“MPs cannot effectively exercise their oversight role without credible evidence” Speaker of Parliament –Malawi
By: Nyasha Mcbride Mpani
Introduction and Background
Parliament is one of the three arms of government in South Africa and it plays a pivotal role in promoting political accountability. As an arm of government, Parliament is strategically positioned to promote political accountability as a result of the three critical roles which it is mandated to play in terms of the constitution of the country. Chapter 4 of the South African Constitution indicates that the functions of Parliament are to represent, legislate and to conduct oversight. As a legislative body that represents citizens’ worries and interests, parliament is mandated to supervise the executive and hold it to account. This is done through critically reviewing how public funds are being used.
These three key roles allow Parliament, or rather gives it the locus standi to promote political accountability through ensuring that the executive, government departments, etc. are kept in check. However, for meaningful political accountability to be promoted by Parliament there is a need for Parliament to make use of evidence or to institutionalise evidence use. This paper will attempt to address why evidence is important in parliamentary oversight, how evidence can be institutionalised in the parliamentary system, challenges legislatures face regarding the institutionalisation of evidence use and what needs to shift in South Africa’s politics to enforce the use of evidence by legislatures.
Conceptualising Political Accountability
Political accountability is crucial for any democracy and is necessary in strengthening good governance and the rule of law in any country. The key purpose of political accountability is to hold responsible the government or executive for alleged illegal conduct. Political accountability helps government to work accountably, capably and responsively (All Party Parliamentary Group, 2008). For the purpose of this paper, Yankova (2013)’s definition or conceptualisation of political accountability will be used. Yankova (2013) conceptualises political accountability as an act that stresses that elected officials make use of their authority and call for accountability from those in government, the executive and in other elected positions of authority. In the context of this paper, citizens are therefore the principals, while parliamentarians, who are the elected officials, are servants of the people and owe accountability to their principals. Hence, parliamentarians have an obligation to ensure the conduct of political accountability to protect the citizen’s resources from being abused by the executive without consequences.
What is Evidence Use
Evidence use is defined in simple terms as when parliament uses evidence gathered from citizens, other stakeholders, research unit, auditor general reports and evidence from practice and policy implementation in conducting their work. Scholars such as argue that evidence use is not completely gathered from research, or one set of findings, but however it is the use of evidence from a number of different sources which are credible. Jones et al., (2012) states that the wider understanding of what evidence use ignores the narrow focus on only research and methodological rigour to a more comprehensive understanding of evidence which is aware of diverse forms of knowledge and information such as citizen knowledge, practical experience, and administrative data.
Importance of Evidence Use in Enabling Parliamentary Oversight
A key function of parliaments in a democratic system of checks and balances is oversight. The goal of parliamentary oversight is to promote transparency in governance and to keep government accountable to the electorate (Fisher 1998:44). According to Bucur-Marcu (2009); Hänggi (2003); Yamamoto (2007), accountability and transparency are two important aspects that are joined by oversight. Parliament can make meaningful and effective oversight if it makes use of a unique set of tools such as evidence use if it is to fulfil its oversight mandate. Evidence use is crucial in promoting political accountability in South Africa. There is no democracy without accountability and state institutions, such as parliament, have a critical role to play in promoting accountability. At the heart of governance is political accountability and Parliament is key in championing this to strengthen democracy and good governance in the country. Evidence use is a critical component for the effective delivery and implementation of a parliament’s core function which is oversight. Without evidence, it is very difficult for Parliamentarians to effectively carry out their role as credible evidence is the bedrock of oversight work. According to Britchfield and Sasse (2020:10), “evidence is at the heart of good governance”. Evidence use is important for the following reasons;
Inform policy making– Parliamentarians enact policies that are used in a country and because of this critical role that they play, evidence use is crucial to enlighten and inform them in their decision making. To do so, Parliament can make use of evidence from a plethora of diverse evidence mechanisms and actors at their disposal, such as from public hearings, internal and external research. Furthermore, it can only be through evidence use that will also assist Parliamentarians in preventing bad policies which are not people-centred from being implemented.
