In joining the Open Government Partnership (OGP), governments have been going on record in support of more open, participatory and accountable public institutions. To date, 55 governments have agreed to develop national action plans, with civil society input and monitoring, that commit them to this agenda. Although the quality of commitments made and intensity of civil society engagement may vary by country, OGP has stimulated a valuable discussion about the importance of citizen engagement in the political and governance processes—one that the international community of parliamentary monitoring organizations (PMOs) is advancing in the legislative realm through the Declaration on Parliamentary Openness.
As many commentators have noted, OGP has largely ignored parliaments and the issue of open legislative data, despite an increasing recognition that open data policies should be designed to support improved democracy, not just improved service delivery. Because the action plans are initiated by the executive branch, parliamentary buy–in may be something of an afterthought. Yet, as the institution responsible for approving laws, representing citizens and overseeing executive performance and policy implementation, parliaments are essential sources of public information. They are also critical venues for giving voice to citizens’ interests and ensuring that their needs are reflected in laws and their implementation. It’s no wonder that M. Steven Fish calls parliaments “a—or even the—institutional key to democracy.”
Recognizing the potential for improved collaboration with parliaments to deepen their commitments to openness and to citizen engagement in parliamentary work, more than 70 PMOs from over 50 countries—and counting—have expressed support for the Declaration on Parliamentary Openness. They have also established a network at OpeningParliament.org. In recent years, PMOs have commenced monitoring of legislative institutions throughout the world to improve citizen understanding of parliaments, and to advocate and support parliamentary efforts to become more representative, accessible, accountable and responsive. While some PMOs gather members of parliament (MPs) and citizens for face–to–face discussions on policy issues, others develop technologies to help citizens understand and use parliamentary information or contact their MPs. In all instances, PMOs’ abilities to promote parliamentary openness and engagement depend on access to parliamentary information.
Given the variety of challenges faced by PMOs in accessing parliamentary information, the Declaration on Parliamentary Openness highlights measures parliaments can take to promote a culture of parliamentary openness—recognizing the basic principle of public ownership of parliamentary information. The Declaration also specifies the categories of parliamentary information that should be made available to the public and the channels through which parliamentary information should be made accessible to ensure non–discriminatory public access. Recognizing the importance of providing parliamentary information in open and structured formats, the Declaration also contains specific “open data” provisions to enable electronic analysis, reuse and sharing of parliamentary information.
Commentary accompanying the Declaration’s launch highlights a number of instances of parliaments making concerted efforts to become more open. Italy’s Chamber of Deputies, which is co–hosting this year’s World e–Parliament Conference, is a leader in linked open data for parliaments, while Brazil’s lower house has had success generating citizen participation in the legislative process through it’s e–Democracia website. The U.S. and U.K. are among small group of parliaments making select information available in open and structured formats. Most excitingly, several parliaments in Africa and Latin America are playing with a promising open source software based on the Akoma Ntoso schema for legal documents that is currently undergoing the OASIS standardization process. The forthcoming World e–Parliament Report 2012 and the Global Parliamentary Report describe a number of online and offline measures parliaments have taken to improve openness and participation.
However, many parliaments have yet to benefit from these advances, or do so piecemeal. In many countries, parliaments can do more to take advantage of opportunities presented by modern technology to engage citizens or provide information in open and structured formats that facilitate analysis and reuse. A number of parliaments still fail to provide access to basic information that would allow citizens to meaningfully participate in the legislative process, such as the text of draft legislation, hearing schedules and parliamentary votes. The increasing interconnectedness of the world’s citizens through social media, the Internet and mobile technology is rapidly changing citizens’ expectations for good governance and what parliaments must deliver. Parliaments that improve openness and participation can reinforce public confidence at a time when citizens around the world are becoming increasingly demanding of their representative institutions.
The Declaration was formally launched at the World e–Parliament Conference, on the International Day of Democracy, and is available in an array of languages. Members of the PMO community also encouraged dialogue and collaboration at OK Festival this week. Interested individuals can also signal their support for the declaration here.