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Building Best Parliamentary Practices

Posted on :08 July 2016

Innovations and Challenges in the National Council
1. Introduction
How does Bhutanese Parliament, an institution of a young democracy, keep the government under check? The question appears simple since the Constitution defines powers of each organs of the state, constitutional bodies and other state institutions. There are adequate legal provisions and institutions in place to check and balance the government. For the parliament, its oversight functions are lucidly spelt out.

However, the question becomes more complicated in a country that has been making the transition to democracy and consolidating best parliamentary practices. The application of constitutional and legal provisions in order to enable the parliament perform its oversight functions vis-a-vis the government becomes a challenging task in everyday politics.
The parliament positions itself on the premise of its supremacy over the executive. It invokes constitutional provision that states that the Lhengye Zhungtshog (cabinet) is collectively responsible to Parliament. It goes to the extent of emphasising the fact that the people elect the parliament first, and that the government is formed amongst members of the ruling party that has been elected. Parliament does not emanate from the government. The government emanates from one House of Parliament, i.e. the National Assembly. The government is the executive wing of the elected parliament which has to execute the decisions of the parliament or act in accordance with laws passed by it. On the other hand, the executive invokes the article that spells out separation of powers among three organs of the state and highlight its core principle that encroachment by these organs into the powers of the other is impermissible.
The perception appears conflicting based on selective reading of particular provisions of the Constitution. However, the fundamental premise of a democracy that the people are the sovereign and sovereign power is expressed through the parliament they elect has to be upheld. The challenge of getting consensus to respect the supremacy of parliament is even more difficult in a society that has thus far been used to the supremacy of government.

In the last eight years of democracy, the National Council (NC) has been spearheading a movement to promote and consolidate the idea of supremacy of Parliament while conducting its legislative and review functions. The idea has been better advanced by articulating it not so much in abstract ideological or academic parlance. Rather, it focussed on key parliamentary processes that seeks to make the government answerable to parliament for its actions or inactions.

This article will focus on a those key parliamentary processes which are being institutionalised in NC. The institutionalisation of these processes has not been easy. It is an ongoing challenge in the journey towards consolidation of democracy. A significant achievement has been made but many challenges and hurdles lie ahead. In discussing the political context of how each of the following parliamentary practices have been institutionalised in NC, the idea of the executive’s accountability to parliament and hence, the need for parliament to perform oversight functions constitute the framework of this article. It is best that the National Council is introduced first, albeit briefly, to help readers understand the subsequent discussions.

2. The National Council
NC is one of the two houses of Bhutan’s parliament. It is composed of twenty members who cannot belong to any political party. They are directly elected by people of twenty dzongkhags (districts). Five eminent members are appointed by His Majesty the King. This method of constituting NC is very unique. In most upper houses, lots of members are usually appointed while some come through indirect elections.

Bhutan country has 205 gewogs (sub-districts). There is no uniform or equal number of gewogs for every dzongkhag. Gasa and Bumthang dzongkhags have the least number of gewogs, i.e. four each, whereas Mongar has the most with seventeen gewogs. During NC elections, each gewog is entitled to nominate a candidate to represent their dzongkhag. Hence, each dzongkhag becomes an NC constituency. Thus twenty dzongkhags elect twenty members!

Each dzongkhag gets one representation in NC irrespective of its population or geographic size. Representation is thus not based on the size of population unlike in the National Assembly (NA). For example, Tashigang which is the most populous has five members, Samtse has four, Pema Gatshel and Mongar have three each and the other sixteen dzongkhags have only two each.

A dzongkhag is more than a territorial unit and administrative category. It is a social and cultural unit as well. Socio-cultural and administrative boundaries may or may not coincide. Representation in NC is designed to give due regard to people of all ethno-linguistic groups.

Candidates and members of NC cannot belong to or be affiliated with any political party. Otherwise, they would be disqualified. Due to its apolitical composition, no member of NC can be a member of the cabinet and serve as minister!

