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Declaration on Parliamentary Openness [Draft Commentary]

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Title II - Promoting a Culture of Openness

Summary:

As the people’s institution, parliamentary information belongs to the public. However, parliamentary information can be used by citizens most effectively only if in the context of a broader culture of openness. Parliament has a duty to enact legislation that promotes a culture of openness, including laws that encourage a vibrant civil society. Moreover, parliament has a duty to ensure the effective implementation of laws that guarantee the openness and transparency of government and parliamentary information through its oversight role and by providing legal remedies that allow for citizens to enforce their rights to access public information. Parliament also must facilitate the participation and engagement of citizens and civil society in government by supporting civic education, by cooperating with PMOs and by respecting the rights of citizens to complete, accurate, and timely parliamentary information.

Sec. 1. Public Ownership of Parliamentary Information

Parliamentary information belongs to the public; any exceptions or limitations to this principle shall be narrowly defined by law.

The notion that parliamentarians serve at the behest of the public is fundamental to democratic governance. It follows that information produced by or for parliament belongs to the citizens. While this principle enjoys broad support of a variety of international bodies, some parliaments limit citizen access to information, which can limit public engagement in policy discussions. In other instances, parliament may provide certain information only upon request, rather than as a matter of course. Parliament may also provide information in formats that restrict the tools available to citizens to access and analyze legislative information. The availability of parliamentary information, with limited and clearly defined restrictions for particularly sensitive material, ensures maximum accountability of the legislative body to the public and amplifies the role of citizens in the legislative process.

This principle has been enshrined in the African Union’s Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa, that “Public bodies hold information not for themselves but as custodians of the public good and everyone has a right to access this information, subject only to clearly defined rules established by law.”[1] The European Parliament stated in its founding regulations in 2001, “In principle, all documents of the institutions shall be accessible to the public,” noting limited exceptions.[2] The Parliamentary Confederation of the Americas (COPA), in its Benchmarks for the Parliaments of the Americas, asserts that, “Information regarding legislation must be accessible not only to all parliamentarians, but also to the general public… Parliament must recognize access to information as a fundamental right of citizens.”[3] The public’s right to information held by governing institutions more broadly is the organizing principle of the Open Government Partnership (OGP), a partnership of more than 55 governments. OGP recognizes that “Openness with respect to government-produced information is part of the right of the public to access any output of taxpayer funding…”[4] The United Nations Human Rights Commission further confirms that transparency of public bodies is a vital component of democratic governance, stating that “transparency and accountability” are “essential elements of democracy.”

New Zealand’s Data and Information Management Principles, adopted in 2011, articulate this principle as follows: “Data and information held and owned by government … effectively belong to the New Zealand public; [and] are a core strategic asset held by the government as a steward on behalf of the public…”[5] Recently adopted open data standards for the Chamber of Deputies in Brazil express a similar sentiment, stating in its adoption, “The Chamber of Deputies reinforces its commitment to transparency and the right of all citizens to public information.”[6]

To enhance citizen access to information, many countries, including almost all member countries of the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), have adopted freedom of information (FOI) laws requiring governments – often times including parliaments - to heed citizen requests for information.[7] The organization Right2INFO.org, which monitors right to information laws globally, notes that “The right to access to official information is now protected by the constitutions of some 60 countries” in every region of the world.[8] While FOI laws codify processes for citizens to petition for access to information and for the resolution of disputes when citizens perceive that their right to information has been violated, FOI laws are reactive in nature, stopping short of requiring the proactive provision of government information.

Yet the concept of public ownership of parliamentary (and government) information implies the obligation of public institutions to proactively disclose information. According to Access Info and the Open Knowledge Foundation, “For members of the public, the automatic availability of information means timely access to information and hence reduces the need to file information requests. Additionally, in countries still emerging from authoritarian regimes or where corruption is widespread, proactive disclosure permits anonymous access and so gives some protection to applicants from weaker segments of society who might not feel comfortable writing to government bodies to ask for information for fear of repercussions.”[9] Public ownership further implies that information released by public institutions should comply with open data principles (see provision 36) so that public information can be freely reused by citizens.

While citizens have a broad right to access parliamentary information, instances in which a parliament may withhold public information for a period of time should be narrowly defined and clearly stated in law. Whether exceptions seek to protect against the release of personal private information, protect information linked to state security, or to prevent a chilling effect on the ability of elected representatives to access information and fully analyze proposals under consideration[10], any such measures must be taken to ensure that citizens are aware of the fact that information has been protected, and to allow citizens to contest the protection of information by an independent authority in a timely fashion.


[1] Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa, African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights, 32nd Session, 17 - 23 October, 2002: Banjul, The Gambia, Section 4.1. http://www1.umn.edu/humanrts/achpr/expressionfreedomdec.html. Accessed 6/11/2012.

[2] Regulation (EC) No 1049/2001 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 30 May 2001 regarding public access to European Parliament, Council and Commission documents. Official Journal L 145, 31/05/2001 P. 0043 – 0048. Available at: http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=CELEX:32001R1049:en:HTML. Accessed 6/11/2012.

[3] Parliamentary Confederation of the Americas, The Contributions of Parliaments to Democracy: Benchmarks for the Parliaments of the Americas, § 2.2.7.3 and § 4.1.1.1. Document prepared by the Quebec Secretariat of COPA, National Assembly of Quebec, September 2011. http://www.copa.qc.ca/eng/committees/Democracy-Peace/documents/DOC-CDP-criteres-a-VF_000.pdf. Accessed 6/11/2012.

[4] Transparency and Accountability Initiative [hereinafter, “TAI”], Opening Government, 2011, p. 1. http://www.transparency-initiative.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/15-Open-government11.pdf. Accessed 6/12/2012.

[5] Government of New Zealand, Principles for Managing Data and Information held by the New Zealand Government, approved by Cabinet on 8 August 2011 (CAB Min (11) 29/12 refers). http://ict.govt.nz/programme/opening-government-data-and-information/new-zealand-data-and-information-management-princi. Accessed 6/11/2012.

