Parliamentary bodies have a key role role to play in designing and implementing legislative tools to advance the open data movement, mechanising collaboration between parliamentarians and civil society, and in setting the stage for publishing open legislative data.
While legislative openness and the bodies that advocate for it are essential enabling factors, in the Asian context where limited parliamentary information is common, it cannot be regarded as a hindering factor - especially for civil society and researchers within the open data space.
Global data explorers and resources can be useful in providing a framework for and identifying gaps in legislative and parliamentary datasets.
Navigating different levels of government and various legislative contexts can limit short and long-term improvements and disempower various monitoring and civil society organisations carrying out legislative transparency work.
According to the Declaration of Parliamentary Openness, parliamentary information incorporates:
Information on MPs and parties
Administrative management data
Internal finances and activities1.
Parliaments are key players in setting the standard for open data practices and implementing appropriate policies to facilitate this shift2. Best practices involve co-creating solutions with civil society organisations and establishing separate regulatory bodies for open data publication. There are many forms which opening up parliamentary information can take: defining clear objectives, enacting legislation and policies to promote openness, implementing government oversight and conducting self-assessments, and creating an Open Parliament Plan3. Opening up parliamentary and legislative data bears significance on parliamentary transparency, accountability, and increasing citizen engagement4.
Since the mid-2000s, a number of parliaments in democratic systems have adopted international standards for openness. So far, upwards of 15 OGP countries have included legislative openness committees in their National Action plans5. Critical players in this movement include the Legislative Openness Working Group (LOWG) and Parliamentary Monitoring Organisations (PMOs). The former was established in 2013 by the Chilean Congress and National Democratic Institute (NDI) in conjunction with the OGP 6. The LOWG is a combination of government figures, open data actors, and civil society who work to strengthen commitments to the OGP Action Plan. The LOWG was instrumental in expanding the initial OGP, a partnership which grew from 8 to 75 member countries and thousands of commitments to open legislation.
Establishing the LOWG indicated the need for transparency in the representative and executive branches of government. The latter acts as an intermediary between parliaments and citizens who resolve to meet legislative transparency goals. Currently, there are over 19 PMOs responsible for monitoring 80 parliaments7. Parliamentary informatics, the integration of ICT technologies in parliamentary work, is a trend increasingly monitored by PMOs since 20118.
Both bodies demonstrate, either through recommendations or monitoring, that parliamentary openness can be pursued in a variety of ways. Ongoing commitments to opening budget and spending data include the Open Data Explorer and Common Ethical Principles for MPs, 2nd Section in the Declaration on Parliamentary Openness, and supporting reform delivered by strong political leadership9.
The NDI’s commitment to strengthening the democratic process has been ongoing for over 35 years. Experience accrued over time has led to the identification of key lessons which inform their action on legislative transparency, and include: recognising the impact of technology on democracy, recognising democracy as an evolving process, and fostering an inclusive society and community10. Building on these learnings, the Open Parliament e-Network (OPeN) - stemming from the work of the OGP’s LOWG - aims to mobilise international organisations committed to legislative openness. This group was created in 2016 to forge relationships between partners working on different areas of open government data11. OPeN supports governments, civil society, and legislatures in developing OGP-aligned national plans, facilitating a forum for discussion and collaboration, developing technical resources and tools to move these action plans forward, identifying issues specific to various contexts, and building the capacity of data users and producers to meaningfully engage with public information12.
Legislative tools and political will are commonly cited as necessary factors for legislative movement. Within the Asian context, it is important to note that the legislative transparency movement need not regard closed governments as a hindering factor to open data initiatives. That said, legislative tools do help in the process of strengthening legislative transparency. India, South Korea, and Hong Kong passed Freedom of Information Acts (FOI) or Rights to Information Act (RTI) during the late 90s in recognition of citizen’s right to public information and information of public services13. More recently, within the last decade, FOIs Acts have been introduced in Bangladesh, Mongolia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. At the same time, releasing and portraying public information through civil society efforts can prove to be an effective strategy. Open Development Cambodia exemplifies this in their “Access to public information” data map. Pictured below, this map provides information on public services as well as civil and budgetary information14.
