It 'coasts' on its reputation, quietly confident that it has no need of fundamental change. The result is that it faces a danger similar to that faced by many public institutions in the past: that its failure to reform will sooner or later lead to a loss of confidence and effectiveness and, at worst, growing hostility from a more demanding and educated electorate.
One way of restoring confidence and improving standards would be to introduce a Citizen's Charter for MPs. Constituent's Charters would set out clearly what MPs should do, their outside interests (particularly financial ones), how they can be contacted, what complaints procedures there are and what response times they aim to achieve. At present we cannot scrutinise our elected representatives effectively and it is impossible to establish what we can reasonably expect of politicians - in terms of their time, knowledge, expertise and standard of constituency work.
Such charters need not be uniform. Constituencies vary enormously, as do the demands placed on MPs by any positions they might hold. MPs should be free to draw up their own charters, but according to a format and subject to consultation procedures of the kind suggested by the National Consumer Council for Citizen's Charters. The charters should not be legislated for; they should be initiated by the constituency parties: during election campaigns there would then be open debate about the contents of the candidates' charters and the extent to which sitting MPs had delivered what they promised.
While Constituent's Charters would help to make MPs more accountable to their constituents, they would not provide a comprehensive insight into their activities. For that there needs to be a more powerful and independent form of accountability. Parliament should be subject to the sort of thorough financial and performance audits that make most public and private-sector organisations transparent to the people who fund them.
Annual audits should look not just at the spending of Parliament as a whole, but of MPs as well, listing items (such as postage and library research services), often used to service organisations in which the MP has a financial interest. The audit should extend to other measures of effectiveness and efficiency, such as the time and resources spent on select committees, constituency work, lobbying, research, and private business.
The results could be compiled into league tables and published in the House of Commons Commission's annual report, which must be far more detailed and informative than it has been. A summary of the report and profiles of individual MPs should be available to the public on request.
Many MPs - no less than teachers or doctors - would no doubt resist quantification and 'potentially misleading' tabulation of their performance. They would legitimately argue that league tables and performance indicators can never tell the whole story about quality and efficiency. But they can provide a focus for debate about what we do or should value in a school, in a hospital - or in an MP. For example, some inner-city MPs might object to tables showing the time they spend on constituency casework (as opposed to legislative work) on the grounds that like is not being compared to like. Inner-city constituencies generate more casework than rural ones. But, as with schools, this is really an argument for a fairer distribution of resources, not an argument for avoiding disclosure of information.
Comparative data would also make it possible to assess how far better time management, facilities or staff could improve the performance of individual MPs. As it is, most proposals for changing the way Parliament works are made without reference to how they might improve MPs' ability to cope with their workload. Breaking down the tasks that MPs do would help to link requests for better resources to specific potential gains.
Audits and charters would also reveal the extent to which MPs have to cope with an increasing workload. They might illuminate the apparent increase in stress levels (one recent report discovered that 80 per cent of MPs work at least 70 hours during a typical week) that are inevitable as MPs seek to juggle their various roles as ministers, social workers, media performers, party functionaries and legislators. But we also need to address the question of how MPs could use their time better and how they could perhaps perform fewer functions better.
Any analysis would also rapidly reveal the other precondition for a more effective parliament: proper training. At present there is no training for MPs, either in legislation and government or in the welfare advice that absorbs so much of their time. Instead, most accumulate their knowledge haphazardly. A good model would be the Congressional School in the United States, which all new Congressional representatives have to attend on election. Such a school could help not only with parliamentary procedures and how government works, but also with the growing complexity of EU legislation. It could be equally useful in providing a wider source of ideas about how to work in constituencies.
The British political system asks a lot of its national politicians. Yet they operate in an environment which prevents the public from appreciating these demands and how they can best be met. Until now Parliament has successfully resisted anything remotely resembling the reforms that have swept through the public sector in accountability, transparency and training. It is high time they did to themselves what they have done with such gusto to everyone else. In so doing, they could counter the belief that national politics has become the preserve of a self-serving elite of professional politicians whose outlook has little in common with the people they are meant to serve.
This an adapted extract from 'Lean Democracy', a special issue of the Demos Quarterly published tomorrow, pounds 5, from Demos, 9 Bridewell Place, London EC4.Reuse content