[6] Brazil Chamber of Deputies, Open Data from the Chamber of Deputies, http://www2.camara.gov.br/transparencia/dados-abertos. Accessed 6/11/2012 and translated from the Portuguese.

[7] Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development [hereinafter, “OECD”], Government at a Glance 2011, p. 195, http://www.oecd.org/document/3/0,3746,en_2649_33735_43714657_1_1_1_1,00.html. Accessed 6/12/2012.

[8] Further information on the laws of individual countries can be found at http://right2info.org/constitutional-protections-of-the-right-to. Accessed 6/11/2012.

[9] p. 69. http://www.access-info.org/documents/Access_Docs/Advancing/Beyond_Access_7_January_2011_web.pdf

[10] Some legislatures, for example, protect from disclosure requests by citizens for information, research and analysis from internal parliamentary research services. The exception is intended to put elected representatives in the best possible position to be fully informed on matters under consideration by the body, without members fearing that they will be perceived to have asked overly simple or basic questions, without having to reveal political tactics, and without fear of reprisal from narrow special interest or pressure groups for simply seeking information and analysis on an issue.

Sec. 2. Promoting a Culture of Openness through Legislation

Parliament has a duty to enact legislation, as well as internal rules of procedure and codes of conduct, that foster an enabling environment that guarantees the public’s right to government and parliamentary information, promotes a culture of open government, provides for transparency of political finance, safeguards freedoms of expression and assembly, and ensures engagement by civil society and citizens in the legislative process.

The adoption of legislation and regulations that allow for broad access to parliamentary information and participation of citizens in parliamentary processes is necessary, albeit insufficient, to promote a culture of openness. Legislation must also ensure the existence of an enabling environment – inside and outside of parliament – in which citizens are encouraged to organize, assemble and engage in open dialogue with parliamentarians regarding public policies and other issues. Creating a culture of openness also requires that citizens have ample access to legal and judicial recourse to ensure that they may contest perceived threats or seek justice when disputes arise.

According to COPA, parliaments “must foster a spirit of tolerance and promote all aspects of democratic culture in order to educate and raise awareness among public officials, political actors and citizens about the ethical requirements of democracy and human rights.”[1] As a publication by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the General Secretariat of the House of Representatives of the Republic of Indonesia notes: “Continuous relations between the people and the parliament will exist when access and opportunities are legally and formally provided to the people to obtain information on everything that takes place in the parliament.”[2] A number of parliamentary associations, including the Southern African Development Community Parliamentary Forum (SADC-PF), endorse a specific example of this broader principle in calling on parliaments to “enact legislation to protect informants (“whistle blowers”) and witnesses presenting credible information about corrupt or unlawful activities.”[3]

In Indonesia, the Public Information Disclosure Act, adopted in 2008, explains the specific goals of transparency legislation adopted by parliament, including, enhancing citizens education of the process of lawmaking, encouraging citizen participation, increasing the active role of citizens in making policy, and creating accountable governance.[4] The Law on Access to Information of Moldova, passed in 2000, includes parliamentary information in its aim to “establish a general normative framework on access to official information,” as well as inform the public, and “stimulate the formation of opinions and active participation of people in the decision-making activities in a democratic way.”[5] The Standing Orders of the Scottish Parliament include a chapter on openness and accessibility, with rules such as mandatory public meetings, access of the public to committee meetings, and the ability of citizens to bring petitions to parliament and have them heard, among others.[6]


[1] COPA, The Contributions of Parliaments to Democracy: Benchmarks for the Parliaments of the Americas, §4.2.2.1.

[2] United Nations Development Programme [hereinafter, “UNDP”], Handbook on Transparency and Accountability in Parliament, pp. 9, 36. http://www.agora-parl.org/sites/default/files/UNDP%20-%20Transparency%20and%20Accountability%20of%20Parliament%20-%20EN%20-%202009.pdf. Accessed 6/12/2012.

[3] Southern African Development Community Parliamentary Forum [hereinafter, “SADC PF”], Benchmarks for Democratic Legislatures in Southern Africa, §8.1.8.

[4] Public Information Disclosure Act, Act 14, 30 Apr 2008 (Republic of Indonesia). http://ccrinepal.org/files/documents/legislations/12.pdf. Accessed 6/19/2012.

[5] The Law on Access to Information, Chisnau, 11 May 2000, NR. 982-XIV (Republic of Moldova). http://www.legislationline.org/documents/action/popup/id/6394. Accessed 6/19/2012.

[6] Standing Orders of the Scottish Parliament, Chapter 15: Openness and Accessibility. http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/parliamentarybusiness/26505.aspx. Accessed 6/19/2012.

Sec. 3. Promoting a Culture of Openness through Oversight

In fulfilling its oversight function on behalf of and together with citizens, parliament shall ensure that laws ensuring government openness are implemented effectively, that the government acts in a fully transparent manner, and that government also works to promote a culture of openness.

In addition to developing a legal framework that promotes a culture of openness, parliament must make robust use of its oversight powers to ensure that public institutions comply with laws that safeguard the rights of citizens to access and use governmental information. The oversight function is widely recognized as a core aspect of a democratic parliament. Research has shown that the availability of parliamentary oversight tools, or even oversight potential, has “a profound effect on the nature and functioning of a political system,” and the probability that a country is democratic.[1] Parliamentary oversight is a critical tool in protecting openness of society, whether through investigating such issues as government use of public monies, the conduct of police in protecting the right of citizens to assemble, or the response of government institutions to citizen information requests. By holding public hearings and questioning members of the executive in committees or in the plenary, parliamentarians can generate public discussion and build citizen support for enhancing a culture of openness. By effectively communicating parliamentary efforts to hold the executive to account and engaging citizens in the process, parliament can demonstrate the value of parliamentary work and help make government more transparent, responsive, accountable, and effective. 

