Key functions of parliament: oversight
Oversight is the process by which the parliament monitors the quality of the work of the government regarding implementation of the law, development plans and budgets that have been previously adopted by the parliament. Various methods of oversight will be discussed in detail later in this handbook, but these include committee inquiries, question time and interpellations.
Objectives of Parliamentary Oversight
Parliamentarians conduct oversight in order to:
- Ensure transparency and openness of executive activities. Parliaments shed light on the operations of government by providing a public arena in which the policies and actions of government are debated, scrutinised, and subjected to public opinion;
- Hold the executive branch accountable. Parliamentary oversight scrutinises whether the government’s policies have been implemented and whether they are having the desired impact;
- Provide financial accountability. Parliaments approve and scrutinise government spending by highlighting waste within publicly funded services. Their aim is to improve the economy, efficiency and effectiveness of government expenditure; and,
- Uphold the rule of law. Parliament should protect the rights of citizens by monitoring policies and examining potential abuses of power, arbitrary behavior, and illegal or unconstitutional conduct by government.
Tools and Mechanisms of Parliamentary Oversight
- Hearings, either in plenary or committee meetings, are a primary tool of parliaments for obtaining information related to specific policies or issues. Nearly all parliaments conduct hearings. However, parliaments have varying capacities to compel individuals to give testimony.
- The vote of no confidence, or motion of censure, is a motion presented by parliamentarians that results in either the withdrawal or the confirmation of the Parliament’s confidence in the government or one of its ministers. When a parliament withdraws its confidence in the government, the cabinet usually resigns or seeks a parliamentary dissolution. In some countries, withdrawls of confidence lead to a process in which the head of state either calls for the resignation of the government or the dissolution of the parliament. Where the rules allow for a parliament to withdraw its confidence in a single minister, that individual typically resigns. There are many variations to the procedures governing votes of no confidence.
- Interpellation refers to a formal procedure used by parliamentarians to require the justification of a certain policy by an individual member of government or, in some countries, the government in full. It can give way to broad debates on the policy at hand or lead to a vote approving or disapproving the issue discussed. This may be followed by a vote of no confidence.
- Parliamentary questions are the most commonly used oversight tool. Questions are intended to clarify or discuss government policies and may lead to interpellation, where the rules permit, if the answer is not satisfactory. In order to properly monitor the executive, it is essential for members of parliament to be properly informed of the policies of the executive and its ministries. Government responses to parliamentary questions may lead to the publication of valuable information. Questions can often be asked in oral or written form, although oral question and answer sessions may provide a dramatic atmosphere and opportunity for response and follow-up by either side. Consequently, the organisation of these sessions is essential to effective parliamentary oversight.
- Committees of inquiry are usually ad-hoc parliamentary committees or commissions formed to carry out in-depth investigations on specific issues of public importance. These commissions usually benefit from a greater degree of access to information than normal committees. Their powers may include summoning witnesses to testify under oath, confronting one witness with another, requesting or seizing documents, ordering searches, organising field visits, and more. In some countries, these commissions may possess the same powers as a magistrate making a judicial inquiry. Committees of inquiry are a commonly used oversight instrument in parliaments around the world and may be used to investigate important cases of corruption or abuse of power.
- Budget oversight is a means used by parliaments to ensure financial accountability. After the state budget has been passed, the parliament has an important role to play in monitoring how the budget funds are spent. This work is usually done by one key committee (i.e. - Public Accounts Committee; Budget & Finance Committee) but can also be done by other functional committees. Such scrutinising is often done in cooperation with a state auditing institution or an anti-corruption commission.
- Supreme audit institutions, such as the auditor general (in Commonwealth countries), or Cours des Comptes (in Francophone countries) facilitate ex-post budget oversight by playing a “watchdog” role and reporting its findings either publically or directly to parliament. Supreme audit institutions monitor how the government uses the public purse and informs the parliament of its observations. In Commonwealth countries, the auditor general reports to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), which scrutinises the findings of the audit and makes recommendations accordingly.
- An ombudsman, in some countries, is appointed by parliament in order to conduct investigations of public authorities on the basis of complaints or requests by the parliament. An ombudsman typically scrutinises whether the workings of the administration or the offending actions are in accordance with the principles of good governance. As such, they play an important role in examining government transparency and openness. An ombudsman tries to find practical solutions to the problems they are tasked with and assume a role of conciliation between the public and the authorities.
- Special standing committees are provided for in the internal rules of some parliaments to systematically oversee the government with regards to highly sensitive issues such as national security, defense, and military procurement policies.
- Review and confirmation of executive appointees is a power that allows some parliaments to scrutinise executive appointees to high public office, the judiciary, state run companies, and the like.
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