ISLAMABAD: In an effort to bolster its democratic infrastructure, the Senate recently undertook a significant self-assessment initiative in collaboration with the Inter-Parliamentary Union and other partners.

The initiative, based on the Indicators for Democratic Parliaments, aimed to evaluate and improve the Senate’s effectiveness in upholding democratic principles.

According to a study shared by the Senate on Friday, since independence in 1947, the country had grappled with the challenge of establishing and maintaining robust democratic norms. Despite various endeavours, the journey towards democratic consolidation had been marked by hurdles.

Recognising the need for introspection, the Senate embarked on a rigorous assessment of its strengths and weaknesses, ultimately yielding 14 recommendations for enhancing its efficacy, the study said.

The genesis of this self-assessment dated back to 2019, when the IPU, in collaboration with parliamentary organisations and stakeholders, initiated the development of the toolkit. A pivotal moment arose during a focus group discussion, where a member of the parliament recognised the potential of such an assessment for their country. Subsequently, the idea gained traction within the Senate, garnering widespread political support.

The self-assessment framework comprised 25 indicators, each delineating several criteria, aligned with targets 16.6 and 16.7 of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. To spearhead this endeavour, a steering committee comprising three senators was formed, working in tandem with the Senate’s secretary general and leveraging support from the parliamentary digital development unit (PDU).

The Senate said undoubtedly, the process was not devoid of challenges. Limited time and competing priorities posed hurdles. However, three months post-commencement, the Senate successfully concluded the assessment process, consolidating feedback into a comprehensive document encompassing evidence, grades, and recommendations for reform.

Throughout the assessment journey, senators gained insights into the administrative capacities, accessibility standards, and operational transparency of the Parliament. Importantly, the exercise underscored the Senate’s ability to harness internal resources and take ownership of the evaluation process, transforming it into a strategic document tailored to address institutional needs.

The completion of this self-assessment marked a pivotal step in Pakistan’s democratic evolution, reaffirming the Senate’s commitment to transparency, inclusivity and efficiency in parliamentary operations. As the Senate moved forward, the recommendations gleaned from this introspective exercise were poised to guide policy reforms and foster a more robust democratic framework.

The lower house said importantly, it identified the 14 opportunities to strengthen the institution, of which at least five related directly to gender equality. These included establishing a Parliamentary Budget Office, establishing a bureau as the collective governing body of parliament, with representation from both houses, strengthening the role of parliament in the appointment of ministers and cabinet members, strengthening of the role of the Senate with respect to the Money Bill, with special reference to the role of senators in proposing amendments to the Money Bill and approving the budget.

Ensuring that Pakistan’s national legal framework was consistent with international human rights obligations, introducing a constitutional or legal provision related to conflicts of interest, which would require lawmakers to declare sponsored travel and accommodation, regulating the practice of lobbying by individuals or groups, each with varying and specific interests, which attempted to influence decisions taken at the legislative level and establishing legal provisions relating to equal physical and online access to the parliamentary building, its processes and proceedings, for all citizens, regardless of disability or other special needs were some other recommendations.

The Senate also identified developing an impact assessment manual, guide or similar document that established procedures and criteria for assessing the impacts that a proposal for a law, a programme or a policy might have on different groups, and potentially entrusting such assessments to a dedicated body, as an opportunity.

Among other opportunities were devising policies and/or plans on gender mainstreaming and considering the gender lens when formulating parliamentary policies, holding workshops or dialogue sessions for senators and secretariat staff on bringing gender-responsive budgeting into the mainstream, periodically assessing gender balance in the Secretariat to ensure the effectiveness of related policies, particularly at senior levels.

Amending the Senate’s rules of procedure to enable senators and secretariat staff to care for young children during the conduct of legislative business, and introducing online voting and video-conferencing facilities to help senators and staff with caring responsibilities to exercise their duties and introducing childcare facilities for senators and secretariat staff were also among the proposals.

The IPU, in matters of democracy and parliamentary strengthening, did not dictate but rather facilitated so that parliaments drove the process, fostering a sense of ownership and legitimacy. Pakistan is a case in point, the study added.

Published in Dawn, April 13th, 2024

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