According to the Inter Parliamentary Union (IPU), parliament, “As the body entrusted with the oversight of government, [is] responsible for ensuring that governments are fully accountable to the people.”[2] As the IPU further explains, “For the people to have any influence over the laws and policies to which they are subject requires the guarantee of basic rights,” including rights of free expression, association, and participation in free and fair elections.[3] The notion that parliamentary oversight must strengthen laws that empower citizens to influence policy is also endorsed in a SADC-PF benchmark citing parliament’s oversight authority with respect to government compliance with regional and international human rights instruments, including those on gender equality.[4] 

The principle of parliamentary oversight as a mechanism for ensuring government openness is a well-established international norm. In 2001, the IPU conducted a survey of 82 parliaments on oversight capability. It found that 79 of 82 parliaments surveyed could pose oral or written questions to the government. Committees of inquiry and hearings are used in more than 95 percent of countries. Interpellations of the government were used in 75 percent of countries, and ombudsmen in 73 percent.[5] Virtually all parliaments include reference to oversight tools directly in their parliament’s rules of procedure or standing orders.

Many countries have adopted detailed oversight frameworks to enhance the rights of citizens to access and use government information. The Constitution of South Africa obliges the National Assembly to maintain oversight of all “executive organs of state” and hold them accountable.[6] In recognition of this responsibility and the importance of public participation in this process, in 2009, the Parliament of South Africa created a task force of MPs to develop an extensive oversight model which was later approved by Parliament. The model explains, “The true test of democracy is considered the extent to which Parliament can ensure that government remains accountable to the people by maintaining oversight of the government’s actions.” It includes a number of specific recommendations to increase oversight capacity, specifically noting the importance of public participation in the process.[7] 


[1] Ricardo Pelizzo, Rick Stapenhurst and David Olson, Parliamentary Oversight for Government Accountability, World Bank Institute, 2006, http://wbi.worldbank.org/wbi/Data/wbi/wbicms/files/drupal-acquia/wbi/WP%20-%20Parliamentary%20Oversight%20for%20Government%20Accountability.pdf. Accessed 6/12/2012.

[2] http://www.ipu.org/splz-e/sp-conf05/democracy-rpt.pdf

[3] Ibid.

[4] Southern African Development Community Parliamentary Forum [hereinafter, “SADC PF”], Benchmarks for Democratic Legislatures in Southern Africa, §8.1.6.

[5] Riccardo Pelizzo, Rick Stapenhurst and David Olson, Trends in Parliamentary Oversight, World Bank Institute, 2004, p. 4. http://siteresources.worldbank.org/PSGLP/Resources/TrendsinParliamentaryOversight.pdf. Accessed 6/20/2012.

[6] Constitution of South Africa. Section 55(2).

[7] Parliament of South Africa, Parliament’s Oversight and Accountability Model, published in the Announcements, Tablings and Committee Reports (ATC), 27 January 2009, 64, was approved by the National Assembly on 17 February 2009, and by the National Council of Provinces on 19 March 2009. http://www.info.gov.za/view/DownloadFileAction?id=95. Accessed 6/20/2012.

Sec. 4. Promoting Civic Education

Parliament has a responsibility to actively promote civic education of the public, and particularly youth, by engaging in discussions that promote understanding of the role of parliament, its rules and operational procedures, its work and functions, and the duties of parliamentarians. It also includes providing detailed parliamentary information, as well as summaries and plain language explanations of parliamentary work that can be used effectively by citizens of mixed educational and life experiences.

Educating citizens about the role of parliament and its work is essential to the health of a democracy writ large. When citizens do not understand the work of parliament or remain disengaged from the legislative process, the likelihood that their interests will be incorporated into legislation and oversight activities is reduced. Parliamentarians often suggest that the complexities of the legislative process and the lack of understanding of their work can cause them to spend more time catering to the needs of individual constituents, rather than conducting their core functions. Educating citizens about the role of parliament can help them to understand how to most effectively petition for their interests and participate more fruitfully in political life.

The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) recognizes that, “The Legislature shall promote the public’s understanding of the work of the Legislature.”[1] This standard is also reinforced separately by the SADC-PF and COPA benchmarks for democratic parliaments.[2] Further, in regards to government openness, a joint study group of the CPA and World Bank Institute on Access to Information concluded: “Public education campaigns should be undertaken to ensure that the public are aware of their right to access information… Parliamentarians have an important role to play in this process by making sure that their constituents are aware of their rights.”[3]

Countries vary widely in their application of this standard, establishing innovative ways to engage and educate their citizens. As some areas present more challenging environments than others, it may be crucial for parliaments to work with citizens and civil society to find the best way to undertake these efforts. In Malawi, the parliament has both a Public Relations and Civic Education department that are dedicated to outreach programs throughout the country.[4] The constitution in Ghana in 1992 established through parliament a National Commission for Civic Education that plays a similar role.[5] In further advancement of this goal, the Parliament of Ghana holds an annual public event to educate the public, a speakers forum, parliamentary resource center, and a youth parliament.[6] In Brazil, the parliament has helped to organize youth parliament programs that educate youth about the function and role of the legislature.[7] In Iceland, Parliament has a website dedicated to the education of children aged 13-15, which is used by many teachers as a tool in their classrooms. The Finnish parliament established an electronic game in which “groups of schoolchildren can virtually enact legislation…”[8] The UK parliament has also developed games relating to the legislative process for use as an educational tool.[9] In Tanzania, Parliament has a special department on Civic Education, Information and International Cooperation “whose duty is to ensure that the general public is sensitized to understand the work of the Legislature.”[10]


[1] Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, Recommended Benchmarks for Democratic Legislatures, §9.1.4

[2] Southern African Development Community Parliamentary Forum, Benchmarks for Democratic Legislatures in Southern Africa, §2.1.4; COPA, The Contributions of Parliaments to Democracy: Benchmarks for the Parliaments of the Americas, §4.1.2.3

[3] Toby Mendel, Parliament and Access to Information: Working for Transparent Governance, CPA-WBI, §11.1 and §11.2

[4] http://www.commonwealth-of-nations.org/Malawi/Standards/The_Malawi_Parliament/welcome. Accessed 6/12/2012.

[5] Constitution of Ghana, Chapter 19. http://www.judicial.gov.gh/constitution/chapter/chap_19.htm. Accessed 6/12/2012.

[6] Parliamentary Centre, African Parliamentary Index, June 2011, p. 145. http://www.parlcent.org/en/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/API-African-Parliamentary-Index.pdf. Accessed 6/12/2012.

