Holding government to its assurances

Oct 31, 2013

The purpose of the workshop was to formally introduce the draft Guidelines to officials representing over 22 Ministries. Photo: UNDP Bangladesh.

Shafiul Alam

“Even after 26 years in the public service I did not have a clear idea about the activities of the Parliamentary Committee on Government Assurances. Ambiguity prevailed over the types and definition of government assurances. Today, I understand it better,” said an Additional Secretary working at the Ministry of Education at recent Workshop on the Guidelines for Government Assurance Monitoring.

The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Government Assurances with support from the Improving Democracy through Parliamentary Development (IPD) Project conducted the workshop at the Parliament Cabinet Room. The purpose of the workshop was to formally introduce the draft Guidelines to officials representing over 22 Ministries.

The guidelines will be used to help the Government Assurances Committee to oversee the implementation of the Assurances made by Ministers in the House. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on the Government Assurances as per the Parliamentary Rules of Procedure is responsible for overseeing the implementation of Government Assurances made by Ministers in the Parliament.

Professor Md. Ali Ashraf, MP, Honourable Chair of the Committee, said the objective of the workshop was to take the comments and opinions of the Ministry officials about the content of the draft guidelines so that these could be finalized and presented to the Honourable Speaker for endorsement and approval. The other aspect which the workshop would consider was the need to identify the specific problems that the Council Officers faced in compiling the Assurances and seek to find ways to resolve those problems.

Earlier in 2013 IPD supported the Committee to travel to India which has a well-developed system of monitoring Government Assurances in its Parliament. As a result of those interactions the Bangladesh Parliamentarians agreed upon a plan of action to define the terminology that constitutes an assurance, devise guidelines to manage the monitoring of the implementation of the Assurances and to collate all the Assurances made in the House to date.

“Today’s event is, I believe, the culmination of a long-drawn exercise of the Committee and the experience of its Chair. The support of UNDP in sharing the draft guidelines about assurances was a testament to the work of the Committee during the 9th Parliament,” said the Secretary of the Energy and Mineral Resources Division.

He went on to explain the importance of assurances, “A collective initiative of all agencies, departments and directorates led by the respective Ministry is important to implement the assurances. These are a step forward in national development. Fixing and defining assurances will lead to greater accountability and transparency for all Ministries which are very important for improving governance.” He suggested the active involvement and strengthening of the Implementation Monitoring and Evaluation (IME) Division of the Planning Ministry, if the assurances are associated with projects.

Senior officials and the Secretary gave their opinions about the stages proposed in the draft guidelines for monitoring and the 26 descriptive phrases about statements on assurances. They also laid emphasis on organizing a further orientation meeting about government assurances at the outset of the 10th Parliament and to repeat it on at least an annual basis in order to brief both the Honourable Members of Parliament and the Government officials.

One of the important by-products of the workshop was that the communication gap between the Parliament and the Executive at the bureaucrat level has been reduced.

An Additional Secretary from the Agriculture Ministry said, “The Administration (Executive) needs to be made pro-Parliament if we want to strengthen Parliamentary democracy. Topics such as government assurances need to be included in the training of administration officials. Ministry officials sometimes feel reluctant to perform additional duties as a Council Officers, in order to compile assurances made by their respective Ministers. Council Officers often see that responsibility as a burden and many officers were also reluctant to attend the Committee meetings”.

The Committee Chair agreed to incorporate a number of the suggestions proposed during the meeting and to finalize the guidelines. These guidelines will then be ready for the incoming 10th Parliament following the approval of the Speaker. Honorable Member of the Committee Shamsur Rahman Sherif suggested changes to the Parliamentary Rules of Procedure, were also needed, to remove any confusion about what constituted a government assurance.

He thanked UNDP for its cooperation through IPD in drafting the guidelines. He stressed the need for orientation of the new MPs in the 10th Parliament about assurances and activities of the Committee.

The Chair ended things with observation that greater coordination of the three organs of State – the Legislature, Judiciary and Executive is imperative to bring about the development desired by Bangladesh. He reiterated that people want to see the implementation of assurances made in the House and that the Government and Ministers are accountable to the people. Such accountability is ensured by Parliament through their elected representatives - so whatever is told to the House is important and there needs to be accountability by those who give such assurances.

Undoubtedly there may be some assurances which need a longer period of time to be implemented but that too can be communicated to the Committee with logical explanations for delays. Thus a culture of accountability would be established which hopefully will in turn improve governance and democracy in Bangladesh.