Legislatures are central to modern democratic politics, holding governments to account, and scrutinising legislation in order to generate more effective public policy. Yet during moments of crisis, legislatures are often bypassed as presidents and prime ministers prioritise a rapid response. The concern that legislatures will be marginalised, with greater power concentrated in the hands of the executive, has been particularly significant during COVID-19, when eighty countries have witnessed democratic backsliding.
To assess the extent to which legislators have been able to exert leadership during COVID-19 and the impact that legislative oversight has had on government responses, Westminster Foundation for Democracy, the Developmental Leadership Programme and the International Development Department at the University of Birmingham developed the “Legislative Responses to COVID-19 Tracker”.
The Tracker monitors whether the legislature sat; whether there was legislative oversight of the initial response from 1 March to 1 May 2020; and whether legislatures had ongoing oversight from 1 April to 1 September 2020.
The resulting report, “Legislative leadership in the time of COVID-19,” sets out the findings of the research, and outlines recommendations for how countries can ensure effective accountability and oversight in times of crisis.
The Legislative Responses to COVID-19 Tracker reveals that levels of legislative engagement have varied considerably between countries. It shows that a range of innovative approaches were taken to enable legislatures to continue to function, mostly through the quick adoption of new or existing technology. However, only about half of all legislatures sat regularly, with around a third sitting irregularly, between 1 March and 1 June 2020. Just over one-tenth of legislatures had extremely limited or no sittings during this time period. Furthermore, whilst two thirds of legislatures did have direct oversight of the government’s initial response, almost a third of legislatures had no direct oversight and almost a quarter have continued to play a minimal role in the policy process.
This suggests that there has been limited accountability and scrutiny of government policy in numerous countries, despite the fact that initial government responses were rarely fully successful in containing the virus.
In the majority of cases, lower scores on our Legislative Responses to COVID-19 Tracker reflected lower legislative effectiveness scores prior to the pandemic. Similarly, countries with higher Tracker scores generally featured higher levels of scrutiny pre-pandemic. However, there are also some cases in which the pandemic significantly disrupted pre-existing practices because legislatures lacked the necessary capacity to meet virtually, or were prohibited from doing so. In these cases, social distancing requirements undermined the potential for oversight in legislatures that previously had greater teeth.
Additional barriers to legislative leadership include the type of legislation used by the government during their initial response, and the tendency to narrow participation due to technological challenges and time pressure. Executives that introduced States of Emergency or relied on existing laws tended to face less legislative scrutiny than those introducing new legislation. Time pressures and the need to make decisions quickly and via new digital processes also led to more streamlined debates. In turn, this had two important consequences, even in countries where legislatures remained active. First, it concentrated opportunities for legislative leadership in the hands of those already in leadership positions, such as party leaders. Second, it meant that legislatures heard evidence from, and engaged with, a narrower group of experts, advisers and concerned parties – such as civil society groups and ordinary citizens. As a result, legislative processes tended to be less participatory and inclusive.
The report concludes that the constraints on legislative leadership during the pandemic have been significant, but effective scrutiny has played an important role in constraining unnecessarily heavy-handed approaches in some cases and prompting the government into action where it had been slow to respond. This was especially the case where dedicated legislative committees featuring a diverse set of legislators and senior figures were established, as their greater flexibility in adapting to physical restrictions enabled them to continue operating.
Based on these findings the report makes the following recommendations:
Governments should invest in digital communications technology to enable legislatures to continue operating during emergencies and boost the inclusivity of legislative processes at all times by facilitating consultative sessions with experts and civil society.
The rules concerning when and how legislatures may sit should be reviewed and revised to ensure that they facilitate operating remotely during health and other crises.
Legislatures should be aided to strengthen committees, expanding the administrative support, resources and expertise available to them, and deepening the connection between these committees and relevant experts, groups and concerned citizens.
Dedicated legislative committees with senior leadership should be established to deal with health emergencies, with established protocols for accessing independent expertise and gathering evidence from a wide range of individuals and groups.
Support for legislative strengthening programmes should be increased to enhance horizontal accountability, strengthen committee systems and technical capacity, and enable these recommendations to be implemented.