8. Facing the future


Societies and their governments face enormous challenges as the twenty-first century develops. While these may differ in character and intensity in different countries, all governments alike have to respond to new global pressures (on the economy, environment, health, human security) with policies and programmes which can enhance the wellbeing of their populations rather than diminish or compromise it. This constitutes a huge challenge to human creativity and to a society's capacity for cooperation and common purpose.

As has been shown by this study, parliaments, besides their necessary role in legislation, oversight, and so on, have distinctive attributes which enable them to play a crucial part in helping meet these challenges:

  • they are able to represent and speak for the whole people, in all their diversity;
  • they can make public the choices and dilemmas facing policy-makers, and help educate the public about them;
  • they provide the national forum for canvassing and debating alternative views and policy proposals;
  • their commitment to dialogue for resolving differences gives them a special role in conflict resolution at both a societal and political level;
  • they have a particular concern for the protection and promotion of human rights, economic and social as well as civil and political.

These distinctive attributes of parliament constitute the essence of democracy: respect for diversity on the basis of the equal worth of each person, and the resolution of difference of views and interests by means of dialogue and debate, so that necessary common action can proceed with consent. In a rapidly changing world, among the key dialogues is one that runs through all policy and legislation: between a society's past and its future - how to shape the future without destroying everything in a country's traditions that makes it distinctive, by treating the past as a source for creative change rather than merely as an obstacle to progress. This means that for democracy itself, in the words of the 2005 UN World Summit outcome document, there will be 'no single model', but a series of variations around some core norms and practices, according to each country's distinctive political tradition - a diversity to which the different examples in this volume attest.

The study also shows that parliaments take seriously the challenge to engage in an ongoing process of reform themselves, and to make their own practices more open, accountable and responsive. Democratisation is not a one-off event, but a continuing process, in both recent and long-established democracies. In the IPU survey for this Guide, parliaments were invited to report on some examples of recent reforms they had instituted. The main part of this chapter will consider their returns, not so much for the content of the reforms, but for what they tell us about the process and dynamics of parliamentary reform, and some of the potential difficulties experienced. A concluding section will consider how parliaments can contribute to society's planning for the future.

The reform process

   Sources of reform

To judge from the submissions received, parliamentary reform has many different sources, which vary widely from one parliament to another. It might be useful, however, to offer a provisional map of the most typical sources of change reported, to help make sense of these different reform experiences. Naturally, these sources should be seen as often complementary and interactive, as the diagrammatic presentation suggests, rather than as isolated points of change.

Figure 8.1: Sources of Parliamentary Reform

Figure 8.1: Sources of Parliamentary Reform

Source: Inter-Parliamentary Union

For convenience these sources can be divided into extra-parliamentary and intra-parliamentary ones. Among the chief extra-parliamentary reasons for reform are the following:

  • Changing societal needs. These can be as various as are the different types of society, and they constitute a typical source of new or revised legislation. But they can also lead to changes in the way parliament itself works. Example: the changing role of women in society leads to changes in political representation and in the way parliament conducts its business.
  • Pressures from the public. Again these are enormously variable, but a common element for many parliaments is the perception of a growing gulf between parliament and the electorate, especially young people, which leads to experimentation with new modes of public access to parliament.
  • Technological change. The most obvious example is the rapidly changing world of information technology, with its consequences for how parliaments communicate both internally and with their various publics. Typical also are changing TV technologies, with their consequences for parliamentary broadcasting.
  • International influences. A common feature mentioned in the previous chapter is the way in which economic globalisation exposes the limitations in parliamentary oversight of the executive. For EU candidate members, the need to harmonise legislation in preparation for membership puts enormous pressure on the legislative process and to streamline its procedures. For all countries there is the influence of a global democratic culture, to be discussed below.
  • Peer-group example. This is the influence of practices in other parliaments, whether through bilateral relations and visits, regional networks or membership organisations such as the IPU, ASGP, CPA, and so on.

Among the intra-parliamentary conditions that are conducive to reform are:

  • The recognition of procedural limitations, as these affect parliament’s own internal effectiveness, and in the light of a changing extra-parliamentary environment.
  • Reform initiators. These might be key individuals such as a particularly active Speaker or President, or a parliamentary group, or a reform-oriented procedure committee or secretariat. The institutionalisation of the reform process as an ongoing element of parliamentary practice through a permanent committee is a feature mentioned by many parliaments.
  • Support mobilisers and implementers. The need to mobilise wider parliamentary support for reforms can itself influence their scope and content, as can also the process of their implementation.

