Building Capabilities for the Future – Keeping Up with Change

Article 9 / 11 , Vol 45 No. 1 (Spring)

Building Capabilities for the Future – Keeping Up with Change

Ismail Albaidhani, PhD, is a Senior Advisor to the Clerk of the House of Commons and Guillaume LaPerrière-Marcoux is Chief of Staff in the Office of the Clerk of the House of Commons.

Through a mixture of qualitative and quantitative research methods, this article presents the new way the House of Commons Administration in Canada is supporting MPs’ professional development and continuous learning. This new approach builds on the evolving practices used to onboard MPs here as well as in comparable parliamentary systems elsewhere, and is informed by notable research that has been done in this field. The Members of Parliament Capability Development Framework (MP-CDF) is designed to offer an agile and adaptable approach to support MPs’ continuing development as individuals and as organizations to meet their evolving objectives as legislators, employers, and representatives of their constituents.

Reaching a tipping point in development1

Parliaments in contemporary democracies are approaching a tipping point in supporting the development needs of their members. The House of Commons Administration in Canada offers continuing professional development to its MPs, starting with onboarding activities immediately following election to introduce them to their new roles and ending with offboarding services to help them transition into a post-parliamentary career.

The role of MPs is changing both in the short-term, accelerated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and the long term, driven by increasing socioeconomic transformation and its impact on the work environment.

The House of Commons Administration in Canada (House Administration) is constantly striving to support the needs of MPs, from the moment they start their parliamentary journey to the time their role as parliamentarians end.

The onboarding of new MPs is evolving. Not long ago, newly elected MPs first received a large binder containing general information about the House of Commons. Two big events were then organized by the House Administration, where new MPs were provided with high-level information about their new role as parliamentarians. While the generic group sessions were helpful, they did not respond to the specific needs of new MPs to set up their offices, hire staff, understand their financial obligations or learn how to conduct parliamentary business in the Chamber and in committees.

In preparation for the 43rd general election, the House Administration took steps to revamp and redesign its orientation activities for Members. One key focus of this effort was to better understand MPs’ needs and respond to them in a timely manner. Some of the latest design principles and technological tools were used.

User-centricity refocused the information provided, placing MPs’ needs at the centre of the orientation activities. The just-in-time principle was applied to provide new Members with the right information at the right time without overwhelming them.

On-demand and personalized experiences were also introduced. A new knowledge and learning management system was implemented allowing MPs and their employees to access virtual learning, online information, and news from any part of the country through a dedicated portal available to them 24/7 on their cellphones, tablets, and desktop computers.

The pandemic also added a new dimension to the way MPs work and interact, giving rise to the development of virtual and hybrid channels. Onboarding activities following by-elections and the 44th general election were aligned with this new hybrid reality, giving MPs the option to take part in orientation activities and the swearing-in ceremony either in person or virtually.

Onboarding starts with key preboarding activities as early as the day after the election. New MPs first meet with specialists from the House Administration, who connect their technological devices to the parliamentary network, enrol them in the pay and benefits system, and create their identification and access cards.

They then participate in various group sessions, where they learn about their parliamentary duties, their office management responsibilities (which include hiring staff), and their financial budgets. MPs also receive information on the services offered by the House Administration to help them establish their offices.

After the first round of onboarding activities and before the new Parliament officially opens, MPs are sworn in by the Clerk of the House of Commons and attend a simulated sitting in the Chamber to help familiarize them with their legislative responsibilities, including voting and debating bills and motions.

Shortly after the opening of the Parliament, MPs are invited to a series of training sessions where they can learn about committee work and how to draft private Member’s bills, motions, and amendments.

Given their existing knowledge, re-elected MPs take part in adjusted orientation activities that include the swearing-in ceremony and the re-signing of forms. They receive a new financial budget letter as well as updated policies and procedures.