Various structures have been devised to institute open legislative data process. These include: a steering committee (Ghana and Serbia), a national alliance (Mexico), an advisory commission (UK), and the civil society supported inter factional parliamentary working group (Georgia)15. The American Parliamentary network, parented by ParlNet, is another example of a body that works towards clearly defined objectives and values to promote specific measures supporting the Declaration on Parliamentary Openness and the Santiago Declaration16. Key initiatives and foundations include GovTrack US17, a database featuring information on past, present, and future legislation and representatives and OpenParliament, which tracks similar features for the Canadian political landscape18.
The OpenHluttaw initiative, launched by Myanmar Fifth Estate and Equality Myanmar, and run in collaboration with Open Myanmar Initiative, Sinar Project, enables citizens and associated parliamentary representatives to engage in informed and active dialogue19. It is important to keep in mind these kind of contextually grounded initiatives. Often, open data movements simply pledge to digitise data, despite the fact that digitisation alone is insufficient in ensuring transparency and engagement, especially in politically restricted contexts like Myanmar. That said, digitisation is an important first step in allowing for the reuse and interpretation of data. The three biggest reusers of the data are OpenCongress.org, MAPLight.org, and the mobile apps and APIs created by the Sunlight Foundation20.
Addressing the need for the codification of the promotion and use of public data, South Korea has taken steps towards creating a legislative handbook on accessibility and usability of public data itself21. It prescribes legal language to be incorporated in policy making that will guarantee the public’s right to use and access public information22. Furthermore, the republic has created a portal titled “The National Assembly of the Republic of Korea” which features news, press releases, recently passed bills, the governance structure of the assembly, and information on MPs23. However, much of the data is published in PDF format (non-open formats) and excludes several of the datasets included in standards of transparency recognised by the Legislative Open Data Explorer.
Resources such as the Open Data Explorer are useful tools for compiling (customisable) data and best practices in order to advance reform efforts24. More specifically, this OKFN and LOWG project visualises and presents a global comparison of openness of and within legislative assemblies of elected representatives. The Asian countries in this global comparison include Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, Pakistan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Ukraine25. The data examines whether or not there are public databases, if the data is open, if bills and legislative drafts are shared, if proceedings and attendance sheets are published, and if contact and background information on MPs is shared. Generally, the Asian countries listed in the table release more procedural data rather than substantive legislative data, investigations, and political networks. For civil society, this information can be useful for specifying demands and advocacy strategies or seeking out alternative datasets to find missing information.
Additionally, parliamentarians can gauge their strengths and weaknesses better and target innovative and strategic efforts towards publishing and opening up categories of data that are in high-demand. This resource is especially helpful for both parliamentarians and civil society because it focuses on practice rather than theory or pledges. For example, many pledges have been made in South Asian governments, however these policies and practices are rarely entirely implemented. Bangaldesh’s Jatiya Sangsad and Pakistan’s Senate and National Assembly are tasked with publishing summaries, proceedings, and reports online yet fail to do26. In Bangladesh, summary reports can be found only at the Jaitya Sangsad library. In Sri Lanka, Parliament does not update Hansards in a timely manner - they are displayed on the parliament’s website on a monthly basis27. On the other hand, in India is the only country in South Asia to telecast parliament proceedings and publishes uncorrected hansards immediately following sittings; however, the workings of parliament remain unknown28. Evidence from the data explorer and gaps between theory and practice suggest that there is limited basic information published (let alone open) on MP’s and parliamentary activities. Focused on gauging legislative transparency, the data explorer asks: what kind of data is made available and how it can be accessed by the public. Moving forward, in order to advance parliamentary data, parliamentarians must engage in the following:
Define clear objectives
Adhere to a timeline
Iteratively evaluate the quality of data and its reuse
Integrate technologies into a standardised data template
Enable external assessment and feedback chains
Work collaboratively with all actors to ensure that meaningful citizen engagement is taking place29.