To ensure NC’s apolitical character, there are certain legal provisions. For example, any member of NA or political party must resign and be dissociated from that political party for at least a year before he or she can contest NC or Local Government elections, both of which are apolitical institutions. When NC candidates file in their nomination papers to contest the elections, they must fill up a form to officially declare that they are not affiliated to any political party. NC members also cannot resign with the sole intent of contesting an upcoming NA election. Although these legal provisions alone may not be sufficient guarantee to ensure NC’s apolitical character, they are the minimum benchmarks available.

NC is a continuous House. This means that NC must complete its five-year tenure. It cannot be dissolved at any time unlike NA which could be dissolved earlier. When NC’s five-year term ends, it must be re-constituted on the same day. As such elections are held before NC completes its tenure to ensure that reconstitution can happen on time.

NC’s mandates are two-fold: legislation and policy reviews. NC has equal legislative powers with NA. This means that NC can originate, pass or reject any Bill. The only exception is Money Bill which is the sole prerogative of NA. Why is this so?

Budget and Money Bills are policy instruments of the government. They are necessary to implement government policies and plans. They are integral part of policies and development plans, which is the responsibility of the government. NC is not accountable for the budget and Money Bills. Thus, it has no authority over them. But it must review both the budget as well as Money Bills and provide recommendations to NA. It must vote to pass any budget and Money Bill. The recommendations are not binding. They may or may not be accepted!

NC is also called the House of Review. It reviews laws, government policies and programs, implementation of laws and resolutions of Parliament as well as issues of national importance. It can initiate the amendment of an existing law or a new law. Of course, the concurrence of NA and royal assent by His Majesty the King are necessary for any amendment or new bill to become a law. NC also studies and examines existing or new policies of the government.

The mode of challenging a government policy or expressing concern over government actions or inactions is done either by asking questions during Question Hour of NC session or passing resolutions. Resolutions call upon the government’s attention to examine policies, align them with the laws or recommend alternatives.

NC’s review functions are important means to check and balance executive authority. It ensures that the government safeguards the interest of the nation, and fulfils the aspirations of our people. A very important function that is exclusive to NC and not shared with NA is its review of issues of security and sovereignty of the country that have to be brought to the attention of His Majesty the King, the Prime Minister and the National Assembly.

With this introduction, I will now focus on five parliamentary practices in NC, which are being strengthened to make more effective its check and balance functions. The article will examine how NC reviews government budget, poses questions of public and national importance to the government, summons public officials for committee meetings/hearings, reviews its resolutions and raises constituency issues. In the process, it will reveal the challenges encountered in institutionalising these practices as well as the advances made.

3. Reviewing the Budget
On 5th December 2014, the Amendment Bill for the National Assembly Act 2008 was to be discussed and voted upon in a Joint Sitting of the two Houses of Parliament. An important provision, amongst a few others, was the creation of a Budget Committee by way of amending this Act. A senior member of the ruling party was perturbed at seeing this proposal and expressed his disbelief to me, ‘This is a sabotage! Who included this in the Bill? It was never meant to be there?’

I responded to say that NA tried to include this provision of the Budget Committee when it originated the Bill the previous summer. However, it did not get the required support and was left out. But NC incorporated it when it discussed the Bill in the subsequent winter session. As expected, NA refused to accept this proposal, and was therefore, identified as an issue for the Joint Sitting to discuss. I quietly said to him, “It was all over the news when the issue was discussed in both the houses! How come that you, of all the people, didn’t know this?”

He tried to get this proviso off the agenda and even walked over to the Prime Minister’s seat to discuss and solicit the latter’s support, something unprecedented in Bhutan’s Parliament when the proceedings are going on. But the Rules of Procedure for the Joint Sitting required that the House vote on recommendations of the Joint Committee comprising of members from both houses, which is constituted to resolve differences over disputed bills. The Bill was passed and the Budget Committee became a statutory committee for the NA. Thereafter, the Budget and Appropriation Bill would be referred to the Budget Committee after the Finance Minister presents it in NA. Its recommendations would be deliberated upon, and once passed, sent to NC for deliberation.