How these different influences interact in any particular parliament and at any particular juncture is of course enormously variable, but many of them will be present in any successful reform process. Of special significance is what might be termed the dynamic of democratisation, which merits a section to itself.

   The dynamic of democratisation

The submissions from parliaments for this study show that all are subject to the influence of a strong democratising current, whether flowing from the logic of their own democratic evolution, or from the global environment, or a combination of the two. However, the character and scope of their reforms is dependent on the particular stage reached in the democratising process, and their particular trajectory in doing so. Some countries are only in the early stages of a transition towards democracy; some are in the process of consolidating a recently effected democratic transition, in a manner that is in some respects influenced by the character of the former regime; others where democracy has been long established are under an impetus to deepen their democracy, or else to resist a process of creeping sclerosis. Although different countries will be facing different challenges, however, common to them all is the centrality of parliament to the process of democratic reform, as the following examples from our returns will show, and as has been particularly underlined in the return from Gabon.

In Viet Nam the National Assembly, while subject to dominant-party rule, reports an increased professionalisation of parliament and a greater pluralism and representativeness of views within it, as evidence of a democratic current at work:

The increase in the number of deputies in general and full-time members in particular has clearly shown the view of the Viet Nam Party and State: give prominence to the role of the National Assembly as the democratic institution representing the people……The backgrounds of the deputies are more diverse and broad, comprising representatives from various classes, ethnic groups, religions and areas. Therefore, different segments or population communities in society have their own representatives to raise their voices in the National Assembly arenas. During the recent sessions people have witnessed a more open and frank atmosphere, some deputies even expressing their opposite opinions from the Standing Committee of the National Assembly……These signs show that there is much more democracy in National Assembly activities than in previous legislatures. However, people are still concerned that working methods of the National Assembly remain not as democratic as expected.

The submission from Oman notes that ‘Shura and democratic practice in the Sultanate have developed gradually, taking into account reality and the conditions of Omani society, side by side with an openness to being guided by the experience of others.’ It reports on the gradual strengthening over the past decade of the role of the elected Shura Council within the two-council legislative system, and the extension of the right to vote to all citizens over 21, male and female, in 2003. This extension has led to a much greater diversity in the composition of the Shura Council, which ‘enriches the debates and discussion of the Council, and increases its effectiveness in carrying out its functions and in representing Omani society.’

The submission from Egypt points to the introduction of direct elections for the Presidency and the creation of a national Human Rights Commission as key elements is its recent democratic evolution. The latter gives a central role to Parliament:

Since the parliament is the guardian of rights and liberties, and because the Assembly deemed it necessary to establish a parliamentary human rights committee in order to revitalize its role in protecting such rights, the Assembly created the Human Rights Committee. This is a system that is well known in the parliaments of the advanced countries, where such committees consider complaints and forward them to the competent authorities, while ensuring follow-up. The Committee can thus carry out an oversight role of the actions of the executive branch through a report that it submits to the Assembly.

The submission from the National Assembly of Lebanon identifies the transition that has taken place in parliament over the past decade as marking a shift ‘from a traditional to a contemporary role’. The submission lists a dozen major reforms which have followed from this democratic current, involving everything from the strengthening of institutional and legislative capacity, through improved informational access for Members, to involvement of civil society institutions in the work of Parliament.

We have already noted that in Ukraine the dynamic of democratisation led to pressure for constitutional change from the immediate post-Communist system of ‘super-presidential power’ to a more parliamentary-based system, with the support of 80% of the population. A similar logic has been at work in Croatia, where, in 2000, ‘the semi-presidential system was altered…. and the centre of power and responsibilities were transferred to the Croatian Parliament and Croatian Government.’

In Chile, the consolidation of the transition from military rule has involved a progressive series of reforms in the relation between the different branches of the State:

As for parliamentary reform, the most important one is a modification of the Constitution. In general terms, this introduced changes in the composition and responsibilities of the National Congress, in the ratification of international treaties, in the composition and functions of the Constitutional Court and in other areas. The aim was to bring these in line with the new realities and to harmonize the country's institutions, which had given rise to discrepancies between the various political parties, and the constitutional modification thus closed the period of transition to democracy.

