Organizational Governance Within Parliamentary Institutions: Starting with a Framework

Article 5 / 11 , Vol. 45 No. 1 (Spring)

Organizational Governance Within Parliamentary Institutions: Starting with a Framework

Artour Sogomonian is Clerk Assistant, Parliamentary Services at the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia

The Legislative Assembly of British Columbia has created what is believed to be a first-of-its-kind governance framework for a parliamentary institution. This authoritative guide outlines the framework, processes and practices in support of good governance in the very unique parliamentary context. In this article, the author explains why the framework was established, details the principles informing it, and its general structure. He concludes by noting that when parliaments are proactive in establishing and maintaining good governance internally, they help create and sustain public confidence in these institutions.

Introduction

From time to time, parliamentary institutions undergo a period of significant reforms – sometimes procedural, sometimes administrative. The Legislative Assembly of British Columbia is no exception. Such transformations are necessary for any institution to modernize and to meet evolving needs and expectations.

In late 2018, the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia embarked on a journey of administrative reforms, one that continues to this day. This journey was triggered by events that shook public confidence in the institution. The necessity of strengthened governance processes became evident. There was a need within the organization to clearly identify roles, responsibilities, authorities, lines of accountability, and practices that would provide certainty with respect to the administrative structures within the Legislative Assembly, and also provide certainty with respect to decision-making.

A great deal of work throughout the organization culminated in the production of the Legislative Assembly Governance Framework. This document is believed to be the first of its kind in a parliamentary institution. It serves as an authoritative guide outlining the framework, processes, and practices in support of good governance. The Legislative Assembly Governance Framework was unanimously adopted by the Legislative Assembly Management Committee, the all-party statutory parliamentary governance board, on January 31, 2022.

Why is Good Governance Important?

“Good governance in the public sector encourages better informed and longer-term decision making as well as the efficient use of resources. It strengthens accountability for the stewardship of those resources. […] Good governance can improve organizational leadership, management, and oversight, resulting in more effective interventions and, ultimately, better outcomes.”1

These objectives apply equally within a parliamentary setting. The entity charged with governance must not only be concerned about how administrative structures support Members in the execution of their constitutional duties and better enable them to undertake these responsibilities, but also how they are positioned to sustain processes expected within a modern organization. This is particularly important when the institution is funded from the public purse.

Why a Governance Framework?

The Legislative Assembly Governance Framework was prepared for Members of the Legislative Assembly to serve as the authoritative guide to the governance structure under which the Legislative Assembly executes its administrative and financial responsibilities. There are several elements in a sound governance system including clarity of objectives and expectations, clear lines of accountability, and transparency in the application of and compliance with rules. In this context, as previously noted, the Governance Framework provides clarity of roles, responsibilities, and accountabilities with respect to and between the various components of the functional decision-making hierarchy within the Legislative Assembly as an entity. The Governance Framework also sets out the processes and practices that support good governance within the Legislative Assembly.

The Legislative Assembly is the heart of parliamentary democracy in the province. British Columbians look to the institution to be a model of good governance – one that sustains their trust in the institution and its operating practices. But the Legislative Assembly environment is a complex one, where several groups intersect and operate with full or partial autonomy – including caucuses, legislative offices, constituency offices, and the Legislative Assembly Administration.

The Legislative Assembly Governance Framework recognizes this reality at its core and aims to establish a structure that balances the realities of this environment with best practices, professional obligations, multi-faceted service delivery requirements, risk management, fiscal responsibility, and expectations for accountability and transparency. The Legislative Assembly Governance Framework captures the nature of our parliamentary setting but is founded on best governance practices published by reputable organizations in British Columbia, Canada, and beyond.

The Legislative Assembly: Institution vs. Organization

To understand the Legislative Assembly’s governance structure, one must first understand the distinction between the Legislative Assembly as an institution and the Legislative Assembly as an organization. For clarity, there is only one constitutional entity: the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia.

The Legislative Assembly as an institution refers to the body of 87 democratically elected Members constituted under the provincial Constitution Act (R.S.B.C. 1996, c. 66), which derives its authority from the Constitution Act, 1867 (30 & 31 Victoria, c. 3 (U.K.), formerly the British North America Act, 1867). As an institution, the Legislative Assembly is the supreme law-making authority in and for British Columbia. It is the heart of parliamentary democracy in British Columbia, allowing its Members to undertake their responsibilities for legislating, scrutinizing the executive branch of government, and representing the interests of British Columbians. As an institution, the Legislative Assembly’s proceedings are founded on the Westminster parliamentary system, and are governed by constitutional and statutory provisions and by the Standing Orders of the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia, the permanent rules of procedure.