In the process of consolidating Bhutan’s young democracy, the contest for control over Budget has become a subtle but symbolic issue among the bureaucracy, government and the Parliament. Theoretically, NA has the primacy over budget whereas NC can only make non-blinding recommendations. Once approved, the government proceeds to implement the budget by way of financing its projects. Accordingly, the Minister of Finance presents it to NA every summer. After deliberation and approval, it is sent to NC. It’s recommendations are re-deliberated during the same session. Once passed, the budget is implemented.

In practice however, the budget process reveals greater control by the bureaucracy. After the budget call notification guidelines are issued by the Ministry of Finance (MoF) every year, each agency submits their demands. Thereafter, budget officers of different agencies meet with MoF to discuss and justify their demands. The negotiations that take place then results in MoF either accepting, altering or slashing the demands. Certainly, MoF has the responsibility to ensure prudence of demands as well as compliance to government guidelines for the budget. However, two things merit attention.

One, when the demands of budgetary bodies are presented in the form of Annual Budget and Appropriation Bill, the Parliament is hardly aware of the dynamics that precede it or the details of the budget so much so that it lands up approving whatever the MoF has proposed. It was not able to scrutinize the demands in detail. Second, both Houses of Parliament have to negotiate their own budget demands with MoF. What is agreed or rather approved by MoF comes for Parliament’s approval.

The insertion of the clause for the creation of the Budget Committee was thus, a major initiative by NC to rein in real control over the budget. It creates institutional and political space as well as time for NA to study and examine the demands of various budgetary bodies. However, this proposal could not pass in NA. Thus NC, which has taken up the issue of budget control with the Prime Minister from the very beginning of the term of the present parliament, re-inserted the proviso of establishing the Budget Committee in NA. In the Joint Sitting, enough votes were secured to approve it. Thus, the 2015-16 Budget was the first one that was referred to this Committee after it was presented it in NA. That House has also finalized a guideline that the Budget Committee would follow to examine the budget.

This discussion on the budget has come a long way since 2008 – the year of introduction of Parliamentary democracy – when the previous government argued that Budget was not a Bill and therefore, need not be sent to NC. NC argued otherwise and demanded that although NA has primacy over the Budget, it has to be sent to it for review according to the provisions of the Constitution. The Minister of Finance would make the presentation, and leave without opportunity for members to ask questions or seek clarifications. It took a ruling of the Supreme Court to tell the government that the Budget is a Bill.

Even after the budget was deemed a Bill which enabled NC to review it and submit its recommendations, NA either ignored them altogether or made a token gesture of discussing the recommendations. Despite this, NC dedicated substantial time to discuss the budget in order to raise issues associated with the budget and disseminate public awareness of those issues.

In its second term, NC built on these initial developments to streamline and strengthen discussions on the budget. With the support of the Speaker, a major budgetary practice that has now been streamlined is to discuss every recommendation of NC in NA during the same session. Those recommendations which are endorsed pass as NA’s resolutions.

However, NC was unsure about the extent to which these budget-related resolutions are honoured by the Ministry of Finance or related government agencies. Hence, NC recently began two practices. One, NC’s recommendations on budget accepted by NA are reported in the winter session driving review of implementing of resolutions of the previous session. Two, those recommendations endorsed by NA are listed down by NC and sent over to MoF as well as the Budget Committee. The intent is to serve a reminder to MoF to respect these recommendations in the preparation and approval of subsequent budget, and draw the attention of the Budget Committee to check whether the recommendations have been implemented or not as endorsed by NA.

Although there is no Budget Committee in NC, the discussions on the budget are led by the Economic Affairs Committee (EAC). It is charged to review the budget along with amendments made by NA and submit its recommendations to the House. A standard practice as a consequence of the review has been to draft a set of questions arising from the budget as well as compile questions that other members would have about the budget. These are sent days ahead to the Minister of Finance so that he can answer or clarify after presenting the budget in NC.

