Parliamentary Assistants and the Quest for Trust: What to expect and how to become one

Parliament is a unique workplace, and each parliamentarian will organise their part of this workplace differently. Although those workplaces within the parliamentary setting differ wildly, they do have something in common: the importance of trust. Trust is not just shaping how a parliamentary assistant works, but it also determines whether they will be able to get and keep the job. 

Parliamentary Assistants and the Importance of Trust

There has been some research done on parliamentary assistants and aides of politicians. However, those studies often focus on “high-profile” politicians or elections. The following is based on the findings of my research project focused on communication-related day-to-day activities of parliamentary assistants (PAs) covering backbenchers and frontbenchers of all parties. The study was interview-based, and around fifty interviewees agreed to participate, among them former and current parliamentarians and their assistants. 

Throughout those interviews, the importance of trust became quickly apparent. While interviewees usually don’t explicitly refer to the concept of trust or explain its meaning, in their descriptions of work-related situations in which trust matters, it becomes clear what “trust” means to them. It is not only about being able to fulfil the outlined tasks in the job description, which is, by the way, more often than not vague and undefined. There are also implicit expectations about the willingness “to go the extra mile” outside the working hours and the explicit ask not to undermine the parliamentarian’s re-election prospects. 

Parliamentary Assistants: The Role

The role of a parliamentary assistant is difficult to specify, and what it entails is primarily up to the individual parliamentarian. However, while specialised PAs exist, they are “jacks-of-all-trades” with a wide range of duties involving research, communication, or even casework. While it is helpful in an application to show experiences in those areas, they are not a “must-have”. First, necessary skills are often acquired “on the job”. Second, flexibility, enthusiasm and willingness to put in an extra effort are often more important. 

Fulfilling this role of a PA often means acting on behalf of the parliamentarian: the tasks must be completed aligned with their values and ways of dealing with the issues at hand. This can come down to anticipating a preferred wording of a press statement or a post on Facebook. Having the ability to resonate with the expectation of the MP or MSP saves not just time and workload for both but also decreases the potential for a frustrating working experience. 

Are you prepared to go the extra mile?

Another aspect which interested PA candidates need to be aware of is the workload and the usually somewhat limited pay. While interviewees highlighted that the parliament as a working environment is a perk in its own right, the long working hours limit the available free time outside the workplace. Therefore, the relatively high staff turnover among parliamentary assistants should not be surprising. Many interviewees confirmed this, either by directly addressing it or, indirectly, by outlining their plans for the future outside the parliament.  

During my research, it has become increasingly clear that distinguishing between political activism from formally assigned duties is very difficult. There is often an implicit expectation toward parliamentary assistants to participate in campaigning activities. While parliamentarians do not always ask for this and, for legal reasons, this is not part of the formal working agreement, the tendency among my interviewees has been that canvassing or visits to the local party branch in their free time is not unusual. Successful PAs need to tolerate the blurry line between work life and “voluntary” political activism. Ultimately, the trust of the parliamentarian in this tolerance by the parliamentary assistant is critical. Can the PA be trusted to put their energy into supporting the re-election efforts of the parliamentarian, even though those campaigning activities are legally not part of their job? 

It also needs to be said that the re-election is not just about making sure that the MP or MSP keeps their seat. If the MP or MSP loses their mandate, the parliamentary assistant also loses their job. Obviously, if the unsuccessful parliamentarian is from one of the bigger parties (SNP, Labour or Conservatives), there is a chance to get hired by another parliamentarian from the same party. However, there is no guarantee. 

How to become a Parliamentary Assistant?

Ultimately there is no guaranteed, single way to become a Parliamentary Assistant. Each parliamentarian is, within legal boundaries, free to organise the hiring process as they see fit. However, there are characteristics that most of those recruitments have in common. Successful applicants usually provide the following 

  1. Substantial working experience or completed their undergraduate degree, and either of those should broadly address the duties outlined in the job description.  
  2. Track record of campaigning activities and party political engagement. Some also consider non-affiliated applicants on their shortlist, but alignment to fundamental values and beliefs of the parliamentarian and their party is necessary. 
  3. It is beneficial that the parliamentarian knows the candidate and their work. To be recognised by the parliamentarian can be achieved by helping out in campaigning activities involving the MP/MSP. An internship with the parliamentarian can also provide an opportunity to become a parliamentary assistant.  

All those points combined – activism, close contact, supportive academic and professional background – provide the most potent argument for being a successful candidate. 

 

Sebastian Ludwicki-Ziegler, PhD researcher at the University of Stirling. His research project is on parliamentary assistants’ role in political communication of Scottish MPs and MSPs.