In Zambia the process of consolidating the transition to multi-party democracy has involved a many faceted reform programme under the supervision of the Parliamentary Reform and Modernisation Committee, which has the authority to travel widely to other parliaments to learn practices that might be useful to Zambia. The process of reform has been ongoing since 1991:

With the re-introduction of multipartyism in 1991, and as a way of enhancing democratic governance, the National Assembly of Zambia found it prudent to realign the functions of Parliament with the demands of plural politics. This called for the introduction of parliamentary reforms with a view to addressing some of the limitations which existed in the institution. The reform programme was, therefore conceived in order to enhance parliamentary oversight of the Executive and also to allow for increased participation of the citizens in the affairs of the country.

The history of racial oppression under apartheid in South Africa has led to a particularly strong democratic thrust to the new political order, and especially to the character of its Parliament. The reforms of Parliament to date have been ‘aimed at ensuring that it fosters a culture of democracy and that its procedures and processes embody the democratic principles that South Africa aspires to.’ But the submission notes that the work of democratisation remains unfinished, and that Parliament faces many challenges if it is to realise the vision it has embraced since 1994:

Its vision….. is to build an effective people’s parliament that is responsive to the needs of the people and that is driven by the ideal of realising a better quality of life for all the people of South Africa. Despite Parliament’s many achievements in the decade of democracy, its strategic objectives indicate that it is not content to sit on its laurels and has already taken steps to address the challenges that it faces at present, as well as those new challenges that it foresees.

   Established democracies

With regard to the long-established democracies, most see the main democratic challenge and impetus for parliamentary reform as being the need to keep the institution relevant in the context of rapid social change and potential public apathy. ‘A major challenge’, notes the Australian House of Representatives, ‘is keeping the parliamentary institution relevant to the needs and perceptions of the public it represents.’ ‘Restoring public confidence’ is described as part of the objective of reforms made by the Canadian Parliament. ‘Working hard to regain citizens’ trust’ is identified by the Netherlands Parliament as the impetus behind its many recent initiatives, since an essential characteristic of democracy ‘is that citizens can identify with the work and working methods of their parliamentarians, and that they feel represented by them.’ And so on.

For all the parliaments of the established democracies, reform is a continuing process, usually institutionalised in a specific standing committee. In India, adapting the traditional Westminster system to Indian conditions and culture has seen a constant process of evolution since 1947; most recently, the increase in the number of parties in the two chambers, to 38 and 30 respectively, has had a particular bearing on the revision to parliamentary procedures. The Israeli Knesset ‘is constantly engaged in reforms and changes’, most recently to streamline its internal procedures and improve its standing with the public. The Italian Parliament is currently engaged in a wide-ranging reform of the constitution, affecting such things as the balance between the two chambers in the legislative process, a reduction in the number of members in each chamber and in the minimum age for voters and candidates. The Portuguese Parliament has been involved in a substantial recent programme of reforms, intended to strengthen oversight of the executive, to monitor implementation of the laws and to bring parliament closer to the people. In the United Kingdom, the logic of democratisation has generated numerous reforms since 1997, including the abolition of the hereditary element in the Upper House, the creation of a devolved parliament for Scotland and assemblies for Wales and Northern Ireland, the introduction of a Human Rights Act, and many others.

   Facilitators and obstacles to reform

It should be clear from what has been said above that the process of parliamentary reform under the different influences described is a self-generating one, whether it take the form of a large-scale programme or an accumulation of small-scale changes. However, the process can be considerably facilitated by external assistance, especially for those parliaments which are weak in resources and expertise. For the parliaments reporting in this study the UNDP has been a particularly significant resource, but there are many other international agencies involved in such support, including of course the IPU itself. A list of the main international, regional and bilateral agencies involved in parliamentary support, with a description of their characteristic emphases, is provided in Appendix 1. A standard feature of such assistance is the preparation of an agreed programme of parliamentary reform, with clear priorities and means of implementation.

Examples of such assistance include Burkina Faso, which agreed a ten-year programme of parliamentary development from 2004 with UNDP, concentrating on addressing an identified deficiency of information and communication between parliament and public. Cote d’Ivoire’s agreed programme of support from the same quarter covers the installation of a cyberspace in the library and the recruitment of national experts to service parliamentary groups. In Fiji support is directed to strengthening the Parliamentary Secretariat and committee back-up, and improving support services for members and constituencies. An agreement made by the Lebanese Parliament in 1999 comprises the strengthening of both legislative and oversight functions, as well as the links with civil society and other parliaments. All the above have been supported by UNDP. Among others, St.Kitts has had assistance in the form of finance and human resources from the Commonwealth Secretariat, and Zambia from a consortium of donors for an extensive programme of parliamentary reform.

