Citizen participation in democracy begins at the ballot box. But genuine elections – no matter how free and fair – are insufficient in ensuring that elected officials are accountable and responsive to citizens. Parliaments are the citizens’ institutions. As the representative branches of democratic governments, parliaments are meant to provide citizens with links to the policy-making process and with methods of holding the executive branch to account. As a place for informed debate on the issues affecting citizens, parliaments are ultimately responsible for finding compromise among competing interests, enacting these compromises into laws, and ensuring their successful implementation.
The Inter-Parliamentary Union characterizes the “democratic parliament” as one that is representative of the social and political diversity of a people, transparent in the conduct of its business, accessible to the involvement of citizens and interest groups, accountable for its performance, and effective in organizing and conducting its work. Parliaments have gathered in regional and international venues across the globe to discuss the specific characteristics of a democratic parliament, emphasizing these same values.
The concept of parliamentary openness is a crucial factor in enhancing how parliaments function. The Declaration on Parliamentary Openness is a normative framework developed by the OpeningParliament.org community of parliamentary monitoring organizations, with the support of several parliaments and parliamentary associations. The Declaration states that parliamentary openness “enables citizens to be informed about the work of parliament, empowers citizens to engage in the legislative process, allows citizens to hold parliamentarians to account and ensures that citizens’ interests are represented.” It is this connection with citizens that deepens the legitimacy of parliament and, in turn, provides an incentive for parliaments to promote a culture of openness in government more broadly.
The illustrative commitments outlined herein represent a sample of possible commitments parliaments can make to become more open and engaging of citizens. As illustrative commitments, these ideas represent a sampling of measures taken by parliaments around the world. Efforts to design and implement commitments to further open parliaments must recognize differences among parliamentary systems. They must also recognize differing levels of parliamentary and governmental resources, as well as differences stemming from a country’s historical and political context. Nevertheless, meaningful commitments to advance parliamentary openness should demonstrate a respect for citizens’ right to openness, participation and accountability, as well as a desire to deepen the relationship of trust between citizens and their parliaments more broadly.
This topic was developed by the National Democratic Institute’s Governance Team, with feedback from: Cristiano Ferri Faria, Chamber of Deputies, Brazil; Cristina Leston-Bandeira, University of Hull; Jeffrey Griffith; and representatives of the following organizations: Latin American Network for Legislative Transparency; the Sunlight Foundation (U.S); the Center for Research, Transparency and Accountability (Serbia). Comments on an initial framework were also received from members of the OpeningParliament.org comm
unity participating in the PMO-Network Google Group. Research for this topic draws on the Declaration on Parliamentary Openness by the OpeningParliament.org community, along with the Declaration’s Provision Commentary and a number of international resources developed by the international parliamentary community. Please contact email@example.com to provide additional feedback and suggestions.
Examples in Practice
A parliamentary monitoring organisation in India publishes easily digestible information about parliament
PRS Legislative Research, a parliamentary monitoring organisation in India, provides primers, plain language summaries and other information aimed at enabling broad consumption by parliamentarians and citizens.
Brazil’s e-Democracia platform allows citizens to comment on draft legislation
In Brazil, the Chamber of Deputies’ e-Democracia platform uses new social media and technology tools to engage a range of actors in the legislative process. For example, it allows citizens to comment on draft legislation and see when their comments are incorporated into law.
The platform enables multiple modes of interaction for citizens and lawmakers, including:
- Integration with Facebook, Twitter, and e-mail
- Live chats between legislators and citizens
- Interactive polling platform for different issues
- Broadcasting for public hearings
- “Video forums” for legislators.
The e-Democracia platform was launched in June 2009 and, as of August 2013, the portal had about 3,000 debates (forum threads), 17,400 contributions, and 27,400 registered participants.
Citizens are invited to have their say in the legislative process in Ghana, South African and Uganda
In Ghana, memoranda are welcomed from the public on any bill before committee. The South African Parliament allows for “submissions” to committees as well, and provides a simple description for how citizens may use this tool in its website. While in Uganda, members of the public may appear before parliament to give evidence on an item in the budget.
Dominican Republic, Uruguay, Suriname and Ecuador have been testing ‘Bungeni’ for managing legislative information
Parliamentary chambers in the Dominican Republic, Uruguay, Suriname and Ecuador have been testing Bungeni, which is a suite of open source applications for managing legislative information in XML following the Akoma Ntoso standard, and may use Bungeni to support their legislative information management needs.
