Many developing countries lack an established institutional framework for providing evidence-based policy advice to national law-makers. This column explores the experiences of Nigeria in setting up a dedicated institute to support parliamentarians in their work. Despite the progress in capacity-building that it represents, there remain significant challenges around the nation’s use of scientific advice in policy-making.
The legislature is a critical element of an effective democracy. Its role in law-making, representation, and oversight makes it an indispensable part of the government.
Since Nigeria’s return to democratic rule in 1999, the nation’s parliament has evolved in its constitutional responsibilities. But until recently, there was no established institutional framework for providing evidence-based policy advice to law-makers in Nigeria. This was in stark contrast with the executive arm of government, which is supported by a variety of technocrats, providing greater leverage in executive-legislature relations.
Recent years have, however, seen a growing appreciation of the role of scientific advice in the legislature. Similar to the Congressional Research Office in the United States and the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology in the UK, the National Institute for Legislative and Democratic Studies (NILDS) was established in 2011 to serve as a capacity-building and research institution of the Nigerian parliament. It conducts economic, political, and legal research and policy analysis, as well as capacity-building training to support parliamentary activities, with a view to promoting evidence-informed debates and legislation.
Despite the indispensability of scientific evidence for policy-making, providing advice based on science to government officials and politicians, including parliamentarians, is not easy, even within institutional settings. However, the establishment of an institutional framework for providing scientific advice has improved the effectiveness of the Nigerian parliament.
Significant success has been achieved in providing technical and policy support for legislative institutions in Nigeria. The legislature is better positioned for more effective executive-legislature engagement and oversight of the budget. The effectiveness of legislation has also been improved through impact assessment, ensuring that legislation complies with constitutional provisions and contributes to national development.
But there are still challenges.
Parliaments are unstable. As in any other country, there is a high turnover among members of parliament in Nigeria. Constant changes in the membership and committee structure frustrate efficient collaboration between scientists and members of parliament, and ultimately undermine scientific advice to the legislature.
There is also the challenge of inadequate expertise and capacity. In Nigeria, there is no dearth of expertise on the subject matters of public policy. But capacity is more limited in terms of ability to synthesize evidence, to understand the legislative process, to communicate research findings, and to engage with politicians.
High demand for policy advice at short notice further aggravates the challenge of limited capacity. Thus, building capacity requires specialized training, which can transcend what is currently being offered in conventional academic settings.
In some cases, researchers are assigned to work with specific committees, but the limited capacity across the full range of disciplines and professions makes the system far from optimal. It also robs the committees of the opportunity to benefit from multi-disciplinary perspective on public policy issues.
Even with an institutional framework, the communication and engagement gaps between members of parliament and researchers/scientists in Nigeria are still wide. This is due to inadequate engagements of key knowledge brokers, such as universities, professional/academic associations, civil society organizations, learned societies, and the national academy.
Besides, scientific evidence is only a small part of the law-making process, and parliamentarians in Nigeria, as in every other country, are driven by several interests. Given the political nature of legislative activities, it is common for politicians to follow those interests regardless of scientific evidence. Members of parliament are also likely to cherry-pick scientific evidence to support particular policy decisions.
Nigeria is making progress in promoting capacity-building and evidence-based legislation, but challenges remain. In the long term, conscious efforts are needed to establish formal relationships between scientists/experts, knowledge brokers, and parliamentarians in Nigeria – and ultimately, to ingrain a culture of scientific advice in government.
Oluwasola E. Omoju is a Research Fellow at the National Institute for Legislative and Democratic Studies (NILDS), Abuja, Nigeria. His research interests include energy economics, public financial management, applied development economics, and trade policy (with special reference to AfCFTA).
This article was published in partnership with INGSA as part of the INGSA-Africa Essay and Project Concepts Competition. Richard L.K.Glover, Programme Specialist (Biological Sciences) at ISC Regional Office for Africa and Regional Programme Officer for INGSA-Africa, joined our editorial team for this blog series.