[7] http://www.ispp.org/meetings/abstract/civic-education-and-political-attitudes-the-effects-of-minas-gerais-youth-p

[8] Inter-Parliamentary Union [hereinafter, “IPU”], Parliament and Democracy in the 21st Century: A Guide to Good Practice, p. 65

[9] Website of the UK Parliament, http://www.parliament.uk/education/online-resources/games/. Accessed 6/11/2012.

[10] Parliamentary Centre, African Parliamentary Index, June 2011, p. 23.

Sec. 5. Encouraging Citizen Participation

Parliament has a duty to actively engage citizens and civil society in parliamentary processes and decision-making in order to effectively represent citizen interests and to give effect to the right of citizens to petition their government. This includes citizens of all genders, races, ethnicities, ages, languages, political beliefs, and people with disabilities.

The participation of citizens in a democracy begins at the ballot box. However, to effectively represent citizens, parliaments must maintain active engagement with citizens and encourage participation in the lawmaking process. According to the European Parliament’s Office for the Promotion of Parliamentary Democracy (OPPD), “Simply offering the major legislative documents or providing informative videos is not sufficient to achieve the goal of an open and transparent legislative body. These features must be designed to serve the larger objective of actively engaging citizens in the legislative process.”[1] This idea is reflected in the Treaty on the European Union, which states, “The institutions shall, by appropriate means, give citizens and representative associations the opportunity to make known and publicly exchange their views in all areas of Union action.”[2] To quote the CPA, “Opportunities shall be given for public input into the legislative process.”[3] A similar benchmark has also been adopted by SADC-PF[4] and COPA.[5] 

The principle of active citizen engagement is also enshrined in a variety of country contexts. The Constitution of South Africa states: “The National Assembly must facilitate public involvement in the legislative and other processes of the Assembly and its committees.”[6] This constitutional requirement is upheld by allowing citizens to make submissions to National Assembly Committees, which are then considered by lawmakers.[7] In Sweden, parliament reaches out to citizens through regional surveys or by holding panels of MPs in local districts.[8] It also opened regional ‘branches’ throughout the country, where citizens can access educational and informational material on parliament and follow live broadcasts of parliamentary proceedings. These branches serve as meeting places for MPs and voters.[9] In Ghana, memorandums are welcomed from the public on any bill before committee,[10] while in Uganda, members of the public may appear before parliament to give evidence on an item in the budget.[11] The Scottish Parliament utilizes e-petitions for citizens on its website, a practice also used by the German Bundestag (Lower House).[12] 

Citizens and civic parliamentary monitoring organizations (PMOs) have been directly involved in promoting this effort as well, often with the active cooperation of parliament. In Latvia, one organization created a website that allows citizens to draft, in conjunction with legal and policy experts, laws on subjects of their interest, and then make the draft available for other citizens to sign on to. With enough signatures, the draft laws are automatically submitted to parliament for consideration.[13] In Germany, the website Abgeordnetenwatch.de has been embraced by parliamentarians who use it to respond to citizens’ questions on issues, providing more than an 80% response rate to tens of thousands of questions.


[1] OPPD, Information and Communications Technologies in Parliament: Tools for Democracy, European Parliament, August 2010, p. 17.

[2] European Union, Treaty on the European Union, Article 11

[3] CPA, Recommended Benchmarks for Democratic Legislatures, §6.3.1.

[4] SADC PF, Benchmarks for Democratic Legislatures in Southern Africa, §2.1.4; COPA, The Contributions of Parliaments to Democracy: Benchmarks for the Parliaments of the Americas, § 7.2.4.

[5] CPA, Recommended Benchmarks for Democratic Legislatures, §2.2.7.1

[6] Constitution of South Africa, Section 59.

[7] Website of the Parliament of South Africa. http://www.parliament.gov.za/live/content.php?Category_ID=53. Accessed 6/12/2012.

[8] Global Centre for ICT in Parliament, World e-Parliament Report 2010, IPU-UNDESA, p. 16. http://www.ictparliament.org/wepr2010. Accessed 6/12/2012.

[9] IPU, Parliament and Democracy in the Twenty-First Century: A Guide to Good Practice, p. 63.

[10] Parliamentary Centre, African Parliamentary Index, June 2011, p. 147.

[11] Ibid., p. 180.

[12] University of Westminster, Parliamentary Web Presence: A Comparative Review, pp. 10-11, published in the Proceedings of the 2nd International Conference on e-Government (ICEG 2006), 12-13 October 2006.

[13] Manabalss.lv. http://manabalss.lv/. Accessed 6/12/2012.

Sec. 6. Encouraging a Vibrant Civil Society

Parliament has a duty to encourage the development and maintenance of an active, engaged, vibrant civil society, and to ensure that civil society organizations are able to operate freely and without restriction.

As described in provision 2, parliaments have a duty to develop a legal framework that enables citizen participation in its work, while provision 3 states that parliaments shall use their powers of oversight to ensure that governments safeguard the right of citizens to government information and active engagement in governance. Critical to embracing these principles is the duty of parliament to encourage a vibrant civil society. A healthy civil society is widely recognized as one of the most important factors in the strength and development of democratic institutions and the ability for citizens to voice their interests. Many parliaments have contributed to this goal by passing legislation that encourages private philanthropy, provides favored tax status for civil society organizations or provides public grants to support a vibrant civil society. In other contexts, legislatures also play a vital role in overseeing government actions where there have been allegations of repression by the government over the NGO sector.

According to the European Union’s founding treaty, its institutions “…shall maintain an open, transparent and regular dialogue with representative associations and civil society.”[1] COPA specifies that parliaments should ensure that interactions with civil society are based on “dialogue and cooperation.”[2] The more than 55 countries participating in OGP also have recognized civil society participation as a cornerstone of their efforts to become more open, calling upon civil society to serve as a co-chair of the initiative alongside two leading governments. Implicit in these initiatives is the importance of a robust civil society that helps inform the work of parliament, thereby enhancing its’ representative capacity and legitimacy.