In order to encourage a more informed discussion on the budget, members of both houses must have access to details of budget. The major highlights of the budget included in the Budget Bill are helpful but the details of allocations to every budgetary bodies are necessary. These are not furnished even to members of parliament, which result in discussions that are not as well-informed.

4. Asking Questions
An important parliamentary tool available to members of both houses in conducting review of government policies and oversight responsibilities is the Question Hour. There are similarities as well differences in how each House conducts the Question Hour. Since 2008, the establishment and practice of Question Hour in NA has been rather smooth whereas NC had to weather a series of political storm in order to institutionalise it.

At first some of the ministers attended NC’s Question Hour. However, they increasingly provided many reasons not to attend it. First, the quality of NC members’ questions were deemed to be petty. Second, the Speaker’s permission was deemed necessary for ministers as NA members to attend NC’s session. Reasons such as the primacy of NA’s agenda items and the need for ministers to be there all the time to provide clarifications or respond to questions were provided. Third, it was argued that any government official, and not necessarily the government ministers, could participate in the Question Hour.

NC explained that government officials participate either during the committee hearings or during a debate which a member calls in the House if a minister’s answer in the Question Hour is not satisfactory. But there was no question of ministers not attending the Question Hour. This led to some difficult situations. For example, members would state their questions when a minister has refused to come. Since the proceedings are broadcast live on TV and radio, members wanted people to know the questions being raised on their behalf, and highlight the fact that ministers are shying away from responding to these questions. At some point, NC members threatened to adjourn the session until ministers agreed to come and answer questions. This situation became very tense over two or three consecutive sessions and the media had a field day reporting on this situation.

Finally a compromise was worked out whereby NC’s Question Hour guideline was reviewed and finalised among NA members, some ministers and NC. This was a forcible compromise since the Constitution empowered each House to draft and finalise their own rules of procedure. In this case, NA members and ministers had to be given some say in NC’s rules in order to ensure that the important parliamentary practice of Question Hour be institutionalised.

The compromise led to adoption of some fundamental aspects of the Question Hour which are as follows:

a) Ministers would be received either by the Secretary General or Deputy Chairperson when they come to attend the Question Hour.
b) There would be no debate after the Question Hour. However, members may seek clarification or submit recommendations to the minister.
c) Ministers would appear only once during a session of NC.
d) The Question Hour would not last more than an hour.

These were not the best of arrangements but necessary to get the Question Hour going on as an important parliamentary practice.

By the fourth and fifth session of NC, which was in the second and third year of the members’ tenure, the practice was getting well-established. There were however, challenges being thrown in once in a while when a minister would refuse to come giving various excuses. There were Question Hours when ministers would spend more than an hour talking about the organisational structure of their ministry as a background rather than responding directly to the question.

The Question Hour has now become an embedded parliamentary practice in NC. The guidelines are yet to be revised but the practice evolved and matured over the years. Compared to the Question Hour in NA where questions are provided only forty eight hours ahead, NC sends them ten days before the date of Question Hour. Whereas ministers have about five minutes to respond to a question in NA, they have an hour in NC to respond to the primary as well as subsequent questions. In NC, the Presiding Officer ensures that members not only ask the question that was sent but requires additional enquiries by other members to focus only the subject matter of the question. In NA, a Question Hour can have lots of surprises when members’ use the subject and theme of the original questions as a pretext to ask additional questions on different subjects.

Today, NC’s Question Hour has come a long way from it being initially perceived with distrust as means to grill and embarrass the ministers to it being used as a better platform for ministers to articulate their policy positions and options. For example, the government’s proposal of establishing slaughter houses became highly charged discourse centred around economic, spiritual and cultural dimensions. During the Question Hour in NA in the summer of 2015, the Prime Minister, Home Minister and Agriculture Minister provided brief and conflicting positions of the government owing to shortage of time. NC provided more than an hour to the Agriculture Minister on the same subject to explain the government’s position.

