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Declaration on Parliamentary Openness [Draft Commentary]

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Title IV - Making Parliamentary Information Easily Accessible


Not only must parliamentary information be made public, parliament must also ensure that the information is broadly accessible to all citizens through multiple channels, including print, live and on-line broadcasts. Physical access to parliament must be provided to all citizens, with clearly defined and publicly available policies for ensuring access by media. Parliamentary information should also be available free of charge, in multiple national and working languages, and through tools, such as plain language summaries, that help ensure that parliamentary information is readily available and understandable to a broad range of citizens.

Sec. 27. Ensuring Accessibility of Parliament through Multiple Channels

Parliament shall provide access to information about its work through multiple channels; including first-person observation through physical access to proceedings, print media, radio and television broadcast, and through the use of the Internet and mobile device technology.

Parliaments have an obligation to communicate and engage the diversity of their constituents irrespective of their proximity to parliament, access to technology, or other social or cultural barriers. In rural areas with limited Internet penetration or access to print media, parliamentary information may best be transmitted by radio or television. In the cities with deeper internet penetration, the parliamentary website or social media may serve as the best method for disseminating parliamentary information to citizens and also provides options for citizens to provide input to the parliament on the same platform.

Parliaments must seek to provide information in ways that meet citizens’ information needs; because it is difficult if not impossible for parliament to anticipate all of these needs, parliaments should disseminate information through a variety of channels and in a variety of formats. As discussed in relation to provision 12 above, an individual seeking to know the voting record of her member over the past year would find it difficult to pull this information if only provided with audiovisual records of plenary sessions.

Sec. 28. Ensuring Physical Access to Parliament

Parliament and its proceedings shall be physically accessible and open to all citizens subject only to demonstrable public safety and space limitations.

The transparency of parliament relies on the ability of citizens, the media and civil society groups to closely observe all proceedings and votes.  Providing physical access to the plenary not only is a method of providing information about the session, but carries important symbolic value in communicating the openness of the parliament.  The notion that the building that houses parliament must be physically open to all interested persons is consistent with benchmarks for democratic parliaments. According to the CPA, “The Legislature shall be accessible and open to citizens and the media, subject only to demonstrable public safety and work requirements.”[1] Where space constraints exist, the existence of a media and public gallery for citizens to observe plenary sessions is important as a symbol of parliamentary transparency, with any restrictions on access narrowly defined, publicly available, and non-discriminatory.

Most parliaments today permit access to a public or visitors’ gallery to observe plenary sessions and many do so for committee hearings. In South Africa, for example, this value was even written into the Constitution, which states, “The National Assembly must conduct its business in an open manner, and hold its sittings, and those of its committees, in public ... [and] may not exclude the public, including the media, from a sitting of a committee unless it is reasonable and justifiable to do so in an open and democratic society.”[2] However, there are legitimate security concerns facing parliaments and public servants and it is important that parliaments institute relevant security measures. In 1999, after obtaining passes allowing them to enter parliament, gunmen killed the Prime Minister of Armenia, the Speaker of Parliament, and a number of others, claiming that they wanted to punish “corrupt officials.” Parliamentarians have been the targets of violence in both new and developed democracies. Nevertheless, safety or other restrictions on public access must not be overly burdensome – giving citizens the impression that their observation of parliamentary proceedings is unwelcome – or be applied in a discriminatory fashion.

[1] CPA, Recommended Benchmarks for Democratic Legislatures, §9.1.1.

[2] Constitution of South Africa, Section 59, 1b and 2.

Sec. 29. Guaranteeing Access by the Media

Parliament shall ensure that the media and independent observers are given full access to parliamentary proceedings; the criteria and process for providing media access shall be clearly defined and publicly available.

The media’s right to access parliamentary proceedings is referenced in all international benchmarks for democratic parliaments. The CPA, for instance, asserts that “The Legislature should ensure that the media are given appropriate access to the proceedings of the Legislature without compromising the proper functioning of the Legislature and its rules of procedure.”[1] The SADC-PF benchmarks further specify that “Accredited journalists shall be allowed to cover parliamentary proceedings regardless of the media’s political views.”[2]  Most standards frameworks go further than just requiring access for the media, but also require parliament to actively promote a healthy relationship between parliament and the media. The CPA Benchmarks for Democratic Parliaments – in language COPA and SADC-PF[3] – notes that parliaments should have a “non-partisan media relations facility.”[4] Implementing this benchmark, the Kenyan National Assembly launched in 2009 a media center and Internet facility to enable journalists to file stories.[5]

According to the World Bank Institute, “Many Parliaments have special committees, such as Nigeria’s Media and Public Affairs Committee, to promote good relations with the media. In India, Parliament conducts a 10-day special media interaction each year, where special efforts are made to promote two-way flows of information and better understanding between Parliament and the media.”[6] The IPU cites several other instances of countries allowing full access to parliamentary proceedings by the media including Cyprus, Cote d’Ivoire, South Africa, and Australia.[7] The Parliament of Scotland has specific regulations permitting open media access which are clearly outlined and easily accessible on their website.[8]

[1] CPA, Recommended Benchmarks for Democratic Legislatures, §9.1.3.