A report by the World Movement for Democracy Secretariat details a number of principles regarding the importance and rights of civil society organizations, noting that states have an “obligation to protect the rights of [civil society organizations].” These include the right to form and participate in a civic organization, the right to operate without state interference, the right to seek and use resources, the right to communicate with domestic and international partners, and rights of free expression and peaceful assembly. These are rights recognized and protected by the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights among other international declarations and treaties.[3]

Many parliaments around the world have not only encouraged the development of civil society apart from their own work, but have actively partnered with PMOs and other civil society actors to improve their functioning. In Pakistan, for instance, the National Assembly has worked with the organization PILDAT to evaluate the functioning of the body and its committees.[4] In the United Kingdom, Parliament has authorized the Hansard Society to conduct the annual Audit of Political Engagement.[5] The Assembly of Kosovo held a “CSO Fair” featuring more than 30 civic groups to help strengthen communication and information sharing between civic groups, the Assembly, and Assembly staff on issues affecting citizens.


[1] European Union, Treaty on the European Union, Article 11.

[2] COPA, The Contributions of Parliaments to Democracy: Benchmarks for the Parliaments of the Americas, §4.1.2.4.

[3] World Movement for Democracy, Defending Civil Society, Second Edition, June 2012, pp. 34-52. http://www.icnl.org/research/resources/dcs/DCS_Report_Second_Edition_English.pdf. Accessed 6/20/2012.

[4] See http://www.agora-parl.org/sites/default/files/case-pakistan.pdf. Accessed 6/5/2012.

[5] See http://hansardsociety.org.uk/blogs/parliament_and_government/pages/audit-of-political-engagement.aspx. Accessed 6/12/2012.

Sec. 7. Enabling Effective Parliamentary Monitoring

Parliament shall recognize the right and duty of civil society, media, and the general public to monitor parliament and parliamentarians. Parliament shall engage in consultations with the general public and civil society organizations that monitor parliament in order to encourage effective monitoring and reduce barriers in accessing parliamentary information.

The representative role of parliament requires that parliament effectively communicate its work, educate citizens about its roles and functions, and provide opportunities for citizens to engage in policy discussions. Yet, the advent of new technologies and the increasing diversity of information available to citizens are compelling parliaments to compete for public attention as never before. In the first Global Parliamentary Report, the IPU and UNDP conclude that, “The cumulative effect of these trends has been a public demand for much greater accountability and responsiveness from [parliamentarians].”[1] While all of 73 parliamentary institutions surveyed for the Global Parliamentary Report indicated they had sought new ways to reach out to citizens and engage them in parliamentary work, parliaments are often ill-equipped financially or technically to undertake these duties effectively.[2] Third party groups that monitor parliaments have demonstrated an ability to enhance parliamentary efforts to inform citizens of and engage them in parliamentary processes. As the IPU and UNDP conclude, these parliamentary monitoring organizations (PMOs) “... are potentially a valuable ally in the process of strengthening and promoting parliament.”[3]

More than 190 PMOs are active in monitoring national or local legislatures in upwards of 80 countries.[4] Many PMOs use technology to help citizens use parliamentary information, while others facilitate efforts by parliamentarians to engage citizens face-to-face through the organization of roundtables and “townhall” meetings. There is a growing body of research to suggest that these activities are having a positive impact on their societies. An independent assessment of the Africa Leadership Institute’s program to publish “parliamentary scorecards” of Ugandan members of parliament found “strong evidence that voters, rather than being beholden to ethnic ties or patronage politics, are willing to condition support on quality of engagement in national politics.”[5] The independent assessment also found a number of other positive effects. An independent evaluation of a report card campaign by Satark Nagrik Sangathan, a Delhi-based PMO, found that the project helped to increase voter turnout by 3.5 percent and led to a 19 percent decrease in cash-based vote-buying, among other positive outputs.[6] 

Many PMOs seek to support the work of parliaments while also enhancing parliamentary transparency and accessibility. In South Africa, the Parliamentary Monitoring Group supplements the Parliament’s institutional memory of committee work by observing, recording, and providing access to committee reports within 24 hours. In Italy, Openpolis Association has engaged in dialogue with 140 members of parliament to create an index of member activity, which it launched at the parliament, and has advised the parliament’s ICT staff on its web initiatives.[7] The Croatian PMO, GONG, initiated a parliamentary internship program that the Parliament of Croatia now implements on its own. PRS Legislative Research, in India, develops legislative summaries and analyses for parliamentarians that are also available to citizens.

Many PMOs also contribute to parliament’s efforts to educate citizens about their work while also promoting accountability of parliamentarians to citizens. PMOs from a diverse array of countries - among them Colombia, Netherlands, Romania, Kenya, United States, France, and India – have developed technologies that facilitate easy access to information about the work of parliamentarians, often creating visualizations that promote understanding of parliamentary information.[8] Many PMOs seek to contribute to fair and accurate reporting of parliamentary work by training journalists on how to cover parliament and helping them access data that helps explain parliamentary work. Of the 100,000 individuals a year who write to their MPs through WriteToThem.com, a website of the United Kingdom’s mySociety, approximately 40 percent do so for the first time.[9] By increased dialogue with PMOs nationally, as well as in international and regional forums, parliaments can tap the creativity and expertise of PMOs to enhance openness and more effectively engage citizens.


[1] IPU and UNDP: http://www.ipu.org/pdf/publications/gpr2012-full-e.pdf. p. 44.

[2] Ibid. p. 25.

[3] Ibid. p. 55.

[4] Andrew Mandelbaum, Strengthening Parliamentary Accountability, Citizen Engagement and Access to Information, National Democratic Institute, September 2011, p. 1.

[5] M. Humphreys and J. Weinstein. 2010. Policing Politicians: Citizen Empowerment and Political Accountability in Uganda. Mimeo. Columbia University, Department of Political Science. http://www.columbia.edu/~mh2245/papers1/scorecard2010.pdf. Accessed 6/12/2012.

[6] Abhijit V. Benrjee et al., Do Informed Voters Make Better Choices? Experimental Evidence from Urban India, Unpublished. Report written for the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab. http://www.hks.harvard.edu/fs/rpande/papers/Do%20Informed%20Voters%20Make%20Better%20Choices.pdf. Accessed 6/12/2012.

