It’s 12 noon in Mexico, 6PM in Morocco, and 8PM in Latvia. Iveta Kazoka, policy analyst at Latvian Centre for Public Policy PROVIDUS conducts an interview via Skype with two of the people who know the most about the Declaration on Parliamentary Openness, which is supported by more than 115 organizations in 73 countries. Melissa Ortiz Massó is a researcher at parliamentary monitoring organization Fundar at Mexico City and also a member of Latin American Network for Parliamentary Transparency. Andrew Mandelbaum is a senior program officer at the National Democratic Institute. He works on its governance team and helps to coordinate the parliamentary monitoring work.
Let’s start with a very easy question: what is a Parliamentary Monitoring Organization?
Andrew: that’s easy?
Andrew: OK, let’s start from the beginning! Sometime in 2007 international parliamentary associations started to develop standards for what being a democratic parliament means. The National Democratic Institute (NDI), where I work, was involved in those attempts. At the same time, there were also efforts, by the likes of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, to create a framework for self-evaluating the level of democracy in various parliaments. So this movement towards understanding what makes a democratic parliament produced a new question: namely, how does civil society monitor parliaments and their commitments to the values of democracy?
I conducted research on behalf of NDI and the World Bank Institute to survey civil society organizations and to write a report on parliamentary monitoring. Who is doing this kind of work? Are they aware of international standards? To our surprise, we found tons of monitoring organizations – around 190 – during the research!
Yes, the term is a „parliamentary monitoring organization”, but the definition is more inclusive than that. It refers to organizations that are involved in monitoring and evaluating parliaments, helping to engage citizens in the legislative process, and support the democratic strengthening of parliaments.
So they shouldn’t necessarily have an electronic presence – for example, a monitoring website – to count as PMOs?
Andrew: That’s right! While many of the best known PMOs are using “parliamentary informatics” to help citizens make sense of parliamentary information and engage citizens in parliamentary work, there are lots of organizations around the world that don’t use these new technologies. Around 40% of the respondents to the survey we conducted were either using technologies or developing them. But that means that 60% were not!
Melissa: For example, here in Mexico we’ve being monitoring parliament for 12 years, but we’ve been using new technologies only for the last 2 years. Those technologies were not accessible – not just for us, but also for other people! Just 33% of population has access to internet in my country.
Let’s come back to last year when you brought various PMO’s together in Washington to sign a declaration on parliamentary openness – were those PMO’s aware about the existence and work of each other?
Andrew: Around May 2012, NDI, the Sunlight Foundation and the Latin American Network for Legislative Transparency (LALT Network) hosted a conference bringing together PMOs from 38 countries. Most PMO’s tended to be focused on their own parliaments. Aside from the Latin American network and a couple meetings that brought together some parliamentary monitoring tech developers, they were on their own. Many were not aware of the good practices and innovations taking part all over the world.
Melissa: For me Washington was a happy surprise. I was aware about the organizations in my region, but then it turned out that there are more than 5 crazy people around the world! I’ve been doing parliamentary monitoring for 8 years, so it was interesting and surprising to know that there are so many people involved in such kind of work all over the world.
At that point did you already have a draft declaration prepared?
Andrew: We had a discussion document that the conference hosts had published on the internet prior to the conference. Everyone had an opportunity to discuss it at the event, as well as online. It was also presented at a conference in France hosted by Regards Citoyens and Science Po. The Declaration has undergone numerous changes since the discussion document was posted. It was not even originally called a „declaration”! There were over 60 organizations that provided input into the creation of what we call today the Declaration on Parliamentary Openness.
Was the declaration based on experience of 1-2 model parliaments or some broader research?
Andrew: It was based on resources developed by the international parliamentary associations, such as the standards for democratic parliaments and World e-Parliament reports, parliamentary rules of procedure, as well as policies and practices of individual parliaments – really from a tremendous number of documents that influence parliamentary openness and transparency. You can see references in the background notes – practices of more than 60 parliaments have been included.
There are 44 recommendations in the declaration. Did you consider listing them in order of priority?
Melissa: that was part of our discussions during the Washington meeting! But then we realized that all of us have different realities – for example, some countries are parliamentarian, others are presidential; some use new technologies, for other just radio and TV is important as a media – so it would have been too difficult to tell which thing is more important than another. That’s one of the things that is amazing about this document: not just the standards themselves, but also that it has been a collaborative process! It was commented on by people who live in very different circumstances all over the world.
But are PMO’s already using the declaration in their everyday work? For example, to put pressure on parliament in order to change?