The Legislative Assembly as an organization refers to the administrative structures that are in place to support the functioning of the Legislative Assembly as an institution. Any administrative structures that exist at the Legislative Assembly are part of the Legislative Assembly as an organization. There are distinct differences between these two identifiers, and organizational matters are subject to oversight by, and direction of, the Legislative Assembly Management Committee. The Legislative Assembly Management Committee does not have any authority or oversight over the conduct of parliamentary business undertaken by the Legislative Assembly or its parliamentary committees, but has a vital enabling role to ensure that Members of the Legislative Assembly are able to carry out their duties effectively by being equipped with the appropriate resources, supports, and services.

The Legislative Assembly Governance Framework only applies to the Legislative Assembly as an organization, though it is to be recognized that organizational matters and decisions governed by the Governance Framework may have an impact on the institution, primarily on its reputation. Therefore, the Governance Framework is relevant to the functions and work of the Legislative Assembly Management Committee and the administrative structures that the Committee oversees. The Governance Framework has no application to, or bearing on, the parliamentary business undertaken by the Legislative Assembly and its parliamentary committees.

Regulation of the Legislative Assembly’s Internal Affairs

One of the parliamentary privileges that the Legislative Assembly enjoys is the right to independent regulation of its internal affairs. In order to fulfill its necessary, constitutional responsibilities, the Legislative Assembly, through the Speaker, holds and exercises exclusive jurisdiction over its proceedings, governance and decision-making, and premises. The Legislative Assembly, through statutory delegation to the Legislative Assembly Management Committee, develops and adopts, among other things, financial and administrative policies and practices that govern the organization.

As Joseph Maingot notes in Parliamentary Immunity in Canada, “The privilege of control over its own affairs and proceedings is one of the most significant attributes of an independent legislative institution.”2 Governance structures within a parliamentary institution must be carefully cognizant of this unique reality in order to uphold the independence of the Legislative Assembly as the legislative branch of government.

Governance in a Parliamentary Institution

Much has been done to develop good corporate governance principles and practices in the public sector. However, little expertise exists on what good “corporate” or “organizational” governance looks like in the distinct nature of a parliamentary setting. General principles apply and form the heart of the contents of the Legislative Assembly Governance Framework, which is intended to be a living document, subject to regular review and revision. In this respect, the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia has committed itself to being a leader.

Governance in a parliamentary setting is unique for several reasons. In British Columbia, the membership of the Legislative Assembly Management Committee is set in statute and is drawn on Members appointed to a certain parliamentary role for each caucus (e.g., House Leader, Caucus Chair). Therefore, the individuals collectively tasked with oversight – i.e., Members of the Committee – take up membership on the Committee by virtue of their appointment to a parliamentary role and are not necessarily well versed, on taking up membership on the Committee, in matters that a parliamentary governance and oversight committee has to deal with. The Legislative Assembly Governance Framework, therefore, serves as an important tool in equipping Members of the Committee with a better understanding of the various roles and responsibilities within the Legislative Assembly’s governance structure.

Second, governance in a parliamentary environment is unique because the Legislative Assembly Management Committee does not function like a typical governance body. The Legislative Assembly is not a corporation, nor does it operate like one. It is, fundamentally, a parliamentary institution – inherently a public one, which must strive to maintain public trust and confidence in its operations. Beyond that, there are many administrative and management decisions made on a day-to-day basis by various groups within the organization: Members of the Legislative Assembly themselves (in the context of autonomous constituency office operations and, where applicable, legislative office operations); Members of the Legislative Assembly and caucus staff (in the context of autonomous caucus operations); and the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly, the Clerk of the Legislative Assembly, and Legislative Assembly Administration leadership and management (in the context of Legislative Assembly Administration operations). These decisions are subject to parameters, policies and directives established and issued by the Committee.

Third, Members of the Legislative Assembly Management Committee are themselves often subject to the decisions made by the Committee, as individual Members of the Legislative Assembly. This stems from the inherent principle that is core to preserving the independence of the legislative branch of government: that the Legislative Assembly has the right to govern itself and determine how it functions – and this applies to the enabling administrative functions that support Members of the Legislative Assembly in the exercise of their duties. But this model may present challenges, particularly in the provision of arms-length oversight of Members’ expenditures and resources that are typically offered by a governance board. In this regard, the Legislative Assembly is not unique; nearly every parliament in the Commonwealth uses the same model. However, the Legislative Assembly firmly believes that it is possible to establish robust procedures and mechanisms to ensure that the principles of good governance are upheld in the unique parliamentary setting, which is what the Legislative Assembly Governance Framework does.