[7] Openpolis Association, http://www.openpolis.it/eng. Accessed 6/12/2012.

[8] For a listing of these groups, see the Wikipedia page on Parliamentary Informatics. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parliamentary_informatics. Accessed 6/21/2012.

[9] WriteToThem.com, Analysis of Users and Usage for UK Citizens Online Democracy, May 2011, http://www.mysociety.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/WriteToThem_research_report-2011-Tobias-Escher.pdf. Accessed 6/12/2012.

Sec. 8. Sharing Good Practice

Parliament shall actively participate in international and regional exchanges of good practice with other parliaments and with civil society organizations to increase the openness and transparency of parliamentary information, improve the use of information and communication technology, and strengthen adherence to democratic principles.

Parliaments, along with other democratic institutions, must continually strive to improve their functioning in order to effectively serve the needs and interests of citizens. COPA affirms the need for parliamentarians to “take part in opportunities to share their experiences with Members of other parliaments,” be “prepared to offer the best possible technical assistance to other parliaments,” and “have the right to benefit from technical assistance.”[1] Opportunities for inter-parliamentary engagement are provided through a number of international and regional parliamentary associations, including many that have developed democratic benchmarks and standards referenced herein.

The importance of sharing good practice is particularly acute with respect to information and communication technologies, which continue to evolve rapidly and have tremendous potential for improving parliamentary openness and efficiency, if used effectively. The World e-Parliaments 2010 report identifies the goal that parliaments should, “Foster the regular exchange of information, experiences, and practices among parliaments at the regional and global level.”[2] In furtherance of this goal, the Global Centre for ICT in Parliament recently convened a working group of parliaments to serve as a peer support group for the use of structured XML, a format for open data that has the potential to improve parliamentary efficiency, simplify the use of parliamentary information by parliamentary actors and citizens, and improve comparison and use of parliamentary information across parliaments and with governments. Africa has regionally established the African Parliamentary Knowledge Network in 2008, a collaboration of 36 national parliaments on the continent dedicated to “support the work of African assemblies by establishing mechanisms and procedures for exchanging information and experience in areas of common interest.”[3] In 2009, a formal network with similar goals was established in Latin America and the Caribbean with the help of the Global Center for ICT in Parliament, focusing specifically on ICT.[4] Members of the European Union organized the IPEX (InterParliamentary EU information eXchange) in 2000, which in 2011 listed as one of its primary goals, “to continue the exchange of information and practices on the use of common standards among the EU.”

Individual parliaments often take measures to highlight their own work with multilateral bodies; for example, the Senate of Pakistan’s website includes a section on its relations with organizations like the IPU, CPA, and parliamentary conferences.[5] Many parliaments, including the National Assembly of the Republic of Korea and the National Council of the Slovak Republic, have similar webpages, detailing its participation in international conferences.[6] 


[1] COPA, The Contributions of Parliaments to Democracy: Benchmarks for the Parliaments of the Americas, §2.7.1.2, §2.7.1.4, and §2.7.4.2.

[2] Global Centre for ICT in Parliament, World e-Parliament Report 2010, IPU-UNDESA, p. 187. Available at: http://www.ictparliament.org/wepr2010. Accessed: 6/22/2012.

[3] Ibid., p. 149

[4] Ibid., p. 151

[5] Website of the Senate of Pakistan, Inter Parliament Activity. http://www.senate.gov.pk/ShowCategories.asp?GroupCode=13. Accessed 6/14/2012.

[6] Website of the National Assembly of the Republic of Korea, Inter-Parliamentary Conferences. http://korea.assembly.go.kr/mem/mem_08.jsp. Accessed 6/14/2012. Website of the National Council of the Slovak Republic, Interparliamentary Cooperation. http://www.nrsr.sk/web/default.aspx?sid=eu/medziparlamentna_spolupraca. Accessed 6/14/2012.

Sec. 9. Ensuring Legal Recourse

Parliament shall enact legislation to ensure that citizens have effective access to legal or judicial recourse in instances where citizens’ access to government or parliamentary information is in dispute.

Laws and regulations establishing standards of openness and transparency in parliaments are often rendered moot if not accompanied with an enforcement mechanism for citizens and members of parliament. In order for the citizen rights to be protected and for open parliaments to be realized, citizens must be able to have recourse to legal remedies when their rights have been violated. The Handbook on Transparency and Accountability of Parliament, produced by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the General Secretariat of the House of Representatives of the Republic of Indonesia, noted about the right of legal recourse: “This legal guarantee is critical, because the parliament could be sued to force it to record all sessions, not merely Plenary Sessions or Committee sessions.”[1]

Principles outlining this point have been developed for many years in the context of access to information debates in countries around the world. Depending on the region, country, and specific type of information requested, there are differing procedures for obtaining certain types of information. Right2INFO.org outlines information on right to information laws and procedures for obtaining information in more than 60 countries around the world.[2] The European Parliament’s new law regarding information specifies that the office of parliament should inform citizens about “the services to which citizens may refer to obtain support, information or administrative redress,”[3] with recourse varying, depending on the information at hand.

Several different methods of enforcement are available. The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative highlights a legal enforcement mechanism that ensures meetings are held in public, “Where a body holds a secret meeting or makes a decision during an executive session that should have been open, the law should permit any member of the public to bring a lawsuit and the courts should have the power to nullify action taken by a public body in violation of the law ‘upon reasonable cause shown’.”[4] In Indonesia, for instance, “Every public information applicant has the right to file a suit in court if he/she is obstructed from obtaining, or fails to obtain public information pursuant to the provision of [Freedom of Information] law.”[5] In Scandinavia, the position of Ombudsman originated to allow individual members of the public a means for redressing unlawful actions of public authorities. This role of an ombudsman has spread globally, to countries including Ireland, Brazil, and Argentina.[6] In South Africa, parliament has an internal appeals process for unsatisfied information requests as well as opportunities to take complaints to the court system.[7] In the UK, citizens may seek an internal review if they are not satisfied with responses from the parliament on freedom of information requests by contacting the Freedom of Information Officer, using procedures that are made clear on the UK Parliament’s website.[8] Citizens may further appeal decisions to an Information Rights Tribunal under the rules of several transparency laws.[9]


[1] UNDP, Handbook on Transparency and Accountability in Parliament, p. 9 and p. 36. http://www.agora-parl.org/sites/default/files/UNDP%20-%20Transparency%20and%20Accountability%20of%20Parliament%20-%20EN%20-%202009.pdf. Accessed 6/12/2012.