Among the many other ways of providing momentum for reform is through the involvement of the public, so that they come to have a stake in the reform process. The Turkish Parliament, for example, has held comprehensive discussions with NGOs and intellectuals, as well as with the government and opposition, on the question ‘What kind of Parliament do you wish to have?’ Journalists, academicians and artists have all contributed to these discussions. In Zimbabwe, when the Parliament decided in 1996 to initiate a programme of reforms it embarked on ‘an unprecedented process of consultations with the public, the Government and within itself’:

A Reform Committee was appointed, made up of both Backbenchers and Ministers. Teams of members of the Committee held public hearings all over the country soliciting people’s views on their perception of Parliament and what they expected out of Parliament……The feedback obtained from the public included the impressions that:
  1. Parliament is an inaccessible and secretive institution;
  2. Parliament is a sleeping chamber; and
  3. Parliament should play a significant role in financial and policy formulation

These impressions have significantly shaped the character of the reform programme. Although the current crisis in the country may have put the reforms in abeyance, they will be important for the future of parliament once conditions can be normalised.

The above example brings us to a consideration of some of the typical obstacles that might hamper the reform process. These include:

  • a political and social context that is so unfavourable that parliamentary reform is compromised;
  • inadequacy of resources and expertise, even when outside assistance is available;
  • reform-resistant cultures, especially within long-established parliaments or, at the societal level, in more traditional societies;
  • conflicts of interest within parliament, including the influence of special interests opposed to reform;
  • inadequately tested proposals, or those with unintended consequences which serve to undermine confidence in reform.

Here, for example, is a very frank analysis from the Netherlands of obstacles to the parliamentary renewal process that had been identified:

  • the Dutch House of Representatives consists of a relatively large number of political party groups (9 on average), so compromise is an essential part of decision-making, even though it is not always beneficial to the quality of the proposals;
  • the interests of smaller party groups are different from those of larger party groups where some of the renewal proposals are concerned;
  • changing the working methods of parliament requires not only an amendment of the parliamentary structure……but above all a change in the parliamentary culture, and the latter has proven to be especially difficult to effect.

A different example of culture at the societal level hampering the effectiveness of reform is given in the submission from Oman, where the introduction of universal suffrage was blunted by ‘the reluctance on the part of a large segment of the citizenry to participate in general elections….and non-exercise by a large component of the female population of the right to be nominated for membership of the Council.’ In a different way in Mali, improving the work of deputies is hampered by a lack of understanding on the part of their constituents, though differentially as between urban and rural areas:

Many citizens in the major cities consider that the National Assembly is a money-wasting institution, and they cannot see its immediate usefulness. The financial, material and social conditions given to deputies by virtue of their status to allow them to hold their rank and carry out their mission in dignity are considered extravagant by many people in the cities.

As for people in rural areas, who are nearly 80 per cent of the deputies' constituents, they consider that deputies have a binding mandate which obliges them, once elected, to be at the service of their constituents at all times and in any circumstances (for example for baptisms, weddings, funerals, the provision of various social services).

As regards the practicability and cogency of reforms, it should suffice to make the obvious point once more, that so often there are competing considerations which have to be traded off one against another, and that there are usually downsides to any proposed reform, which are best anticipated in advance. An example of this which most parliaments have experienced is how to streamline procedures to deal with ever-expanding volumes of business, without this limiting the expression of a diversity of views or the rights of individual members. One can only admire the ingenuity required of the Indian Lok Sabha to enable the expectations of its 38 parties to be met without business completely grinding to a halt. One reform strategy which is now being used by a number of parliaments is to pilot proposed changes for a limited period so that their effects can be monitored before they are made permanent. In the case of the problems identified by the Dutch Parliament (see above) this strategy has proved helpful, and the quotation from their submission enables this brief review to end on a positive note. ‘Experimenting with the proposed renewals before implementing them definitively has turned out to be an effective solution to the above-mentioned problems. Proposals that met with a lot of resistance initially proved to lead to remarkably positive results in practice.’

