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We seem to get Wordpress core updates/plugin updates/theme updates thick and fast and usually every day.

When managing a third party Wordpress, what is the best procedure to stay secure and have a fully working site, whilst ensuring a client is constantly updated?

Do I run a parallel dev site and try the updates first or is there a plugin that will do backups before any upgrades automatically?

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This is the reason I always recommend to use the least amount of plugins. This obviously easier to say then do, but if you are a developer you should strive to eliminate all plugins by incorporating the relevant code into a site specific plugin or theme. Integrators obviously have less ability to achieve this.

The problem with the upgrades is not so much with having the dev/staging enviroment. You can probably just keep it, or have some tool that syncs the production into them, the real problem is to have a proper QA plan to verify that nothing broke. QA is a time consuming affair and even if you know how to write unit tests, some things just need a human to use a browser to test them.

The easiest solution to the problem is not to upgrade when new versions come out, but do it only when you upgrade core to bundle all testing together. For this to work without putting yourself in a security risk you need to follow the development of the themes/plugins that are being used to know when an update is done because of security issue or because there is some new feature. If it is a new feature, there is no real need to rush upgrading it.

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WP Codex is your friend on this one as the only real answer is to do your back ups the way that you feel most confident with, be that manually or with plugins, if you have multiple sites then manually backing up/creating theme copies/plugin copies etc could become a labor intensive chore.

The codex page i have linked to also contains a link in the opening lines to plugins that do the task should that be the path you require to take, most of them do what you require in one way or another, but one in particular has 600,000 plus installs and user ratings most plugin devs would be envious of, the devs also claim it will back up automatically before any update to WP, Plugins or Themes.

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