[2] SADC PF, Benchmarks for Democratic Legislatures in Southern Africa, §6.4.5.

[3] COPA, The Contributions of Parliaments to Democracy: Benchmarks for the Parliaments of the Americas, §; SADC-PF, Benchmarks for Democratic Legislatures in Southern Africa, §2.1.3.

[4] CPA, Recommended Benchmarks for Democratic Legislatures, §9.1.3.

[5] Parliamentary Centre, African Parliamentary Index, June 2011, p. 91.

[6] Toby Mendel, Parliament and Access to Information: Working for Transparent Governance, CPA-WBI, p. 33.

[7] IPU, Parliament and Democracy in the Twenty-First Century: A Guide to Good Practice, p. 45.

[8] Website of the Scottish Parliament, Media Access: terms and conditions. Accessed 6/12/2012.

Sec. 30. Providing Live and On-Demand Broadcasts and Streaming

Efforts shall be made to provide citizens with real-time and on-demand archival access to parliamentary proceedings through radio, television and the Internet.

Recognizing the limited space of public galleries and the value of providing access to live coverage of the plenary, an increasing number of parliaments have sought to enhance their public outreach by broadcasting coverage of sessions by radio, television and the Internet.   The value of broadcasting is recognized by both SADC-PF and COPA.[1] According to SADC-PF, “Through broadcasts of plenary and committee meetings, citizens shall have access to parliamentary business using multi-media including the Internet, and live television and radio.” The IPU recommends that parliaments include on their webpages “the capacity to broadcast or webcast” proceedings or other events. As most working-age citizens are unable to view proceedings live, the IPU further suggests parliaments create an electronic archive that permits on-demand viewing.[2] This is common practice in countries like Brazil and the U.S. whose parliamentary websites offer this service.[3] In countries where on-demand capability or adequate searchability of video content has not yet been implemented by parliaments, PMOs are increasingly stepping in to fill in the gap. For example, the organization Fundacja ePaństwo in Poland created a website, Sejmometr, which allows video of parliamentary proceedings provided by the Polish Parliament to be searched by topic and speaker.[4]

According to the World e-Parliament Report 2010, webcasting is currently used by 43% of parliaments (23% are considering developing this capability),[5] while 72% of parliaments provide some ICT support for recording parliamentary activity.[6] In Bulgaria, it is standard that most sessions of parliament are broadcast on television and radio.[7] In Ghana, parliament created a public-private partnership with a television station to cover both plenary sessions and committee hearings live. To further extend availability to citizens, these broadcasts are available throughout the country at regional resource centers.[8] Countries like Portugal, Korea, Brazil, and the United States maintain TV channels specifically for the broadcast of parliamentary activities which are also streamed live on their parliamentary websites.[9] The U.S. Congress also provides “a near real-time text synopsis of House actions that runs 10-15 minutes after the actual event, and a next-day summary of the actions of both chambers in the Daily Digest section of the Congressional Record along with the verbatim text of debate in the House and Senate sections.”[10] Less common, but present in such countries as Sweden, Canada and the United States, are archives of past webcasts of parliamentary activity.[11]

[1] COPA, The Contributions of Parliaments to Democracy: Benchmarks for the Parliaments of the Americas, §; SADC PF, Benchmarks for Democratic Legislatures in Southern Africa, §6.4.4.

[2] IPU, Guidelines for Parliamentary Websites, §3.2.

[3] See, for example, the website of the U.S. House of Representatives Office of the Clerk at or the website of the Chamber of Deputies in Brazil at Both accessed 6/25/2012.

[4] See Accessed 6/25/2012.

[5] Global Centre for ICT in Parliament, World e-Parliament Report 2010, IPU-UNDESA, p. 29.

[6] Ibid., p. 182.

[7] Center for Liberal Strategies, Open Parliaments: Transparency and Accountability of Parliaments in South-East Europe, p. 14.

[8] Ibid., p. 26.

[9] IPU, Parliament and Democracy in the Twenty-First Century: A Guide to Good Practice, p. 54, 56.

[10] Jeffrey Griffith, Beyond Transparency: New Standards for Legislative Information Systems, Global Centre for ICT in Parliament, June 2006, p. 98.

[11] 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, p. 8.

Sec. 31. Guaranteeing Accessibility throughout the Country

To the extent possible, access to parliamentary information shall not be restricted by geographic barriers. Although the use of parliamentary websites facilitates access to parliamentary information without geographic restriction, in countries where Internet access and usage is limited, parliaments shall seek other means of ensuring public access to parliamentary information throughout the country.