Fourth, governance in a parliamentary environment is also unique because the governance body, being the Legislative Assembly Management Committee, must ensure that the autonomy and independence of the Legislative Assembly, as the legislative branch of government, are upheld and protected.

Last, governance in a parliamentary institution must recognize the nature of parliamentary life and the principles that apply to it. Specifically:

 

    • a Member of the Legislative Assembly has the constitutional rights, immunities and independence applicable to their office as a Member of the Legislative Assembly and to the carrying out of the Member’s parliamentary functions free from interference and intimidation;
    • political activities are an inherent and essential part of the parliamentary functions of a Member of the Legislative Assembly;
    • a Member of the Legislative Assembly is to be provided with the resources and services, at a level subject to and determined by law and by the Legislative Assembly Management Committee, in order to permit the Member to effectively carry out their parliamentary functions;
    • a Member of the Legislative Assembly has full discretion over and control of the work performed on their behalf by their staff in carrying out the Member’s parliamentary functions, subject only to the law and to the direction of, and policies established by, the Legislative Assembly Management Committee; and
    • the Legislative Assembly Management Committee has exclusive jurisdiction to determine how resources and assets of the Legislative Assembly are allocated and used, subject to its statutory authority and the law.3

 

The Legislative Assembly Governance Framework is designed with these considerations in mind. Its structure and the processes and practices outlined throughout the Governance Framework are designed to appropriately meet the Legislative Assembly’s strategic and operational objectives and to facilitate effective decision-making and oversight.

Governance Principles

Good governance strengthens organizational leadership, management, and oversight. In any organization, governance is exercised at different levels, most commonly structured between management and an oversight board or committee. Each level of a governance structure plays a complementary but distinct role, separated to promote objectivity in decision-making. Each level also has a distinct role in upholding the governance principles noted below, which are reflected throughout the Legislative Assembly Governance Framework.

In 2008, the Office of the Auditor General of British Columbia released a report entitled Public Sector Governance: A Guide to the Principles of Good Practice. The principles set out in that report are at the core of the Legislative Assembly Governance Framework; the Legislative Assembly has formally acknowledged and accepted that adherence to these principles is key to ensuring good governance and sustaining the success of the organization. In many respects, these principles are reflected and embedded in prescriptive requirements throughout the Legislative Assembly Governance Framework. As noted in the report,

Five key principles underpin good governance. An organization that practices good governance is one that always, in word and action, demonstrates: accountability, strong leadership; integrity; stewardship; and transparency (the A.L.I.S.T.).

Accountability is the process whereby public sector organizations, and the individuals within them, take responsibility for their decisions and actions. They are willing to submit themselves to scrutiny to ensure that the responsibilities conferred – pertaining to everything from probity and ethics to the effective and efficient implementation of programs – are answered for.

Strong leadership sets the “tone at the top” and is absolutely critical if an entire organization is to embrace good governance. Public sector leaders must not only demonstrate ethical behaviour themselves, but require ethical behaviour of all staff throughout the organization and a commitment by everyone to the practice of good governance.

Acting with integrity means being impartial, ethical and not misusing information or resources. An organization with integrity maintains high standards of propriety and probity in the stewardship of public funds. It does this by having an effective control framework in place, abiding by relevant legislation, regulations and policies (such as the British Columbia Public Sector Values and Standard of Conduct) and instilling high standards of professionalism at all levels within the organization. An organization’s integrity is reflected both in its decision-making procedures and in the quality of its financial and performance reporting. The British Columbia Public Service Values place integrity above all other values.

Stewardship is the act of looking after something on behalf of others to protect or improve its sustainability. In the public sector, it relates to the way public officials exercise their powers on behalf of the public they serve. The resources that public employees use are held in trust; these resources are not privately owned. A public sector organization demonstrates stewardship by maintaining or improving its capacity to serve government and the public interest over time. This applies to ensuring financial sustainability and the efficient and effective management of resources, as well as maintaining the trust placed in the organization.

Transparency is achieved when an organization’s actions are open to scrutiny. It means stakeholders, the public and employees have access to full, accurate and clear information about the organization’s decisions. Good governance requires transparency so that all players can have confidence in the decision-making processes and actions of public sector organizations.4

Structure of the Legislative Assembly Governance Framework

The Legislative Assembly Governance Framework is organized in several sections, each intended to assist the reader better understand the organization’s administrative structures and operations:

Introduction (sets out the matters outlined above: purpose; the Legislative Assembly as an institution vs. as an organization; regulation of the Legislative Assembly’s internal affairs; governance in a parliamentary institution; and governance principles).