Planning for the future

For parliaments, 'facing the future' means many things. It means responding to the pressures of a rapidly changing society and global system in ways which retain what is distinctive about their country's tradition. It means being open to ongoing reform in their own procedures, so that these are equal to the challenge of the times and to parliament's own role as a guardian of democracy. It can also mean engaging in long-term thinking about the country's future in a pro-active way, rather than simply reacting to initiatives placed before it by the government. Three examples of such future planning are given here. The first is provided by Latvia’s Subcommittee on the Future Development of Latvia, which was established in 2003 and comprises 13 parliamentarians from all Saeima groups. The submission from the Latvian Parliament describes its tasks as follows:

  • to work on drafting a single document for Latvia’s future development, including formulation of the vision of Latvia in 15-20 years, which would facilitate Latvia’s sustainable development and would improve the social welfare and safety of each member of society;
  • to develop cooperation with different public institutions, scientists, youth and other members of society, and in a joint dialogue to search for opportunities to ensure Latvia’s more rapid development and competitiveness;
  • to organise and listen to lectures on various themes that are important in science and the national economy and thus to serve as a useful source of information for achieving goals set by the members of parliament.

In Israel, the Commission for Future Generations was established in the Knesset in 2001. Its purpose is to include a future dimension in national legislation, which it does by giving opinions and making recommendations at clearly defined stages of the legislative process on legislation that is of interest to future generations.

A much older and more fully documented example is Finland’s Committee for the Future, which was established in 1992, when the Eduskunta adopted a resolution requiring the Government to provide it with a report on long-term developments and options for the country. The Committee for the Future was set up on a temporary basis to evaluate this report and respond to it, and it continued in being till it was made permanent in 2000. It sees its role as being to correct what it regards as a significant deficit – that ‘in all parliaments the identification of long-term structural challenges and their values-base has been left behind in the course of traditional legislative work.’

The Committee consists of 17 members from all parties, and liaises closely with the Prime Minister’s office, playing a similar role in the formulation of high-level policy, but with more emphasis on the ‘value-based discussion’ than on policy implementation. The list of issues it has dealt with over the past decade and more includes:

  1. Reports on the future, i.e. responses to Government reports on:
    • Major global environmental and other structural problems
    • The effects on Finland of European economic and other development
    • Factors in Finland’s competitiveness and success
    • Regional development

  2. Topical themes taken up on the Committee’s initiative for discussion at plenary sessions:
    • Plant gene technology in food production
    • Ten pain points in the future of work
    • The future of the Finnish knowledge society

  3. Technology assessment. This has been a central concern of the Committee from the outset, and has seen three generations of projects, the first mainly commissioned from outside research institutes, the second and third involving much more direct participation of parliamentarians in working groups alongside external experts. Topics selected have included knowledge management, energy supply and renewables, social capital and information technology, regional innovation systems. The Committee has close links with other European parliaments through the European Parliamentary Technology Assessment network (EPTA).

The Committee’s method of working is described as follows:

The Committee for the Future’s operating model differs, in its openness and innovativeness, from the activity of other committees. The committee has toured the provinces and held regional forums. It also looks constantly for new working approaches by adapting Delphi and other methods of futures research, by hearing young people as well as older and experienced individuals in the public discussion, by utilizing new data technology, and by performing comparative international studies……
In the committee’s activity, the line between national and international breaks down: no longer merely national, the future’s challenges, in an increasingly open world, are more and more strongly international. Since its more than ten years of activity began, the committee, in performing its analyses, has in this regard given particular attention to factors that pervade the society. In the 1990s the committee delineated the factors pervading Finnish society – globalization, science and technology, innovations, and governance. For the Parliament of Finland’s 100th anniversary in 2006 and 2007 the Committee for the Future has chosen the future of democracy as a theme.

A final comment from the Parliament’s submission about the agenda-setting power of this Committee is also worth quoting:

It is an adage of political life at any level that the first step to power is to take the initiative and put yourself in a position where you can set the agenda. In the Eduskunta, the Committee for the Future has taken this adage seriously from the beginning. The Committee has been working for only ten years, so it is too early to say if it has been a success. One thing is certain, however; the Committee has taken its place in the Finnish parliamentary system as an innovative political body and, over the years, it has created a new forum that works at the core of the parliamentary system and – still more important – it has demonstrated that parliamentary measures can still be used to take the initiative within democracy.

This observation can serve to conclude this Guide on a positive note, as it reminds parliamentarians that they can indeed take the initiative to influence their country's future and thinking about it, if only they have the confidence to exercise the powers they already possess.


Copyright © 2006 Inter-Parliamentary Union