Parliaments and domestic accountability

The overarching purpose of parliamentary oversight is to hold government to account. While governments are directly accountable to voters at elections, in between elections it is the duty of parliamentarians to hold ministers and their departments to account on the public's behalf. The Inter-Parliamentary Union’s Tools for Parliamentary Oversight sets out four key oversight roles:

• Transparency and openness. Parliament should shed light on the operations of government. It provides a public arena in which government’s policies and actions are debated, exposed to scrutiny and held up to public opinion.

  • • Delivery. Parliamentary oversight should test whether the government’s policies have been implemented, and whether they are having the desired impact.
  • • Value for money. Parliament needs to approve and scrutinise government spending. It should highlight waste within publicly-funded services, and aim to improve the economy, efficiency and effectiveness of government expenditure.
  • • Tackling corruption and misuse of power. Parliament should protect the rights of citizens by detecting and preventing abuse of power, arbitrary behaviour and illegal or unconstitutional conduct by government.

In short, a parliament’s role is to provide a check on the activity of government. The role might be thought of as providing “government by explanation”. That is, highlighting issues of concern and ensuring that government is able to justify its actions to the public, or where that policy is deficient, forcing a change. The tools available to MPs to achieve these objectives vary from parliament to parliament, but they tend to be pursued through three main routes, namely via the plenary session (through questions and debates), the committee system (through investigations) or in conjunction with outside agencies that report to parliament.

It is in this last area where parliaments have the potential to be most effective in strengthening systems of domestic accountability. Parliaments derive much of their authority from the fact that a number of accountability institutions usually report to them. These range from the supreme audit institution, the ombudsman and the electoral commission, through to utility regulators, inspectorates and agencies. Such institutions provide a wealth of information on the performance of government in specific policy areas, and provide the evidence on which parliament can hold ministers, and ministries, to account.

In other words, parliaments should sit at the centre of a web of domestic accountability, liaising with the range of independent experts and institutions, absorbing the detail of their investigations and drawing out the salient political points for which the executive should be held to account.

Parliaments are therefore potentially vital allies for donor agencies in improving domestic accountability. Yet in many parts of the world legislatures have fallen far short of public (and donor) expectations. In emerging democracies, parliaments are frequently ineffective in the face of a powerful executive, and have little public legitimacy and authority.

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