Recently, NC advanced the dynamics of Question Hour by introducing the option for members to call a debate in the NC if they are not satisfied with responses of ministers. Although Section 138 of NC Act allows this privilege to members, its institutionalisation has been deferred thus far to develop confidence of ministers in the intent and modus operandi of NC’s Question Hour.

5. Summoning Public Officials
What happens when public officials that the Parliament summon refuses to come? Can the parliament summon anyone?

NC believed that it can summon any public official to provide information or answer queries. It had absolutely no doubt about its prerogative to issue such summon orders. Section 59 of the Act states, “The Chairperson may summon any person to attend the proceedings of the National Council for the purpose of giving evidence, provide information or produce documents in that person’s custody or control.”

Drawing from this legal provision, NC Committees have required public officials to make presentations on subjects and issues that were under review. The Committee Chairpersons would write to concerned public officials to appear on particular days to make presentations and answer queries. Ministers are not expected to attend committee hearings/meetings since they attend the Question Hour. Usually government secretaries, directors and concerned bureaucrats/technocrats attend these meetings. The opportunity however, is open for ministers to address the committees if a particular Bill or policy matters which are relevant to their ministries are being discussed.

This particular parliamentary practice was fairly well-established since 2008 after experiencing some initial difficulties. These difficulties however, took on a new angle after 2013. The NA had passed the Right to Information Bill and send it to NC. NC charged its EAC to review the Bill. As part of review exercise, it invited the Ministry of Information and Communications (MOIC) to present the Bill in the Committee so that its recommendations could be submitted to the House.

MOIC kept on dragging its foot by shying away from responding to EAC’s letters. Both formal and informal channels were used to persuade MOIC to make the presentations. It reasoned that there is nothing sensitive about the Bill, which has been passed in NA, after MOIC made similar presentations to an NA committee, which was charged to review it.

MOIC however, felt that there was no obligation for it to make such a presentation to the EAC. It sent a letter agreeing to make such a presentation a day before the parliament was due to begin. By then, NC has decided that it will not be in a position to deliberate upon the Bill and sent a message asking NA to withdraw it. NA responded by stating that it is incumbent upon NC to deliberate upon a Bill that has been sent to it after passage in NC. However, NC said that all due legislative process, such as required presentations from concerned agencies, must be fulfilled for it to be able to discuss the Bill. Since it insisted that the Bill be withdrawn, NA submitted it to His Majesty the King seeking royal command to convene a joint sitting. The command wasn’t granted.

The command for a joint sitting can be sought by either House when there are substantive differences between two Houses over contents of a Bill. In this case, the difference was not substantive. It was procedural, and therefore, there was absolutely no basis in the joint sitting’s ‘Rules of Procedure’ (RoP) whereby NA can seek a royal command.

Based on this and other experiences, the joint sitting of two Houses decided in winter 2015 that such issues be resolved before the summer session of 2016. NC took the initiative by sending a comprehensive proposal to NA soon after suggesting amendments to the RoP. Amongst others, it suggested how differences over procedural matters be addressed. Despite many reminders, NA did not respond to NC’s proposal even after three months. Only after a stern reminder in the joint sitting of summer session in 2016 did NA respond. However, it had not accepted NC’s proposal of dealing with procedural questions. Hence, the issue remains unresolved. NC will review reasons for NA’s non-acceptance of that proposal and attempt to take the discourse further.

Meanwhile, there have been suggestions from the government that NC may not have the mandate to summon government officials in its committee meetings. The government had sought the view of the Attorney General and shared it with NC. NC’s outright rejection of that view did not result in any corresponding response from the government.

What was agreed over the course of time was that chairpersons of NC committees would not directly summon the public officials. Rather, they would write to ministers to whom those public officials work under and ask them to be sent for making presentations or participate in the discussions. Copies of the letters would be addressed to the officials. NC accepted to uphold this arrangement as long as public officials appear at committee meetings and did not postpone or absent themselves without reasonable explanations. However, it reminded the government through a circular that NC would invoke legal powers to summon public officials in case the arrangement agreed upon was undermined.