Statutory Framework – Legislative Assembly Management Committee (sets out the statutory governing framework; membership and chair; and relationship with the Legislative Assembly (parliamentary context)).

Organizational Structure (sets out the organizational structure, including the roles of two key officeholders, being the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly and the Clerk of the Legislative Assembly; caucuses; legislative offices of independent Members; constituency offices; Legislative Assembly Administration; and Office of the Premier and Ministers’ offices).

Core Functions – Legislative Assembly Management Committee (sets out powers and duties as provided in statute; general functions; strategy functions; internal control and financial reporting functions; risk management functions; conduct and ethical behaviour functions; human resources functions; and parliamentary functions).

Roles and Responsibilities (sets out the key responsibilities of the Legislative Assembly Management Committee, including oversight and approval responsibilities; the key responsibilities of the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly, including working with Legislative Assembly Administration management, managing the Committee, and representing the Committee; the key responsibilities of the Clerk of the Legislative Assembly, specifically as the chief executive and as clerk to the Committee; key responsibilities of the Clerk’s Leadership Group (the executive team); and responsibilities in relation to security within the Legislative Precinct).

Key Processes in Support of Good Governance (sets out the orientation and development opportunities for Members of the Legislative Assembly Management Committee; strategic planning; risk management; policy framework; system of internal controls; performance evaluation for the Clerk of the Legislative Assembly; Governance Framework review; and related support through the Legislative Assembly Administration).

Delegation of Authority (sets out delegation of authority to the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly; to the House Leaders; to the Clerk of the Legislative Assembly; to the Committee’s advisory subcommittees; during a period of dissolution of the Legislative Assembly; during emergency situations; and financial authority).

Operating Guidelines – Legislative Assembly Management Committee (sets out expectations about acting in the best interests of the Legislative Assembly; expectations of conduct for Members of the Committee; process for handling requests for information; correspondence to and from the Committee; and the designation of the spokesperson for the Committee).

Consultation and Independent Advisors – Legislative Assembly Management Committee (sets out consultations that have and may be undertaken by the Committee; and the role of independent (external) advisors, including the Auditor General of British Columbia).

Advisory Subcommittees and Working Groups – Legislative Assembly Management Committee (sets out the differentiation between advisory subcommittees and working groups; provides an overview of the Subcommittee on Administration and Operations, the Subcommittee on Finance and Audit, and the Subcommittee on Security, and sets out the terms of reference, role in managing risk, delegation of authority, meetings, and membership for each advisory subcommittee).

Meetings – Legislative Assembly Management Committee (sets out meeting frequency and attendance; agenda setting and meeting documents; minutes; quorum; rules of deliberations; conflict of interest; membership substitution; attendance by other Members of the Legislative Assembly; public access to proceedings; in camera proceedings; and Committee decisions via email).

Conclusion

Good governance is key to sustaining confidence in any organization – and parliamentary institutions are no exception. In fact, they should strive to be leaders in this area and ensure that the processes that support good governance are embedded within the organization and that they are adequately funded.

Each parliamentary institution has its own unique culture and operating mechanisms that are ultimately intended to best position the institution and its Members in the effective discharge of their duties and responsibilities. These realities must be supported by processes and practices that ensure effective governance and oversight of the organization’s administrative and financial operations. Documenting these realities in an authoritative manner, whether that be in a governance framework, an operating manual, or a policy suite, benefits the institution by providing certainty with respect to its administrative and financial functioning, which in turn sustains confidence in those operations.

Proactive work in this area should be pursued by every parliamentary institution – to not only document these structures, but to actively review and revise the documentation to ensure its living nature, reflecting an evolving organization. In a time when public trust in our governing institutions appears to be waning, it is one small step that can be taken to build trust and ultimately position the organization for success.

Notes

 

  1. International Federation of Accountants & The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, International Framework: Good Governance in the Public Sector, July 2014, p. 6.
  2. Joseph Maingot, Parliamentary Immunity in Canada, LexisNexis, Toronto, 2016, p. 166.
  3. These principles are articulated in the Senate Administrative Rules (Senate of Canada), and were adopted by the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia given their applicability.
  4. Auditor General of British Columbia, Public Sector Governance: A Guide to the Principles of Good Practice, December 2008, pp. 6-7.

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