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10 fundamentals to keep in mind when opening parliament

In the last year or so, we’ve witnessed an increased concerted effort among legislatures and parliamentary monitoring organizations (PMOs) pushing together for more transparency and accountability from their own democratic institutions, and seeking ways to entrench these values in a concrete way beyond the endorsement and promotion of the Declaration on Parliamentary Openness.

The Open Government Partnership, which was initially founded to encourage the inclusive development and implementation of open government plans, is becoming an umbrella network for both governments and parliaments, offering up principles, mechanisms and guidelines for both institutions. In just five years, it has grown to over 60 national government members, and legislatures are joining the fold.

This is fantastic news, however, like with most large-scale changes, good intentions aren’t enough to make an open parliament plan truly successful and sustainable. The goal is to launch a project and have it become a meaningful go-to resource — not watch it flounder after a symbolic launched backed by politicians because it doesn’t really engage with the wide range of stakeholders committed to increasing legislative transparency to stimulate civic engagement and oversight.

That’s why adopting civic engagement best practices is crucial. Thanks to an invite by the Canadian Embassy and support from ParlAmericas, I most recently had the honour to take part in the launch of the Costa Rican National Assembly’s open parliament plan, where I spoke candidly about these issues. Because they’re by no means unique to one country, I decided to compile a list of ten fundamentals to keep in mind when opening up parliament.

1. Launching the plan is only the “end of the beginning”

So you’ve decided to launch, but what now? How do you build the engaged community required for making this project successful? We know that the “build it and they will come” model (creating an open data portal with some open data sets and expecting users to come) just doesn’t work. Open data can have many benefits – the operative word being can. For the project to truly work, engaging and empowering citizens and stakeholders is an absolute necessity.

2. Define, define, define

You need to address the terminology that frames the way the initiative is envisioned and rolled out, whether it’s via policy, guidelines or licences. This means focusing on definitions for such terms as “open data,” “new data,” (and yes, even more simply, “data”) and doing so before or while working on making data available. But bear in mind, this process shouldn’t be top-down. Because you’re trying to create an engaged data community, the terminology chosen must reflect the common vision that has been defined by all parties involved.

3. Let people lead

You need to apply the principle of “designing with and not for” users when creating civic tech tools and mechanisms for open parliament, like electronic petitions, searchable databases or online education tools. In order to really engage users, you need a critical understanding of user profiles and apply co-design processes. Remember, these engagement tools are meant to benefit citizens — they need to be created with their feedback.

4. You’re part of an international movement

You’ve now joined a growing list of legislatures, like the ones in Ukraine and Georgia, who are striving to increase transparency and accountability. There’s a cultural shift at play when moving forward with this initiative, and you need to account to and support individuals, including people that manage legislative data and legislatures themselves, who may have different perceptions regarding risks and fears. Get connected to regional and global communities, like those within the Open Government Partnership, for practices and support networks.

5. Get to know your data

Adopting a problem-solving approach to utilizing data helps focus collaboration on productive and impact-driven outcomes. You need to identify the demand for open data by connecting with communities of practices that see the added value in having legislative data available. This process will allow you to establish the available data that is actually being sought, the data that should be available but isn’t, or the non existent data that could be generated by legislative data producers and managers.

6. Set the groundwork for the future

Long-term structural changes should be factored in at the outset, like which legislative standards or APIs to adopt. If you’re already changing behaviour (like formatting transcripts or bills differently) then why not do it according to international best practices and connect with existing communities of practice maintaining these standards? (Click here to check out our list of legislative data standards!) Your open parliament initiative can become a platform for innovation across the region.

7. Learning the basics

The goal is to empower citizens, and super data users like investigative journalists, to manipulate the data, not just to consume it. Data literacy is therefore critical. Parliament and CSOs can collaborate to provide skills training, by organizing, for example, monthly open parliament meet-ups inside parliament (which is also simple way of sending a message of openness). The key to this step? Frequency and preparation. These activities should be held on a regular basis, so as to stretch out the collaborative process and facilitate peer-to-peer learning opportunities.

8. Break down barriers

Open communication is foundational to open data. That’s why its principles should be actively promoted among data managers and producers, which will encourage them to become accessible to data users. By giving users direct access to those responsible for producing and managing data – whether it be to ask questions, test project ideas, discuss the context of data sets – you’re maximizing the impact of your initiative.

9. Good things take time

Supporting a responsive culture vis-à-vis the data user community is imperative, and one of the best ways to do so is by openly acknowledging failures and successes. I know, taking a step back and honestly reflecting on a situation is difficult for individuals, let alone institutions. That’s why an incremental approach is essential. This is a long-term project. You shouldn’t bank on instant big successes. Remember, even if data made accessible today doesn’t generate innovation in the near term, it may certainly down the road. Providing good metadata is, therefore, essential.

10. Call to action

If your legislature is making this commitment, help CSOs and PMOs engage with it (they can only do so much on their own). They can advocate for citizens, but citizens need to ultimately put themselves forward, explore and ask questions via the new two-way communication tools built through your open parliament initiative in order to discuss the transparency and accountability issues that could potentially be resolved with legislative open data.

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