Principles for parliamentary assistance

The following principles are neither exhaustive nor comprehensive, but provide a possible starting point for guidance on parliamentary support projects:

  • 1. Integrate objectives. Support to parliamentary institutions should be integrated with wider efforts to support domestic accountability. Given that parliaments could and should sit at the centre of a web of domestic accountability, the interaction among parliaments and other institutions should be a key feature of support programmes. Support programmes should seek to increase the extent to which parliaments engage with outside institutions (such as the supreme audit institution), and ensure that other programmes designed to strengthen other mechanisms of accountability feed into and strengthen the parliament.
  • 2. Ensure institutional change leads to behavioural change.

Ultimately, the effectiveness of the parliament will be determined by the behaviour of the individuals within it. The purpose of a support programme should ultimately be to change that behaviour so that parliamentarians understand their role in holding government to account, have the resources and capacity to use the relevant procedures effectively, but also have the incentive to perform their accountability function.

  • 3. Understand the parliament’s incentive structures. Many support programmes assume that all parliamentarians would like a stronger parliament and that donor assistance will inevitably be welcomed. This is rarely the case. A politician’s attitude is likely to depend on a number of factors, including party allegiance, whether their party is in government or opposition, whether it affects their chances of re-election, and how it affects their working conditions and pay. Support programmes need to understand the various incentive structures within a parliament, how they are currently shaping political behaviour and how they might be used to generate cross-party backing for the initiative.
  • 4. Don’t ignore political parties. One of the strongest influences on behaviour in parliament will be the political parties. However, fears of “political interference” often discourage donors from engaging directly with parties. A stronger parliament will depend on politicians behaving as parliamentarians rather than simply party representatives. But, to encourage a less partisan role, programmes will need to understand and work with the political parties in parliament. Programmes should provide them with the opportunities and incentives to engage on a cross-party basis, without compromising donor neutrality. Promoting inter-party dialogue outside the parliamentary limelight is also an option for donors to strengthen co-operation, trust and confidence between political parties across the political spectrum.
  • 5. Identify and address the causes of parliamentary weakness.

Programmes must be clear about the underlying causes of the parliament’s underperformance. It may be immediately apparent that the parliament is poor at financial oversight, but support projects need to assess whether this is to do with the parliament’s constitutional position, its procedures, resources, experience or political complexion. Most often, it is a combination of several factors. Even if projects cannot address all of them, they need to identify and understand them in order to have an impact.

6. Ensure parliamentarians own the problems - and the solutions.

Local ownership is a key tenet of the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness (OECD, 2005), but is particularly significant in trying to foster political and behavioural change. Political change rests on the parliament recognising the benefits of adopting new patterns of behaviour and embedding them in the institutions, perhaps through rule changes or institutional reforms, so that they eventually become part of the accepted political culture. Given the complexity of getting change through a parliament, there should be 1) a widespread concern that parliament is underperforming; 2) crossparty agreement on the reasons for that weakness; and 3) some internal consensus that the project’s objectives are the best way to address those problems. As such, parliamentary support projects need to be developed in partnership with key interlocutors within the institution, often politicians and staff.

7. Keep gender in mind in tackling parliamentary performance.

The under-representation of women in political decision-making structures has implications at many levels. Evidence shows that more women in parliament not only affects the tone and culture of parliamentary debate, but also the range of issues that are debated. Support to parliamentary institutions should be conceived within this context. There are two distinct, but inter-related challenges. The first is to increase the number of women elected to national parliaments and promoting their influence within the institution. The second is to improve the impact of parliaments in developing policies that take into account their effect on women and men, and seek to address the imbalances that exist.

8. Design projects around outcomes rather than activities.

Critically, programmes should maintain a clear sense of what they are designed to achieve. Too often this obvious point is lost during the lifetime of a project. The initial analysis of a parliament might identify areas where support should effect change (for example, the improvement of financial scrutiny) and the means for delivering this (providing training and support to MPs and staff, additional resources and the creation of a budget support office, etc.). But frequently process and outcomes are confused with one another, with donors measuring activities (e.g. the number of training sessions, existence of a budget office) instead of the impact they were originally designed to have. An outcome-driven approach would need a much greater degree of flexibility in the design and delivery of programmes, requiring co-ordinated interventions in different parts of the parliament, designed to achieve the same end.

  • 9. Set realistic objectives and a realistic timescale. The conditions for achieving parliamentary change will vary between institutions, but donor-supported programmes need to work from the understanding that in most parliaments change will be haphazard and unpredictable, and that the interests of MPs will wax and wane over time. Parliaments are rarely amenable to neat designs or detailed reform plans, which has three implications for project design. First, it should not be assumed that specific activities will inevitably result in particular outcomes. Second, the scope for political change is often limited, and projects which seek discrete objectives will frequently be more effective than institution-wide reform. Third, political change happens slowly. At a Wilton Park conference in early 2010, one participant’s comment resonated around the room when he begged the representative of a major donor organisation as follows: “What we need”, he said, “is less money and more time.”
  • 10. Set the right indicators. Once indicators are in place they tend to determine subsequent project activity - with the wrong indicators, projects do the wrong things. Project objectives may lend themselves partly to quantitative measures, such as the number of bills passed, the number of committee reports published, the amount of public evidence compiled or the number of questions asked of ministers. However, these do not capture the quality of oversight or accountability. Much is likely to depend on a more thorough form of analysis which involves stakeholder perceptions of performance through interviews and opinion polling of the public, civil society, the media and special interest groups. This sort of monitoring and evaluation needs to be built in at project design stage, and should be a regular and on-going feature of parliamentary support programmes. From this perspective, peer-learning and South-South collaboration could be good mechanisms to directly involve stakeholders and build up owned evaluation processes and shared indicators.
  • 11. Get the timing right. The timing of any project will be a key determinant of its success. For example, the best point to establish new ways of working is immediately after an election. At this point there is likely to be a large number of new MPs, the committees will have a new complexion and the government ministries they monitor are also likely to have changed personnel. Induction programmes should aim to establish new patterns of working and reinforce key principles. By the same token, working with MPs just before an election is likely to have very little effect, as most will be thinking about their election campaign - and many will not return.


OECD (2005), Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness, OECD Publishing, Paris.

Power, G. (2008), Donor Support to Parliaments and Political Parties: An Analysis Prepared for DANIDA, Global Partners and Associates, London.

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