Why context analysis matters

Exploring the inner workings of a parliament is an intense as well as humbling experience.

By Victoria Hasson, WFD’s Parliamentary Adviser

I usually have a week to seek out key practices affecting the institution’s democratic efficacy.

Though further analysis will take place throughout the length of a programme it is critical that I help get this first part right, and this is not a long time given the complex range and depth of issues each parliament faces.

Once WFD has decided that it would like to support the parliament of a particular country, or renew its support, I’m asked to go out and conduct an analysis of the institution’s practices and procedures.

I look specifically at how, and how well, the institution functions in terms of the four areas we care about: how it makes laws; how well it gives voice to issues that people care about; its ability to oversee government; and its engagement with civil society.

How I do this varies according to the information held by each parliament. In all cases it involves reviewing a mix of indicators. For example, I try to obtain a year’s worth of figures on questions, motions, time lags for everything, especially bills, found in Hansard, committee reports and House minutes – if the institution is developed enough to produce them.

Most of the indicators I’m looking for are qualitative, though. I like to conduct focus groups and one-on-one interviews with junior staff working underneath the leadership, particularly when I suspect drivers for poor performance are political.

This is not entirely straightforward, particularly when I have to rely on an interpreter and complex questions get lost in translation. Even when language isn’t a barrier, straightforward questions bring forth hostile responses from those in a position of power at times when I’ve drilled into a sensitive spot. But this is precisely why I ask the question. Sometimes my questions even elicit emotional responses.

Equally as challenging are those instances in which the culture of a country is such that officials find it almost impossible to admit to any weakness or challenge out of respect for authority.

Navigating through different cultural nuances adds another layer of performance to the entire exercise. My tolerance for all varieties of tea and coffee, as well as cigarette smoke, has increased considerably.

Asserting myself often requires navigating through different gender norms. I had to help officials override their cultural norms on a number of occasions. The gender norms were such that senior officials wouldn’t at first address me when I had a male companion, even though I was the one asking the questions and leading the process.

Quirks aside, the entire experience is extremely enriching. I’m amazed at how welcoming everyone has been. From Speakers to junior clerks, I’ve been given intimate access to the inner workings of another country’s parliament through my conversations with them and this is an extremely precious and privileged experience.

Once I’ve conducted all my interviews and obtained the stats I need I return home and construct an analysis of what’s happening. I have to identify and then think critically about the key drivers at play. I make an intellectual map of what we can do to help fortify its functions.

Where an institution has got a fairly sizeable absorption capacity, because for example political appetite exists and the institution’s secretariat is smart and motivated, I will recommend more diverse programmes to challenge them in new ways. Then I sit down and write my report.

Some people ask me why I care so much about micro-level practices within parliament. My private opinion is that a parliament is democratic and effective so long as the procedures through which it performs its core functions are democratic (the indicators of which are varied and debatable).

This necessarily means that I’m far less concerned about how an MP votes in as much as what they did in parliament prior to that – I’m interested in the process that took them to that vote.

Once I’ve got an understanding of how a parliament works the next step will be to understand the inner workings of its political parties. Sizing this up is important when we want to establish an integrated programme, combining our UK sister-party relationships with our expertise in parliamentary strengthening.

I’m hoping this will be made easier by having previously worked for a political party in parliament. What I will want to look at are things such as how MPs are performance managed and what incentives structures exist within parties to make MPs do their job, or otherwise.

I’m really looking forward to the next batch of parliaments that I’ll get to look at before April, which is set to include the parliament of Laos, Venezuela, Tunisia and Kenya.

I honestly believe that going from macro to micro; micro to macro in terms of our understanding of the context in which a parliament operates is the best approach to designing an impactful parliamentary programme.

If a programme works, it does so because it acknowledges the broader politics at play within a country and because it’s constructed out of, and then back into, the inner practices of a parliament.

Featured image: Ben Terrett

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