found it the most appropriate course for parliamentary officers like myself. One thing I loved about the course curriculum was its flexibility, relevance, diversity and adaptability of the programme. Equally, the course objectives were very well crafted, which persuaded me to join the course.

Cherie Morris-Tafatu: I learnt about the course through the CPA correspondences since it is channeled through the Clerk of Assembly. The information was referred to the Speaker as Chairperson of the Niue CPA Branch and expressions of interest was sought from the staff. Competing claims to the roles of our staff rendered them unable to pursue the opportunity, however. I, on the other hand, was determined. I made a calculated risk that despite my busy role and family commitments, I was going to capitalise on this opportunity and take the course. I am very glad I did.

The primary goal of my deciding to enrol was to help me in my role as Clerk of the Niue Assembly. I must proficiently discharge my constitutional duties embedded in the Constitution of Niue, Article 27. I believed the training would help equip me with the best tools, knowledge and skills in the aspects of Parliamentary management to professionally discharge my constitutional duties efficiently and effectively and at the same time fulfill my personal goal. Whether I achieve that goal or not is another matter but I was determined to have a go. This was crucial since my background is agriculture/horticulture and Human Resources. The amalgam of the skills from those professions played a big role in helping me with the course, however.

What I enjoyed most about the six courses is that they were highly participatory, well structured and fit for purpose. As Clerk of the Assembly and secretary of the key Select Committees, the course couldn’t have come at a better time.

CPR: I wanted to follow up on something Carina said about being new to the job as a parliamentarian and taking this course. Was there any kind of training your parliament provides prior to starting your role as an elected member?

CA: When we first were elected, we had two weeks of what was deemed ‘training.’ But for me, having been a teacher, it was just being ‘talked up’ for two weeks. And it was exhausting. I mean, I learned a lot, but you can’t take everything in when it’s like that. I can’t knock the Greffier’s department because they were only doing what they thought was required and it did help, but it was intense.

There was a lot of assumed prior knowledge as well. But, in my experience, you should not assume prior knowledge because your lesson plan goes out the window. So, there was some training, but it wasn’t the greatest and that was one of the reasons I decided to join the Privileges and Procedures Committee as the vice-chair. I wanted to learn more, and I felt we needed something better.

I think if new parliamentarians had access to this course from the get-go it would have been ideal. If we could have something similar to this course and tweak it for our jurisdiction, it would be very helpful. By the time I took this program I had about a year of experience, but there were other people there who were very new to the role. I think there’s a reluctance to admit you don’t know something because you don’t want to come across as if you don’t know what you’re doing.

CPR: For the rest of you, since you were already working in parliament prior to the course, what new information did you gain from taking the course?

CM: For me there was some new material, but also material I’d come across over the years in a variety of formats. Being in the course gave me an excellent opportunity to take some time out from my very busy job working at parliament to think about parliament. It gave me the head space to think about new ideas – about not only the way things are but also the way things could be and how things were elsewhere.

When you think about how things may work elsewhere you tend to make all sorts of assumptions based on the idea that all Westminster parliaments are quite similar. It was valuable to hear from other people in similar roles to me. It really sparked a lot of ideas of how I could make my workplace better.

ML: I have to echo what Carly said. The McGill course has really been quite remarkable. We are a small legislature. There is a struggle for autonomy and a push and pull between the two branches of government, the executive and the legislature.

Other participants, not only from the legislative side, but also from the administrative and corporate units, had hands on experience of how to be autonomous from the executive. It gave more understanding of what parliament is all about and how the institution operates.

For example, the current trends in public administration course was off great interest to me. I didn’t realize there were different types and forms of legislatures. In Fiji there was no Parliament for 8 years and that was a big challenge for us. Going through the basic module training helped us in bridging that gap. It helped parliamentary staff be more aware and more capable of doing what needs to be done under the mandates of the Standing Orders and the Constitution.

AQ: Regardless of how long you’ve been working in parliament, there are things to learn. The course gave me the opportunity to really think about the various concepts being presented, even if I had worked with them before. The difference was assessing these concepts – like governance and public finance – in the broader, global perspective.

BPB: As the director curriculum, training and research, I learned of the existence of courses purely designed on parliamentary issues desi offered by McGill University, that a rich faculty of seasoned practitioners and academics in parliamentary matters delivered the material, and that the course was progressive and with modules covering the entire range of our workings in parliament.

At the Institutional level, this provided me with the impetus to push for an engagement of the two institutions at the MOU level.

And, at a personal level, the modules on corporate governance provided new information that was relevant to my work. Also, the one on public finance management and the concepts of down and upstream budget making was very educative to me.

CM-T: I found all six courses important and relevant to my role. With that realisation came the “light bulb” effect. I decided to select key areas from which to extract little segments from each course and make recommendations to the Speaker.

I would like to highlight Select Committees where this course helped shape the history of the Niue Assembly where for the first time, a Select Committee was set up to investigate two important corporations in Niue, namely the Broadcasting Corporation of Niue (BCN) and Telecom Niue Limited. The general understanding of the Assembly was that once Committees were established by act of parliament, there can no longer be any other committees to be formed.

