Community of Practice launch: Appetite for better evidence base emerges in parliamentary strengthening debate

“Getting a parliament encased within a culture of parliamentarianism is the desirable goal,” constitutionalist Lord Norton of Louth told yesterday’s Community of Practice launch. “The question is how you achieve it.”

Britain’s parliamentary strengthening community has been striving to answer that question for many years.

But there’s always more that can be done to improve coordination and collaboration to help identify what works best.

That’s why we’ve helped set up the Community of Practice, launched yesterday in Parliament at a meeting chaired by Stephen Twigg MP.

Stephen Twigg MP chaired the launch event

The idea – as WFD’s Graeme Ramshaw outlined in a blog yesterday – is to provide the “hub” called for by MPs on the international development select committee.

Its establishment has been welcomed by those in government.

Stefan Kossoff of DFID said the Community of Practice was a “brilliant initiative” which will “help advance thinking and practice in this area”.

He said DFID would look to engage as much as it could, sharing research and contributing to the UK’s shared offer overseas, as the Community of Practice develops its work.

“It is going to provide a really important forum for the sharing of lessons and learning amongst UK organisations and researchers in this field,” he said.

“We still lack a systematic evidence base so if we can advance that it would be good. It provides us with an opportunity to strengthen coordination in how we work overseas, building on respective strengths of organisations in this room.”

Stefan Kossoff speaks at the event

The discussion was opened by Greg Power, director of Global Partners Governance, who gave an update on the work that he and Tom Carothers of the Carnegie Institute are doing to revise DFID’s guidance note on parliamentary strengthening.

His remarks emphasised the importance of political analysis and discussed the need for key objectives including self-sustaining reforms and effective measurement, before touching on the big-picture challenges about governance work.

“There needs to be a degree of realism about what you’re going to get from a parliamentary project,” he said. “The point about working with a parliament is to change the political culture.” When that’s achieved, “you’re much more likely to see those benefits repeated time after time”.

The debate about the benefits of improving parliaments’ capabilities is far from settled, however. Dr Tim Kelsall of the Overseas Development Institute think-tank (pictured below) offered a sceptical response to Greg Power’s comments, suggesting that “parliamentary oversight is just one piece of the development puzzle”. He warned against “getting carried away with the centrality of parliaments to development” and pointed out that “the evidence base is still rather fragile”.

The Community of Practice, it’s hoped, will help fix that. Westminster Foundation for Democracy has signed a research partnership with the Department of Politics and International Relations at Oxford University which can translate the expertise of our implementers into substantive research. The aim is to address precisely that lack of a robust evidence base being pointed to now.

As Wednesday evening’s event showed, a big part of the continuing debate is focusing on how to design the most effective programmes and how to measure the impact in an area as complex as political reform.

Lord Norton, highlighting this, spoke of the need to “mould” the approach to specific contexts. “If you go with the checklist approach, the danger is you’re imposing a straitjacket that may not fit with a particular society,” he said.

Stefan Kossoff, too, underlined the “critical” need for avoiding the “blueprint approach”. It’s in working out the right way to apply flexible methods where our collaborative work going forwards will be so important. As he put it: “The Community of Practice is about disseminating good practice as opposed to best practice.”

In the coming weeks and months we’ll be looking to work with the CPA, the overseas offices of the Commons and Lords and our other partners to build on last night’s successful launch. If you would like to contribute, please contact our Director of Research and Evaluation at Graeme dot Ramshaw

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