The Parliamentary Monitoring Group has published a new survey on public participation in Parliament’s consultative processes. The aim was to understand who the key participants are, why and how they get involved, their observations about Parliament’s role in the process and what can be done to improve the process.

The survey covered the period from June 2015 to July 2016. Respondents included individuals or organisations that made oral submissions and directly engaged with one or more of the 50 parliamentary committees in public hearings.

Speaking at a 2012 civil society gathering – for which Corruption Watch (CW) was a partner – former Constitutional Court judge Albie Sachs said that Parliament must embrace its connection with voters and the public voice, and that the relationship between Parliament and the public must be “organic and interactive”.

As a civil society participant, CW has made submissions on various pieces of legislation, ranging from the SAPS amendment bill and the Protection of State Information bill in 2012, the Public Administration Management bill in 2013 and 2014, and recently the Financial Intelligence Centre amendment bill and the Protected Disclosures amendment bill, among others.

“Our participation in parliamentary proceedings has been very positive, at least in respect of the committees that we have engaged with,” said CW’s head of legal and investigations, Leanne Govindsamy. “We have been able to access the committee secretaries easily for information or for guidance on particular issues and we have been allocated sufficient time to make oral submissions.”

Download the survey.

Participating for a reason

Ultimately, 39% of respondents came from NGOs, while 26% came from business and 10% came from academic institutions. Others came from trade unions, constitutional bodies and public institutions or responded in their personal capacity.

Most survey respondents made submissions on legislation (72%), followed by policy (13%) or topical matters (15%) such as firearms, climate change and department budget analysis.

In terms of their motivation for participating, respondents cited several reasons:

  • they have vested interests in a particular law;
  • they want to bring potential shortcoming in a law to the fore, and thus improve its constitutionality; and
  • they want to make recommendations for amendment or change.

They also wished to make their interests and constituencies known to MPs, ensuring those interests – which included gender mainstreaming, investment interests, safety and security, environmental issues, labour interests and student issues – are promoted.

In terms of the amount of notice given to prepare submissions – which on average, for bills, was 17 calendar days – 46.1% of respondents indicated that they were satisfied. In addition, 31.6% were satisfied some of the time, and 22.4% were dissatisfied.

When asked about whether they think MPs take public input into serious consideration, 30% of respondents felt that this was the case. Although their submission might not have been acted upon it was of value nonetheless. Several were happy with the way that MPs engaged with their submission and asked pertinent questions. Others mentioned that they spotted their submission in amendment legislation.

However, 37% of respondents expressed dissatisfaction with the extent to which Parliament takes public input seriously. They said that sometimes not enough MPs show up for meetings, or that not enough time is allocated for committee members to properly engage with participants, or that the impression is given that their input is not appreciated.

Some commented that it seemed to them that the view of the dominant political party would in any case win the day, that MPs seemed to be merely “going through the motions”, or that the committee was just “window dressing”.

CW is one of those who have positive feedback in this area. “Our submissions have been engaged with in a meaningful manner by members and it is quite clear that our recommendations are taken seriously as some have directly influenced draft sections,” commented Govindsamy.

In terms of feedback once the submissions were made, 79.5% felt that this process was inadequate. Although realistically, not all views will be accommodated in the final legislation, the view is that providing feedback to those providing submissions should be non-negotiable, as it not only assures participants that Parliament takes their input seriously and appreciates their time, but it encourages future participation.

“We are not informed of the impact or usefulness of those submissions and there is no positive duty on the committee to do so, but we have been able to participate fully in the legislative process in the public interest,” Govindsamy said. She added that time periods and notifications of changes are sometimes short, and this is an area that could be improved.

Respondents were also asked if they lobbied MPs and political parties to push for their views and interests. Most respondents (58%) indicated that they did not. However, the 42% who did lobby indicated that the exercise makes for better informed MPs prior to public hearings, that it resulted in changed laws, and it assisted in building relationships with MPs and strengthening the understanding of varying views and perspectives.

Obstacles to engagement and suggestions for improvement

The main obstacles to constructive engagement with Parliament were found to be:

  • Lack of time                                       50.7%
  • Lack of funds                                      35.6%
  • Lack of capacity                                  13.5%
  • Insufficient knowledge of policy        19.2%
  • Process too formal                              11%
  • Language                                           1.4%
  • Other                                                  27.44%

From the responses, the survey determined that existing strategies to promote public participation are insufficient and that more needs to be done to get a plurality and multiplicity of views. Respondents’ suggestions for improvement focused substantially on the standardisation of process amongst parliamentary committees, as there is currently great variation between how participation is carried out from one committee to the next. Standardisation, on the other hand, would provide consistency in the execution of public participation, and could result in the solicitation of public views and inputs becoming institutionalised and engrained in the overall work of parliamentary committees – so public opinion would not be sought only when dealing with legislation.  .

Lack of time was another oft-mentioned factor. Respondents said that MPs should look at how best to maximise time to hear and engage with the public, especially when a specific topic is of great public importance or is detailed. They suggested that MPs make it known ahead of time how big or small a window the participants would have in which to make their submission, so that any time constraints are accounted for.

The lack of feedback on the participation process is another factor for Parliament to consider. Other suggestions included leaving comment boxes in local municipalities, especially in rural areas, to ensure a wider reach of participation, and the use of opinion gauging exercises and online surveys, as well as better use of technology, not only for communicating with the public but also for teleconferencing, which would allow those members of the public who cannot physically be in the room to still participate.

Public participation essential to proper parliamentary functioning

In addition to exercising oversight on the Executive and passing legislation, public participation is also one of Parliament’s prominent functions, and can be said to lie at the heart of its work. Deliberative democracy is the principle at work here, meaning that the public gathers to consider, talk about and exchange views on policy proposals, national issues and laws.

“Such practices open spaces for the public to better grasp and comprehend policies and legislation affecting their lives. This in turn makes for better informed and aware citizens who are able to engage their representatives,” the report notes.

Deliberative democracy allows for citizens to be integral to the decision-making process instead of engaging in democratic action only when depositing a vote in a ballot box once every four years.

As former justice Sachs noted: “That phrase in the Constitution about the public being involved was not simply [so that] the public can watch, [or] make representations to … committees. It meant an ongoing act of connection and association”.