Two Investigation Committees were formed, consultations were made and Reports were tabled in the House in 2021. Having fulfilled the Terms of Reference of the two committees, they have since been dis-established having served the purpose it was intended.

CPR: Is there anything that stands out for you in the course that helped with your current work or projects? Were there any modules or specialization that were especially helpful?

ML: I work in Committees and we recently launched our hybrid virtual public hearings. Previously we had meetings face-to-face which was easier and more convenient. Given the pandemic, we had to use MS Teams and needed to undergo training for our chairs and members, how to behave and present themselves virtually. When we did the Committees training in Vanuatu, we were taught about how to write scripts for the Chairperson. We learned about what was needed off the chair, the basic outline and necessary set up for the Clerk to run committees and the Parliament sittings online.

CM: After the McGill course I transitioned from a Clerk Assistant role where I was facing the chamber and running the chamber to the Deputy Clerk role which also has a strong leadership and corporate component. It really was very timely for me. It gave me the confidence to approach that role and the time and space to think about those bigger aspects of the role beyond the day-to-day business of running the chamber. The other stand out part of the course for me was on financial business and budgets in parliament. That really showed me where we might be lacking in our Assembly. We have been in a majority parliament for a while but appear to be inching toward a minority position, so I’ll be dusting off those materials as I think of how to approach that role and what members might be asking, members in particular.

CA: When I did the course, it was only elected officials. We did a module that was an introduction to parliamentary governance, contemporary issues in parliamentary governance, advanced parliamentary governance, and parliamentary communications.

I think I found the information on international standards most valuable. Because of my role on the Committee, I was focussed on the CPA benchmarks for a good legislature. We did a unit of work on it and that was valuable for me because I was able to bring forward proposals that we had already been working on with more evidence and more knowledge to support what we were doing – for example, changing constituency boundaries. It had been over 100 debates and over 70 years since we had any meaningful electoral reforms in Jersey. I think that unit was very helpful, but the whole program was valuable.

And especially as others have mentioned, having the opportunity to talk with other people in similar positions was immensely helpful. Talking to others as you were doing the modules and sharing best practices is what makes this course really unique. I think it’s a shame that it’s only open to people who are elected within a two-year bracket. I can understand why, because there are modules that almost become too easy for people after a while. But I think it’s still useful to brush up and have a reminder of these things.

AQ: I echo the point about how valuable the exchanges were with the other people taking the parliamentary management course. That was a highlight for me. I saw and participated in talks on the side of the program with people who were new staff in parliaments or staff within jurisdictions that were trying to introduce new programs or strengthen their governance. There were a number of us who had experience or established processes already in our parliaments and could share resources. We were able to say, ‘We did this a couple of years ago, and here’s what we learned.’ Everything from strategic planning to procedure could be discussed. There are formal channels for this communication between parliaments and they are effective. But the informal channels are so helpful as well. I still keep in touch with some of the colleagues in my cohort if I have a question.

BPB: As I said earlier, the entire course was very relevant to me and my current work. The course on corporate governance 1 and 2 have really helped me even in conceptualizing and adding value to one of our mandatory courses that we call the Legislative Corporate governance course, which is now the highest level course for the top management in the parliamentary service commission. Other modules are now coming in handy as we work on induction for the new senators after our general elections. The one on ICT is critical in helping us come up with an information hub for senators.

CM-T: I think for me it was trying to bring things into proper perspective. As a Clerk, I serve many roles as Secretary for Parliament and I am responsible for the Minutes of each meeting and for other Select Committees. I find that I need to strike a clear balance on every aspect of my job from Select Committees, to management so that I don’t find it overwhelming and lose my sense of direction. The course overall helped steer me in the right direction to keep the “stuff from the fluff”. This is important as too much time can be spent on the mundane and trivialities and we miss the important things that matter.

CPR: Is there anything that could be changed or improved?

CM: I was part of the first cohort that did it online. There were huge benefits to that in the sense that we had to deal with COVID-19. But it also meant that what we missed was some of the interaction that takes place in person. The parliamentary administration portion of the course was very well set up with tutorials and group work. There were aspects of that in the other sections as well. I think if it remains online only it would be worthwhile to look at how they could strengthen that component – which was very good – even more.

ML: We were participating both in person and online. Some of the jurisdictions in the Pacific had issues with connectivity and could only join towards the end. I felt bad for them because we had started the course together. Because of the connectivity issues they lost out on the ability to do the module fully. This is one of the drawbacks of holding virtual meetings in the Pacific Islands. The Internet connectivity and IT support is not really there yet. When we had the first in-person session there was a lot of discussion and group work between jurisdictions. That gave us a great idea of where there were gaps in our parliaments and how they could be addressed appropriately.

CM: I think the one other thing that might be looked at is the diversity and gender balance of the presenters. All the presenters were wonderful, and I certainly don’t want to take away from any of the work they did, but pulling in other presenters to compliment them would be a good idea. (Ed. note: The Program has added four new faculty, three women and one man, of which three are BIPOC).

