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.