The work of parliament –including scrutinising budgets, draft policies and laws, and representing the interests of their constituents– is dependent on access to quality information. Members of Parliament (MPs) need information to be able to critically review, challenge or enrich government’s budget proposals. They need information to review, debate, and input into draft policies and laws proposed by governments, if these are to be effective in tackling development issues. They need information about their constituencies and constituents to be able to effectively represent their interests in parliament and ensure parliament effectively responds to the development needs of constituents through its three functions of oversight, legislation, and representation.
The Evidence Caucus in Kenya’s Parliament and its activities
Given the central place of information in the work of parliament, a Kenyan MP, Hon. Susan Musyoka, in August 2015, spearheaded the formation of a caucus of MPs to champion the prioritisation and use of evidence in the Kenyan parliament. Evidence here refers to data and information from government reports/publications, databases, and institutions, as well as scientific research. Having been centrally involved in the work of the Caucus through the African Institute for Development Policy (AFIDEP), I shared some reflections from this work at the Global Evidence Summit in Cape Town on 13 September 2017. This blog shares some of these reflections.
Shortly after its formation, the Caucus defined a strategy outlining its objectives and the activities it would undertake to realise them. The objectives included:
In 2016, the Caucus implemented two evidence dialogue forums. In one of the forums, MPs and experts discussed evidence on the financing strategies that Kenya could adopt to expand access to healthcare services to all Kenyans. In another forum, MPs discussed the many sources of credible evidence that they can tap into to find evidence for their work, and how they can assess the credibility of the evidence to ensure they only use quality evidence. Besides the evidence forums, the MPs leading the Caucus engaged Parliament’s leadership to lobby for recognition and support to the Caucus by Parliament to facilitate the implementation of its strategy. These efforts resulted in the Caucus being allocated staff to support the MPs in their quest for championing and using evidence.
Although the Caucus only implemented very few of its activities amidst the busy campaign period for the August 2017 elections, the MPs realised some achievements. One of these achievements was that the Caucus increased awareness among MPs on the value of evidence in their work. In one of the forums, an MP said, “You know, when I heard about evidence, I wondered why you people would want to focus on the evidence that witnesses give in court. But being here, I realise that it’s about the information that we need to do our work, and that this is so useful!” In another forum, an MP observed that, “You should have started these forums at the start of Parliament in 2013. That way, you would have really helped us improve our work at the beginning of our term.”
One of the evidence forums recommended that the work on supporting MPs to use evidence be initiated in earnest at the start of the next parliament. This way, it was argued, MPs would clearly define the issues they wish to focus on in Parliament be informed by evidence, and the evidence they would need to successfully get parliament to address these issues.
Another achievement was enabling the actual consideration of evidence in Bills that MPs worked on. The draft Bill proposing amendments to the NHIF Act was reported to have benefited from the evidence and discussions by experts on the wide range of strategies that Kenya could draw on to address its financing challenges rampant in the health sector. The strategies were based on evidence and therefore provided objective discussion of different strategies with the aim of increasing the MPs’ understanding of the evidence on the strategies.
As another achievement, the Caucus managed to gain Parliament support and get institutionalised within the Research Services Unit in Parliament, with staffing support. This means that the Caucus will not fade away with Parliament transitions, but that it will be revived at the start of each new Parliament. It therefore provides a useful institutional platform for supporting Kenyan MPs in their use evidence.
MPs struggled to appreciate the importance of evidence in their work
One of the experiences in working with the Caucus was the notably limited appreciation of the value of evidence in Parliament’s work by MPs. This was surprising to us because of the central role of evidence in MPs’ daily work of scrutinising policies and Bills, debating on the floor of the house, and representing the interests of their constituents. The leadership of the Caucus reported that it took them a lot of explaining for the Speaker of the National Assembly to understand and appreciate the usefulness of such a Caucus. In the first instance, the Speaker just dismissed them and told them that evidence use was the work of the Executive and not Parliament. But with subsequent discussions, the Speaker came to appreciate the critical place of evidence in the work of Parliament and lent support to the Caucus.
In another incident and as noted earlier, some MPs struggled to understand what the ‘evidence forums’ were all about. It was often after their participation in the forums that they appreciated the usefulness of evidence in their work. One of the reasons behind this was the realisation that the very word “evidence” is actually jargon in the language of many MPs. As experts working in this area, we are better off just referring to “evidence” as “information”. This, we think, could help reduce the confusion.
