3.1.4 Policy Development

What role can oversight institutions play in policy development?

The role that an impartial and politically neutral body with oversight of political finance issues can play in policy development will usually be limited, but can still be important.

An oversight body is unlikely to be able to design the policy or regulatory framework within which it sits, or to drive major changes to the framework. This is because the key policy decisions – such as what controls should exist on donations and other funding provided to political actors, and what spending and campaigning activity should be regulated – need political legitimacy, and ideally consent from the broad range of political actors within the jurisdiction. As the oversight body, you most likely do not have the power to make unilateral changes to the legislative framework, as this prerogative lies with the legislative body.

However, an oversight body which has had some experience of operating or overseeing a framework of controls on political finance can play an important role in advising policy-makers – including governments, parliaments and independent reviewers – about how design problems in the framework can be resolved, and how ideas for changes to the framework will work in practice. An important aspect of this is ensuring that political finance regulations are enforceable.

For example, an oversight body may do some or all of the following (the links are to examples of the work of the United Kingdom’s Electoral Commission):

  • Provide information and advice to inform a political party’s or government’s initial policy development
  • Publish briefings to inform legislators and decision-makers when draft legislation or policy changes are under consideration
  • Conduct a systematic review of the effectiveness of a framework and make recommendations about how it can be improved

It is noteworthy that the law in some jurisdictions requires the political oversight institution to make recommendations of the legislative framework. For example, in the USA, the Federal Election Commission is to make annual legislative recommendations. See e.g. the FEC’s recommendations for 2021.

In addition, political finance legislation often establishes broad rules that then have to be interpreted and applied to different factual scenarios. As an oversight institution, your interpretation and application of the rules will often involve policy development. This is most evident in the development of operational policies and procedures but it also applies to how you interpret and apply the rules in the advice you give and the enforcement cases you handle.

How can you, as an oversight body, contribute effectively to political finance policy development?

The following steps can help you contribute to the development of political finance policy:

  • Be open and consistent with all relevant actors about what you are considering or recommending, and why.
  • Develop clear explanations of how any policy changes you recommend will have a positive outcome, such as:
  • better achieving the overall policy aims of the framework, without producing an unfair advantage or disadvantage for any political actor, and/or
  • removing unnecessary administrative burdens on political actors.
  • Engage political actors and other interested parties at an early stage to obtain their perspectives on the issues you are exploring and, where possible, win their support for the changes you are recommending.