Moreover, new House Officers (party leaders, Whips, House Leaders) have access to onboarding activities specifically geared to the new role they are taking on in addition to those of regular MPs.

MPs’ newly hired employees also participate in a series of virtual onboarding activities. This includes an orientation session introducing them to the House of Commons and the services available to the MP’s office, the MP’s role and responsibilities, and how they, as employees, can support their MP.

At the end of their parliamentary career—regardless of whether or not they sought reelection—departing MPs benefit from a formal transition session to help them ease out of public life. This program provides assistance for vacating their offices and relocating their residence, as well as for managing employment contracts and closing expenses. The service includes a career transition package designed to help former MPs develop skills for the next stage in their career.

Recognizing complexity2

Members of Parliament now face an increasing level of job complexity. Their role and responsibilities are shifting in the short-term, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and in the long-term, as a result of changes driven by the evolution of today’s work environment and the growing influence of technology and social media.

Notably, the pandemic has accelerated this shift. The House of Commons and its committees ramped up their use of teleconferencing and videoconferencing to hold virtual sittings and meetings. Electronic voting was introduced as a temporary measure in the 43rd Parliament to allow the House to take recorded divisions more efficiently during the pandemic.

The House Administration has worked to help parliamentarians become more technologically savvy and to connect and communicate virtually—using the latest secure technologies—with their constituents and team members working from home, on the Hill, and in their constituency offices.

Furthermore, COVID-19 and the emergence of stricter health and safety regulations has reduced MPs’ travel and increased their dependence on technology.

On a larger scale, the fast-changing socioeconomic development is impacting the workplace. The democratization of information is a major driver, with the heightened expectation of the public for MPs to be fully transparent in everything they do; intensified media coverage, open data, electronic petitions, and open parliament are just a few examples of this growing trend.

MPs also have responsibilities as employers, including staffing and managing their parliamentary offices in Ottawa and in their constituencies. The quest for talent has become a major priority for them. The fierce competition they face from other economic sectors requires them to brand themselves differently to appeal to the new generation of Canadian professionals across the country.

The evolving work environment and stricter health, safety, and security regulations all add an extra layer of complexity to an already extensive list of responsibilities for MPs. This has put pressure on them to broaden their knowledge and enhance their ability to manage human and financial resources in accordance with modern leadership and management best practices.

Bill C-65—which amends the Parliamentary Employment and Staff Relations Act to extend the application of the health and safety requirements of Part II of the Canada Labour Code to parliamentary employers and employees—is one example of the resulting shift. For some, managing staff is a new responsibility. MPs need to quickly learn how to fulfil this managerial role. The scope and amount of work they face as legislators and representatives of their constituents can only be tackled with the support of employees.

The growing impact of social media and the speed at which parliamentarians need to communicate today are other factors that have made MPs’ jobs more complex and demanding. Social media has opened new channels through which the public and media can interact with parliamentarians.

In this age of constant change and turbulence, MPs are always having to shift their operating model. Their offices are becoming agile operations capable of reacting and responding to quickly evolving factors such as a rapid news cycle, viral headlines, and new regulations.

MPs’ development journey, therefore, needs to evolve and extend beyond the onboarding program. They must keep abreast of the various socioeconomic driving forces and the rapidly moving landscape, which has only accelerated as a result of the pandemic. The House Administration’s goal should be more ambitious and not only help MPs manage predictable factors (e.g., evolving regulations on health, safety, and security; advanced new technologies for communicating and collaborating), but also prepare them to face unpredictable elements (e.g., pandemic, crisis) with greater confidence.

New and emerging evidence coming from MPs and their teams during this pandemic reveal increased demand for and participation in continuous learning and development.

MP development journey

Recently, the House of Commons’ Board of Internal Economy approved a one-year pilot to increase the funds available to each Member as an employer for the professional development and training of their employees.

