Power And Influence Of Parliamentary Clerks

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In 2017 and 2018 I had the honour to work as an EU Advisor in the Dutch House of Representatives. It was a great privilege and it thought me a lot. One of the most intriguing things I witnessed up close was the role of parliamentary clerks. These busy bees of parliaments of the world make sure democracy functions orderly. Without them, we would all be lost. At the same time, they really don’t like to have the spotlight turned on them. 

Clerks / Admins / Griffiers

All parliaments in the world have clerks. They are however called different things in different parts of the world. Clerks in Westminster, Admins in Brussels and Griffiers in the Netherlands. The highest in rank has also often a special designation like Principal Clerk or in the Netherlands; Griffier with a capital G. Not to be confused with Warren-G. 

Democracy as the rhythm of a song 

The main task of parliamentary clerks is to organize the inner workings of parliament. The moment a letter from a citizen or a bill of a minister comes in, this triggers machinery. When should the bill be tabled, and by what committee? But clerks do not help organize reactions to letters or bills. If an MP or an MEP wants to table a bill or voice his opinion the clerk helps him/her with finding the right moment and the right tool to voice his political opinion. This might be in the form of written questions, oral questions or an own initiative rapport. What is crucial here is that the world of the parliamentary clerk consists of parliamentary procedures. Asking the clerk to go outside of or beyond the parliamentary procedures is like asking a fundamentalist to give up his religion. Most parliamentary procedures can be found online and for free. Like here are the ones for Brussels, and these are the ones for the Hague. A great resource for Westminster is W4MP. It’s a free superpower. I have witnessed firsthand that clerks treat their work with much greater passion than just trying to uphold procedures. What they are in fact trying to accomplish is to create an orderly and interrupted symfony of democracy. It should be predictable, simple and beautiful. Anything that interrupts this symfony is a risk. They can get really pissed with any request that interrupts this rhythm. Like requests after deadlines. 

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Very vulnerable position 

For parliamentary clerks being called out to meddle in politics is second to being called out for bribery. It is a mortal sin. This makes their position very vulnerable because they are both witnesses as well as actors in heated political debates. Their work and contributions matter and do shape political outcomes. They can help speed up or slow down the tempo of debate. They can help decide by whom political debates are discussed and when. With the emphasis on “help” because they will always point out that they are merely at the service of the politically elected representatives. The only way the clerk is able to defend himself from any accusation or attack is by doing his job near to perfection. It is also not strange that most clerks are very punctual and very blue. Having said this, there have been cases in history where clerks have outright acted politically. In the Netherlands, the Machiavellian Musch was notorious for his power grabs. The Financial Times has called the European Parliament’s Klaus Welle; The Prince of Darkness.

Yes – you can work with parliamentary clerks

Are clerks then anonymous elves that can only be approached if you are an elected politician? No. I have worked with many clerks, and many are open to the idea of cooperation as long as it benefits their MP’s or democracy at large. So if you can offer them insights, or better yet, help them keep their parliamentary rhythm orderly, many are open to meeting. It also helps if you already have a track record working with the committee or individual MEP’s. And again, it helps if you understand their worries. You will also get kudos for having read the parliamentary procedures. Even if you can’t work with them directly you can work with them by proxy by having MP’s or parliamentary assistants asking asks or proposals. They are not naive though. I once got a call from a parliamentary clerk asking me to spell-check the parliamentary questions that MP’s tabled for me, as she was going weary having to do this for me.