Finland set up an e-petition platform that enables citizens to propose legislation
Open Ministry is a civil society e-petition platform that enables citizens to propose legislation to Finland’s Parliament. Any proposal that receives over 50,000 signatures is automatically considered by the Parliament. Issues that have thus far received more than 50,000 signatures and have come up parliamentary consideration include banning farming of animals for their furs, issues regarding copyright regulation, allowing for same-sex marriages, and making Swedish language non-mandatory for Finnish students.
In Croatia there is widespread collaboration between parliamentarians and civil society representatives
In Croatia, requests to hold a roundtable at Parliament are frequently approved by the Secretary of the Parliament, while many civil society organisations cooperate directly with parliamentary committees on round tables or thematic open sessions. Committee chairs have the right to invite NGO representatives to committee sessions to obtain additional information on reviewed bills.
Each committee has 3-7 external permanent committee members from think tanks, interest groups or NGOs. The external permanent committee members are elected through a public announcement and have the right to participate in committee discussions, but cannot vote. They receive monthly remuneration (approximately €260) and are entitled to reimbursement of travel expenses.
In India, a declaration of assets is mandatory within 90 days of taking office as a Member of Parliament
In India, the voter has the fundamental right to know the financial background of any person contesting elections to Parliament. Since 2003, it has become regular practice for candidates contesting elections to Parliament to submit an official declaration disclosing details of assets and liabilities for self, spouse and three dependents. The Election Commission of India is required to make these affidavits public so that the voter may get to know the background of electoral candidates.
After a candidate wins elections to either House of Parliament it becomes mandatory for him/her to declare their assets (movable and immovable property for self, spouse and dependent children) within 90 days of taking oath of office as an MP. Liabilities to public financial institutions and the Central and any State Government are also required to be disclosed.
In Slovenia, the Netherlands and the UK, the public may attend a plenary or committee session without prior arrangement
In Slovenia, 100 seats are available to the public for the plenary sessions and the parliamentary building is open to the public biweekly. In the Netherlands, there are 240 seats available to the public at plenary sessions. Committee sessions are held in several halls which have seats for 24 to 208 visitors. In the UK, the public can observe plenary sessions of both houses and the Westminster Hall debates from the public galleries.
In the U.S. the ‘America’s Legislators Back to School’ programme enables legislators to meet with young people
In the United States, the National Conference of State Legislatures operates a programme taking America’s Legislators Back to School. The programme gives elected parliamentarians in all 50 states the opportunity to meet personally with their young constituents and to answer questions, share ideas, and listen to concerns. The programme is designed to teach young people what it is like to be a state legislator: the processes, the pressures, and the debate, negotiation and compromise. The programme is emphasised as a bipartisan event.
In the US the House and Senate and House removed restrictive rules governing Members’ use of social media
Before the digital age, Congress established ‘franking rules’ on communication to constituents. These governed how Members could use public funds to send mass mailings to constituents, while guarding against incumbents using this privilege to advance political campaigns. When these rules were extended to include social media, at first they were restrictively applied, effectively making popular social media services such as Facebook and Twitter out of bounds. This reflected fears that using social media would imply a commercial endorsement through association with advertising, could tarnish the status of the institution, might create security issues, and would make inappropriate political activity harder to catch.
Following emerging experience, debates and a campaign led by the Sunlight Foundation, in 2008, the House and Senate revised these rules and allowed members and staff to use social media to correspond with constituents more freely, while still maintaining the principles of no product endorsement, no partisan material and no unrelated personal information.
While there is no overall social media policy, the House and Senate rules now makes clear that Federal law and House Rules on communication apply to all ‘official content of material posted by the Member on any website’, but not to the broader social media platform itself.
Manabalss.lv is a Latvian civil society-run website allowing citizens to propose legislation
Manabalss.lv is a Latvian civil society-run website allowing citizens to propose legislation that is considered by parliament if it receives more than 10,000 signatures. Civil activity at ManaBalss.lv has resulted in two new laws being passed.
Many parliaments have institutionalised responsibility for transparency and openness
Parliaments have institutionalised responsibility for transparency and openness either by the creation of a new commission or by emphasising this function in assigning committee jurisdictions, such as the Chilean Bicameral Committee for Transparency or the Mexican Senate’s Committee on the Assurance of Access and Transparency of Information (COGATI).
Montenegro has established an online petitioning system: the Citizens’ Voice e-Petitions platform
Launched in October 2012, Montenegro’s Citizens’ Voice e-Petitions platform enables citizens and permanent foreign residents in Montenegro to identify policy issue and propose solutions to the central government in the form of e-petitions. If an e-petition is supported by at least 6,000 online votes, the government undertakes to consider it as a formal policy motion.