This raises the question of how parliamentary administrations can bridge the developmental gap for MPs, House Officers, and their employees, especially between the well-structured, sequential, and just-in-time onboarding programs and the outgoing transition services at the end of their parliamentary career.

Finding a way forward3

When putting in place a new way to meet the continuing development needs of Members of Parliament and their employees, it is essential to first understand the differences between what we generally refer to as a competency in the traditional development framework and the new notion of capability development.

One the one hand, competencies generally refer to the skills required to fulfill a specific role. For example, a doctor must be competent to examine patients, a pilot must be competent to fly an aircraft, and an accountant must be competent to manage expenses. On the other hand, capability refers to a person’s ability to perform a wide range of duties. For example, a CEO must be capable of running an organization but not necessarily be competent in all its activities (e.g., finance, human resources, IT); a government minister should be capable of running an administration but not necessarily be a specialist in their ministry’s field.

Competency-based roles are often long-term engagements, resulting in stable careers in established professions. To use the same example as that used earlier, a medical doctor is a doctor for life. Capability-based roles, however, are often short- to mid-term engagements. They’re frequently rotational, higher-level, cyclical, and entail multiple responsibilities—such as in the case of a CEO or a government minister.

A series of concentric circles, labelled from smallest to largest:
MP and employees
Competencies' pathway
Skills itinerary
Development solutions

From a developmental standpoint, competencies are normally used in a direct employer-employee relationship; hence, many human resources professionals refer to them for their employee development to meet the organizational expectations for the role. As for capabilities, they can be used in indirect client–service provider relationships. Member-based organizations such as the United Nations use capability development and capacity building to enhance their members’ ability to function effectively and efficiently. Universities and colleges have begun using the same framework for the professional development of graduate students, to better prepare them for various career possibilities.

Lastly, competency development often relates to a professional as an individual, while capability refers to the individual and the organization they operate within.

For the continuing development of Members of Parliament and their employees, it is reasonable that we deviate from traditional competency-development frameworks. In many cases, in the context of member-based organizations, these frameworks have failed. This failure is primarily a result of the complexity and variety of the developmental needs of the individuals and the organizations within which they operate.

Field and academic research has shown that parliamentary systems around the world are struggling when it comes to creating professional development programs for parliamentarians and their employees. At the very best, parliamentary administrations have tried to make the traditional employer-employee competency development framework fit MPs’ and their employees’ reality, though this has proven to be ineffective and largely unsuccessful.

MP-CDB simulation with skills and learning solutions. 
Concentric circles shown in Figure 2, with specific skills superimposed on the illustration. They include:
Management (self and others)
Representation (Advocacy, engagement, communication, collaboration/digital tools)
Legislation (Chamber, Committees, Debating in House, Working in Committees)

Accordingly, we designed the MP-CDF to be user-centric, simple, flexible, and adaptable. These qualities are necessary to create a successful development framework for MPs.

Parliamentary administrations should build a program around the idea of enabling MPs and their employees to effectively perform and smoothly navigate their various roles throughout their parliamentary career.

Recognizing that MPs each have their own prior professional and life experiences, we are of the opinion that the framework should not rely on a typical sequence of developmental activities as with the onboarding or offboarding journeys, but rather be more of an à la carte solution that would give them access to the development option they want when they need it.

In other words, the framework encompasses a range of competency pathways for MPs and their employees to select from, not just a single competency development track. Each competency pathway is linked to a skill itinerary that opens up a range of learning and development solutions offered in a variety of learning modes, from expert-led sessions to virtual live events and online self-learning modules.

To simulate the MP-CDF, during a parliament, Members of Parliament and their employees could proactively consult the House Administration’s dynamic framework through a self-service MP portal dedicated to their knowledge and learning, accessible at any time from wherever they are in the country, or they could contact a client service team member.

