MSPs warm to free research

July 25, 2003

The future workings of Scotland's new multi-party parliament may be uncertain, but one custom is continuing - the political intern scheme run by Edinburgh University.

Eberhard "Paddy" Bort of Edinburgh University's Institute of Governance admitted that four years ago there were initial difficulties in suggesting that Scotland's fledgling parliament should support an intern scheme for American students. "The only thing (many MSPs) knew was the name of Monica Lewinsky and people were saying: 'We don't want that in the Scottish Parliament'."

But once Scottish Calvinism was reassured, an appeal to Scottish thrift proved attractive. The university explained that the intern would be, in effect, a free researcher. If the MSPs involved the students, giving them an insight into the way the parliament worked, they would end up with a research report on a relevant topic. This was seen as a plus for a new parliament that lacked research experience.

In the parliament's first term, more than 90 students took part, and more than 20 interns are expected when the new session begins in September.

The 15-week programme, costing £3,800, is the equivalent of a year-abroad scheme. While it has included Canadian, Australian and German students, the majority are Americans. Most have already had intern experience in the US. "Internships are a very American thing. They do it like Scottish students work in a bar," Mr Bort said.

But while some schemes are notorious for simply using students as low-level clerical workers, Edinburgh is determined to make its programme valuable for politicians and students. The programme begins with a five-week taught course on British and Scottish politics.

Wendy Alexander, former minister for enterprise, transport and lifelong learning, said the introductory course saved MSPs having to explain the nature of the parliament. And she would like to see the university and parliament have a common induction programme, familiarising interns with practicalities as well as theory, such as how to access the parliament's in-house research centre. MSPs were paid considerably less for office expenses than their Westminster counterparts, she said, and the interns offered welcome help.

Known for demanding high standards, Ms Alexander praised the "outstanding" contribution of her last intern, Stephanie Rockey, a politics student from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

Ms Rockey was equally enthusiastic. "Working with her puts your faith back in politics. She truly cares about her constituents and the people who work for her. She's the epitome of a leader and team player at the same time," she said.

Ms Rockey's research project was on the impact of the Scot-tish Executive's policies on Ms Alexander's Paisley constituency, but her work extended beyond this.

Mr Bort matches interns with politicians personally and has removed some politicians from his list "because you know they don't have the personal management skills to make it halfway palatable".

But he expects the interns to be an asset, willing to work and showing initiative. Most have to ensure that they are not too overburdened to complete their research projects. These have covered every policy area from tourism and transport to health and the environment.

Tavish Scott, Liberal Democrat MSP for Shetland, said: "The intern scheme not only provides more hands on deck in the parliamentary offices of MSPs, but brings some new and imaginative thinking to the policy dilemmas that confront elected representatives. It's extremely helpful to have some new, bright ideas in the office."

Devin Zatorski, a student journalist at Middlebury College, Vermont, had a previous internship with ABC news, reporting on government. "I wondered how anything could possibly live up to that and this has just done it."

Mr Zatorski worked for Green MSP and former Edinburgh rector Robin Harper researching energy efficiency legislation. Mr Harper now has interns'

reports on housing insulation, aquaculture, salmon farming and European organic standards, which are not only lodged in the parliament's research centre, but also go to MSPs and ministers.

"The parliament is doing an impressive job of defining itself and being transparent in its process. As a result, it is closer to the people," Mr Zatorski said.

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