Six readings on parliaments and how they use evidence


Photo: Department of Research Services, Parliament of Uganda

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

Over the past 18 months, our Evidence-Informed Policy Making team has expanded our work with parliaments, digging deeper into what ‘evidence-informed policy making’ means in the complex and politically charged environments of legislatures in developing countries. We’ve been lucky to draw on our partnerships with the parliaments of Ghana, Zimbabwe and Uganda for first-hand experience from staff, but as we learn more about parliaments and how to support the research and information systems within them, we’ve also benefited from some key reports and papers.

So here are some of the readings that are helping us understand the role research and evidence play in parliaments, and the ways programmes like ours can improve our approaches to strengthening evidence-informed policy making.

1. Information and Expertise for Parliaments

By Global Partners Governance

This is a short but comprehensive starting point to understand what a parliamentary information support system does and why it’s important. It explains the key features, including the differences between the research and library services and the importance of the synthesis and analytical functions of a research service as well as its capacity to be both reactive and proactive. It explains how these feed in to parliament’s key roles of making laws, representing the citizens and scrutinizing the government, as well as how the research service can act as an outward-facing ‘evidence producer’ to ensure Parliament and its proceedings are transparent and open to citizens.

2. Guidelines for Parliamentary Research Services

By Inter-Parliamentary Union

When we asked our colleagues in our partner parliaments where they turn to for advice on structuring their research and information services, they pointed to these guidelines. Produced at the request of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) Section on Library and Research Services for Parliaments, it is a practical guide for the “many parliaments [which] aspire to establish or expand a research function within their institutions but struggle to identify the path forward, often due to lack of resources, challenges in establishing democratic institutions, or both.” Informed by experience of parliamentary staff all over the world, it takes a step-by-step approach to establishing a research service, defining its mandate, and setting up key mechanisms such as quality control, collaborative working with other information support units within parliament, and building external relationships with research institutions.

3. Navigating Trade-Offs in Parliamentary Strengthening

By Westminster Foundation for Democracy and University of Oxford

Susan Dodsworth and Nic Cheeseman discuss ‘trade-off’s between issue-based and institution-based approaches to parliamentary strengthening, and between narrow and broad programme scopes. Their observation that “context is a compass that doesn’t always point in the same direction” rings true in our experience of working in complex political environments, and their guidance on how to navigate the trade-offs in these difficult environments is useful. This is a valuable example of the insights that can result from taking a rigorous politics and governance approach to programme design.

4. African Researchers and Decision Makers: Building Synergies for Development

By International Development Research Centre and Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa

Focusing on West and Central Africa, this insightful volume starts from the observation that “Despite quality research conducted by national researchers, policy decisions are most often informed by advice from abroad”. Drawing on a series of workshops held between researchers and policymakers across the region, the volume provides examples of successful initiatives as well as recommendations for future programmes. Although it’s now more than ten years old, the emphasis on building relationships across the national research to policy system (with parliaments featuring as a key part of this) is still very relevant for us at INASP, where strengthening such relationships at national level is a core part of our strategy.

5. A Recipe for Parliamentary Impact? An Academic Guide to Effective Engagement

By University of Sheffield

This is an interesting take from a UK perspective, exploring how academics can better engage with Parliament: “If you want to get involved with Parliament, you need to proactively push yourself into its networks”. Many of the recommendations resonate with our experience working with parliamentary staff internationally: relationships are paramount, and communications skills are essential to building these effectively. In addition, academics need to understand what the different information support departments of Parliament do in order to be able to identify windows of opportunity for engagement. This clear and concise piece, along with the accompanying blog appropriately titled ‘Rubbing Shoulders’, are a great guide for researchers and other evidence producers seeking to engage with parliament in any country.

6. Mind the Gap: Lessons Learnt and Remaining Challenges in Parliamentary Development Assistance

By Overseas Development Institute

This comprehensive investigation into approaches to parliamentary strengthening, contains a wealth of insights from interviews with donors, implementing agencies, Members of Parliament, and parliamentary staff as well as an informative survey of the research literature. The most valuable aspect for me (as a programme manager in an implementing agency) is the attention given to the influence of operational, administrative and funding factors within implementing agencies and donors that affect our response to ‘lessons learned’ around the need for more flexible, politically savvy programmes.  However, the paper also paints a nuanced picture of funding trends in parliamentary strengthening, as well as a detailed outline of issues related to the monitoring and evaluation of parliamentary strengthening programmes. An essential read for anyone working in parliamentary strengthening.

Tell us: what else should we be reading to help us understand the role of research and evidence in parliaments? Please add your recommendations in the comments below.

Emily Hayter
Emily Hayter is Senior Programme Specialist, Evidence for Policy at INASP.

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