We have constantly been told that innovation is the key to development. But beyond the buzz word, what does that actually look like? Is it going out and developing new technology, utilising drones or using robots? Most certainly, that is the first thing that often comes to peoples’ mind when you talk about innovation.
For the Effective Governance Team of the Pacific Office in Fiji, the challenge of innovation lies in the work of parliaments. Parliaments are often old and traditional institutions, so innovation is not relevant, right? How do you innovate in an institution that can be at times frozen in the traditions and habits of bygone ages? Isn’t innovation something we should leave to large well-resourced parliaments, and rather than the small parliaments in the Pacific? These were some of the questions going through my mind when the innovation started to be talked about in the development context.
Fast forward to January 2019 and I’m sitting along with Josua Namoce from the Fiji Parliament in an intimidating high-power room in London, UK, which is full of world renowned academics and high profile parliament practitioners from large Parliaments I’ve only read about. And we’re discussing how the Pacific is leading the world in some innovation areas within Parliamentary development. How did we get here?
According to the Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD) which has organized the meeting and has been researching, identifying and bringing together examples of parliament innovations, they define ‘innovation’ as measures that strengthen the quality of parliamentary processes by making parliament more inclusive, participation that is equal, and measures that allow a more comprehensive engagement with the views of citizens, including the marginalized individuals and groups.
Early on in the Pacific, we realized that in our region with its small parliaments and limited resources, innovation in parliamentary work would not necessarily revolve around new technology. We would need fresh thinking to address old challenges in different ways.
At this global meeting, there are two inclusive innovative measures introduced by Pacific parliaments with support from UNDP, that have received international attention in the democratic and governance innovation space.
The first innovation is the inclusion of mandatory gender scrutiny in the rules of procedures, making the Fiji Parliament one of the first countries to take the issue one step further by institutionalizing this practice. According to the Fiji Parliament Rules of Procedure that UNDP assisted in drafting, Committees are required to “give full consideration to the principles of gender equality”. There is often talk on mainstreaming gender, and dozens or hundreds workshops held on the topic, but in the Pacific, how could we change this talk into reality? By institutionalizing the principle, the Fiji Parliament is required by rule, that in all matters, Parliament committees must give consideration to the impact and benefit on both men and women equally. Therefore, this is no longer something that would be nice to do, or might be done, or could be done if the Committee Chair was interested. Gender analysis in all reports must be done for all issues, be it a report on health or a report on roadbuilding or any other topic.
By looking at the rules of Parliament and approaching the issue from a different angle, Fiji has risen to be a global leader in showing how innovative approaches to the rules on functioning of a Parliament can radically alter the perception of MPs, the scrutiny of laws and oversight of government.
The second innovation that is now being held up as an example on the global stage relates to the Pacific “Floating” Parliamentary Budget Office. As with most parliaments, Pacific parliaments are tasked with reviewing and voting on the national budget. Citizens and businesses expect state financing to be carefully planned and managed and for the parliament to review the budget and ensure it meets the country’s needs and development priorities. However, most Pacific Island parliaments have few expert staff equipped to carry out the budget oversight and provide advice and information to MPs. This not only jeopardizes effective scrutiny of the budget, but indeed the countries eligibility for external financial assistance that is increasingly dependent on solid public financial management. At the UNDP Pacific Office, when we mulled over this problem, casting an envious eye at large, well-resourced parliaments with budgets offices staffed by experts, we desperately tried to think how this seemingly insurmountable challenge could be addressed for tiny Pacific parliaments that may only have one researcher for the whole parliament. It then struck us that as 15 Pacific Island parliaments, they were indeed small, but pooled together there was capacity and expertise to ensure that MPs did receive information and analysis on budgets before they voted on vital financial decision. The innovation? A Pacific Floating Parliament Budget Office comprising of parliament staff that is not tied to one parliament but floats around the Pacific providing key research , information and analysis for MPs. More information on how the Pacific Floating Budget Office actually works can be found here. The Floating Budget Office is innovative because it addresses the challenge in a new and different way – creating a model that pools capacity and engages South-South cooperation (instead of traditional North-South development modality), and its successful implementation has meant that hundreds of MPs across the Pacific receive independent budget briefs before they vote on the national budgets.
So as I sit here in this global roundtable, on behalf of a UNDP Office that works with some of the smallest countries in the world, I can answer some of those questions we initially considered. Yes, innovation is relevant to our work in small Island States, and when faced with such capacity, resource and geographical challenges that we do, maybe it is even more important for us than for other countries, if we are to improve governance for our Pacific people.
The two inclusive innovation measures highlighted above are now taking centre stage at a meeting in London from 28th – 29th January, organized by the Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD) for academics, parliamentary practitioners, and parliamentarians. The two parliamentary innovations measures from the Pacific are part of WFD’s compendium of selected case studies as examples of best practice in parliamentary innovation across Commonwealth Parliaments.