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Declaration on Parliamentary Openness [Draft Commentary]

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Title II - Promoting a Culture of Openness

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. 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.