In the first six months of the project, 21 e-petitions qualified for voting through Citizens’ Voice, two of which reached the threshold of 6,000 votes.
The platform was developed by the Government of Montenegro, in cooperation with the United Nations Development Programme Office in Montenegro, using the experiences of the UK government e-petitions platform (http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/) , the US Government website “We the People” (https://wwws.whitehouse.gov/petitions ) and the German Bundestag’s e-petition website (https://epetitionen.bundestag.de).
The Argentinean Chamber of Deputies collaborates with parliamentary monitoring organisations on transparency
The president of the Chamber of Deputies of Argentina signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with a coalition of parliamentary monitoring organisations, who are using the Declaration on Parliamentary Openness and the Latin American Index on Legislative Transparency to help guide discussions on transparency issues. Through the MoU, the Chamber of Deputies has agreed to create a registry of citizens and non-governmental organisations to ease their ability to participate in committee and plenary sessions, promote an internal regulation about access to public information, create an on-going legislative transparency working group composed of the signatories of the MoU and more.
The Brazilian Chamber of Deputies has an open data standard
The Brazilian Chamber of Deputies’ open data standard states that data shall be available to all without registration and that “the data are not subject to any regulation of copyrights, patents, intellectual property or trade secrets. Reasonable restrictions relating to privacy, security and access privileges may be allowed.” The Brazilian Chamber of Deputies makes most categories of information available for recent years on its open data webpage.
The code for the UK Government’s GOV.uk platform was released on github
The code for the UK Government’s GOV.uk platform was released on github, which is the largest code host in the world. Gov.uk is a single domain used to deliver digital services to citizens. It is an open source and mobile-friendly platform.
The European Parliament has provided open source access to its legislative mark-up tool
The European Parliament is since 2010 using an open source release of AT4AM. This is a web-based amendment authoring tool used to create and table amendments on the proposals of the European Commission and the Council of the European Union, and the reports of the parliamentary committees. Until February 2013, 250.000 amendments had been created with AT4AM.
The European Parliament runs live chats on Facebook with MEPs
The European Parliament has undertaken a strategy to engage the public in the places where they are and to use social media tools to promote public understanding and interest in the parliament. It has developed custom applications inside Facebook to run live chats with members, to ﬁnd their local MEP and connect to his/her Facebook page. It has also run a competition to select a citizen to be a Facebook “editor” for a day.
The Finnish Parliament works with external groups to engage citizens
The Finnish Eduskunta’s Committee for the Future is partnering with domestic and international research organisations, universities and institutions to address challenges of citizen engagement in the legislative process. It is also integrating new technologies into its methods of work, including exploring the use of social media during hearings and exploiting crowdsourcing techniques to boost citizen feedback.
The Italian Senate has adopted standards based on the Akoma Ntoso format
The Italian Senate has adopted data standards based on the Akoma Ntoso format. All the bills published on the Senate’s website are available, other than in the usual HTML, PDF, and ePub formats, also in XML.
Akoma Ntoso defines a ‘machine readable’ set of simple technology-neutral electronic representations (in XML format) of parliamentary, legislative and judiciary documents and is the result of the efforts of the Africa i-Parliaments Action Plan to realise a common standard for the interchange of legal documents among institutions and countries.
The Mexican Senate is translating parliamentary documents to indigenous languages
In an effort to reach out to indigenous communities, the Mexican Senate has started translating parliamentary documents to indigenous languages, which are not official languages. This effort comes from the Information Access and Transparency Guarantee Committee and the National Indigenous Institute to provide non Spanish speaking citizens access to parliamentary information.
The Mexican Senate’s Transparency Committee has developed a workplan on parliamentary openness
After conducting a review of the Senate’s transparency policies against the Declaration on Parliamentary Openness, the Mexican Senate’s Transparency Committee has developed a workplan on parliamentary openness. The review took place with assistance from the local parliamentary monitoring organisation and think tank Fundar.
The New Zealand Parliament provides easy access to most relevant information on its website
The New Zealand Parliament’s website www.parliament.nz contains easy access to most relevant information, including web streaming and email alerts on pending business.