Helping MPs to hold government to account on its performance- Evidence use gives parliamentarians the aptitude to keep government in check, especially on its performance. Parliamentarians make use of the evidence as ammunition or power to remove corrupt office bearers and push government to answers, especially where state resources are misappropriated. Furthermore, evidence use helps to fortify oversight through assisting parliamentary committees to effectively examine legislation, finance and government activities.
Other Reasons- Some of the reasons why evidence use is important include improved quality of debate as it provides quality analysis to MPs. It also increases the public view of parliament, specifically when it is under public scrutiny. Lastly, evidence use is important in giving life to effective representation through providing precise constituency profiles and statistics to MPs.
Where can parliamentarians/ parliament get evidence?
According to the International Parliamentary Union, evidence that can used by parliament or parliamentarians can be sourced from a number of departments such as;
Library – It has information that can assist users to find relevant evidence pertaining a certain topic
The Research Department– It attends to the research needs of individual MPs or committees and can also conduct proactive ‘horizon scanning’ which will scan and produce the needed evidence.
Hansard: It is the official parliamentary record of debates and is a source of evidence for parliament or parliamentarians.
Information Communication and Technology: Since it plays a crucial role in storing, referencing, and sharing information in digital format. It is a source of evidence as needed information can be extracted from digital records.
Public Affairs department: This department is a source of evidence as it is involved in conducting public consultations and gathering citizen evidence.
Specialized evidence units such as Parliamentary Budget Offices: They provide evidence on specific issues of great difficulty and technical detail.
Monitoring and evaluation units: Their M&E reports can act as evidence that can be used by parliament and parliamentarians in their oversight work.
Auditor General’s Office: This is an important office that produces reports on government spending. These reports are sources of information and evidence that can be used by parliamentarians in their oversight work.
Challenges Affecting Evidence Use by Parliamentarians
While evidence use is critical for Members of Parliament to use in championing political accountability in South Africa, MPs face a number of challenges in trying to make use of evidence. These challenges include inadequate staffing and skills in research and data use, lack of supportive infrastructure, evidence is not readily available to MPs, difficulties with getting data/information from government agencies and low interest in use of evidence among MPs’ politics and interests. These challenges are explained in detail below.
Parliament Staff Capacity
Evidence use requires staffing that has the requisite skills in research and data use. A pertinent problem that is affecting evidence use by parliamentarians is the lack of skills and knowledge for evidence use by MPs and parliamentary staff. Parliamentary staff play a crucial role in data translation to decision makers (See figure 2 below). They are vital as transmitters, interpreters and synthesisers of information (Miller, Pelizzo & Stapenhurst, 2004; IPU & IFLA 2015).
Figure 2:Range of analytical support offered by parliamentary research services
There is a significant data skills deficiency among MPs and their staff and this hinders evidence use in promoting political accountability. Like other countries within the SADC region, South Africa experiences a high turnover of MPs, who lack the capacity in evidence use in each new Parliament. In addition to that, Parliamentary staff members are also not well trained in data use, data-based evidence use, data collection, collation, and access. This poses a critical threat or challenge to MPs who rely so much on these staff members to research and provide evidence that they can use in conducting their oversight work. While Parliament is made up of an information support system (see figure 3 below) that is specialised to provide evidence, this support system, which is designed to generate parliament’s own evidence to be used by Parliamentarians to promote accountability, is greatly impacted by lack of well-capacitated staff who can make meaningful use of this system to harness evidence needed to promote accountability. While the South African Parliament has research staff, it is however offering little research services with researchers facing capacity constraints. In research by Pillay and Paruk (2017), the South African Parliament has key skills deficits in the following areas;
Legal skills for Committee support;
Financial management skills; and
Research support for Parliamentary Committees.
