Parliamentary oversight of the executive

One of the important functions of the modern legislature is to make the government behave. Both John Stuart Mill and Walter Bagehot considered the legislature as unfit to draft the laws and observed that its proper office was to make the government behave (Williams 1968: 41). Mill explains the importance of oversight for democratic government in the following way:

The proper office of a representative assembly is to watch and control the government; to throw the light of publicity on its acts; to compel a foil exposition and justification of all of them which any one considers questionable; to censure them if found condemnable, and, if the men who compose the government abuse their trust... to expel them from office, and either expressly or virtually appoint their successors.

(1861: 104)

Wilson considered ‘vigilant’ oversight as important as legislation (1885: 303). Oversight is now considered to be the most important function of the legislature (NDI 1996).

Parliamentary oversight refers to parliamentary supervision and monitoring of the executive and administration. It encompasses all activities undertaken by a legislature to influence administrative behavior. Yamamoto defines parliamentary oversight as the review, monitoring and supervision of government and public agencies, including the implementation of policy and legislation (2008: 9). It covers the work of parliamentary committees and plenary sittings as well as hearings during the parliamentary stages of bills and budgetary cycles (Yamamoto: 9). Lees (1977) defines legislative oversight as ‘the behavior by legislators and their staff, individually or collectively, which results in an impact, intended or not... on bureaucratic behavior’. Oversight can be both adversarial as well as supportive. The main objective of oversight is to ensure that the executive complies with the will of parliament and the ethical behavior in the civil service is maintained. The specific objectives to be achieved through legislative oversight are many, but the following demand mention: to check against dishonesty and waste; to guard against harsh and callous (e.g. arbitrary and unresponsive) administration; to evaluate implementation in accordance with

Parliamentary oversight of the executive 87 legislative objectives and to ensure administrative compliance with statutory intent (Rockman 1984: 415).

Oversight is often carried out by a broad spectrum of institutions. However, parliamentary surveillance can provide a major improvement over other means of guarding against the abuse of administrative and financial power. The normative justification for parliamentary oversight rests on the assumption that as the premier representative body, the parliament has a responsibility to assure the electorate that the public money is not wasted but instead is used economically and effectively. The parliament can also utilize more techniques than other agencies to require the government to account for its actions. The key functions of parliamentary oversight are as follows:

  • • to detect and prevent abuse, arbitrary behavior or illegal or unconstitutional conduct on the part of the government and public agencies;
  • • to hold the government to account in respect of how the taxpayers’ money is used;
  • • to ensure that policies announced by the government and authorized by parliament are actually delivered; and
  • • to improve the transparency of government operations and enhance public trust in the government, which is itself a condition of effective policy delivery.
  • (Yamamoto: 9-10)

This chapter compares and contrasts different techniques the three South Asian parliaments use to make the government accountable for its actions. Several new techniques have been introduced and some old ones modernized to make oversight effective. This chapter specifically identifies key functions and broad types of oversight, examines rules regulating oversight operations and explores the nature of the use of different techniques. The usefulness and limitations of different techniques are explored in the last section of the chapter.

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