Stronger parliaments, better democracies

Members of the European Parliament vote on tax rulings. How can parliaments’ role in oversight and accountability be strengthened? Photo by: © European Union 2015 - European Parliament

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development recognizes that sustainable development requires strong governance institutions. In Sustainable Development Goal 16, it states that the institutions of governance themselves need to be effective, accountable and transparent, and that decision-making needs to be responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative. The 2030 Agenda is a powerful call to action that will help to strengthen governance and democracy around the world.

There can be no accountability without parliaments. It is an inescapable fact that the constitution of most countries of the world give parliaments a clear mandate to hold government accountable on behalf of the people. Many constitutions give parliaments formal powers to sanction or dismiss the executive, or individual members of it. Additionally, constitutional and other legal frameworks open myriad avenues for parliamentary oversight of government activity, by questioning ministers, scrutinizing government departments, scrutinizing expenditures and challenging government to explain its actions.

This places parliaments at the apex of a complex network of institutions of accountability. Parliamentary oversight activities bring vast quantities of information into the public domain and provides benefits to the whole of society by making government more effective, accountable and transparent.

Yet, parliaments are political institutions. Their members are politicians, not experts. They think and act politically. Accordingly, all oversight and accountability activities in parliament will be influenced by political considerations. This does not devalue them. On the contrary, it places them squarely in reality — dealing with the world as it is, not an idealized expectation that accountability can be a neat and orderly process.

Parliamentary oversight is a manifestation of power; an indication of a parliament’s ability to constrain the executive by requiring it to provide timely and complete information. In practice, parliamentary oversight is often subsumed by the struggle between political parties. It is frequently observed that oversight is most actively carried out by opposition members, because they have the most to gain politically by drawing attention to the government’s failings. Where oversight is construed as a constructive activity, rather than being purely obstructive of government, it makes a greater contribution to the necessary checks and balances between parliament and the executive.

In a survey of parliamentarians by the Inter-Parliamentary Union and the United Nations Development Program for the second Global Parliamentary Report on “Parliament’s power to hold government to account,” an overwhelming majority considered that oversight is the responsibility of all parliamentarians. Even so, survey respondents from the opposition were noticeably less likely to consider that parliament has sufficient oversight powers and that government is responsive to parliamentary oversight than those from the governing party. There is more to be done to reinforce the message that all parliamentarians have an interest in ensuring that government policy delivers outcomes for their constituents, regardless of the political party to which they belong, and whether their party is in government or opposition.

The challenges to effective parliamentary oversight are therefore multiple.

First, to accompany the development of a culture of democracy and the necessary level of maturity in the political system, whereby all actors accept that government is more effective when it is held to account for its actions; and that it is right and proper for parliamentarians to question, challenge and, where necessary, sanction the government. At the same time, to change public perceptions about what parliamentarians are supposed to do, so that parliamentarians themselves are held accountable for their legislative and oversight work, and not only for their ability to deliver benefits for their constituents.

Secondly, to develop strong systems for oversight and accountability. This requires clearly established rules and procedures; access to any information parliament deems necessary, as well as the resources to analyze information independently from the government; an eco-system of oversight institutions that support parliament through their specialized work, for example in auditing government accounts, verifying that budget allocations meet the needs of women and men in a gender-sensitive way, or monitoring government’s respect for human rights; and a willingness to engage civil society in oversight through public hearings, submissions to parliamentary committees and other ways yet to be invented.

Thirdly, to increase the political will of parliamentarians to use the tools that are available to them. Free, plural media and an active civil society are vital parts of this enabling environment for parliamentary oversight. There is a complex and constantly evolving interplay between parliament, civil society and the media, whereby one or the other will push an issue into the spotlight and the others will give it a wider echo, mediating the incentive structure for parliamentarians as they do so.

I am convinced that the formal legal powers of parliament and the legitimacy conferred on its members by election, when combined with the knowhow and expertize of civil society, lead to better outcomes in term of the efficiency and effectiveness of oversight.

I do not want to pre-empt the conclusions of the second Global Parliamentary Report, which should deliver its findings and recommendations on ways to strengthen parliament’s role in oversight and accountability in late 2016. But if I were to make suggestions at this stage about how to bring about positive change, they would be:

1. To recognize that there can be no accountability without parliament, and to help to create the conditions for effective oversight by promoting a culture of democracy and supporting the development of strong systems and procedures for oversight in parliament.

2. To nurture public expectations about the role of their representative as law-maker and overseer of government action, and to help citizens to hold their representatives to account for their work in parliament.

3. To keep up the pressure on individual parliamentarians to question and challenge the government on specific issues, whether they are from the government or the opposition side. Input from civil society organizations gives parliamentarians incentives and information that help them to address issues that go beyond the immediate media spotlight. As elected representatives, parliamentarians are keen to be seen to be responsive to the needs expressed by their electorate.

4. To work with parliamentary committees, which are where the detailed inquiries into policy, administration and expenditure take place. Committees regularly hold hearings, dialogue with ministers and officials and produce reports and recommendations to which government is required to respond. They have powerful roles and responsibilities, and the influence on government of their oversight work extends far beyond a simple count of how many recommendations are formally accepted.

5. To increase the autonomy of parliamentarians and limit the control that political parties are able to exercise over their members. Further, to engage parliamentarians on issues that cut across political lines, in order to build political momentum that transcends the “rapport de force” between competing parties, as frequently seen in caucuses or women parliamentarians working for equal rights for all citizens.

Democracy Matters is a global conversation hosted by Devex, in partnership with International IDEA, to discuss accountability as a central element of deepening democracy. Visit the campaign site and join the conversation using #DemocracyMatters.

About the author

  • Oped martinchungong ed

    Martin Chungong

    Martin Chungong made double history by becoming the first-ever African and the first non-European to be elected as secretary general in the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s 126-year history. With more than three decades of experience and knowledge of parliaments at national and international level, he has dedicated his professional life to promoting and building democracy worldwide.