Melissa: yes! (Laughs)
It has been a great platform for me and my Congress! Now I can say to the Congress that it is not just me, but rather there is an international community that is pushing for new standards – and not just in countries like Mexico, but in countries like Germany and Finland.
When you put it like that – the members of parliament soften. It’s surprising the extent to which the members of parliament have changed their attitudes both towards us and the issue itself!
We’re working on improving the standards in Mexico right now – we’re following the declaration paragraph by paragraph to understand what needs to be changed. Probably in April we will present the results and the Action Plan on the necessary improvements to senators. And there are other good examples as well – for example, in Argentina.
So you know better what to push for and you are also taken more seriously by the parliament?
Andrew: There are some 40 organizations that are currently conducting advocacy using the declaration. Organizations are also forming coalitions in their countries around this declaration – it’s happening in a lot of places, for example, in Liberia, Germany, and Argentina.
And by advocacy you mean – going to the parliament, showing them declaration and pushing for change?
Andrew, Melissa: yes!
Excellent! But have you considered comparing various parliaments according to the criteria of the declaration?
Andrew: yes, we have! The Latin American network has been doing this for their parliaments – so it should be possible for the parliaments all over the world. A lot of parliaments are already recognizing the declaration as a normative framework, and we expect some big endorsements soon.
There could be two purposes in comparing the parliaments: one is to apply the comparative pressure. The other – we would want to aggregate the information that the local PMO’s already know about their parliaments. So that it becomes a shared global knowledge! With a database like this, the PMO’s in various countries will be able to tell their parliaments: hey, you’re not doing well in this area of declaration! But there are a multiple things you could do: these practices have worked in multiple countries, they are proven and we’re happy to help you to figure out how to implement them!
So that’s in the plans! But while you are considering comparing parliaments – maybe you’re already aware of a parliament that should be a model for everyone else?
Andrew: it’s really, really hard to say! No assessment has been completed as of yet, but even if there were, there will probably be areas to work on in every country. Sometimes even the most developed democracy might, for example, make some important draft legislation unavailable.
Melissa: everyone complains about some aspects of their parliaments! I don’t think that we are going to see a parliament that is totally open in any country, but we would be able to see some parliaments that are either improving or having really good practices in some area.
So no obvious leaders – but what about bad examples?
Andrew: plenty of those as well! But I don’t think that the value of monitoring compliance with the declaration would be in ranking parliaments. The declaration has four components: 1) creating a culture in society were openness and citizen engagement are respected and encouraged; 2) making more information available; 3) using different channels for broadcasting parliamentary information; 4) open data standards. How parliaments compare against each section will help identify shortcomings. It’s the policies and good practices gathered in relation to each of those sections that will be most useful to parliaments and local PMO’s, as it will enable them address their specific these specific shortcomings. After all, there are still some parliaments in the world were you cannot access the voting information or draft legislation.
But wouldn’t a rank be a strong advocacy tool for local PMO’s? For example, if my parliament is next to last, I could shame the parliament into changing its practice?
Melissa: We tried such approach in Latin American network, but it didn’t work. So then we did a twist – instead of emphasizing the negative side of it, we focused on the positive. For example, telling them that the Brazilian Congress is doing such and such, and it is great! Let’s try to do like Brazil! Our parliament responds to these kinds of positive incentives better than to negative ones. If we compare them to a parliament somewhere in Europe, they’ll just say that it is too far away and the situation is too different. So we’re not focusing on what we are doing wrong, but rather on what the others are doing right and that we should, too.
So what next for the network? If you look at the next year or two, what do you see?
Andrew: hopefully we will have a methodology on monitoring the compliance with declaration and for collecting policies, good parliamentary practices around the world. I also hope that in a year you’ll see information on at least 50 parliaments on openingparliament.com website, you’ll see the declaration having been translated to more languages (there are already 14!) and more engagement between PMO’s while helping each other on global advocacy. We’re already trying to do that via the OpeningParliament blog!
Melissa: I have a lot of hope in building community of practitioners who would have different approaches to the same problems. It would be great if they were sharing their new ideas on how to solve those problems!
Andrew: You know, we also hope to see more engagement with the parliamentary community. Through the Open Government Partnership, almost 60 governments are collaborating with civil society to make commitments to use technology to become more open and accountable. Parliaments are not included in that initiative, despite being the branch of government charged with representing citizens. We hope that the Declaration on Parliamentary Openness will inspire the parliaments to be more involved – to use the new technologies and to engage citizens!