International consensus has emerged over time around a standards-based approach in the areas of human rights and elections (despite the wide variation in electoral systems). Yet until recently a standards-based approach around what constitutes a democratic parliament has lagged behind. Many parliaments today are seeking to improve their performance by, among other things, becoming more open, independent, accountable, and responsive. At the same time a range of inter-parliamentary and other organisations worldwide recognise that the development of such standards can contribute to parliament’s own evaluative and reform efforts, as well as guide parliamentary development practitioners and donors in designing more appropriate support programmes.
Entry points for use include preparation of the parliamentary budget and/or strategic plan; enabling new members of parliament to discuss key issues; stimulating a parliamentary reform process; validating the findings of a needs-assessment mission, and so on.
2004 saw the beginning of a more structured, multi-actor initiative to develop a standards-based approach for democratic parliaments, with the World Bank Institute (WBI) and Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) jointly hosting a meeting in Washington DC entitled Parliamentary Standards for Democratic Legislatures which brought together representatives of fifteen interested organisations. Since then, a series of study groups, workshops and other fora have allowed organisations to make significant advances over the past several years. Another important step in this process was the International Conference on Benchmarking and Self-Assessment for Democratic Parliaments, in Paris on March 3-4, 2010. A background paper prepared for the conference provides more information.
The major actors involved in the development of parliamentary standards – or benchmarks as they are sometimes called – are the CPA, l'Assemblée Parlementaire de la Francophonie (APF), and the Southern African Development Community Parliamentary Forum (SADC-PF). These three parliamentary associations have all created a reference document with a set of benchmarks or criteria designed to assist parliaments in thematic areas such as the representative aspects of Parliament; ensuring the independence, effectiveness and accountability of Parliament; parliamentary procedures; public accountability; the parliamentary service; and parliament and the media. It should be noted that a tremendous amount of research went into the resulting documents which drew on widely accepted principles from a range of organisations such as the APF, CPA, IPU, OSCE, OECD, SADC, the International Conference of New or Restored Democracies, the Community of Democracies, and the United Nations.
The National Democratic Institute (NDI) for International Affairs devised a Standards-based Questionnaire which attempts to determine perceptions of both the legislature’s formal powers and practice. The questionnaire is designed to be used by parliamentarians, parliamentary staff, and representatives of civil society, whose perceptions can then be compared.
Based on a collection of good practice from 75 of their member parliaments, the IPU developed a self-assessment toolkit for parliamentarians in 2008. The toolkit contains 54 questions, divided among 6 categories: the representativeness of parliament; parliamentary oversight over the executive; parliament’s legislative capacity; the transparency and accessibility of parliament; the accountability of parliament; and parliament's involvement in international policy.
Other organisations have developed frameworks or tools that are also relevant to this work. For example, the Parliamentary Centre developed a Parliamentary Report Card. In cooperation with the World Bank Institute the Parliamentary Centre identified a first set of 37 indicators on parliamentary performance in the budget process; these indicators look at parliamentary input in all stages of the budget process. Following the March 2010 International Conference on Benchmarking and Self-Assessment for Democratic Parliaments, several other inter-parliamentary organisations are also exploring benchmarks and self-assessment frameworks for parliamentary development.