Parliaments: bastions of democracy or power elites’ hangouts?

12 May 2017

 The British prime minister Winston Churchill once famously said that ‘democracy is the worst of all systems of government, except for all of the others’. Parliamentary openness is a key way to demonstrate that although we can never all be happy about the decisions that are made that affect us, that democracy needs not only to be done, but also has to be seen to be done.

It’s a busy couple of weeks for Ukraine. The country is presenting the glittery finale of the Eurovision song contest on May 13. And, on May 19 and 20, in Kyiv, Ukraine’s Parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, is hosting the 2nd global conference on open parliaments. Not as many sequins, perhaps, but a fascinating and important event, coordinated by the EU-UNDP Rada for Europe Project in conjunction with the global Open Government Partnership (OGP) and partnered by a host of international and national democracy-supporting organizations.

The Global Legislative Openness Conference brings together more than 200 delegates from over 50 countries, including parliamentary speakers, parliamentarians, civil society activists, and parliamentary staff to explore international experiences and opportunities in making parliamentary work more open, more transparent, and better respond to the needs and demands of citizens around the world. Topics being discussed include making national and parliamentary budget processes more open, combatting fake news with transparency, using digital technologies to expand debate and citizen inclusion, and using openness as a tool to rebuild trust in democratic institutions.

The role of parliaments is at the heart of many of today’s highly-charged debates about how democracy should function. Parliaments are at the centre of democratic societies, but at the same time, in many countries they rank near the bottom of institutions trusted by the public. There is a strong public expectation – all over the world – for democracy to be carried out transparently, while at the same time, more and more examples of attempts to manipulate public opinion to undermine democracy. Parliaments are the only national institutions directly elected by citizens, while at the same time they are often accused of being ‘captured’, and reflective mainly of the interests of powerful elites.

These are some of the questions that the global parliamentary openness movement is trying to answer.  Co-chaired by the Parliament of Chile and the National Democratic Institute, OGP’s legislative openness initiative helps coordinate action on parliamentary transparency around the world. The first global conference, held in Georgia in 2015, brought together over 150 participants to give an impetus to the openness movement.

One of the parliaments inspired by @openingparliament in Tbilisi 2015 was the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine. Following the Maidan Revolution of 2014, the Ukrainian parliament has embarked on ambitious reforms aimed at reflecting the needs and aspirations of Ukrainian citizens. Long criticized as a place where non-transparent deals were done between different economic interests, reform-minded parliamentarians, many elected after Maidan, have set about working to restore parliament’s image and effectiveness by opening its doors and embracing public engagement. They have found strong allies among the parliament’s political and administration leadership, as well as in civil society.

With UNDP support, the Ukrainian Open Parliament Initiative brought together key actors to work on an ambitious parliamentary openness strategy which includes important commitments to share data on parliamentarians’ activities and expenses, to include citizen input in parliamentary work, and to develop comprehensive data tools to enable citizens and civil society organizations to analyse parliamentary work using various parameters. Parliament’s speaker signed the decree putting the Open Parliament Action Plan into effect in February 2016, making Ukraine the fifth country in the world to adopt such a plan, and legislation to formalize key aspects of the Plan is at final stages of approval.

While openness and transparency has risks for parliaments as they expose themselves to greater scrutiny, it’s the only way for parliaments to effectively play their role as each country’s main forum for democratic dialogue and decision-making. At the same time, it has become obvious that there is no direct link between transparency and public trust. As parliaments become more transparent, they need to build effective strategies for engaging in dialogue with citizens and civil society so that they can respond to criticism and also better explain their work.  Parliaments and civil society have often seen as competitors, but actually they both play a crucial role in reflecting and representing citizen interests and concerns. Together they can work to ensure the decision-making process is both more open and more understandable to citizens.

The British prime minister Winston Churchill once famously said that ‘democracy is the worst of all systems of government, except for all of the others’. Parliamentary openness is a key way to demonstrate that although we can never all be happy about the decisions that are made that affect us, that democracy needs not only to be done, but also has to be seen to be done!

The Global Legislative Openness Conference starts at 9:00 Ukraine time on May 19 and runs until 17:00 on May 20. The proceedings are being web-streamed on the conference site. Join us!

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