Even as discussions and negotiations over this issue was going on, NC was simultaneously working on a different strategy to compel attendance of public officials if needed. This strategy has its genesis in the refusal of the governor of the Royal Monetary Authority (RMA) to heed the written summon of NC’s Chairperson in 2012. RMA had not divulged some information to a review exercises concerning rupee shortages in the country. It summoned the governor to attend NC’s formal session and provide those information. He gave health reasons to absent himself and sent the Deputy Governor instead. Questions were asked and information sought.

However, a fundamental question arose then! Yes, NC had the legal right to summon any person in relation to its legislative and review mandate. But what could it do if the person refused to come? Short of deeming it a contempt of the House, there was no penalty clause to enforce attendance if the summons were rejected. Thus, NC initiated amendment of its Act in 2014 which intended, amongst others, to introduce a penalty clause for public officials’ defiance of NC’s summon orders. Such a clause was also added to the National Assembly Act, which was also being amended at the same time. It was necessary to propose such an amendment in NA’s Act to garner its support for amendment of NC’s Act and also strengthen parliament’s oversight functions by giving it a legal teeth. Today, the penalty stands at a hefty fine of five years minimum wage for ‘Obstructing or molesting any persons summoned for his attendance in the National Council or its Committee,’ or for ’Refusing to present information or document that has been requested by a Member or Committee of the National Council.’

6. Reviewing Resolutions
On 3rd June 2016, NC members made statements of dissatisfaction against responses provided by Ministry of Labour and Human Resources (MoLHR). This was in relation to the resolutions passed in the earlier session about unemployment situation in the country and send to MoLHR. The deadline set for the government to provide responses to all resolutions of the preceding winter session, which ended on 9th December 2015, was 30th March. The deadline was extended to April 15.

The summer session began on 26th May 2016. NC members needed adequate time to review government responses, seek clarifications wherever there was such a need and report to the entire House about these responses as is the norm. Either the House Committee or committees who conducted reviews of the particular issue report their views on the responses to the resolutions. Despite many formal and informal reminders, none of the government agencies provided responses on time. Many responded just a week or two ahead of the parliament session. These still enabled members some time to review and reflect on the responses. However, those of the MoLHR was particularly late. It reached NC office on 31st May, almost a week after the parliament session has begun.

Not only were responses late, some were unavailable and a few were not related to the resolutions passed. Members decided to question MoLHR through both oral and written questions. These questions were subsequently sent.

Every time NC session commences, the first sitting is devoted to review of government responses to resolutions passed in the previous session. The 17th session devoted an unusual three sittings. This was necessary to follow-up on resolutions on a wide range of policy issues concerning hydro-power, unemployment, tourism, challenges in local government etc. Different committees have devoted nearly a year to review these issues through researches, consultations and committee hearings. Many resolutions were passed to address them. Hence, it became necessary to devote a substantial amount of time to review government responses on important policy issues.

Late government responses, one-line responses to serious resolutions passed after lots of debates, absences of responses to some of the resolutions etc. continue to challenge the parliamentary practice of reviewing resolutions. Nevertheless NC has come a long away from the early years of democracy when its resolutions would neither be followed-up by itself or later, when it did, the government ignored the resolutions or chose to respond at its discretion.

Both the previous and present governments argued that NC’s resolutions were directives to the government, and hence, an interference in executive functions. Indeed, NC passed resolutions in the first few sessions on issues and subject matters that were best addressed by central and local governments. Members took time to reflect on government concerns. They decided that specific constituency issues would be addressed through alternative modes (see below), while issues that are national in character, has resonance in many dzongkhags and have policy concerns, security implications etc. would be reviewed in the formal sessions.

