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Making Parliaments Work through Better Communication

Paul Mitchell's picture

Governments and development agencies have devoted many years and hundreds of millions of dollars developing democratic governance in countries around the world. The idea of creating democracies is still the primary driver of many governance improvement agendas. Clearly, democratic systems often bring with them improvements in governance and economic development, but simply putting a democracy into place is not enough.
 

Last week, this blog featured a quote by Elinor Ostrom, which contains an interesting sentence: “Yet I worry that the need for continuous civic engagement, intellectual struggle, and vigilance is not well understood in some of our mature democracies and is not transmitted to citizens and officials in new democracies….We have to avoid slipping into a naïve sense that democracy – once established – will continue on its own momentum." 

Parliaments must work properly in order to deliver the benefits of a democratic system of governance. The World Bank, through its client survey program, has fielded surveys in more than 100 countries in the last six years. While public views on the trustworthiness and functioning of Parliaments are not directly sought, in almost every single case, politicians rank last on the list of trusted bodies or groups of people while governments, on the other hand, often end up in the top three.
 

When attention is paid to making Parliaments work better, this tends to revolve around their administrative, research, and policy making functions. Communication is rarely looked at as a technical area that can improve the working of Parliaments. Improving public accounts committees –often a favorite of donors--  is necessary, but unless that information can be disseminated and understood then the benefits of these reforms will not be fully realized.
 

Communication can greatly help to improve transparency and accountability with little cost. There are many Parliaments located in countries classified as fully democratic with free and fair elections that could improve their work and build faith in democratic governance by simply enhancing the ways in which they use communication. Many do not have space for journalists to work or even cover Parliaments while in session; there are no filming or radio facilities nor are there internet connections available.  Filming inside Parliament is not allowed nor is questioning of its members.  There are no websites.  Copies of bills are often not available after passage; during discussion, there is only one copy available and the Minister or Speaker controls its use.  There is no one to explain bills to the media or members of civil society.  The media does not have programs that review the work of Parliaments or even have members appear to talk publicly about them.  Once legislation is passed, there is no communication to the public to explain their rights and responsibilities.  There is no record of Parliamentary procedures nor formal publication of laws.  In some cases, Parliaments have all of these features.  In other cases, they have some but not all. Solving many of these issues could easily be done through changes in rules and administrative procedures.
 

Tanzania, for example, has a good web site.  It also provides internet and video facilities from its capital with links to major cities.  It allows the filming of Parliament and has a strong staff that works exclusively on communication, explaining bills and procedures.   It ensures that media, civil society, and the private sector are fully informed about the work of Parliament. Curiously, there are several governments, not classified as democratic, which have actually solved these issues and some, like Vietnam, that have  the devolved systems of information dissemination (down to the village level) on the working of Parliament and explaining any new bills or laws that are passed.
 

The second area where communication can improve the working of Parliament is through consultation and participation in the legislative process. Some Parliaments may undertake consultation processes before a bill is written, but once written and tabled, the formal comment and discussion processes involving the public are discontinued. This results in an adversarial relationship between Parliament and any organization that wants to explain its position or desires changes in the law. Citizens’ only recourse is to raise these issues through the media or via alternative ways of information dissemination. This is almost always seen as ‘opposing’ the bill rather than a way of simply expressing positions on a piece of legislation.
 

Consultation before a bill is written and continuing public access until its second reading (if that is the process) would end the view that the legislative process is adversarial between Parliament and the public. Some governments have even gone so far as to establish a separate and independent body that manages this process in order to engender as much consensus as possible.
 

Making Parliaments work better means improvements in many areas and communication is one that needs to be taken far more seriously. It can have substantial and sustainable benefits -- instilling a sense that democracy works and providing more transparency and accountability to this aspect of a country’s governance process.

Photo Credit: European Parliament (on Flickr)

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