Staff and parliamentarians’ skill levels in gathering, appraising and communicating evidence are an important factor.
Parliament cannot rely exclusively on evidence provided by the Executive. For meaningful political accountability to take place, parliamentarians need evidence that is drawn from external sources to comprehend what options exist. Lack of access to evidence is one of the challenges that MPs face in trying to use evidence to promote political accountability. Research by Kenny, Rose, Hobbs, Tyler and Blackstock (2018) notes that MPs are struggling to access a wide range of evidence and over-reliance on academic research often does not “cut through”. Furthermore, the South African Parliament library, which serve as a main source of information for staff and MPs, does not have access to up-to date journal subscriptions which can be used to research or to gather evidence. This challenge does make it very difficult to inform parliamentary debates with the latest research and evidence.
MPs’ education, awareness and attitudes towards evidence
South African political parties struggle from “cadre deployment” which has a detrimental effect on the use of evidence in promoting political accountability. Scholars, such as Tshishonga (2014), Shava and Chamisa (2018), posit that cadre deployment results in political parties “deploying people who are incompetent and unskilled” to be members of parliament. This does not only exacerbate challenges related to corruption, poor procurement systems, wasteful expenditure, but also has a strong negative impact on the promotion of political accountability. This policy of cadre deployment has advocated that ANC party loyalists should occupy positions in Parliament with most of their MPs having diverse educational backgrounds, as well as attitudes to evidence use and research. This has implications for how evidence is used and communicated to these lawmakers and the level of impact it will have with regard to enhancing political accountability.
In most cases, the executive sets the legislative agenda for parliament. Scholars have indicated that, particularly in Africa, a key factor shaping the demand and use of evidence within parliaments is executive dominance. Executive dominance sometimes contributes to an unevenness between the powers of parliament and the executive, which in some cases, leads to evidence monopolisation. This executive dominance can produce a rubber stamp legislature which has little need for information and is anti-contrary evidence and just focuses on the time and place to vote. Coupled with the whipping system, ruling party ANC MPs often essentially only meet to endorse the ruling party’s programme of work and ignore important evidence from independent research and analysis which should be of value to them in enhancing political accountability.
The central arena for party politics is parliament. The tussle for power possesses a threat to the use of evidence in parliament. Barkan (2009) denotes that party politics is one of the central variables affecting parliamentary reform on the continent, and reforms around research and information are no exception. There is a growing trend in multi-partyism which is leading to role expansion of the opposition in the country. While this is a positive sign in promoting good governance and democracy, it also poses a great challenge for evidence use. It is argued by some scholars, such as Shija (2001), that multi-party politics is a challenge in evidence use due to identity politics, which then takes precedence over principles and political accountability.
South Africa is part of a global village and has not be spared from the increasing global ‘information explosion. International Parliamentary Union and the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) (2015) argue that the explosion has brought in a new challenge of information overload which is making way for a plethora of types of evidence. The ‘information explosion’ has necessitated the increase in new information producers and users in both private and public sectors, leading to public institutions, such as Parliament, struggling to keep up with the information and evidence. This information or evidence that is increasingly coming out as a result of this explosion is also a challenge that affects evidence use as it can be overwhelming for Parliamentarians with its quality being compromised and variable. Added to this is that Parliamentarians are very busy and facing such a challenge of information overload, which acts as evidence, has an impediment to its use as legislatures lack the time and resources to thoroughly dissect or assimilate what they would have received. In a South African parliament that is already facing capacity challenges and skills deficit, accessing and processing available information and evidence becomes a challenge for Parliamentarians to meaningfully exercise their oversight role. The legislature is incapable of gathering, synthesising or understanding the evidence that is provided, which then inhibits the capability of parliamentarians to substantively question government choices, decisions and actions.