In taking this position, members communicated to the government that following-up of its resolutions was not only required by Section 10.c of NC Act, but extremely necessary to fulfil its review mandate. This section states, “In exercising its review functions, the National Council shall: c) Review implementation of resolutions and laws…” NC further communicated that not all resolutions were directives. There are categories of resolutions such as calling government’s attention on public issues, expressing formal opinions, providing recommendations and adopting formal resolutions seeking government’s action on certain issues. NC is very cautious about the textual formulation of its resolutions so that there is no room for doubt about what categories these resolutions belong to and what they seek the government to do.

The mechanism put in place after discussion with the present government is that NC would present its resolution to the Prime Minister after every session with copies being made available to concerned agencies. The expected date for government to respond (usually a few months later) is also communicated on the day the resolutions are provided to the government. The Prime Minister would then direct the Cabinet Secretariat to forward NC’s resolutions to concerned agencies. NC would serve a reminder later on as the deadline nears to the Cabinet Secretariat and concerned agencies. They would provide responses to the Cabinet Secretariat, who would submit them to NC after the responses are reviewed and endorsed by the government.
In its 31st plenary meeting, NC has decided that matters would be closed for those resolutions to whom satisfactory responses were received. Otherwise, issues would be raised through Question Hour.

7. Addressing Constituency Issues
Besides legislation and policy review functions, NC members have the mandate to represent their constituencies in Parliament. A common refrain after every constituency visit among members is that people are more interested in immediate development projects such as road, bridges, schools, health clinics, electricity and not in legislative instruments like bills and policy issues. Thus, they raise such local issues to every public official visiting them. These could be local government officials, civil servants, parliamentarians, government minsters etc. irrespective of the fact that the issues may not be within the mandate and authority of some officials. On the other hand, NC members cannot brush aside such issues by citing the limits of their legislative and review functions. Therefore, NC initiated a three-pronged approach to address constituency issues.

a) Screening at constituency level
During public meetings in different villages, chiwogs and gewogs, members draw the attention of local government officials and local civil servants to issues which members perceive are within their mandate and responsibilities. At the end of every constituency visits, members are encouraged to spend a day meeting Dasho Dzongdag, the chief executive officer of the district administration and heads of various sectors located in the dzongkhag to discuss those issues which can’t be resolved by local governments. They would identify officials and possibly a timeline for addressing these constituency concerns. Those that are not within the authority of dzongkhag administration are then compiled and discussed in one of NC’s monthly plenary meetings. The meeting usually categorises them in the following manner. One, raise the issues directly with the ministers without having to table them as agenda items of formal sessions. Issues are addressed faster that way. Two, take up the issues in the formal session either by asking written or oral questions and by tabling them as motions.

b) Convening of Dzongkha Tshogdus (DTs)
NC has always felt the need to create an interface with local government to address constituency issues. It initiated a dialogue with the Speaker of NA and agreed to do the following. The Speaker and the Chairperson would issue a circular jointly signed by them to all DTs. The DTs would be asked to submit issues from constituencies which they deem as important for Parliament’s attention. However, they would have to exercise judgement in segregating issues for the two Houses. Those that are more policy-oriented, legislative in nature etc. would be submitted to NC and those that deal with development concerns would be submitted to NA.

More than a month before the commencement of an NC session, a notice is served by NC Secretariat to all DTs to submit issues. There have been times when a few DTs raised some issues and other times when no issues have been raised. Most of the issues raised thus far with NC have been about election-related matters. These were addressed by NC during a review of election-related issues in one of its sitting. The Election Commission of Bhutan has taken note of most such issues and amended their rules and regulations in response to such public concerns. This institutional arrangement for interface between parliament and local governments is yet to consolidate and assume greater relevance. For example, no DTs submitted any issue to NC for deliberation in its 17th session. The exception was Mongar DT, which however, submitted election-related issues which were already discussed.

c) Raising issues directly with public agencies
An amazing aspect of Bhutanese democracy is that most people in constituencies have personal phone numbers of their elected representatives at all levels. Thus it is nothing out of place for the Prime Minister, Ministers, equivalent positions and Members of Parliaments to receive daily calls from people raising issues, drawing attentions or fielding grievances.

