Parliament's standing depends on the trust of the people and being accountable to them. To be effective, parliament needs to be accessible and well understood, so that the public are regularly and actively involved in its work.
Public accountability, which is essential to democracy, applies to all those who hold public authority, whether elected or non-elected, and to all bodies of public authority without exception. Accountability entails a public right of access to information about the activities of government, the right to petition government and to seek redress through impartial administrative and judicial mechanisms.
Universal Declaration on Democracy, 1997
The accountability of office-holders is nowadays seen as a basic requirement for all public life in a democracy. The idea of 'accountability' has many dimensions to it. One is the idea of an office-holder 'giving an account' of their actions after the event to a body to which they are answerable or responsible. Overlapping with this aspect is the requirement on an office-holder to meet certain standards of performance and integrity in the conduct of their office, subject to adjudication by a responsible body that has the power to impose some sanction in the event of serious failure to meet these standards.
1. THE UNIQUE ROLE OF PARLIAMENT: TO SERVE AND REPRESENT THE PEOPLE
Parliaments have a unique legitimacy, which derives from the mandate they have received, generally through election by the people. This legitimacy gives parliament certain powers that other bodies do not possess and the right to carry out specific functions, such as the ability to debate, scrutinize and amend legislation, taxation and government spending.
2. ENSURING THAT PEOPLE ARE FULLY INFORMED AND UNDERSTAND THEIR PARLIAMENT
Many people do not know much about, or are not very interested in, parliament or politics. It is especially important that information about parliament be accessible and straightforward to understand. If the public knows about and understands parliament and politics, it is more likely to be engaged and participate in the democratic system.
Television, radio and newspapers are the public's main sources of information about parliament. Many parliaments now have their own television channel, which allows full and unedited coverage. It is vital that parliaments engage with the media to promote their work, adopting an active communications strategy to maximize coverage and present information that is accessible to journalists and citizens alike.
Civic or citizenship education can play a crucial role in improving knowledge about politics.
3. BREAKING DOWN BARRIERS: MAKING PARLIAMENTS WELCOMING AND ACCESSIBLE
The public should be able to contact parliament easily. Parliament should not appear to be complicated, exclusive or out of touch with ordinary people.
The Internet, e-mail and mobile phones have transformed the ways that parliament and the public are able to communicate with each other, access information and submit views and evidence.
4. JUST LIKE US: PARLIAMENT AS A REFLECTION OF THE PEOPLE
A society is made up of people with many different characteristics: gender, ethnicity, economic and social status, language and religion, among others. Parliament should aspire to be as diverse and representative as society.
There is still a marked gender imbalance in the proportion of women elected to parliaments worldwide, with women making up only about 19 per cent of parliamentarians.
It should be recognized that members of parliament can effectively represent people who do not share all of their personal characteristics. However, there is a good case to be made that parliament is strengthened when people see others like them representing their interests.
5. LISTENING TO, SPEAKING FOR AND ADDRESSING THE PEOPLE'S CONCERNS
Parliament is the voice of the people and allows a dialogue between the government and the governed. Its members have the right to raise issues on behalf of the people they represent. Many parliaments have privilege rules so that members are free to speak on any subject they choose.
In many parliaments, members help individual citizens with their problems and seek explanation or redress from government on their behalf. MPs also act on behalf of their local area and support campaigns and issues in their constituency. Parliamentarians usually have offices in their locality to meet constituents and undertake their advocacy work.
6. TRUST AND ACCOUNTABILITY: AT THE HEART OF AN EFFECTIVE RELATIONSHIP
It is essential to parliament's standing and to the health of a democratic system as a whole that its members are fully accountable. Free, fair and regular parliamentary elections are essential. The ability of the public to decide not to re-elect a member of parliament, or their affiliated party, or the government of which they are a part, is central to the democratic process.
The provision of full, publicly available information is a prerequisite for accountability. The work of MPs must be open to scrutiny.
It is essential for parliamentarians to uphold high standards of honesty, probity and integrity.
SUMMARY OF RECOMMENDATIONS
To promote public engagement and improve accessibility and accountability, parliaments should:
- Provide full and easily available records of debates, questions and committee proceedings, along with information on members and other aspects, including functions and rules. This should be in plain language, in paper form and on websites.
- Review parliamentary language and procedures so that they are accessible and not confusing for the public.
- Promote their work through television, radio, printed media, digital media and the Internet by: encouraging the media to attend committees and debates, reviewing media access to parliament, issuing regular press releases on parliament's work, advertising parliamentary television channels and radio programmes and using websites and social forums.
- Engage with young people, schools and colleges by devising programmes and materials for civic education.
- Introduce procedures to allow the public and civil society to communicate their concerns to parliament and reach out to groups which may not be closely engaged in the parliamentary process. Methods include: developing a register of civil society, experts and bodies to be invited to give evidence, establishing petitions systems and methods for the public to influence parliament's agenda, and holding parliamentary hearings in different parts of the country. Undertake research, polling and forums on what the public wants from their parliament and whether these expectations are being met.
- Ensure there are sufficient opportunities for individual members to raise issues of concern to the public, through questions, debates and committee work, and ensure the ability of members to act on behalf of individual citizens.
- Strive to be as diverse and representative as the people who elect it by adopting procedures such as quotas to rectify gender imbalance, and mechanisms to achieve equal representation of all groups in society.
- Put in place regulatory procedures to oversee the performance, conduct and integrity of members, with sanctions if rules are broken, including: establishing codes of conduct and probity, a register of interests, and independent commissioners or committees to oversee standards. Regulatory mechanisms and sanctions should be regularly reviewed and updated as necessary.