On 6 November, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference in Dhaka, Bangladesh, endorsed a recommendation by the Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD) that “Parliaments should use updated Commonwealth Parliamentary Association Benchmarks on Democratic Legislatures as a tool to ensure their contribution to Sustainable Development Goal 16 (on inclusive and accountable governance)”.
The launch of the Benchmarks for Democratic Legislatures in 2006 by CPA and partners was a ground-breaking step to strengthen parliaments through the creation of a set of standards for parliaments across the Commonwealth.
Now, at a time of increased scrutiny of parliaments and of parliamentarians, the focus on measuring impact and the need to demonstrate the effectiveness of legislatures is even more relevant. However, the original Benchmarks were conceived as minimum standards rather than performance benchmarks and there has been limited take up by parliaments.
A decade on, SDG 16 offers a unique opportunity to revisit the expectations of an effective and democratic parliament. Last year, WFD and CPA convened a study group of leading experts in the field of parliamentary strengthening to review the Benchmarks and continue with this seminal work in setting standards for parliaments. The group discussed the development of a tool to help parliaments craft their reform agenda in line with the aspirations of the Commonwealth Charter and the SDGs, and more frequently self-assess their effectiveness and the extent to which they are becoming more transparent, inclusive and responsive institutions.
In the first half of 2017, WFD and CPA prepared updated Benchmarks that reflect these new international frameworks. In November, WFD’s CEO, Anthony Smith, was invited to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference in Dhaka to present this initiative and seek the endorsement of parliamentarians for their implementation. In the panel discussion, parliamentarians from Nigeria, Malaysia, Australia, and Canada noted that the use of self-assessments by Parliaments to demonstrate their performance and to highlight areas in which the organisation can improve was useful. It was also made clear that the Benchmarks are not about ‘shaming’ Parliaments as there is no grading system but that the Benchmarks allow Parliaments to consider their own culture and history in development and use the results to improve their own processes.
Conference delegates enthusiastically endorsed WFD’s recommendation on the updated benchmarks as well as three other recommendations related to the adoption and implementation of the Benchmarks. This strong support for the initiative reflects a growing appetite among parliamentarians for tools to measure their effectiveness and impact.
Going forward, WFD and CPA will convene a reference group comprising representatives from the nine CPA regions to finalise the updated benchmarks. These will be accompanied by a set of indicators of impact that would refer particularly to SDG 16 and a field guide for parliaments to use when conducting assessments using the benchmarks and indicators. WFD will use its parliamentary support expertise to advise Commonwealth parliaments throughout the process and assist in effecting improvements as they are identified.