Evidence forums generated more demand for evidence that we could not meet
In another experience, evidence forums with MPs generated demand for more evidence that we could not meet. So here we were wanting MPs to use evidence in their work, but when they demanded for more specific evidence to help inform the Bills that they were developing, we were not able to meet this demand. For instance, the discussions at the evidence forum on health care financing resulted in MPs demanding for more specific analyses to help them understand some practical options for Kenya to improve its funding gaps for the healthcare system. We were not able to provide this evidence because it required further analyses of existing data, and yet we did not have funds to cover the time of experts to conduct these analyses.
This is an important problem for actors out there keen to promote increased evidence use in decision-making. The fact is that existing evidence often does not respond to the specific questions that decision-makers ask when they decide to change policy or develop new policies. Decision-makers will often ask for very context-specific analyses or studies once they decide to make policy or legal changes, and this requires money to generate. In most cases, the decision-makers will not have the money to fund these analyses, but will be hoping that since you have created the demand for evidence, you will be able to meet this demand. When you are not able to meet the demand, then decision-makers become disillusioned about evidence.
What motivates MPs to champion evidence?
The question of what motivates MPs to champion evidence is an important one and was always on our minds as we engaged with the Caucus. We found the MPs with professional backgrounds, particularly those with medical backgrounds, to be highly motivated to seek, assess, and use evidence in their work. This was largely because of the significance of evidence in the medical field. Political interests also motivated MPs to look for and use evidence. For instance, MPs not only lead Bills to address societal issues, but also for political mileage. Therefore, MPs leading Bills will look for evidence to inform the Bills so that they bring strong Bills to parliament.
But, there was also the issue of money. I would chat with MPs, off the cuff, during these engagements about why they bother to be involved in efforts to champion evidence in parliament. In separate incidences, two MPs told me that money was a very important motivator for them as MPs in doing anything, not just championing evidence. This was said in jest, but they noted that money was “always on their minds” because they have to get re-elected and campaigns, in a setting like Kenya, can be very expensive. This issue is something that actors involved in efforts to support MPs in low-income settings in increasing their use or consideration of evidence cannot just ignore. I have observed similar views from MPs working in other African countries, and therefore, this is not just an issue unique to Kenya.
MPs who focus on tackling development issues often don’t get re-elected
Every MP wants to be re-elected. And yet, another important observation coming from our work with MPs around Africa is the sad reality that often MPs who focus on tackling development issues as opposed to “playing party politics” do not get re-elected. This is important because it has implications for future work aimed at focusing parliaments to tackling urgent development issues. Why should MPs be interested in evidence or championing other development issues, if such work doesn’t get them re-elected?
Engaging the politics and interests centrally at play in parliaments
Another important learning for us from this work was the importance of engaging the politics and interests, which are usually centrally at play in Parliament. We did not engage the politics and interests at all, and yet this had the potential to open up opportunities for expanding the impact of the Caucus, if used tactically. One of the reasons why we steered clear of politics and interests was the fact that the caucus membership was already dominated by MPs in the opposition, and so trying to draw on politics and interests presented the risk of the Caucus being seen as an opposition platform, which it was not. Even then, actors getting into similar work will benefit from deep political economy analyses and drawing on the findings of such analyses to strengthen the influence of such platforms.
Caucus or Committee of Parliament?
Another experience was the issue of whether to keep the platform as a caucus or push to get it transformed into a Parliamentary Committee. As a Parliamentary Committee, the platform would receive funding and staffing support from Parliament. As a Caucus, the platform would not receive such support from Parliament, and yet it needs this support to implement its strategy. On the other hand, as a Parliamentary Committee, the platform would have limited influence on other Parliamentary Committees and yet one of its objectives was to champion and support evidence use within the work of Parliamentary Committees. As we move forward, the platform will need to weigh its options and decide on whether to push on with becoming a Parliamentary Committee or maintain its status as a Caucus. As experts, we think the Caucus option is better as this means it will draw membership from these Committees and ensure that it has evidence champions within the Committees. This will be more effective than the platform becoming a Committee and trying to influence other Committees.
All in all, we believe that the relationships that we created and maintained with the MPs and the Parliament staff who work with them were so critical in the successes of the Caucus noted above. The relationships created trust among us and, in a way, became the “oil that kept the wheels of the Caucus moving”. We believe that if designed well, such platforms could provide value for money for development partners keen to support and strengthen the role of parliaments in tackling development issues.
What next for the Kenya Caucus with a new Parliament?
Since the Caucus is now institutionalised as an “organ” of the Research Services Unit in Parliament, this unit is already working to reconstitute the Caucus, redefine its strategy, and work with partners in implementing the strategy for the next five years.
AFIDEP’s work with the Kenya Parliamentary Caucus on Evidence-Informed Oversight and Decision-Making was funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and partly benefited from other work funded by UK’s Department for International Development. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org