In democratic political systems, parliaments have three main functions: lawmaking, oversight and representation. As lawmakers, parliamentarians are responsible for drafting and shaping the rules that govern society. Through their oversight function, they monitor the executive and ensure that policies are implemented and prescribed by law. As representatives of the citizens, they express the views and beliefs of their constituents and make certain that they are reflected in the policies and debates that take place in society.
There are four major factors that help determine how parliaments undertake these duties. First, a parliament’s institutional and legal framework sets forth a parliament’s powers in relation to those of the executive and judiciary. It also specifies the tools and methods that a parliament may use to employ its powers. Second, in many parliaments, committees are the principle forum for discussing and debating policies and conducting oversight activities. Having a strong committee system is an important determinant of the effectiveness of a parliament in implementing its powers. Third, strong parliaments rely on strong organisational structures. In order for parliamentarians to effectively perform their duties, the parliamentary administration must be able to provide them with the support and information that they need. Finally, political parties and groups play an important role in determining the positions taken by parliamentarians and decisions on when and how to use the powers vested in parliaments.
Institutional and Legal Framework
The characteristics of a parliament usually derive from a country’s constitution, which stipulates the powers and relationships of the political institutions. The details of these relations are hashed out through the adoption of a broader legal framework and the internal rules of parliament. The institutional and legal framework delineate the basic organisation of parliament (i.e. whether it will be unicameral or bicameral), the tools it can use to carry out its functions, and more. This framework also guarantees the general democratic structure (i.e. the electoral law, freedom of information, freedom of assembly, independence of media, etc.) and the fundamental rights of the parliament and its members (i.e. control of the parliamentary budget, MPs’immunity, etc.). The structure of the parliament’s institutional and legal framework is an important factor in shaping the incentives for MPs to implement the functions of their office. Fore more information on this subject, please click here.
Lawmaking, or legislating, is a critical component of the work of a parliament. Whether initiated first by the executive or drafted by MPs themselves, parliaments, as the representative bodies of the people, it is a democratic duty of parliaments to deliberate and ratify legislation. Carrying out these roles effectively is not easy. Due to the complexities of modern society and the technicality of legislative issues, parliaments require knowledge and expertise in vast array of technical areas. A strong legislature also requires administrative support that is capable of helping MPs carry out their legislative function. These duties may include providing access to expertise, researching legislation and court decisions related to specific legal areas and helping MPs draft legislation. When initiated by the executive branch, the parliamentary administration is often called upon to rapidly prepare MPs to deliberate and ammend legislation. For more information on this subject, please click here.
A constitution is the fundamental law upon which all other laws of a country are based and must conform. The constitution is the written (sometimes unwritten) basic definition of the character of a country and the structure of the government in that country. The writing of a constitution often occurs under exceptional circumstances, such as the independence of a nation or after a revolution or political transition from one form of government to another. Amendments to a constitution are more commonplace, but any change to the fundamental law of a country must be done with great care. For more information on constitution-making, please click here.
One of the cornerstones of democratic parliaments, parliamentary oversight, is an indicator of good governance. The purpose of parliamentary oversight is to hold the government accountable for the policies that it implements. Parliamentary oversight is the broad monitoring of the executive’s action by the representatives of the citizens. Besides the parliament’s legislative function, it is through effective oversight that the parliament can ensure a balance of power and assert its role as the defender of the people’s interests. For more information on this subject, please click here.
The representative function of parliaments is characterised by their role as venues for the expression and debate of issues of local and national importance, and the translation of those debates into policies. For MPs, effective representation requires engaging their constituents in dialogue in order to understand their views and perspectives, and to utilise the powers vested in their office (i.e. legislating, participating in debates, authoring questions, etc.) to voice the resulting ideas. In many countries, MPs may be expected to lobby on behalf of their constituencies for specific projects or financial considerations. MPs’ represenative role requires that they return to their constituencies and demonstrate their accomplishments. Aside from reengaging constituents in dialogue, MPs may also provide other types of constituency services, inlcuding casework (i.e. helping to solve constituents’ problems). Overall, how citizens view their interactions with their parliamentarians may dictate the effectiveness of their MPs in fulfilling their representative role. For more information on this subject, please click here.
The Committee Structures
Committee systems allow parliamentarians to develop expertise and conduct thorough examinations of proposed legislation, executive actions and policies. Committees are often referred to as “the workhorses” of parliament, as the management of committee meetings, gathering of documents and organisation of hearings, and preparations that they must undertake are often time-intensive tasks. As key organs of parliaments, committees require highly qualified staff who are familiar with parliamentary procedures, law and legal drafting. The composition of committees is another essential element of their functioning. Committees should reflect the composition of the entire parliamentary assembly by including members from different political parties, regions, genders, and ethnic groups. For more information on this subject, please click here.
The Parliamentary Organisation
A strong, dynamic, and effective parliament cannot exist without a parliamentary administration of equal quality. The organisation of the parliamentary administration is a key component of a successful parliamentary institution. The internal organisation of parliament through modernised facilities and improved information technology (IT) systems is essential. With the development of the internet and broadband technologies, parliaments can connect to a global network of information that assists them in legislative research and promoting good governance. Parliamentary information management, which requires documenting the parliament’s activities and ensuring the availability of all relevant information regarding upcoming matters prior to their consideration, is a key responsibility of the parliamentary administration. Finally, informed legislative decision-making relies on a parliament having strong policy analysis and research capacities. For more information on this subject, please click here.
Support to MPs
MPs are the core actors in all parliaments. An effective parliamentary institution depends on MPs’ motivation, involvement, skills, and capacities. Rules and legal status for MPs can provide the means for MPs’ efficient, free, and independent actions within the parliamentary arena. The parliamentary structure should support MPs in conducting their work and provide opportunities for them to develop their legislative capacities over time.
Parliamentary groups and factions represent the hidden skeleton of many parliamentary assemblies. An MP is unlikely to be able to influence a parliament’s legislative or oversight decisions on his or her own, without the support of a group of colleagues. A lively parliament is commonly composed of organised groups that influence the course of political life. The capacity and maturity of parties and political factions may reflect on how capable a parliament is at managing internal conflicts as well as conflicts with the executive branch and in mediating societal differences. Political factions play critical roles in legislative consensus building and can determine the pace of reforms. For more information on this subject, please click here.