We’re not building a school or digging a well—the immediate beneficiaries are not children or the vulnerable. Yet parliamentary strengthening is a cornerstone of democracy. How do we communicate this to citizens?
In blunt terms, the work of organisations like Westminster Foundation for Democracy is not always thrilling, or even emotive. We’re not building a school or digging a well. The immediate beneficiaries are not children or the vulnerable, and very few of them will be living in poverty. A committee session about tweaking the rules of procedure is never going to be Hollywood box office stuff.Yet the parliamentarians whose working lives benefit from our support aren’t the people this kind of programming is ultimately seeking to help. Whether through improved policy, better accountability, more representative politics or enhanced citizen participation in public life, parliaments matter because they can help change citizens’ lives for the better.
It’s a shame that much of the public debate about parliaments’ role is either seen through a partisan perspective or described by constitutionalists whose terms of reference feel removed from everyday life. During my six years as a journalist writing from the House of Commons Press Gallery about the relationship between the UK’s executive and its parliament, I often made this mistake. As a communicator seeking to highlight why parliaments matter, a more productive approach focusing on the real beneficiaries seems to be essential.
That’s why, in the last few months, I’ve been thinking hard about a new way of showcasing WFD’s results—and, more generally, overcoming the obstacles to communicating the reasons for backing parliamentary strengthening. This is not ground-breaking work, but it does seek to return to first principles and ensure that WFD’s work is not unnecessarily marginalised.
Two obstacles, in particular, need to be tackled head-on. First is the question of what I call ‘citizen proximity’—how close a beneficiary actually is to being an ordinary person. The clerk of a parliamentary committee might make a good interviewee, but their work is framed narrowly and doesn’t speak much to the experiences of the average person in the street. An MP is marginally better, especially if they represent specific constituents. Consulting a civil society organisation, which can speak for a group of citizens and anticipate the changes any shift in policy might bring, is much more like it. Best of all is a citizen—someone whose life has actually been altered by a change that could only have happened because of parliamentary strengthening.
Finding such a citizen might seem rare or unusual—and this is the second obstacle. Achieving change like this takes a lot of time; parliamentary strengthening is patient, long-term work. On a day-to-day basis it involves building the capability of parliaments and political parties. Tracing the link between these activities and a citizen’s life is surely the principal challenge of demonstrating results in this sector.
The answer lies in policy changes resulting from WFD’s interventions. Take our support for the Coalition of Arab Women MPs combating domestic violence, for example. This is campaigning to abolish provisions in the MENA region’s penal codes which allow rapists to escape prosecution by marrying their victim. At the conclusion of a recent meeting of the coalition, the Speaker of the Lebanese Parliament declared his wish to see the topic debated. That is an excellent result; it shows an issue is being debated that might not otherwise have been. The use of a research centre’s products, or a parliamentary budget office’s analysis, or the election of a women candidate who had been supported by WFD, to take some of WFD’s other examples, would also fall under this category. Tracing the link between these activities and a citizen’s life is surely the principal challenge of demonstrating results in this sector.
By the time that some of these debates would actually result in a policy being changed, the programme which began the process could well have wrapped up. This is the next big landmark in the policy change process, which should be celebrated. In Kyrgyzstan in April 2015, WFD’s project completion report noted that a new law had been passed regulating veterinary vaccines. This was great news on its own terms, because the issue had been brought to the attention of MPs via regional committee hearings set up by WFD. We could have spoken to a farmers’ union or other representative body, perhaps, and heard how the change had the potential to make a big difference.
But passing a policy doesn’t automatically result in implementation. It takes even more time for this to happen. It’s only then that the link between a strengthened parliament and an individual’s life can be properly completed. In some instances the connection happens quickly: a Jordanian youth leader trained as part of a WFD programme in 2013 quickly led an initiative which reversed a local trend in forest fires, for example. (I travelled to the Jordan Valley in March to find a citizen beneficiary, Roqaya Al-Orood.) In other cases, especially when working with political parties, a decade seems like a reasonable amount of time to have to wait.
That, surely, is a major obstacle to finding and demonstrating results. A combination of journalistic tenacity and rigorous monitoring is needed to keep track of so many potential avenues of inquiry. It is certainly an area of improvement for WFD, which has achieved results in spades, and is now doing more to dig them out.
A new conversation
As part of WFD’s broader exploration of the barriers to parliamentary strengthening, I want to find out more about how other organisations approach this. Of course it is about more than just communications; effective monitoring and evaluation is essential if these comms-friendly case studies are to become logframe-friendly stories of change. But demonstrating results will always be a strategic messaging priority for parliamentary strengthening organisations.
This leads me to my questions for others working on communicating the value of parliamentary strengthening:
• What does best practice in this very niche area of work look like?
• Do others share my conviction that ‘being human’ is the best way to surmount the ostensibly dry subject matter?
• Do you agree that any case study needs to be as long-term in scope as is needed to connect a strengthened parliament with an improvement in a citizen’s life?
• How far should communicators go in finding citizens even before a policy change is achieved?
• Or are there other ways of demonstrating results not even covered in this article?
I hope this appeal for insight from others can help start a conversation about the right approaches to finding results in parliamentary strengthening. WFD and organisations like it have great stories to tell—but there is work to be done in finding and fleshing out those stories. If we share our approaches, perhaps we all might get a little better at it. And that would be something of a result in itself.
This article was published on openDemocracy as part of WFD’s research project How do parliaments shape democracy – and democracies shape parliaments?