As illustrated in Figure 3, MPs could select from the capability development framework a specific competency that they wish to develop at a particular time, either for themselves or their office. For example, if a new pandemic should hit during Parliament and MPs wanted to better understand their obligations as employers, they could choose “management” from a range of competency pathways and select the appropriate skill itinerary (managing self, others, or the office). This would lead to a number of learning solutions aimed at equipping them with the skills they need under that specific theme (health and safety training, for example).

The MP-CDF is not designed as a “one size fits all” solution like the onboarding program, which presents all MPs with the same information. An MP might already know their obligations as an employer due to prior experience as an executive or a business owner. However, that MP may wish to select another competency pathway, such as legislation, to help them understand how to vote and participate remotely in Chamber and committee proceedings during the pandemic. The MP-CDF would provide the MP with the learning solutions available to equip them and their offices with the skills and tools they need to perform their parliamentary functions.


Using the dynamic MP-CDF during the COVID-19 pandemic yielded promising results. The House Administration successfully delivered more learning solutions (courses and training sessions) since the start of the pandemic to help MPs and their employees keep up with the various challenges they faced during the crisis.

Virtual learning sessions were organized early on in the pandemic to help MPs understand the nature of the COVID-19 crisis and how best to respond to the situation as employers. This was followed by several sessions on health and safety regulations, mental health best practices for MPs and their staff, and digital collaboration tools to help teams collaborate and communicate in the new virtual environment. Training sessions on finances and expenses were also offered to MPs to help them manage their operating budgets during the pandemic.

In order to support MPs’ evolving legislative duties, several training and orientation activities were launched to introduce them to new videoconferencing tools (e.g., Zoom) for taking part in virtual Chamber proceedings, as well as to the new electronic voting application developed by the House Administration to enable effective and efficient recorded divisions conducted in the hybrid setting.

The feedback received from MPs and their employees on the training sessions delivered was very positive, with satisfaction ratings ranging between four (meeting all MPs’ needs) and five (exceeding MPs’ expectations) out of five on the evaluation scale.

To help MPs be better prepared in increasingly uncertain and complex times, it could be useful to combine well-structured, sequential, and standard MP onboarding and offboarding journeys at the start and end of a parliamentary cycle with an agile, flexible, and adaptable capability development framework for Members of Parliament and their employees throughout a Parliament. It would help build their individual and organizational resilience and make them more effective in their parliamentary functions by responding proactively to their needs and constituents’ expectations.

As part of its continuous improvement culture, the House Administration constantly assesses the impact of its MP-CDF integrated solution (onboarding, capability development, and transition services).

To do that, the House Administration uses two well-established theories: the theory of change, which creates a logical framework to link a cause with an effect, and the success criteria used to review the short-term output, mid-term outcome, and long-term impact.

MP- CDF Integrated solution

The evaluation technique used builds on both the Kirkpatrick model, to monitor MPs’ and their employees’ reactions by measuring their immediate level of satisfaction with the solutions offered by the MP-CDF (collected instantly), and the OECD-DAC model, to look for mid- and long-term indicators, such as:

  • relevance to the MPs’ daily work (i.e., did they receive what they wanted when they needed it?);
  • effectiveness (were MPs able to operate their offices and manage their teams in support of their parliamentary functions?);
  • efficiency of the mode of delivery (how did MPs obtain and retain knowledge using virtual vs. self-paced learning or in-person experiences?);
  • impact (did the MP-CDF interventions help MPs work with constituents?); and
  • sustainability (did the integrated development work—onboarding, MP-CDF, transition—help MPs at the end of their parliamentary life and their successors to ensure continued constituent support?).

The MP-CDF evaluation can be the subject of further research following the full implementation and integration of its activities.

In conclusion, if appropriately implemented, the MP-CDF would enable parliamentary administrations to establish a “learning organization” mindset. Learning becomes a lifelong journey for MPs through early and timely onboarding when they come into office, agile and adaptable capability development throughout the life cycle of a Parliament, and effective and smooth transition support at the end of their parliamentary career to help them acquire skills for the future.


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