Parliamentary casework

This research was conducted by Chris Gill as part of a Scottish Parliament Academic Fellowship. It investigated the casework conducted by Members of the Scottish Parliament and their caseworkers.

The research involved interviewing MSPs and their caseworkers to collect both quantitative and qualitative information about their casework.

A sample of 10% of MSP offices (13 out of 129) took part in the research. This included a mix of:

  • different geographical locations;
  • urban and rural constituencies and regions;
  • list and constituency MSPs;
  • political parties.

The nature of casework

The research found that casework has developed into a sizeable publicly-funded advice service, with MSPs receiving an average of 880 cases a year. Cases ranged from minor (“poo and potholes”) to very serious, with the top three subjects of complaint being health, housing, and transport.

Eighty per cent of cases were about a public body, 13% about a private company, and 7% about civil disputes.

Constituents used the casework service for various reasons, including:

  • as a last resort;
  • because MSPs were more visible and accessible than other services;
  • because MSPs were perceived as independent and informal; and
  • because of a belief that MSPs could use their influence to resolve cases.

How MSPs perceive the casework role

MSPs thought that casework was crucial to the work of the Scottish Parliament. What MSPs did with cases depended on the circumstances of the case. Some MSPs took a cautious approach, largely relaying the views of constituents to other organisations, while other MSPs were more likely to advocate for their constituents.

There were a number of perceived limitations on MSPs’ ability to conduct casework, including resource pressures, lack of expertise, a lack of formal power, legislative limitations, and the unrealistic expectations of constituents.

Cases were sometimes referred between list and constituency MSPs and more often between MSPs and MPs. However, rules around referral were unclear and not always adhered to.

Casework outcomes

The outcome for constituents was usually that their situations improved as a result of contact with an MSP. Numerous examples of successful case resolutions were reported.

The average time to close a case was 6 weeks. Most cases (56%) were closed after a single intervention by the MSP, with 33% closed after 2-3 interventions, and 13% requiring 4 or more interventions.

Even where a positive outcome was not possible, MSPs provided value by making people feel heard. In addition, casework had broader benefits, such as:

  • allowing MSPs to represent local issues more effectively,
  • highlighting failures in policy implementation,
  • helping shape policy positions,
  • pressuring public bodies to deal with systemic issues, and
  • enhancing legislative scrutiny.

At the same time, there was a perception that not all MSPs had the same level of engagement with casework, and that the service could be variable.

The caseworker role

Being a caseworker is a challenging, multi-faceted, and skilful role. The skills required include empathy, understanding, patience, tenacity, interpersonal skills, good organisation, good research skills, and political awareness.

Some caseworkers felt isolated in their work and that there was insufficient support and training available for them. An average of 1.4 (full time equivalent) members of staff were employed to deal with casework in each MSP office.

Perceptions of the Scottish Parliament Information Centre (SPICe) and the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO)

Both SPICe and the SPSO provide services that MSPs can use to support constituency casework. The research asked about experiences of using these services.

There was a unanimous view that SPICe provided outstanding support to MSPs. However, some respondents were keen for SPICe to provide more directive advice, while others suggested there was a need for greater clarity on the extent to which SPICe was a resource that could be used to support casework.

Views on the SPSO were mixed. MSPs preferred to deal with cases directly and suggested that a referral to the SPSO would be rare. Some felt that the SPSO could be helpful, but others believed its restricted jurisdiction and long timescales did not meet the needs and expectations of constituents.

Areas for development

There were several areas in which MSPs in the sample believed their service could be enhanced. The strongest theme was a view that the Scottish Parliament could take more ownership of the casework function and provide more support and training for the caseworker role. The perception was that casework was an a-political role and that the quality of the casework service ultimately reflected on all politicians and the institution of the Scottish Parliament itself.

Conclusion

The casework service delivered by MSPs amounts to a substantial, publicly-funded advice service for citizens. If the volume of cases reported here is replicated across all Members, MSPs could be expected to deal with 106,613 cases annually and to employ over 180 caseworkers. This briefing demonstrates the value of this hidden work, but also suggests that we need to know more about potential variations in how it is delivered. There are also opportunities for casework to be used systematically to inform public policy.