Convolution of policy issues
Parliament deals with a number of issues and some of these issues are too complex, complicated and technical for Parliamentarians to deal with. With a number of emerging issues coming up, Bradley (1980) posits that the scope of government is also widening and there is an increase in societal interconnectedness which is also creating increased information and evidence demand on legislatures on a number of policy issues. Across all sectors, intricate issues ranging from trade and investment, climate change, inspection and endorsement of budgets and taxes to economic policy are some of the key areas listed by Stapenhurst and Draman (2010) where parliamentary capacity is most limited. In addition, some of the complex issues that South African parliament now has to deal with also include issues to do with genetically modified organisms, biosafety and biosecurity. Such areas of focus face long delays in Parliament, due to the complex nature of the issues. Evidence use on such matters is a challenge as parliamentary research teams and parliamentarians lack adequate resources that are needed to support extensive research teams that will provide the latest evidence through scientific journals, data, etc.
How can the challenges be addressed?
Evidence use is very important in enhancing political accountability and it is important that barriers or challenges that impede the use of it be removed. There are a number of ways that can be used by parliament and parliamentarians to address these challenges and are explained below:
Human Resource Capacity – Building the capacity of parliamentary staff is critical as these people is heavily relied on by MPs to research and synthesise issues for their committees. Parliament needs to invest in continuous training of parliamentary staff so that they build their skills in data use, research, and evidence mining. Having a parliamentary staff that boasts of excellent skill in gathering, appraising, and communicating evidence is an important factor.
Access to evidence- Parliamentarians are only able to use evidence if barriers to its access are dismantled. A number of factors have been listed above on how access to evidence is a challenge for MPs. To address this challenge, there is a need for parliament to strengthen its information units which act as sources of evidence for Parliamentarians. These include the need to update library sources so that it has contemporary journals, books or research material that can be used by members. Also, the ICT unit which works in digitising information and evidence also needs to be updated with the latest research technology that will make the access to evidence easy and quick. Units such as the Hansard and research, need to be readily available for parliamentarians any time they require evidence or information to use in conducting political accountability. These units need to be very efficient. Influential leaders in parliament, such as the speaker and clerk of parliament, should also encourage and influence change processes. They should encourage research and information services. “Leadership is fundamental in influencing organizational culture as well as resource provision around evidence use”.
Education and change of MPs attitude – parliament struggles with the fact that most elected officials do not have a strong educational background and evidence use is muzzled. To address this, parliament need to encourage elected officials to further their education and also incentivise those who take it upon themselves to further their education. Programmes that seek to capacitate parliamentarians to understand the importance of evidence use and how they can make use of it should also be crafted by parliament and can go a long way in addressing the challenge. On this one, Parliament can partner with development agencies and civil society to provide the needed technical support to parliamentarians. These organisations may also be used to break down into simple terms, some very technical aspects which may be very difficult for members to understand and grasp easily.
Executive Dominance– Parliament should, by all means necessary, resist executive capture of dominance to protect parliament from being rendered weak, ineffective and marginalised. This can be done through parliamentary leadership which needs to be remain objective and in support of the key demand of the Constitution that promotes the separation of powers. Parliamentary leadership should also ensure that Parliament does not make government its only source of information. This promotes executive monopoly and it is not good for democracy. Parliament should resist the dominance and demand that available information be transparent, so that MPs are not hindered from holding the executive to account. An imbalance of authority between the legislature and the executive should never be allowed to exist.
This paper has considered the importance of evidence use in the South African parliament and how it is important for promoting political accountability. The paper has also shown some of the challenges that affect evidence use in our national legislatures and the factors range from access to evidence, capacity constraints, executive dominance, and party politics, etc. Ways on how some of these challenges affect evidence use have been proffered and they include incentivising elected members who want to further their education, offering leadership that encourages the use of evidence and partnering with development partners to offer technical support to parliaments on complex policy issues. The ways offered to avert these challenges are by no means exhaustive and the researcher strongly believes that more people who are in this space may add to or refine those already discussed in this paper.
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