Parliaments have a responsibility to attempt to involve and inform as many citizens as possible. This concept is vital to openness as well as widely accepted standards of the citizens’ right to access information.  Parliaments must play an active role in advancing their use of technology to reach as many people as possible, “advancing these technologies and ensuring that they are available to all sectors of the population and not only those in urban areas or with greater income,” according to a report by the European Parliament’s OPPD. This includes actions like extending access to broadband.[1] 

As noted in the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative’s report, Implementing Access to Information, mass media plays a vital role in “bridg[ing] the distance” between citizens and parliament.[2] In Ghana, parliament has “established local centers where citizens can gather and have access to shared technology that connects them to the parliament,” as well as “resource centers in regions to allow citizens live webcast or TV access to plenary.”[3] The Uganda Parliament is introducing a system for receiving, organizing and analyzing citizen input via SMS. In Hungary, the Library of the Parliament offers special telephone lines and email addresses that citizens can contact with questions concerning the legislation or work of the Parliament.[4]  The Parliament of South Africa has a program by which members “spend two weeks a year holding sessions in different parts of the country,” which include a “media component” as well as “open question periods.”[5]

[1] Office for Promotion of Parliamentary Democracy [hereinafter, “OPPD”], Information and Communications Technologies in Parliament: Tools for Democracy, European Parliament, August 2010, p. 20.

[2] Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative [hereinafter, “CHRI”], Implementing Access to Information, p.23.

[3] Global Centre for ICT in Parliament, World e-Parliament Report 2010, IPU-UNDESA, p. 21, 26.

[4] IPU, Parliament and Democracy in the Twenty-First Century: A Guide to Good Practice, p. 54.

[5] Toby Mendel, Parliament and Access to Information: Working for Transparent Governance, CPA-WBI, p.34.

Sec. 32. Using Plain Language

Parliament shall ensure that legal or technical language does not serve as a barrier to citizens seeking to access parliamentary information. Parliament has a duty to develop plain language summaries and other simple tools to make parliamentary information readily available and understandable to a broad range of citizens.

To enhance citizen understanding of parliamentary information, parliaments should ensure that legal or technical language are clearly explained and do not pose a barrier to participation. This point was recognized bluntly by the President of the European Parliament, who said, “There is no point in putting a report adopted in plenary online if no effort is made to explain it.”[1] The World e-Parliament Report 2010 notes that “[proposed legislation] is usually drafted in legal language that can be difficult to understand,” but that “A number of parliaments have begun to recognize the importance of providing explanations of bills and legislative actions in language understandable to citizens.”[2]   The European Parliament’s OPPD has noted that: “Parliaments need to determine what resources they have internally for developing this type of material (press offices, libraries, research services) and also make decisions about their willingness to link to other external resources that can provide explanatory information.”[3]

Explanatory materials to simplify legalese in parliamentary information, at this point, are only used ‘always or most of the time’ by about 36% of parliaments surveyed in the World e-Parliament Report 2010.[4] Countries continue to make strides toward this goal, particularly in developed countries. The European Union’s new law on parliamentary information specifies that “legislative texts should be drafted in a clear and understandable way.”[5] In Norway, surveys were conducted to examine the extent of this problem, and found that one-in-three Norwegians had difficulty understanding official government documents. This resulted in the introduction of a government-wide project, the Plain Language Project, with the aim of making public documents more clear and concise, particularly in regards to documents relating to legislative work.[6] 

[1] Jeffrey Griffith, Beyond Transparency: New Standards for Legislative Information Systems, Global Centre for ICT in Parliament, June 2006, p. 138.

[2] Global Centre for ICT in Parliament, World e-Parliament Report 2010, IPU-UNDESA, p. 62.

[3] OPPD, Information and Communication Technologies in Parliament, European Parliament, August 2010, p. 28.

[4] Global Centre for ICT in Parliament, World e-Parliament Report 2010, IPU-UNDESA, p. 62.

[5] Public access to European Parliament, Council and Commission documents, P7_TA-PROV(2011)0580, A7-0426/2011, Rapporteur: Michael Cashman, 12a

[6] Klarsprak, Plain Language in Norway’s Civil Service, Accessed 6/12/2012.

Sec. 33. Using Multiple National or Working Languages

Where the constitution or parliamentary rules provide for the use of multiple national or working languages in parliament, parliament shall make every reasonable effort to provide for the simultaneous interpretation of proceedings and rapid translation of the parliamentary record.

