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The parliamentary oversight function is one of the cornerstones of democracy. Oversight is a means for holding the executive accountable for its actions and for ensuring that it implements policies in accordance with the laws and budget passed by the parliament. The robust monitoring of the executive by the parliament is an indicator of good governance. Besides the parliament’s legislative function, it is through oversight that the parliament can ensure a balance of power and assert its role as the defender of people’s interests.

Key functions of parliament: oversight

Oversight is the process by which the parliament monitors the quality of the work of the government regarding implementation of the law, development plans and budgets that have been previously adopted by the parliament. Various methods of oversight will be discussed in detail later in this handbook, but these include committee inquiries, question time and interpellations.

Source: Parliament’s Role in Implementing the Sustainable Development Goals: A Parliamentary Handbook  

In both long-established and new democracies, the parliament is given the power to oversee the government through a number of tools and mechanisms. Typically, these tools and mechanisms are outlined in the constitution and other regulatory texts such as the parliament's internal procedures. The specifics of how a parliament can utilise its oversight prerogative depends upon the existence of a legal framework, which consolidates the position of the parliament as an oversight institution and guarantees its powers and independence within the political system. Thus, while reforming the structure of the political system to increase a parliament’s constitutionally given oversight capacities may not always be feasible, in some instances, parliaments can improve their oversight capacities by reforming their own rules. For example, a good practice for committee systems is to assign a single committee to each government ministry. The parliamentary budget permitting, such reforms are usually within the powers of the parliament to implement.

Objectives of Parliamentary Oversight

Parliamentarians conduct oversight in order to:

  • Ensure transparency and openness of executive activities. Parliaments shed light on the operations of government by providing a public arena in which the policies and actions of government are debated, scrutinised, and subjected to public opinion;
  • Hold the executive branch accountable. Parliamentary oversight scrutinises whether the government’s policies have been implemented and whether they are having the desired impact;
  • Provide financial accountability. Parliaments approve and scrutinise government spending by highlighting waste within publicly funded services. Their aim is to improve the economy, efficiency and effectiveness of government expenditure; and,
  • Uphold the rule of law. Parliament should protect the rights of citizens by monitoring policies and examining potential abuses of power, arbitrary behavior, and illegal or unconstitutional conduct by government.

Tools and Mechanisms of Parliamentary Oversight

Parliaments have an array of tools at their disposal for conducting oversight. The most common tools include: questions to ministers (oral and written), interpellation, and votes of no confidence. Other tools include mechanisms related to budgetary oversight, impeachment, and the possibility for the parliament to establish ad-hoc committees, commissions of inquiry or an ombudsman’s office. Several of these tools are described below:
  • Hearings, either in plenary or committee meetings, are a primary tool of parliaments for obtaining information related to specific policies or issues. Nearly all parliaments conduct hearings. However, parliaments have varying capacities to compel individuals to give testimony.
  • The vote of no confidence, or motion of censure, is a motion presented by parliamentarians that results in either the withdrawal or the confirmation of the Parliament’s confidence in the government or one of its ministers. When a parliament withdraws its confidence in the government, the cabinet usually resigns or seeks a parliamentary dissolution. In some countries, withdrawls of confidence lead to a process in which the head of state either calls for the resignation of the government or the dissolution of the parliament. Where the rules allow for a parliament to withdraw its confidence in a single minister, that individual typically resigns. There are many variations to the procedures governing votes of no confidence.
  • Interpellation refers to a formal procedure used by parliamentarians to require the justification of a certain policy by an individual member of government or, in some countries, the government in full. It can give way to broad debates on the policy at hand or lead to a vote approving or disapproving the issue discussed. This may be followed by a vote of no confidence.
  • Parliamentary questions are the most commonly used oversight tool. Questions are intended to clarify or discuss government policies and may lead to interpellation, where the rules permit, if the answer is not satisfactory. In order to properly monitor the executive, it is essential for members of parliament to be properly informed of the policies of the executive and its ministries. Government responses to parliamentary questions may lead to the publication of valuable information. Questions can often be asked in oral or written form, although oral question and answer sessions may provide a dramatic atmosphere and opportunity for response and follow-up by either side. Consequently, the organisation of these sessions is essential to effective parliamentary oversight.
  • Committees of inquiry are usually ad-hoc parliamentary committees or commissions formed to carry out in-depth investigations on specific issues of public importance. These commissions usually benefit from a greater degree of access to information than normal committees. Their powers may include summoning witnesses to testify under oath, confronting one witness with another, requesting or seizing documents, ordering searches, organising field visits, and more. In some countries, these commissions may possess the same powers as a magistrate making a judicial inquiry. Committees of inquiry are a commonly used oversight instrument in parliaments around the world and may be used to investigate important cases of corruption or abuse of power.
  • Budget oversight is a means used by parliaments to ensure financial accountability. After the state budget has been passed, the parliament has an important role to play in monitoring how the budget funds are spent.  This work is usually done by one key committee (i.e. - Public Accounts Committee; Budget & Finance Committee) but can also be done by other functional committees.  Such scrutinising is often done in cooperation with a state auditing institution or an anti-corruption commission.  
  • Supreme audit institutions, such as the auditor general (in Commonwealth countries), or Cours des Comptes (in Francophone countries) facilitate ex-post budget oversight by playing a “watchdog” role and reporting its findings either publically or directly to parliament. Supreme audit institutions monitor how the government uses the public purse and informs the parliament of its observations. In Commonwealth countries, the auditor general reports to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), which scrutinises the findings of the audit and makes recommendations accordingly.
  • An ombudsman, in some countries, is appointed by parliament in order to conduct investigations of public authorities on the basis of complaints or requests by the parliament.  An ombudsman typically scrutinises whether the workings of the administration or the offending actions are in accordance with the principles of good governance. As such, they play an important role in examining government transparency and openness. An ombudsman tries to find practical solutions to the problems they are tasked with and assume a role of conciliation between the public and the authorities.
  • Special standing committees are provided for in the internal rules of some parliaments to systematically oversee the government with regards to highly sensitive issues such as national security, defense, and military procurement policies.
  • Review and confirmation of executive appointees is a power that allows some parliaments to scrutinise executive appointees to high public office, the judiciary, state run companies, and the like. 
Strengthening the oversight function of parliament
It is important for a parliament’s institutional and legal framework to encourage MPs to make effective use of their powers of oversight. Aside from the provision of oversight tools, this framework should provide for the independence of the parliamentary institution and the immunity of the MPs. These protections allow MPs to challenge the executive without fear of retaliation against their person. The parliament’s legal framework should also include rights, such as access to information, that give them the capacity to demand documentation and conduct inquiries that reach the heart of the government. 
Even in this functional area, the nature of the linkages between parliamentarians and citizens can have a strong impact on MPs’ incentives to conduct effective oversight. For example, an electoral design in which political party leaders determine which operatives will obtain the top positions on the party’s electoral lists may encourage a passive back-bench. When an MPs’ re-election depends entirely on the whims of party leaders, it is unlikely that they will challenge the authority of their leaders. Systems in which the party rank and file select their party’s candidates through a vote may permit the eventual MP more freedom to question her party and government leaders.