Informed parliament for evidence-based decision-making

Published On: July 14, 2016 06:15 PM NPT By: Krishna Sapkota

KATHMANDU, July 14: Parliament is a place where laws are drafted, people's needs and priorities are set and country's national interests are debated. Policy debate and review is one of the spectacular tasks of the parliament. The legislative strength is assessed based on its law-making process and oversight role. It has the power to revert any proposal tabled by the executives and also oversee functions of the government.

On July 9, the Legislature-Parliament approved the Appropriation Bill-2016-17 timely after the concerned Ministers and Prime Minister responded to queries raised by lawmakers on different Ministry headings. The sovereign parliament, however, enacted the budget without making any changes to the proposed figures. Though the timely approval of budget is expected to help expedite development spending, the executive budget proposal was endorsed in the exact form that it had been presented before the parliament.

With this the question rises – where is the parliamentary supremacy when an elected body of people's representatives cannot alter the figure of the executive's budget and enacts the bill after cosmetic deliberations on the policy and programs.

Furthermore, one can see low level of data usage in parliamentary debates. Debates need to be based not solely on party positions, but based on facts relevant to the issue. There is a meager proof of lawmakers using data from parliament secretariat for discussions at the floor. Effect of insufficient research and informed debates mean that bills passed by the parliament are often tabled for revision. Poor policymaking is the direct consequence of lack of data and homework on public issues. In addition, those MPs without access to adequate data appear weak in their performance. It was clearly evident in recent bid to amend the Banks and Financial Institutions Act (Bafia) where the conflict of interests of lawmakers showed poor decision-making process.

Now, the amendment process remains stalled for lack of data-based debate and decision-making in formulating and amending laws.

However, there is no facility dedicated to data and research needs of the parliamentarians. The secretariat does not have research capacity to fulfill individual data requests from lawmakers.

There is no dedicated “resource center or data bank” that the parliamentarians can access and utilize. Individual lawmakers are supposed to have their own office and the government provides stipend to each MP to hire a personal assistant who can function as a research assistant.

However, usual practice is to give the job to a family member or relative. The political parties, too, do not have any research wing or “think tank” to produce data and analysis necessary for policy making.

Meanwhile, the Parliament Secretariat can request for official records from government ministries only that is pertinent to the investigations of the parliamentary committees.

However, the Secretariat can form investigations team in some cases. For example, when the tunnel collapsed at the Chameliya Hydro Plant, the Public Accounts Committee formed a team comprising an engineer from National Vigilance Centre and a Chartered Accountant from the Office of the Auditor General. The in-depth study of the incident was looked into by a subcommittee which has submitted its report to the government for necessary implementation, according to the PAC officials.

Likewise, the public has no access to the parliament or the committee work schedule or its proceedings. There is no mechanism for the public to find out about the parliament work schedule, including the important committee deliberations and the content of committee meetings. The work schedule is posted at the “notice boards” inside the Secretariat building.

Furthermore, even MPs have difficulty getting draft bill even after it is tabled at the parliament.

Besides power to change the substance of the Bills, the parliament should possess capacity to analyze the proposal itself or have access to independent research capacity for analysis of any bills presented in the House. The legislature comprising lawmakers from diversified political, social, economic, cultural and technical backgrounds with different spectrum of capacity, knowledge and skills may not be able to make quality debate and deliver better decisions on technical issues such as budget.

In order for the legislature to provide adequate review of the executive's budget proposal before its approval and to offer effective oversight, there should be a specialized budget research office attached to the legislature with sufficient staffing, resources and analytical capacity to perform these tasks. The units should be devised with clear terms of reference to undertake periodic sector-wide empirical research and study so that it could provide with evidence-based inputs to relevant parliamentary bodies and legislators while determining agendas and making decisions.

As a result, the practice would increase internal capacity of the legislature to stimulate fact-based debate and decisions, which have the potential to change the landscape of the life of the country and the people as well.

For this the Parliament Secretariat should invest in a research wing to provide necessary data, and analysis to the Members of Parliament. The Secretariat should hire experts – data analysts, chartered accountants and economists – to help parliamentary committees and MPs with necessary research assistance. The Secretariat should also make the work schedule and proceedings of the parliament open to the public.

Government data suppliers, such as the Central Bureau of Statistics and National Planning Commission should make the data accessible in an easy-to-understand and easy-to-interpret format. The Ministry of Finance should present the budget data in an accessible format by making use of charts, maps, and Infographics. Data must be provided in vernacular language and not just in English. Media houses can train journalists on parliamentary reporting, since most MPs depend on or use newspaper for data on public affairs.

The parochial and stereotypical outlook to the parliament should be subverted in order to transform the parliament into a pro-people platform for practicing sovereignty in the changed context. An open and informed parliament can better act to address citizens' genuine concerns and aspirations and consolidate participatory democracy in the country. Hence, the parliament is in urgent need of reforms to deliver effectively to serve in the broader interest of the country and people. RSS


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