[2] Right2INFO.org, http://www.right2info.org. Accessed 6/12/2012.

[3] Public access to European Parliament, Council and Commission documents, P7_TA-PROV(2011)0580, A7-0426/2011, Rapporteur: Michael Cashman, 1a

[4] Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, Implementing Access to Information, 2008, http://www.humanrightsinitiative.org/publications/rti/implementing_ati.pdf. Accessed 6/12/2012.

[5] Republic of Indonesia, Public Information Disclosure Act, 4/30/2008, http://ccrinepal.org/files/documents/legislations/12.pdf. Accessed 6/11/2012.

[6] IPU, Parliament and Democracy in the Twenty-First Century: A Guide to Good Practice, pp. 74-75; Brazil Chamber of Deputies, Camara dos Deputados, pamphlet.

[7] Parliamentary Montoring Group (PMG) South Africa, The Legislative Process, Part 4 http://www.pmg.org.za/parlinfo/sectionb3. Accessed 6/12/2012

[8] Website of the UK Parliament, Internal reviews and appeals. http://www.parliament.uk/site-information/foi/foi-general/commons-foi/commons-foi-reviews/. Accessed 6/13/2012.

[9] See http://www.justice.gov.uk/tribunals/information-rights. Accessed 6/13/2012.

Sec. 10. Providing Complete Information

Parliamentary information available to the public shall be as complete as possible, reflecting the entirety of parliamentary action, subject only to narrowly defined exceptions specified by law and parliamentary rules.

Having access to accurate and complete information is necessary for citizens to be able to fully educate themselves about the issues coming before parliament and to engage in the lawmaking process. Providing complete information also prevents the use of inaccurate and fraudulent information. As explained by the World e-Parliaments Report 2010, “Proposed legislation…cannot be considered to be complete based solely on the availability of its text. To understand the status and meaning of a bill, members and citizens need the associated reports prepared by committees, subject experts and others; descriptions of all the actions taken on the legislation; the amendments proposed and their status; links to parliamentary debate and votes on the bill, and other related material.” Quite simply, as the report states, “The absence of completeness in documentation translates into a lower level of transparency.”[1]

 

Many organizations have noted that datasets released by the government should be as complete as possible.[2] Further, in a set of eight principles of open government released by a open government working group comprised of 30 open government advocates, the first principle listed was that “Data Must Be Complete” – noting that government data may only be considered open if “[a]ll public data are made available.”[3] The importance of releasing complete information was also affirmed by the release of open data standards by the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies, which states, “All data is available publicly. Public data is data that is not subject to limitations of privacy, security or access privileges.”[4] Standards released by other levels of government also affirm this standard. In Colombia, the Minister of Information Technology embraced this principle for the government as a whole, setting forth that “the contents that the state offers electronically must be current, relevant, verifiable, complete, generating a profit for customers and that will not lead to misinterpretations. Similarly, avoid any distortion or biased interpretation of the information that will be published in electronic media.”


[1] Global Centre for ICT in Parliament, World e-Parliament Report 2010, IPU-UNDESA, p. 60.

[2] Sunlight Foundation, Ten Principles for Opening Up Government Information, 11 Aug 2010. http://sunlightfoundation.com/policy/documents/ten-open-data-principles/. Accessed 6/12/2012; Transparency International Georgia, Ten Open Data Guidelines. http://transparency.ge/en/ten-open-data-guidelines. Accessed 6/12/2012.

[3] Open Government Data Definition: The 8 Principles of Open Government Data, released by the Open Government Working Group convened in Sebastopol, California, USA, on 8 Dec 2007. http://www.opengovdata.org/home/8principles . Accessed 6/22/2012.

[4] Brazil Chamber of Deputies, Open Data from the Chamber of Deputies, http://www2.camara.gov.br/transparencia/dados-abertos. Accessed 6/12/2012.f

Sec. 11. Providing Information in a Timely Manner

Parliamentary information shall be provided to the public in a timely manner. As a general rule, information shall be provided in real time, and to the extent that doing so is impossible, parliamentary information shall be released as quickly as it is available internally.

Citizens must have sufficient opportunity to prepare and respond to the actions of parliament, if they are to have an effective influence on the legislative process. While citizens elect representatives to exercise their independent judgment on legislative matters, citizens increasingly are demanding engagement and participation in their government in between elections. Fortunately, new technologies are making it easier to provide legislative information to the public in real time.

International benchmarks for democratic parliaments recognize that timely dissemination of information is vital to transparency in democracies. The CPA, for instance, declares simply that “information shall be provided to the public in a timely manner regarding matters under consideration by the legislature.”[1] Benchmarks for democratic parliaments tend to agree that certain items—namely, schedules and agendas of parliamentary sessions and meetings—should be published in advance by parliaments, their committees and commissions.[2] Recognizing that the context differs among the world’s parliaments in terms of their budgetary resources and their use of information technology, international democratic norms and standards are often intentionally vague in defining what constitutes the “timely” release of information.

The Guidelines for Parliamentary Websites, developed by the IPU and the Global Centre for ICT in Parliament, suggest that information should be available online to the public “as soon as [it] is available to members and officials.”[3] Another reasonable rule of thumb is provided by the Sunlight Foundation, which states that the release of information “should move at the same pace as influence over such decisions.”[4] Although varying levels of technology and capacity may impact the timeliness of public dissemination of information, these challenges should not create an information imbalance that favors the few over the many.

