Building an Evidence Rapid Response unit in parliament: Three early insights from the African Institute for Health Policy and Systems in Nigeria
November 18, 2021
Technical staff of national parliament (from ICT, communication, research, and library divisions) during the mentorship workshop to enhance capacity for evidence informed policy legislation at Abuja Nigeria. May 26-28, 2021

The role of parliament in Nigeria’s government

Nigeria has three branches of government – executive, legislature (national parliament comprising Senate and House of Representatives) and judiciary. It also has three levels of governance – federal, state, and local. While the executive branch is the most front and center branch of government, its decisions, policies, and actions are most effective when upheld by laws enacted by the legislature. Given that the laws parliament makes are used to steer the nation’s development, it is imperative that they are guided by quality and context-relevant evidence. A critical gap in stakeholder engagement activities in the legislative branch, to support synthesis and contextualization of evidence, led the African Institute for Health Policy and Systems in Nigeria to establish the Evidence Rapid Response Services in Nigeria’s national parliament.

In Nigeria, while elected policymakers (Senate and House Representatives) have tenures that are tied to political cycles, career policymakers (who draft the laws and provide major technical support to the elected officers), have much longer tenures, that sometimes outlive generations of elected legislative policymakers. It is essential that career legislative policymakers who actively draft and revise bills for review by the elected policymakers have strong skills in demanding and using quality evidence in a timely manner to inform their work. The Evidence Rapid Response Services also responds to a need for strengthened capacity in evidence-informed decision-making. 

How we are trying to strengthen the use of evidence in parliament

We began our work by engaging with the human resource division and directorate of training of the national parliament. They welcomed a partnership and acknowledged capacity building needs that are critical to the success of their work in legislative policymaking. This relationship is already catalyzing a policy change as the national assembly is now willing more than ever to collaborate with the Institute in designing organized in-service training programs and curricula for their employees which were previously non-existent. In addition to the career policymakers, there are plans to further train and mentor legislative aides (who draft bills for the lawmakers) to the elected policymakers and provide targeted advocacy to distinguished lawmakers to improve the demand for evidence in legislative decision-making. Elected policymakers will also be trained in demanding and enforcing the use of quality evidence by their legislative aides and support staff in drafting of bills. 

What we have accomplished

To date, the African Institute for Health Policy and Systems has completed an assessment of the knowledge/capacity of key parliament staff directly involved in policy legislation to acquire, assess, adapt, apply, and communicate research evidence. We are using this information to inform the production of an Evidence Guidance Document on how to use evidence in policymaking/legislation and to design initiatives to strengthen the capacity of key parliament staff to produce rapid evidence synthesis products and provide mentoring support on rapid response services. So far, we have trained three cohorts of mentees or technical staff from the national assembly.  

Our capacity building efforts will culminate in the establishment of the Evidence Rapid Response Services unit with legislative staff now having the ability to source, identify, screen, synthesize and present quality evidence in an easy-to-understand format to the legislators. The unit will institutionalize a culture of evidence-informed legislation and ensure that decisions taken by the executive branch are upheld by laws that are in turn informed by quality and timely evidence. Below we share three early observations from our work.

Three early insights from our work

  1. Career parliamentarians in Nigeria are eager to build skills and knowledge to better understand and support the evidence to policy process. Their unprecedented enthusiasm underscores the need for a robust training mechanism on evidence informed legislation for parliamentarians.
  2. It is important to build capacity and ownership in evidence-informed decision making as you take measures to create institutional structures and to consider sustainability at the outset. The planned Rapid Response Services unit will draw on existing legislative staff and infrastructure to facilitate timely supply of evidence in the legislative processes at the parliament. 
  3. Bringing together staff from different units of parliament for training and ongoing mentorship helped to facilitate interdepartmental collaboration and address operational silos in parliament. Improved coordination is needed to ensure the sharing of knowledge and information.

Institutionalizing rapid response services in government

The International Development Research Center and Hewlett Foundation are funding the design and implementation of the Evidence Rapid Response Services unit and capacity building for legislative policymakers under the Partnership for Evidence and Equity in Responsive Social Systems (PEERSS). The use of existing key staff in the legislature, office space, internet and power that were already provided by the national parliament will promote the sustainability of the unit. The Institute will also continue to provide technical support to the unit, while effort will be made to integrate the unit in the operations of the parliament with a budget line to sustain its operations.

What’s next?

The Evidence Guidance Document will be completed by November 30, 2021, and we are working towards getting the Rapid Response Services unit fully running by the first quarter of 2022. We look forward to sharing more updates soon.

About the author

Professor Jesse Uneke is the Director of the African Institute for Health Policy & Health Systems at Ebonyi State University (EBSU) Nigeria.