In order to streamline representation functions, NC has developed an alternative channel of redressing constituency issues. The government has supported this initiative. Issues and concerns from constituencies which do not qualify for discussion in the Parliament are not ignored. NC compiles all such complaints and grievances over a period of time, particularly after constituency visits, and submits them to the government. In doing so, the issues are presented to the Prime Minister with copies to Ministers. They in turn inform NC after a few months about the interventions they have made, explanations for inactions and clarifications for doubts raised by constituents. NC members then communicate government responses to constituents during their subsequent visits.

This has been a very useful innovation. For example, a total of 58 different issues received government’s attention, explanation or clarification between 2013-2014, 18 between 2014-2015 and 48 between 2015-2016. A few more issues have been raised with the government for the period January to June 2016 for which responses are yet to be received. It does appear as if NC members just relay messages and complaints between the government and people. However, the value addition in NC raising issues through this arrangement lies in the enhancing profile of complaints, seeking direct attention of government agencies and receiving government attention or explanation within a reasonable period of time.

The only concern is the possibility of constituents using this modality to bypass local institutions such as local governments to redress local grievances. Hence, NC members have to exercise extreme caution and judgment in ensuring that only those issues which are not addressed by local institutions and authorities are raised with the government.

8. Conclusion
This paper has focussed on five parliamentary practices in NC which are designed to strengthen its oversight functions. It has shown how these practices have been built over the last few years of democracy, and how NC’s oversight functions have been consolidated. It has also suggested possible areas for improvements and highlighted areas where challenges still remain.

The parliamentary practices discussed above are however, not the only areas where innovations have been made and where challenges lie. In order to enhance check and balance functions, institution-building is key to both NC and NA. It will be incorrect to suggest that everything is perfect with these two Houses of legislature and that the problem is in relation to the government. Both the Houses need immense capacity building in terms of procedures, research capacities, harmonising practices and enhancing inter-house co-operation. In conclusion, I wish to emphasize some critical areas where challenges persist and innovations are needed to enable Parliament achieve a greater degree of oversight functions vis-a-vis the government.

First, a critical need both Houses is for to streamline and harmonise procedures and have a common understanding of what each procedure seeks to achieve. In absence of greater uniformity and shared understanding, public officials and government agencies can possibly contest efficiency of parliament’s oversight functions. If we compare the parliamentary devices available to both Houses, they sound similar but can be vastly different in scope and application. A future amendment of NC and NA Acts must pay serious attention to harmonising procedures.

Second, both Houses need to improve the Rules of Procedures for Joint Sitting. A beginning has been made. However, the enthusiasm and input of one House must be matched likewise by the other House.

Third, formal and informal modes as well as spaces for inter-House cooperation needs to be expedited. Removing sense of distrust and animosity among members of both Houses and within each House is critical to a more effective parliament. Members need to see themselves as partners and not as those in competition with the other.

Fourth, institution-building needs to focus on enhancing Committee procedures and output. A House held hostage by party rivalry even at committee level can only weaken its oversight functions and check and balance abilities.

Fifth, research capacities and support system are key to well-informed decisions both in the committees and the House. In order to facilitate a healthy and meaningful debate in the Houses, members must have access to research outputs, insights and analysis. This in turn will improve the legislature’s ability to discharge oversight functions.

As much as members and Houses of parliament have crucial responsibilities in institutionalising parliamentary practices and strengthening them, the government has a critical role as well. Bhutan’s democracy has matured over the last few years from the days when the government saw the Parliament particularly the National Council as a competitor to one today, where it is perceived as a key player in democracy. Progress has been made but the challenges are still daunting. Neither the government nor the parliament must perceive support to oversight practices and institutionalisation of check and balance mechanism as favour to one other. Rather they must be promoted in the spirit of unconditional support to democracy.



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