A key actor, especially in the case of measuring the extent of legislative openness, is PMOs. Organisations such as Mzalendo30 in Kenya and the Parliamentary Monitoring Group in South Africa31 act as a liaison between civil society actors and parliamentarians. In addition to providing as much information as possible on parliamentary proceedings and updates, Mzalendo in particular conducts research and writes reports on the state of parliamentary affairs and strategies to improve parliamentary functioning. For Parliamentarians, PMO’s offer an accountability measure and can serve as a mechanism for citizen engagement.
Beyond the monitoring or parliamentary bodies and ensuring that data is released, is how this data is used and fed back into the legislative process via civil society engagement. A report on the use of data published by data.gov.uk shows that open government data is often used by civil society actors and the public (more so than technology savvy developers), however this engagement itself does not necessarily ensure improvements within the democratic process32.Thus, the use of this data must go beyond simply being used by researchers and civil society - public data innovation must inform further action taken by parliamentarians.
Open parliamentary and legislative data have a unique impact on other subsets of government data. Because the information associated with parliamentary data involves legislation that can inform the possibilities and potential of other types of open data, the associated challenges have far-reaching implications.
Lack of parliamentary data acting as a backlog: If legislative bodies avoid disclosing open parliamentary data themselves, they cannot expect complete compliance from public institutions, private actors, and civil society. Moreover, if they do not disclose data on laws outlining the usability of all types of government data, this can cause confusion among other actors and potential users regarding their disclosure requirements and reuse rights. The Sunlight Foundation has flagged the challenge of keeping up with open data policies in relation to the law33. After identifying this need, the Foundation compiled a list of resources meant to help citizens access open legislative data and contact supporting organisations34.
Navigating various political contexts: Parliaments around the world face unique restrictions according to their constitutions, laws, histories, and evolving political contexts. This can include the absence of information disclosure laws, to barriers faced by citizens attempting to interact with government officials and or report on proceedings; there can be no one-size fits all approach to opening up legislative data. Government officials in Myanmar face several restrictions in terms of the information they can release and who they are permitted to speak to regarding legislative affairs35. The Open Hluttaws initiative, mentioned above, works to open the legislative branch of the government in Myanmar. Given the restrictions faced by government officials, one of the contributions of Open Hluttaws can include offering greater access to journalists interested relaying parliamentary information to the public.
Working through levels of government: Recommendations for opening parliamentary and legislative data are not reserved to federal parliamentary bodies. Often, countries face challenges in implementing federal policies at a provincial/state level, or encouraging these parliamentary bodies to adopt their own open data policies. In Canada, researchers found that the definition of open can vary greatly under the umbrella of legislative information due to nuances in availability, copyright, conversion to straightforward language, and timeliness, among other factors36. For national and subnational parliamentary bodies, assumptions in open data policies must be assessed against the resources and practicalities of regional government institutions37.
Short term vs. long term improvements: Short term and long term improvements can be differentiated by the active role that government and civil society actors play in facilitating channels of communication. Short term improvements can be gained by simply making data open, likely allowing journalists to retrieve information more easily. Long term improvements are characterised by the ability to create tools and mechanisms to strengthen the usability of data. The Open Data Institute urges the UK (United Kingdom) government not only to focus on the quality of published data, but also on bolstering the tools available for users to use and reuse the data provided; they urge parliaments to support the network of data users and developers38.
Challenges faced by PMOs: With the creation of standards for best practice, the necessity and relevance of PMOs is being questioned. With insufficient funding and resources, the impact that PMOs have had on monitoring and improving open legislative data has been minimal39. International organisations can work with PMOs by incorporating them into standards and supporting them in translating parliamentary monitoring information into usable data to support advocacy, and reform organisations40.