Parliamentary transparency and accountability

Question

What is known about the impact and effectiveness of transparency and accountability interventions which aim to make parliaments and the legislative processes more transparent? What knowledge gaps exist for future research?

Summary

This report presents and discusses what evidence exists about initiatives to promote transparency among legislators, members of parliament (MPs), and legislative processes and what impact this has had on legislative accountability. In this report we distinguish between two types of accountability: vertical (in which citizens play a direct role in holding the powerful to account) and horizontal (in which legislators hold the executive to account). With regard to vertical accountability, the effects of three policy initiatives are reviewed: i) increased information about MPs including through ICTs; ii) disclosure of MPs’ assets; and iii) disclosure of MPs’ election expenses and funders. Compared to more recent transparency initiatives, such as registers of beneficial ownership information, these initiatives have had a few years to generate some evidence about impact. In relation to horizontal accountability, the impact of transparency on the effectiveness of Public Accounts Committees is reviewed. The choice to focus on this Committee was also made on the basis of available research.

Key findings

Concerning transparency’s role in inducing vertical accountability, evidence suggests that:

  • Increased information about MPs and their conduct may lead to greater accountability by aligning the behaviour of MPs, who want to be elected, with the expectations of voters who will electorally punish misconduct. There is, however, mixed evidence for whether voters do punish MPs for misconducts at election times.
  • Political contextual factors, such as clientelism, can produce vertical accountability that is personal in nature and not what we would label as ‘good governance’. In such contexts, it is questionable to what degree transparency about MPs’ legislative conduct would induce greater accountability.
  • There is also a risk coupled with increased transparency about MPs. Evidence shows that increased information about MPs’ misconduct and corrupt engagements can lead to voter disillusionment and citizens withdrawing from democratic participation.
  • Dissemination of information about MPs and parliaments through ICTs has increased in recent years but it is unclear what impact this type of transparency has had on accountability and MP behaviour.
  • The small evidence base concerning asset disclosure shows a potentially positive association between publicly disclosed information about MPs’ assets and lower levels of corruption. More research is needed to cement these findings and provide further evidence on the causal mechanisms underpinning these results.
  • While conventional wisdom predicts that more transparency in political finance, including public disclosure of MPs’ expenditures and sources of funding, would have positive effects on accountability, there is very little empirical evidence supporting this claim. A number of potential risks are coupled with increased campaign finance transparency and more research is needed to see how the potential benefits and risks of such transparency play out in developing country contexts.

Concerning transparency’s role in inducing horizontal accountability:

  • Theory suggest that making oversight a salient political issue by disclosing and disseminating information about the work of Public Accounts Committees to the public, via media or engaged civil society, may induce a greater sense of urgency among Committee members and tilt their incentives towards being more effective in their oversight roles. This is supported by some evidence.
  • More political economy-focused research on legislative oversight in different developing country contexts is needed to further our understanding of how transparency can be used to promote horizontal accountability.

Enquirer:

Suggested citation

Mills, L. (2017). Parliamentary transparency and accountability. K4D Helpdesk Report. Brighton, UK: Institute of Development Studies.