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Background

This Project is subset of a broader proposal, “Africa i-Parliament Action Plan”, designed in collaboration with the Pan Africa Parliament (PAP) and national parliaments and endorsed by the PAP in a Resolution dated 2nd December 2005 in which it is highlighted that “strengthening the role of African Parliaments in fostering democracy and good governance through knowledge and information management will be a key institutional and political objective of the Pan-African Parliament”.

Africa i-Parliaments Action Plan builds on the experiences and the achievements of the regional pilot project “Strengthening Parliaments’ Information Systems in Africa”, an initiative meant to promote parliamentary democracy in Africa, supported by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN/DESA) and funded by the Italian Development Cooperation.

The strategic uniqueness of the “Strengthening Parliaments’ Information Systems in Africa” project has been the use of a regional/inter-parliamentary approach to deal with the issues parliaments are facing. The opportunity to view the problems of Parliaments in a broader regional context made apparent that, despite the different parliamentary traditions and languages, many requirements that otherwise could have appeared as unique, were actually common to most or all Parliaments. The regional perspective has managed to highlight  that,  due the unique and unprecedented characteristics of ICT (almost zero marginal cost in case of programmes, easy localisation and so the opportunity to create synergies by developing better common system, and last but not least, the global accessibility of information that overcome the time and space barriers and that made ICT a global success)a regional/continental level approach was the only one cable to not only deliver high quality and sustainable solutions for African parliaments but also deliver solutions that were at par with the demands of the times, e.g. common standards for parliamentary and legislative documents.

In this context “Strengthening Parliaments' Information Systems in Africa” project’s major outputs have been:

AKOMA NTOSO - "Architecture for Knowledge-Oriented Management of African Normative Texts using Open Standards and Ontologies" a set of simple, technology-neutral representations of parliamentary, legislative and judiciary documents such as legislation, debate record, minutes, judgments, etc. Africa is the first continent to promote a common open standard for parliamentary, legislative and judiciary documents, turning its position from a latecomer to a world leader, and a model for the rest of the world. For more information please see www.akomantoso.org

Bungeni – Parliamentary Information System is an end-to-end suite of applications that provides a world-leading solution for drafting, managing, consolidating and publishing legislative and other parliamentary documents. Bungeni aims to increase the efficiency of parliamentary activities and make Parliaments more open and accessible to citizens -- virtually allowing them “inside the Parliament” or Bungeni, the Kiswahili word for “inside the Parliament”. Bungeni automates the information flow of parliamentary works and support the distribution of parliamentary proceedings and documents via the Internet. The goal of is to enable Parliaments to become more open to the citizens to foster accessibility, transparency and accountability of parliamentary activities. For more information please see www.bungeni.org

“Africa i-Parliament Action Plan” - A four years Action Plan meant to foster transparency and accountability, support democratic participation of civil society and strengthen inter-parliamentary cooperation in the Parliaments of Africa. The Action Plan, which was endorsed by PAP in 2005, aims at supporting parliaments to become open, participatory, knowledge-based learning organisations by: building information and knowledge management capacities, developing information services and tools to support inter-parliamentary collaboration and deploying Parliamentary Information Systems.

Legislative Drafting Guidelines for Africa -  Given the variety of legislative traditions and languages present in Africa, the project promoted the development of common legislative drafting guidelines to support the harmonization of legislation throughout the Continent. The development of the Guidelines has involved experts and parliamentary staff from many African countries and the contributions of the European Parliament, the Senate of France, the House of Lords of the United Kingdom and the National Assembly of Portugal. The Guidelines are available at drafting.apkn.org and they will be made available in the following languages: French, Portuguese, Arabic, Swahili, Spanish and English.

Africa Parliamentary Knowledge Network (APKN) – APKN is a parliamentary network meant to support capacity building activities, common services, sharing experiences and best practices among African parliaments. It builds on the success of long established parliamentary networks like the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) in USA and the European Centre for Parliamentary Research and Documentation (ECPRD) and on ICTs that have provided very cost effective ways to facilitate communication between parliaments and to deliver information and capacity building services. APKN was promoted in collaboration with the Global Centre of ICT in Parliament, also through a UN Development Account project. In March 2007, at a meeting hosted by the National Assembly of Nigeria in Abuja the proposal to set up the APKN was endorsed by the parliaments attending the Conference. The APKN's first and founding conference, “Africa Parliamentary Knowledge Network - Building Together Open and Learning Parliaments in Africa” was hosted by the People’s Assembly of Egypt on 4-5 June 2008, under the auspices of the Pan African Parliament. Thirty seven delegations from African parliaments attended the Conference and finalised the APKN Charter and APKN Plan of Action (for more information see www.apkn.org).

At national level, the project did contribute to the upgrading of IT infrastructure and enhanced capacity of IT staff through the participation to workshops and conferences organised or supported by the Project.

Lessons Learned

Many of the shortcomings and challenges that individual African Parliaments have to deal with are common to many Parliaments. In fact, the commonalities in requirements of Parliaments are not only in the information systems, but also extend into other areas such as training needs, knowledge management requirements, information services and building opportunities to exchange information and confront ideas.

The successful strategic strength of the regional pilot project “Strengthening Parliaments’ Information Systems in Africa” has been in the use of a regional/inter-parliamentary approach to deal with the issues of the development of Parliamentary Information Systems, while addressing the specific needs of the eight National Parliaments benefiting from this initiative. The regional perspective has enabled the project to highlight issues that need to be tackled at a continental level, even while dealing with the very specific issue of the deployment of a Parliamentary Information System (PIS) in a particular country. The opportunity to view the problems of Parliaments in a broader regional context made apparent the fact that what may otherwise have appeared as unique needs of a single National Parliament, were actually requirements that were universal to all Parliaments, despite the different parliamentary traditions and languages.

A regional/continental approach in the development of the Parliamentary Information System proved to be conducive to economies of scale, quality and sustainability. There is scope and value in creating common and/or centralised services in order to leverage a much wider pool of intellectual resources and strengthen sustainability of the achievements. The benefits will be even more apparent in the case of smaller African Parliaments with meagre resources, as these are really the ones in most dire need of support and quality services. This approach that build on sharing services and building commons support mechanisms will indeed reduced the digital gaps among parliaments and provide adequate and sustainable support also for small and not so affluent parliaments.

A central feature of the “Strengthening Parliaments’ Information Systems in Africa” has been building partnership and developing collaborations and also the one that qualified the regional dimension of the Project and its unique approach to deal with the opportunity and challenges that ICTs have brought about.

The regional dimension of the Project, the kind of new skills and expertises required to deal with a sector like ICTs, but also the very nature of the legislative process that sees also government and the justice system to play a very critical role, has also made apparent that it was necessary to involve in the Project's activities also universities and other publics institutions like Attorney General and national institution is charge of maintaining the legislation public records. Consultations were held with Speakers and Presidents of Parliaments, Members of Parliament, Representatives from Parliamentary Administrations both in Africa and Europe. All have expressed their commitment and availability to engage in a programme that would strengthen parliamentarism in Africa and promote openness, accountability, good governance, and citizens’ participation in the public life. This commitment has been formally expressed in the Recommendations of the three Pan African conferences held in Nairobi (2005), Abuja (2007) and Cairo (2008).

Consistently African Parliaments have shown the political willingness to cooperate at continental level to leverage the benefits of the regional approach and of economies of scale. This Project is meant to support them in transforming parliaments into knowledge organisations and ensuring the sustainability of the process.