Evidence in African parliaments: reflections on our new paper
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Parliamentary information system

Author: Emily Hayter, Programme Manager, Evidence-Informed Policy Making Team, INASP

Information is critical to holding governments to account. None of a parliament’s key functions of representation, oversight and scrutiny can happen meaningfully without quality information.

Despite this, the systems that shape how parliaments gather, appraise and use evidence, and the parliamentary staff who are at the forefront of these activities are too often overlooked in parliamentary strengthening programmes.

Parliamentary information support: new papers from ACEPA and INASP

Our new series of papers with our partners at the African Centre for Parliamentary Affairs (ACEPA) focus on the internal information support structures that gather and deliver evidence to decision makers in African parliaments.

In the main paper, which we presented last week at the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions’ conference, we outline some of the main issues affecting internal processes and structures in parliaments on the continent—from external factors like Parliament’s relationship with the Executive and the strength of the national research system, to internal factors within Parliament like leadership, resources and structures that can support evidence use. This paper will be followed by a series of “parliament in focus” papers, exploring these issues at institutional level in the parliaments of Ghana, Uganda and Zimbabwe.

While our recent experience, and therefore the focus of these papers, is in Africa, we believe many of the issues we cover are relevant to parliaments around the world.

African parliaments: innovating for evidence use

New approaches are addressing some of the most influential factors affecting evidence use in parliaments—from strengthening internal and external relationships, to creating new models to engage with MPs as change agents.

Three of the most interesting recent innovations arose through evidence-informed policy making programmes funded by the UK’s Department for International Development:

Four emerging questions

Whilst sharing our observations in these papers we became even more aware of how much there is still to learn. Here are some of the questions we hope will be investigated further in the future:

1. How do different parliamentary models affect evidence use?

For example, what are the differences between unicameral (one legislative chamber) and bicameral (two legislative chambers) legislatures in terms of evidence infrastructure and use? What about between Lusophone, Francophone, Anglophone and Arabic-speaking African countries? And what are the implications in subnational or regional bodies, for example state assemblies, the EALA (East African Legislative Assembly ), or Pan African Parliament?

2. What can experience from specific policy issues tell us about evidence use?

What evidence was provided and by whom? How was it used and at what stage was it used? Broadbent’s profile of Uganda’s HIV Prevention and Control Bill is a great example of this, and Asiti & Ochieng’s experience with Kenya’s Climate Change Bill is also instructive. More case studies can help us understand how the factors we’ve identified in our papers play out in real-life policy debates, and how the same parliament can have a ‘transformative’ approach to evidence on one issue and a ‘rubber stamp’ approach on another. This is of particular interest in countries with heavy executive dominance or more authoritarian systems, where specific policy questions can provide opportunities to gain ground on evidence use in an otherwise challenging context.

3. What exactly is the scope and function of a parliamentary research service?

One thing I learned from our papers is that there is no common agreement. While it is clear the information support departments across Parliament should coordinate in some way, there’s no common understanding on how that should happen. There are many unanswered questions, such as:

  • How can small, resource-constrained research and library departments balance the need to respond to individual MPs’ requests for information with the need to provide in-depth, longer term proactive research?
  • What can we learn from the new Parliamentary Budget Offices that are emerging across the African continent? These are often well-resourced and enjoy a high profile within Parliament. Our experience suggests they may be ‘capturing’ some of the space around evidence and scrutiny that was previously occupied by research departments.

4. What is the role of external evidence providers?

Not all the evidence flowing to Parliament goes through the internal information support system. There are many other actors, such as universities, civil society groups, and donor-funded individual consultants, who have direct relationships with committees or MPs that provide evidence for decision making. What is the role of these external evidence providers and to what extent can (or should) they be working via the internal information support system? And are their relationships with Parliament supply or demand driven?

Where next?

Looking at information flows in and out of parliament is an interesting lens to take on democratic accountability and representation. In order to build on these new developments and the growing momentum around evidence use in parliaments, we will need the expertise of parliamentary development experts as well as those in the evidence-informed policy making sector. INASP will be working with UNDP’s AGORA Global Portal for Parliamentary Development to share some of these experiences over the next few months via an online resource portal and a webinar.

If you would like to be informed when the portal and webinar become available, please sign up to receive updates.

 

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