Information is the lifeblood of parliaments. It is fundamental to their three core functions of scrutiny, representation and oversight; without quality evidence, parliaments cannot hold the government to account. Despite this, however, the systems that shape how parliaments gather, appraise and use evidence, and the parliamentary staff who are at the forefront of these activities, have too often been overlooked in parliamentary strengthening programmes.
In the evidence-informed policy making (EIPM) sector, there is increasing interest in the factors that shape evidence use within a public institution, from the external political and social drivers to internal institutional behaviours, processes and systems. This has so far largely taken a broad view of public institutions, and, to the extent that specific studies exist, they tend to focus more on ministries. There is, however, an increasing body of practical experience within the EIPM sector working with African parliaments, as well as demand and interest from parliaments themselves.
The first part of this paper describes the key features of information support systems in African parliaments and highlights some of the main external and internal factors that influence them. We explain how a parliament’s capacity and performance with regards to information is linked to its ability to perform its key functions of legislation, representation and oversight, and we identify some of the main institutional factors that influence that capacity. These range from strategic and leadership-level commitment to evidence, to parliamentary research capacity and links with external research institutions. The accompanying Parliament in Focus papers consider the institutional factors in more detail in three parliaments: Uganda, Zimbabwe and Ghana, highlighting key barriers and opportunities for strengthening evidence use in each.