In the context of transparency and openness of parliamentary information, language can be an important barrier for parliaments to overcome to avoid discrimination in informing their constituents. In countries with one or more official language, it is vital that political participation is not hampered by the language spoken by citizens.  This principle is endorsed by major parliamentary organizations , including the IPU,[1] COPA,[2] SADC-PF[3] and the CPA. The CPA’s standards document prescribes, “Where the constitution or parliamentary rules provide for the use of multiple working languages, the Legislature shall make every reasonable effort to provide for simultaneous interpretation of debates and translation of records.”[4] Recognizing the wide variation in languages spoken among countries in the community of world democracies, the IPU clarifies that this principle be carried out  with each countries’ parliament “[deciding] for itself what is possible,” with, for example with parliamentary websites, best effort taken “to translate [websites] into as many official languages as feasible.”[5] 

Acknowledging the difficulty of fulfilling this standard, the World e-Parliament Report 2010 notes that, for countries with two official languages, only 28% of parliaments responding to their survey offered their website in both languages. Continuing efforts toward transparency must focus on this as a key issue of accessibility.  While it may be impractical or undesirable to interpret or translate all legislative documents into non-official languages that are in common use, the parliament many nonetheless wish to conduct some basic level of outreach in non-official local languages, in an effort to broaden citizen engagement and political inclusion.  

[1] IPU, Guidelines for Parliamentary Websites, §5.3.

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

[3] SADC PF, Benchmarks for Democratic Legislatures in Southern Africa, §6.4.3.

[4] CPA, Recommended Benchmarks for Democratic Legislatures, §9.2.1.

[5] IPU, Guidelines for Parliamentary Websites, §5.3.

Sec. 34. Ensuring Free Access

Parliamentary information shall be available to citizens for access and reuse free of charge.

Parliamentary information should be free; it should not be limited only to those few who can afford to pay. Principles for open data put forth by the Sunlight Foundation explain that, “Imposing fees for access skews the pool of who is willing (or able) to access information. It also may preclude transformative uses of the data that in turn generates business growth and tax revenues.”[1] 

This is a nearly universal standard adopted by countries which have Freedom of Information laws and rules regarding the release of parliamentary information. A joint study group convened by the CPA and WBI[2] provided the benchmark that “Costs for access to information should not be so high as to deter requesters,” stating that “requesters only have to pay for the cost of reproducing the information,” with exceptions made for those unable to pay.[3] The Open Knowledge Foundation and Access Info Europe explain that “the prevailing standard is that submitting information requests is free of charge, as is the inspection of original documents and the receipt of information by electronic means. The norm is that only legitimate charges that may be made are for providing copies of information (photocopies, copies on discs) and for delivering these copies (postal charges).”[4] A newly adopted European Union law establishes the principle that public institutions should not be able to charge more than the marginal cost triggered by a data request; specifically, information must be free with the exception that only “the cost of producing and sending copies may be charged to the applicant.”[5] The EU clarified the new law with the statement that, “In practice this means most data will be offered for free or virtually for free unless duly justified.”[6]

Most countries with freedom of information laws have put this standard into practice. New Zealand’s Data and Information Management Principles state that, “Use and re-use of government held data and information is expected to be free. Charging for access is discouraged. Pricing to cover the costs of dissemination is only appropriate where it can be clearly demonstrated that this pricing will not act as a barrier to the use or re-use of the data. If a charge is applied for access to data, it should be transparent, consistent, reasonable and the same cost to all requestors.”[7] The standards put forth by the House of Representatives in Brazil echoes this sentiment: “[D]ata is available to the greatest possible scope of users and to the greatest possible scope of purposes.”[8] In the limited circumstances where it may be necessary to charge a fee to recover costs in collecting or copying parliamentary information, any charge should not exceed the additional marginal cost of distribution to that citizen and should not be used to deter requests for information.

[1] Sunlight Foundation, Ten Principles for Opening up Government Information, 2012, Accessed, 5/14/2012.

[2] CPA-WBI, Recommendations for Transparent Governance, Conclusions of a CPA-WBI Study Group on Access to Information, Held in partnership with the Parliament of Ghana, Accra, Ghana, 5-9 July 2004. Accessed 6/11/2012.

[3] Ibid., Sections 5.1, 5.1a

[4] Access Info Europe and Open Knowledge Foundation, Beyond Access: The Right to (Re)Use Public Information, 7 Jan 2011, p. 74.

[5] Public access to European Parliament, Council and Commission documents, P7_TA-PROV(2011)0580, A7-0426/2011, Rapporteur: Michael Cashman, 4

[6] European Commision Press Release, Digital Agenda: Turning Government Data into Gold, Accessed 5/18/2012.

[7] Government ICT Directions and Priorities, New Zealand Data and Information Management Principles, 2011, Accessed 4/24/2012.  

[8] Brazilian Chamber of Deputies, Dados Abertos da Camara dos Deputados (Open Data from the Chamber of Deputies), 2011, p. 2.