Parliaments and evidence use: sector developments and new directions

15 May 2023

Parliaments play a critical role in our national evidence systems. They’re charged with making laws, holding our elected governments to account, scrutinising their performance and representing citizens.

But when we talk about evidence-informed decision-making we too often focus on the executive branch of government rather than parliament.

Recently, this has begun to change. Evidence use in parliaments is a fast-growing area of research and practice, which is now attracting more stakeholders.

In this article, I’ll discuss five key developments to date and two new directions to explore within this field.

Five encouraging developments in the field

1. There’s a burgeoning research sector

A new systematic review from the Universite de Laval has noted the sector’s growth over the last 10 years. It’s also highlighted that there’s never been a systematic review on this topic!

The International Network for Governmental Science Advice (INGSA)  coordinated a legislative science advice agenda process. This process mapped the unanswered, high-level questions concerning science advice in parliaments.

A new two-volume book on evidence use in African parliaments has offered many valuable insights from across the continent. And an in-depth report has also examined the use of evidence in the UK’s parliament.

2. A growing number of networks are interested in evidence use in parliaments

The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions’ (IFLA’s) parliamentary libraries and research services section is a longstanding network of parliamentary research and library services.

Other networks include the African Parliamentarians Network on Development Evaluation (APNODE) and INGSA, which hosts a Special Interest Division on parliamentary science advice.

The new International Parliamentary Engagement Network has a broader remit around public engagement with parliament, which is relevant to evidence use.

Also, the Africa Evidence Network has been a frequent space for the exploration of parliamentary evidence use.

But despite this lively interest in the field, it appears the Global Commission on Evidence has yet to fully recognise the crucial role of parliaments.

It’s brought a welcome, high-level call to action on evidence use generally, including a focus on national evidence systems and citizens as producers and users of evidence. But I think the unique mandate and capabilities of parliaments as evidence actors in both these spaces deserve more attention by the Commission.

3. Some actors have developed a specific area of interest within the field: statistics use in parliaments

For the first time, parliaments have been recognised as a key user group in the World Bank’s Statistical Performance Indicators. This framework assesses the maturity of national statistical systems.

The Hewlett Foundation supported the first formal partnership between the Parliament of Ghana and the Ghana Statistics Service.

The Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) and the Partnership in Statistics for Development in the 21st century (PARIS 21) teamed up to support a similar project on statistics use in Vanuatu’s parliament.

4. Parliaments are forming new local evidence partnerships

External relationships with evidence providers are critical to evidence use in parliaments, which typically have a small internal team of researchers. They provide evidence to MPs and committees across an enormous breadth of topics.

Parliamentary Research Weeks aim to foster connections between parliaments and local evidence providers to strengthen these relationships. These have been implemented in several countries: e.g., the UK, Ghana and Uganda, and Canada. Austria will have its first Research Day this year.

The UK’s parliament has partnered with evidence brokers and research institutions via Capabilities in Academic Policy Engagement’s (CAPE’s) project. This has been done to strengthen engagement between researchers and policy-makers.

5. Technology is bringing transparency and diversity

The IPU’s 2022 e-parliament report drew on the experiences of 123 parliaments, internationally. It describes parliaments’ ‘rapid acceleration in the use of digital tools’ after the COVID-19 pandemic.

The UK’s Universities Policy Engagement Network conducted a survey. It showed how the transition towards virtual committee hearings opened up ‘considerable untapped participatory potential’ among the academic research community. Especially among female, ethnic minority and disabled academics.

The pandemic highlighted opportunities in parliaments’ digitalisation, like the increased sharing of parliamentary evidence products online. These include research reports, committee briefings and records of debates.

This is an important step towards transparency in evidence use, which is part of ‘the good governance of evidence’. It makes it easier for researchers, civil society organisations and the public to see what evidence has been used by parliament and how.


Two new directions to explore

1. Exploring the role of parliaments in statistics systems

We examined what the global guidance says on what parliaments can bring to statistics systems as part of the Data for Accountability Project.

This was largely about ensuring they’re adequately funded and have the appropriate legislation to operate with rigour and independence.

But there’s much more to the role of parliaments: they’re users of statistics for oversight and representation. Hopefully, a more nuanced picture will emerge as research and practice grows.

2. Developing our understanding of the politics of evidence use

We know evidence use is political, but there’s still room to explore and understand how this plays out in specific contexts. Many evidence-informed policy funders and practitioners are still grappling with how to practically navigate politics in initiatives that aim to strengthen evidence use.

Looking to parliaments might help here. Parliamentary researchers are expert navigators of political landscapes as they provide evidence to MPs from all parties. So, their insights would be useful in strengthening our understanding of political actors’ and parties’ evidence use.

The organisations that partner with parliaments are also continually designing and adapting their work to shifting political realities. This puts the ‘working’ into ‘thinking and working politically’.

In many ways parliaments are the most explicitly political spaces in which to work on evidence use, and the insights gleaned from this work can be valuable for the wider sector.

If you’d like to collaborate on this topic, we’d love to hear from you! Get in touch at [email protected] or @onthinktanks.