BPB: As a curriculum developer, I must laud the McGill faculty for putting in place a rich feedback mechanism on the programme. We gave a lot of information on programme improvement and I am glad to report that having read the report on the programme, a lot of changes have been already made. Maybe in future, McGill can consider using some of the earlier participants as presenters on the impact of the programme in their work and how they have changed their institutions in a session called’ ‘Alumni telling their change story” as a way of motivating the other participants.

CM-T: Perhaps identifying an in-country mentor for support. I found the course very engaging and the lecturers very understanding but since it was during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, it was a big challenge trying to fit in everything from work, home and this raging pandemic causing global catastrophe.

CPR: If you had a colleague interested in this program, what would you tell them?

CM: I would tell them absolutely put your hand up to do it if the opportunity arises, but be prepared to make the time commitment. I think everyone working in the parliamentary environment has an obligation to further our professional development and participate in continuous learning. But it is a lot of work and you have to make the time to do it well.

ML: I would highly recommend it. I agree with Carly that you have to manage your time well, but it’s a great opportunity to connect with so many different people and exchange contact information. It really gives you an opportunity to relate to one another about the work we do on a daily basis.

CA: I would definitely encourage colleagues to take it and would encourage them to buddy up with someone else taking the course. That really helps. As a parliamentarian, you are so busy with constituent work, with legislation and things like that. You often lose sight of deadlines. So, that’s a practical tip! (Laughs)

Advice wise, I would just tell colleagues to be open to having discussions about how things could be changed or improved in your parliament. Also, if you don’t know something, just ask. Sometimes people would be talking about something in another jurisdiction and there would be assumed prior knowledge. If you aren’t sure what they are talking about, odds are someone else is unfamiliar too. So just say, ‘I’m sorry, but what does that mean? What is the set-up where you are?’ Because as much as we’re similar in Westminster-style parliaments, we’re also very different. No question is a stupid question.

AQ: It’s a worthwhile investment to take this course. There’s a good breadth of subject matter with fantastic case studies and opportunities to exchange with colleagues around the world. It provides such a wonderful opportunity for growth and understanding.

CA: I think you’re right, it’s that sharing of best practices and seeing what works and what doesn’t. We’re a small jurisdiction here – 49 members with a population of about 120,000. When you hear about things in other jurisdiction you might think, ‘that sounds like a good idea.’ But you have to factor in size and other things. But nonetheless, there are many things I’ve taken back to parliament and the Greffier’s office and said, ‘you know, we should really look at implementing this because it’s working well in this place, and they’re about the same size for us.

BPB: For me, it has always been the business of bringing this to the attention of all parliamentary officers in the East African region and encouraging them to take the programme since I know its great value. In fact, in our MOU with McGill we have been granted six slots every year so that we have the entire top management trained in this course. I make sure to tell them the programme is rigorous and requires total commitment, discipline and focus.

CM-T: I would absolutely tell my colleagues and staff to take up this course. In fact, right now we have two applications awaiting outcome from CPA London. It would certainly add value to their work and a good reminder of what they may have already known but receiving a formal qualification is icing on the cake.

CPR: Last question, is there anything that we haven’t covered yet that you’d like to add?

CA: I would love for there to be a sort of ‘next level’ for this type of program. Also, I’d like to say how humbled I was to be asked back as a past participant to speak with a new, incoming group about my experiences and what we had accomplished when I went back to my jurisdiction and was able to share what I had learned.

AQ: We work on these certificates and programs and it’s a big accomplishment. It’s a lot of work and we all have busy lives and other responsibilities. When you invest in something like this, once it’s finished there is desire to keep going in some way. There’s been an effort by Rick Stapenhurst, the director, to keep past participants informed and engaged about things and I really appreciate that and would encourage it to continue.

CA: We’ve got a WhatsApp group that was started in 2019 and it’s still going strong. Some members have ended up losing their seats since that time, but it’s nice to have that group chat in the background to hear about what people are going through. You often see a random message come through that says ‘I’m working on this, what do you guys think?’ And it’s really nice to have that!

With the pandemic and lack of travel, those informal channels and relationships are really important to have now. To go back to what Carly said, you can have 100 people sitting in on a Teams Meeting or Zoom call and doing the same work, but there’s an element lost when you don’t have the same ability to mill about and talk outside of the lesson and group work. I would hope they will be a way to get back to that.

BPB: Just as my colleagues have said, I propose McGill to consider designing an upper level course to this one. Probably in the form of Legislative project, that will entail research projects. Equally, the idea of using alumni to share success stories from their parliaments as a result of this great programme would be wonderful.

CM-T: The opportunity to engage in this course is a blessing. I also concur with what some of the colleagues have said about an Alumni as a platform for continuity and perhaps a Community of Practice (COP). Balancing your time with work commitments and family whilst engaged in a time sensitive time demanding course calls for a follow up at some point in time to see what other progress has the course provided for past participants. Perhaps some may have moved on to higher ranks or even the course have helped them win seats in their respective jurisdictions. Niue is having General Elections in 2023… now there is food for thought.