The life of SPICe

Reading Time: 6 minutes

As part of the programme to mark 20 years since the creation of the Scottish Parliament, SPICe will publish twenty “20 year” blog posts on SPICe Spotlight over the course of 2019.  Our earlier post sets out more information on the programme and the series of blogs. This blog takes a slightly different approach and examines the history of SPICe itself.

The origins of SPICe

The Scottish Parliament Information Centre (SPICe) was established on 12 October 1998, seven months before the first Scottish Parliament elections in May 1999. Saturday 12 October 2019, therefore, marks SPICe’s  21st anniversary.  On this date in 1998, Janet Seaton arrived from the House of Commons Library to begin an 18 months secondment charged with responsibility for implementing the vision of the Consultative Steering Group (CSG) for an impartial research and information service for the new Scottish Parliament.

Blog - Featured Image (25)

The report of the CSG, published in December 1998, set out the key principles and working methods for the Scottish Parliament, along with recommendations on the rules of procedure it might follow. The CSG also provided a set of Standing Orders as a starting point to guide the operation of the fledgling Parliament.

The CSG specifically recognised that Members of the Scottish Parliament would need access to impartial information to do their jobs properly.

In outlining a draft information strategy for the Parliament, the CSG report asserted:

“Only well informed MSPs can contribute fully to the governance of Scotland. An information strategy, and a well-resourced information service, are vital to the achievement of an ongoing dialogue between Parliament and the People.”

CSG ambitions for SPICe 

The CSG set out the following goals for what it called the Scottish Parliament Information Service:

  • to ensure that all MSPs and staff of the Parliament have easy access to the information they need for the effective performance of their duties
  • to give effective support to MSPs and staff of the Parliament in their external information activities concerning the work of the Parliament
  • to respond courteously, promptly and accurately to all requests for information.

Armed with the CSG guidance and her own extensive experience as a Senior Library Clerk at the House of Commons Library, Janet set about the task with unbridled enthusiasm.

SPICe Girls and boys

One of her first decisions was to give the service a name with a memorable acronym.  Rather than the Scottish Parliament Information Service as suggested in the CSG Report, Janet chose the Scottish Parliament Information Centre.  The SPICe acronym was similar to the name of another popular cultural icon of the 1990s – the SPICe Girls, leading to inevitable references to SPICe staff as the SPICe girls and boys.

By December 1998, SPICe comprised four seconded staff operating with other recently appointed parliament staff from the Scottish Executive’s offices at Saughton House in Edinburgh.  When the new Parliament met for the first time on 6 May 1999, the complement of SPICe had risen to 30 with two thirds of these staff working in the Information Services team and the remainder in the Research Services team.

The shape of SPICe

One of Janet’s key early decisions was that, while SPICe would play a similar role to that of the House of Commons Library at Westminster, it would not replicate that service either in structure or in the exact nature of the services provided. Rather than focussing mainly on individual Members like the House of Commons Library, SPICe would serve three main customer groups: MSPs as individuals; all parliamentary committees and the staff of the Parliament itself. In addition, SPICe would provide indirect research and information support to the public and media through, respectively, the Parliament’s Public Information Service and Media Relations Office.

Other key operational decisions were that:

  • SPICe would be divided broadly into two service teams – an Information Services (Library) Team and a Research Team. The teams would work closely together on the principles of creative tension and parity of respect.
  • SPICe researchers would require knowledge and experience of specific devolved policy areas in addition to academic qualifications and research experience. In Janet’s view, employing researchers with extensive experience of policy and the policy process was absolutely essential to offset the Scottish Executive’s substantial policy experience and numerical advantage.
  • The first priority of research teams would be to support the Parliament’s committees. However, research teams would not be aligned to committee remits which could change. This arrangement would allow researchers to support any committee which required their policy expertise and not just the committees directly relevant to their subject area. Crucially, this would give researchers the flexibility to support individual Members and the wider Parliament.
  • The Information Services team would not be subject specialists but would be based around functions or services. Where possible, reference material would be electronic and available online to all Members and staff.

These decisions created a solid foundation for SPICe and continue to influence the services provided by SPICe today.

The SPICe Information Services team

In addition to the Parliament’s confidential internal enquiry service and traditional library functions, such as procuring, cataloguing and indexing our collection of books, journals and documents, the 20 strong Information Service had responsibility for much of the content of the Parliament’s intranet and external website, records management, FOI and data protection as well as a wide range of electronic services.

Over the years, some of these functions migrated to other offices within the Parliament leaving SPICe with the core tasks of:

  • Providing an impartial research and enquiry service.
  • Maintaining the Parliament’s electronic and hard copy library collections.
  • Collecting, maintaining and publishing Parliamentary statistics.

The SPICe Research Team 

In May 1999, the research team comprised 7 permanent researchers and two secondees from the House of Commons Library. However, demand for research quickly exceeded the capacity of the small research team and, as a result, additional researchers were recruited, bringing research staff numbers to 19 by the end of 2000 and overall SPICe numbers to 41.  Over the years, SPICe numbers and the balance of research and library staff have changed to reflect changing circumstances. Today, SPICe has a complement of 50 staff (45 FTE) made up of 32 researchers, 15 information specialists, 2 data visualisation staff and an Office Manager.

Some SPICe statistics

201910_SPICe_20th_Blog_SPICe_Products

The first SPICe briefing, published on 6 May 1999, reported the results of the first elections to the Scottish Parliament.  While the first official enquiry to SPICe was on fuel duty on remote Scottish islands from Fergus Ewing MSP.

Since then, SPICe has published over 2,500 briefings on subjects ranging from Agriculture to Zooplankton together with nearly 1,000 briefings on public petitions and countless policy and advice papers for parliamentary committees.  In addition, SPICe has answered well in excess of 50,000 enquiries since 1999, published annual statistics volumes each year covering all aspects of parliamentary business, and maintained two up to the minute series of fact sheets on MSPs and parliamentary business. Over the last two years, SPICe has produced around 250 blog posts on a wide range of subjects of interest to the Parliament.

SPICe and the Scottish Media

In the first parliamentary session (1999-2003) it was relatively unusual for SPICe to be quoted in the Parliament’s Chamber or cited in the media. However, that has progressively changed as trust in SPICe has grown to the point where SPICe has become a respected source of information and is regularly quoted in the Scottish and UK media.

Digital SPICe

Since the beginning, SPICe has maintained a ‘digital first’ approach to information provision, storage and distribution. In the early days, however, digital ambitions were limited by the technology available as well as by Members’ preference for hard copy documents. Over the last 5 or 6 years, however, the Parliament has progressively moved towards a ‘digital by default’ strategy which has helped us to a position where most of the information we generate is designed to be consumed digitally, enabling it to be managed more effectively, reducing duplication and increasing accessibility.   This has resulted in significant cost savings on printing and publishing and has further reduced our reliance on external providers and the need to hold hard copy material.

SPICe and social media 

SPICe has always been open to developments in communications technology including adopting new ways of writing and publishing briefings using an online authoring tool, making greater use of data visualisations and employing social media platforms such as blogs, podcasts and Twitter. 

What next for SPICe? 

If the last 21 years have been a time of excitement, challenge and change for SPICe and the Parliament, the next 21 years are very likely to be every bit as exciting and no less challenging.

But one thing will not change – our ambition and goal to continue producing impartial, relevant, accurate and timely information to support the work of Members of the Parliament and parliamentary committees.

Denis Oag

Head of Research and Library

12 October 2019