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Declaration on Parliamentary Openness [Draft Commentary]

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Title II - Promoting a Culture of Openness

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.