Practitioner Insights: parliament to government

Bridging the accountability gap


  • Eleanor Bayley Participation, Transparency, and Accountability team leader

Parliamentary strengthening programmes have traditionally looked to build, improve, and reinforce a parliament’s core functions: passing legislation; scrutinising spending and policy implementation; and representing the public. However, to date parliamentary strengthening practices have not resulted in much success, with parliaments often marginalised by the government or other external accountability mechanisms, such as civil society, and by donor organisations, who are accountable to either funders or beneficiaries in the case of the former, or donor country citizens in the latter. Moreover, parliamentary strengthening too often focuses on recreating parliamentary best practices, rather than the formal and informal functions that they can deliver. .

Parliamentary strengthening projects need to, therefore, consider the more informal, contextual and political challenges and opportunities. For example, OPM’s project with the Parliament of Bangladesh highlighted the importance of understanding and navigating the politics of parliamentary work. The Management Information System and the training elements of the project were delivered and absorbed, building the technical capacity of the Parliament, but the programme highlighted the critical issue of a lack of political will to implement changes to the Rules of Procedure for real, long-lasting change.

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Re-orienting parliamentary strengthening away from practice and procedure and instead focusing on building and navigating relationships between parliament and government, and the discussions and negotiations these facilitate, could support more context driven, holistic and productive scrutiny, engagement and accountability.

Parliamentary strengthening programmes under the magnifying glass

Elections and bills. The narrow view of parliamentary functionality. Too often the interest in parliamentary strengthening focuses on either upcoming or recent elections or on the passage of a particular bill. The focus is on the end goal — who holds particular positions and what legislation is passed — and less on the delivery of effective scrutiny of legislation, policy, and practices. Introductory training, on its own, is unlikely to ensure correct practice and procedure. As well as investing in the tools of being a Member of Parliament, it is important to examine and introduce the parameters, responsibilities and the relationship between the legislature and the executive, to equip MPs with the skills and knowledge to navigate what are often nuanced process of legislative passage, representation and scrutiny.

Parliamentary form over function. Parliamentary strengthening is often conceived of, and delivered as, a tick-boxing exercise, with prescribed actions rather than engaging with the reality of how parliaments and parliamentarians function in that specific context. For those based on the Westminster system, an ideal parliament is expected to have: functioning committees; effective debate; competent clerks and strong research support; amongst others.

Whilst these elements can be useful, they don’t effectively address one key problem that parliamentarians and parliamentary staff face: ‘How can we engage effectively and appropriately with government?’. We often fail to recognise that, a lot of the time, key information comes from the government and is part of a conversation with government as to what the best policies, and ways of supporting and delivering policies, are. For example, budget scrutiny can, in fact, be significantly strengthened through clear, accurate, and succinct budget documents being provided by the government in a timely manner, as well as strengthening budget scrutiny skills within parliament.

Our project in Bangladesh illustrates another dimension, where engaging effectively with government also entails understanding where the lines between the legislature and the executive are too blurred. In this case it is as much about fostering appropriate relationships and boundaries between parliament and government as it is in ensuring that information flows between government and parliament. In either case the political dynamics and influences on the system are an essential element both to understand and to underpin the techniques and tools for effective parliamentary reform.

Exploring the space in-between

Bridging the gap between parliament and government through informal and formal relationships. Relationship does not equate to friendship. There is a necessary tension between the work of a parliament and a government. Government is accountable to parliament and, as such, should fulfil obligations to the parliament which foster transparency and accountability. In reality, however, government does not submit willingly; it is difficult for anyone to have their actions and values scrutinised by others, particularly by the opposition who will have political motivations. Behind the scenes, however, is an intensive process of informing, negotiating, and persuading between parliamentarians and ministers, as well as between parliamentary staff and government staff, to enable the process to move.

Parliamentary strengthening work needs to increase its focus on these more informal but institutional processes. These relationships include behind-the-scenes bargaining between government ministers and parliamentarians from the ruling party, to ensure that there isn’t rebellion within the party against legislation supporting government policy. At the other end of the spectrum, it may be as simple as the establishment of a working relationship between the clerk of a committee and the secretary to a minister, informally discussing the minister’s availability for an evidence session. It is these informal relationships which enable the codified parliamentary rules to work and, conversely, the lack of productive relationships which can grind the process to a halt.

Understanding how political parties work in the parliamentary process.Relationships within and between political parties are crucial in understanding and supporting this process. Relationships between political parties are about position, power, and personality. This combination varies from party to party and from country to country; it is shaped by the parliamentary system, by electoral processes and by individual personalities. This political context is crucial to understanding how relationships work and ultimately, how things happen both formally and informally at a parliamentary level.

Building the relationship with government needs to be an essential part of parliamentary strengthening going forward. This entails developing a deep understanding of local political and social processes between parliamentarians and ministers, between parliamentary staff and government staff, and within and between political parties. With this understanding, parliamentary strengthening can better look to solve the problems of how parliament can function, and recognise, build, and utilise this space between parliament and government to enable both to be more effective, transparent, and accountable.

Key takeaways:

  • Currently, parliamentary strengthening programmes focus on emulating parliamentary ‘best practice’ which often doesn’t recognise political dynamics.
  • Building and appropriately managing relationships between a parliament and a government is an underexplored space in parliamentary strengthening.
  • To best engage with this, it is important to look at the informal relationships between parliament and government, as well as the formal.

Eleanor Bayley is an assistant consultant with the Public Sector Governance team and the Policy Execution Hub at Oxford Policy Management. Eleanor has four years of experience working on parliamentary strengthening.

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Photo credit: shi zhao, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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