The Scottish Parliament has developed a series of Key Principles that guide the practices of parliament and the work of MPs
After a wide public consultation process, the Scottish Parliament published a set of Key Principles in 1999, ‘Shaping Scotland’s Parliament’ which set out how the Parliament should work. The Principles are:
- Accountable: the Scottish Parliament is answerable to the people of Scotland. The Scottish Parliament should hold the Scottish Government to account;
- Open and Encourage participation: the Scottish Parliament should be accessible and involve the people of Scotland in its decisions as much as possible;
- Power Sharing: power should be shared among the Scottish Government, the Scottish Parliament and the people of Scotland, and
- Equal Opportunities: the Scottish Parliament should treat all people fairly.
The Senate of Italy publishes legislative data on its own open data portal
The Italian Senate publishes legislative data on its data portal dati.senato.it. The portal provides information for citizens, researchers and journalists to analyse and share information of what is being proposed, discussed and voted in the Senate. The data is released under Creative Commons (CC BY 3.0) for free reuse.
The Swedish parliament reaches out to citizens in a variety of ways
In Sweden, parliament reaches out to citizens through regional surveys or by holding panels of MPs in local districts. Parliament has also opened regional ‘branches’ throughout the country, where citizens can access educational and informational material on parliament and follow live broadcasts of parliamentary proceedings. These branches serve as meeting places for MPs and voters.
The Swedish Parliament’s website is easy to use and provides the public with a range of information
The Swedish Riksdag’s website www.riksdagen.se is easy to use. It provides public access to a range of information, such as preparatory documents, information about MPs and their work (including vote data), legislation and other valuable information. It contains information in a number of languages. Much of this information is also available on the Riksdagen open data portal for use by third party technology developers.
The U.S. House of Representatives has clearly defined its standards for posting electronic information
The U.S. House of Representatives, through its Committee on House Administration, published its standards for posting electronic information in December 2011. The standards are intended to ensure easy access to legislation considered by the House and its committees, and will be subject to periodic review and reissuance. Greater detail related to the House’s use of XML standards for posting information electronically is also available.
The U.S. state of Oregon aims to improve political participation through its Citizens’ Initiative Review
In Oregon, the Citizens’ Initiative Review was established in 2009 to improve the quality of public participation and political deliberation. It brings together 24 randomly selected, demographically diverse voters for 5 days to review evidence, talk to experts, hear from campaigns, and discuss a ballot measure that citizens will vote on when they go to the polls. They ultimately produce a citizen statement reviewing the facts and arguments. Each citizen statement is published as a prominent page in the voters’ pamphlet as a new and easily accessible resource for voters to use at election time.
A 2012 evaluation found the citizen statements to be “highly deliberative”, “high level of factual accuracy”, and insightful from the perspective of two-thirds of citizens who read them.
The UK National Archives makes a range of legislative documents available on its legislation.gov.uk website
Legislation.gov.uk carries most types of legislation and their accompanying explanatory documents.
The UK Parliament has developed an app that enables citizens to view the parliamentary agenda on the iPad
The UK Parliament’s application enables citizens to read the latest version of the House of Commons Order Paper, which is published each sitting day and lists the business of the House and sittings in Westminster Hall. It also lists questions for oral or written answer that day, questions for written answer which have not previously appeared in print, and other items such as notices of written statements, committee notices, remaining orders and lists of future business. It is designed specifically for the iPad.
The UK Parliament’s Educational Service provides a range of opportunities for youth education
The United Kingdom Parliament provides a range of opportunities for youth education through its Educational Service, including school tours, a parliamentary quiz web application, and video games. The Parliament Education Service has more than 40 educational videos on its YouTube channel.
The US Congress is developing an online crowdsourcing legislative platform
While still experimental, the Madison Project – a US Congress online crowdsourcing legislative platform – has designed an open source tool to allow anyone to comment on a piece of legislation or annotate it.
The US Library of Congress has launched a challenge to help improve Akoma Ntoso’s support of US and UK legislative data
The United States Library of Congress, through the online platform Challenge.gov has launched a challenge to invite competitors to map the Akoma Ntoso schema to established US and UK legislative markup languages to improve Akoma Ntoso’s support of US and UK legislative data.
The website of the Korean National Assembly provides information about its work
The website of the Republic of Korea’s National Assembly provides a variety of information about its work, with updates on its homepage about recent happenings, a weekly calendar and schedule of upcoming programmes on the National Assembly’s television channel.
The ‘Congress app’ provides profiles of all members of the U.S. Congress and updates on congressional action
The Sunlight Foundation’s Congress app provides profiles of all members of the U.S. Congress and updates on congressional action. It has been downloaded 488,000 times for Android and has recently been released on iOS.