Parliaments often produce tremendous amounts of information and it may take time for staff to ensure its accuracy. Nonetheless, as the World e-Parliament Report 2010 explains, “If a document is available to citizens relatively quickly, for example within 24 hours after its preparation, this is an indication of greater openness of parliament; if they are available only after a considerable time has elapsed, especially if they are available to members well before the public, then openness declines.” Indeed, as stated in the report’s survey, a vast majority of parliaments make plenary and committee agendas available at least two days before action (70 and 77 percent, respectively). Proposed legislation and plenary proceedings are made available by more than three fourths of parliaments within one day. The report clarifies, “While these percentages may be considered satisfactory by some, the fact is that agendas need to be available even sooner, especially if citizens, civil societies, and other interested and affected groups wish to follow the discussion and possibly contribute to it.”[5]

The Greek Parliament, for example, records what is said in the legislative chamber or debates, then allows a review process which provides legislators the opportunity to correct or supplement record, subject to approval by parliament. Records of proceedings are published and distributed within eight days at the latest.[6] Yet, India has found an exemplary compromise between timeliness and accuracy. The proceedings of each house of parliament are generally uploaded to their respective websites within 24 hours of their delivery, with an official version coming 10 to 15 days later, allowing for corrections to the record.[7] 


[1] CPA, Recommended Benchmarks for Democratic Legislatures, §6.3.2.

[2] See, for example, IPU, Guidelines for Parliamentary Websites, §2.5.a; and South Asians for Human Rights [hereinafter, “SAHR”], Transparency in Parliament, Sri Lanka 2009, p. 66.

[3] IPU, Guidelines for Parliamentary Websites, §6.4.f.

[4] The Sunlight Foundation, Agenda 2011. http://sunlightfoundation.com/policy/agenda/. Accessed 11/15/2011.

[5] Global Centre for ICT in Parliament, World e-Parliaments Report 2010, IPU-UNDESA, pp. 58-60.

[6] Smilov, Daniel Smilov. Open Parliaments: Transparency and Accountability of Parliaments in South-East Europe. Centre for Liberal Strategies/Friedrich Ebert Foundation. April 2010.

[7] SAHR, Transparency in Parliament, Sri Lanka 2009, p. 24.

Sec. 12. Ensuring the Accuracy of Information

Parliament shall ensure a process to retain authoritative records and guarantee that the information it releases to the public is accurate.

Parliament must commit to retaining an authoritative copy of its records to prevent forgery or the entry of accidental changes over time. These authoritative records help ensure that the accuracy of parliamentary information remains valid over time. The accuracy and authority of the information released by parliament is a vital component of the rule of law, and allows citizens to participate in the lawmaking process. The European Parliament’s OPPD has stressed, especially given the rising role of information and communications technology, that “this increase in the number of sources that provide information and opinions about public policy issues makes it imperative that the official site of the legislature be authoritative and non-partisan.” The IPU lists as a requirement for parliaments that “Manual or automated procedures and systems are in place to ensure the accuracy of documentation and media available on the website.”[1]

Although the need to provide information in a timely manner, discussed above, may conflict at times with the duty of ensuring the accuracy of information, the adoption of open document standards by parliaments is helping to limit the significance of such tradeoffs. “Because open document standards allow for structured input of information (such as tagging of articles and clauses in a legislative text), these documents help structure the legislative process and cut down on human error. For the European Parliament, which has adopted an XML-based legislative markup system, this has led to dramatic reductions in the time spent drafting legislation and verifying its accuracy. Authors no longer need to concern themselves with layout issues and all amendments are stored individually so they can be reused if not adopted.”[2] 

To help ensure accuracy, the Sunlight Foundation’s standards for open government note that “datasets released by the government should be primary source data.”[3] The public relations office of the Ugandan Parliament states as one of its core goals to “disseminate accurate information.”[4] In the UK, the House of Commons Information Office goes so far as to offer to proofread any text written by citizens about the Parliament “in the interest of providing accurate information about Parliament.”[5] In Canada, the parliament’s legislative information service PARLINFO is explicit in its mission to “[make] every effort to ensure the accuracy and currency of its information, using authoritative, publicly available sources.”[6]

However, in the era of open data, the notion of accuracy has broadened beyond simply providing the authoritative text of a document. As Joshua Tauberer of GovTrack.us explains: “Accuracy as defined here is a more nuanced notion by making it always relative to a particular purpose.”[7] In this sense, accuracy must take the context and medium into account in order to ensure that information presented gives citizens the full picture of what occurred. For the citizen seeking to analyze a particular plenary vote, an audiovisual recording of the session may provide a number of facts, but the medium used may not allow for easy and systematic use of the facts desired. Similarly, as Tauberer writes: “An image recording of a typed physical document, i.e. a scan, has low accuracy with regard to these facts [plenary vote tallies in the example used here] because automated analysis of a large volume of such records could not avoid a large number of errors. OCR (optical character recognition) software to “read” the letters and numbers in a scan will occasionally swap letters, yielding an incorrect read of the facts.”[8] If accuracy is to be retained for any way in which citizens want - or will inevitably - utilize this information, then parliaments must provide parliamentary information through multiple channels (provision 27) and in an open and structured format (provision 36).


[1] IPU, Guidelines for Parliamentary Websites, §6.4d.

[2] Andrew Mandelbaum, “How XML Can Improve Transparency and Workflows for Parliaments,” 5 Apr 2012. http://www.demworks.org/node/430. Accessed 6/12/2012.

[3] The Sunlight Foundation, Agenda 2011. http://sunlightfoundation.com/policy/agenda/. Accessed 11/15/2011.

[4] Website of the Parliament of Uganda, http://www.parliament.go.ug/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=348&Itemid=132. Accessed 3/25/2012.

[5] Website of the U.K. Parliament, http://www.parliament.uk/mps-lords-and-offices/offices/commons/hcio/responsibilities/. Accessed 6/12/2012.

[6] Website of the Parliament of Canada, http://www.parl.gc.ca/parlinfo/compilations/AboutSenatorAndMPProfiles.aspx. Accessed 2/14/2012.

[7] Joshua Tauberer, Open Government Data, April 2012, Section 5.2. http://opengovdata.io/2012-02/page/5-2/data-quality-precision-accuracy-and-cost. Accessed 05/29/2012.

[8] Ibid.