“It may be fitting for an institution that thrives on debate that there is no agreement on where the first parliament was established. The title often goes to the Althing in Iceland which was established in 930 AD, but residents of the Isle of Man in the United Kingdom will point out that the Tynwald, while a little younger, has been running continuously for longer.
More important than questions about where or when is the fact that a despite the passing of a millennium, parliaments, and parliamentarians continue to play a vital role in functioning democracies by adopting legislation, setting policy directions, and holding governments accountable for the commitments they have made. The role of parliamentarians could, I believe, be made even more effective if there was a greater embrace of a discipline that focuses on results—evaluation.
Evaluation is the systematic collection and analysis of evidence on the outcomes of programs that allows judgments to be made about their relevance and performance, while providing guidance on how to replicate success or improve poorly performing policies and programs.
The debates and decisions of parliamentarians should be informed by evidence from experience. If a program has produced expected results, should it continue, can it be repeated or expanded? Has a policy contributed to greater equity or heightened inequality and, if so, what corrective measures are needed? And, what better way to hold government accountable than an impartial assessment by evaluators that draws on feedback from stakeholders, including those who voted parliamentarians into office and are affected by their actions.
Yet few countries have well established evaluation systems. And what is evaluated often relates to assistance provided by multilateral and bilateral partners who evaluate results and performance.
As the relative importance of official development assistance diminishes as a proportion of total flows for development, the reliance on these evaluations is insufficient. Instead, evaluation systems need to be able to assess the collective effects of resources for development—domestic and foreign, public and private, trade, aid, and investments. Governments and parliamentarians alike should have an interest in understanding whether these monies propel development outcomes and who benefits from them.
Evaluation derives its value from impartiality, which in turn depends on its independence. It is these qualities that allow evaluators to deliver fair messages that are tough when needed. Of course, not everyone is interested in transparency or in allowing bad news to surface. There is always the risk that the politician, the technocrat, or the advocacy group will pursue shorter term interests regardless of what the evidence might say. And equally important, evaluators must also be able to leave behind self-interest or bias and let the evidence speak.
Of course, avoiding bad news today can result in the waste of resources and opportunities tomorrow if poor performance goes unchecked and mistakes are repeated. Debates that do not involve evidence can lead to ill-informed consensus or gridlock based on partisan positions. The resultant reputational risks and actual policy and program failures will reinforce calls from civil society for better governance, including for better evaluation.
So, if evaluation is such an important part of good governance and a crucial part of the healthy debate in the institutions of democracy, what do parliamentarians need to do? I would argue they can play a crucial role in three ways:
- 1) By promoting an evidence-based discourse in their debates. Parliamentarians should recognize the importance of using evidence to inform decisions—be they on adopting legislation, approving budgets, or debating government performance in delivering against promised development results.
- 2) By being discerning consumers of evaluation. There is nothing more powerful than discerning users to promote the supply and use of high quality, timely evaluations. They need to be discerning users because not all evaluations provide as strong or sound an evidence-base as they should, sometimes because their methods are flawed, but more often because the data is insufficient to be conclusive.
- 3) By safeguarding the independence of evaluation. Parliamentarians can do this by ensuring that at least parts of the evaluation system are safeguarded from undue influence with reporting lines to them rather than the administration, and with independent appointments and resources.
Generating knowledge on what works, what does not, and why is at the heart of evaluation. Acting on that knowledge should be at the heart of governance.
Caroline Heider is Director General of the Independent Evaluation Group at The World Bank Group.”