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Can parliaments transform societies?

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Parliaments are at the heart of many debates on how to make democracies work. Yet in many countries they rank near the bottom of all institutions trusted by the public. In only four of 15 established democracies in the Europe and Central Asia region did at least half of voters express trust in parliament.

Parliaments are often the only national institutions directly elected by citizens. By definition, then, parliaments hold the heart of citizens’ hopes for representative, effective, transparent, democracies. Parliaments are the place where diverse views are expressed, and where decisions are reached collectively. They debate and vote state budgets, ensuring these are invested in the right areas, and spent effectively.

Or so goes the expectation. Many parliaments have been accused of getting captured by powerful elites or co-opted by the executive branch. The increasingly polarized political environments of late, characterized by mass misinformation, a blurring of national sovereignties and the rise of extremes, has seen parliaments under intense pressure to deliver.

A democracy cannot possibly function without a healthy parliament and capable MPs. The question then becomes: how can we make sure national assemblies are able to perform their core duties? How do we help governments not only navigate storms but stay focused on accomplishing long-term development goals?

Last week, 200 parliamentarians, civil society representatives, and parliamentary staff from 50 countries around the world came together in Kyiv to answer just that. Participants brought lessons learned, putting most cutting edge approaches towards transparent governments under the microscope.

The conference is an example of the steps Ukraine is taking to become an open and responsive democracy. Long criticized as a place where shady deals were struck between interest groups, the Verkhovna Rada parliament of Ukraine is reinventing itself completely. It shares data on parliamentarians’ activities and expenses and citizens can now provide electronic inputs on draft legislation.

But herein lies the conundrum. Transparency doesn’t automatically mean more public trust. Parliaments are tasked with translating democracy into action, but the process is – by its very nature – often messy and acrimonious. Ukraine’s Open Parliament Initiative is working on just that.

We also can’t live by the old adage: “if you build it, they will come.” Creating engaging, innovative platforms is only one half of the story. Parliaments need to reach out to citizens and explain how the democratic process works. People need to know they can provide their opinions, raise concerns, and blow the whistle when they see corruption or mismanagement. Research shows that people who are engaged in the political process are much more likely to trust parliaments. As Britain’s parliamentary think-tank, the Hansard Society, puts it: “familiarity breeds support”.

There’s a mutually reinforcing relationship between levels of human development, social cohesion, and citizens’ respect for parliament. So, countries such as Sweden and Norway which score highly in human development and social cohesion also show high levels of public trust in their parliaments.
This demonstrates that by engaging in real development problems through close attention to the Sustainable Development Goals, and by helping to foster social cohesion through openness and citizen engagement, parliaments can improve their own trust ratings. It’s a win-win.

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