4. An accessible parliament


The previous chapter concerned itself with the different ways in which citizens can become informed about their parliament. Having accurate and up-to-date information about what parliament is doing is a precondition for exercising any influence on the work of parliament either as an individual or through organisations of like-minded citizens. This chapter looks at the different ways in which parliaments are making themselves more accessible to citizens and social groups, and in which they can hope to exercise influence in turn. It looks first at modes of direct contact between citizens and their representatives; then at ways in which parliaments can empower individuals to gain redress in the event of grievance; finally at opportunities for citizen involvement in legislation and other committee work of a parliament.

Direct contact between citizens and their representatives

The means through which citizens have traditionally had access to their parliament has been through their elected representative(s). In most countries, where the electorate is divided into geographically-based constituencies, and members represent a specific locality, such access has typically been through face to face contact in the area where the electors live. Defenders of constituency-based electoral systems have always regarded it as their signal merit that members should experience their constituents’ concerns and problems at first hand, and not just rely on second-hand reports when assessing the impact of legislation. Naturally, there is a danger, pointed out by a number of our respondents, that members can become almost full-time social workers as a consequence. ‘Electors expect that, once elected, the deputy should be available to them at any time and in all circumstances - baptisms, marriages, funerals, social assistance of all kinds’ (Mali). How parliamentarians balance the reasonable expectation that they should understand and address the views and interests of their constituents with the requirements of their legislative and other parliamentary work, is one of the most difficult balancing acts they have to undertake.

In the contemporary world the use of email has enormously enhanced the ease and speed with which electors can contact their representatives. Yet, as we have already seen, the ‘digital divide’ excludes large numbers from such access. In most countries, therefore, the opportunity of meeting the representative directly, whether individually or as a member of a group, and without substantial time or cost spent in travelling, remains of the first importance. Meeting this need is partly a matter of members’ time, partly of constituency facilities.

As to time, many parliaments set aside a day or two at the end or beginning of each week when they are in session for members to visit their constituencies. In Sri Lanka, the parliament is in session during the first and third weeks of each month, and during the second and fourth weeks the members work in their constituencies, where people can have access to them. In Chile, both houses of the legislature sit for three weeks each month, ‘so that in the fourth week parliamentarians can attend to business in their district or region, and keep up an ongoing dialogue with their electors.’ In a few countries, being a parliamentary representative is still only a part-time activity, and members continue to practise their normal profession while carrying out their parliamentary duties. In Malta, MPs ‘visit their constituents at home, in hospital and at their place of work to learn more about their daily needs, and such visits are held frequently. The size of the country makes it possible for members to give the citizens personal attention and, where necessary, to explain to them measures included in legislation adopted by Parliament.’ At the other end of the scale in terms of size, the full parliament in the People’s Republic of China meets for only a few days each year, and deputies are also have their own professions. ‘This has enabled them to have direct interaction with the voters, feeling their pains and understanding their aspirations……They also assist in the implementation of the Constitution and the laws in their production, work and social life.’ Such advantages have to be set against the potential loss of expertise in relation to the members’ legislative duties, as both parliaments acknowledge. In respect of China, it should be noted that the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress meets on a continuing basis between sessions of parliament.

   Constituency facilities

A constituency- or district-based office provides a key point of contact for electors with their representative and local staff. In view of its importance, many parliaments in developing countries have initiated wide-ranging programmes to establish parliamentary offices in each constituency, where members are available to see their constituents. In Zambia, this forms a key part of an ambitious programme of parliamentary reform. As a first step, three different types or models of constituency offices were piloted, to see which one was most suitable and sustainable to enhance member-constituency relations:

  • the fixed office;
  • the travel budget office, where an MP was provided with funds for travelling around the constituency in person;
  • the mobile office located in a Land Rover, and equipped with a computer and satellite phone.

Support staff were recruited and trained for all three types of office facility. Of the three types, the fixed office proved to be the most effective in the pilot studies. The ‘travel budget office’ lacked any focal point or predictability of popular access, while the ‘mobile office’ proved unsustainable in terms of its technical demands. As a conclusion, the Parliamentary Reforms and Modernisation Committee recommended the following:

  • that the Fixed Office Model be adopted with a limited travel budget to enhance the MPs’ connectivity with their constituents;
  • that the Community be involved in deciding on the location of the offices;
  • that the National Assembly should ensure that the Professional Assistants and other employees of the office are non-partisan;
  • that the National Assembly should equip constituency offices with basic literature translated into local languages, if possible
The Committee concluded that constituency offices significantly improved constituents’ access and interaction with the MP. The key to success was the leadership, performance and commitment of the MP and the Professional Assistant

In Zimbabwe a similar reform process has led to the establishment of Parliament Constituency Information Centres (PCICs) in all 120 constituencies, with the primary objective of providing citizens and local organisations with an opportunity to engage Members of Parliament on the problems and needs of the constituencies. As a base for parliamentary generated information, the centres also enable the public to be involved in the legislative process from a more informed standpoint. In addition, the centres hold a socio-economic database of the area, regularly updated, which serves to identify some of the most pressing issues and areas of need in the constituency.

The centres provide a meeting place for the sitting Member of Parliament and his or her constituents. Since these centres belong to Parliament, not political parties, they give all members of the area, regardless of political affiliation, an opportunity to discuss constituency issues with their representatives in Parliament. The PCICs are centrally located and are easily accessed by the majority of people in that constituency. They are also located close to local or Government authorities for coordination purposes……The PCIC is manned by the Office Assistant who is an employee of Parliament on contract.

Reviews of the work of constituency offices generally suggest that their effectiveness as a channel of communication and public participation depends on the conscientiousness of the individual member (see the Zambia extract above). It seems also that they are more successful at raising individual complaints and problems than as a channel for views about the legislative activity of members.

Further online reading about the organisation of parliamentary constituency offices:

National Democratic Institute (2002). Constituency handbook for elected representatives in Namibia <http://www.accessdemocracy.org/library/1376_na_constituencyhdbk.pdf>

United Nations Development Programme (nd). The legislature and constituency relations <http://www.undp.org/governance/docs/Parl-Pub-constrelat.htm>

   A local development role for parliamentarians

In many developing societies the issues which constituents will look to parliamentarians for assistance with concern very basic living issues – access to water and sanitation, communal facilities, basic infrastructure, and so on. Here members can have a direct role in helping initiate development projects in their constituency, in a number of ways:

  • helping government define development priorities and supporting them in their implementation;
  • assisting local groups and communities in securing funding for their own projects;
  • collaborating with NGOs in local schemes;
  • where applicable, making recommendations to government ministries for the allocation of budgets in their district.

In some African countries, parliamentarians are allocated a sum from the central government development budget for local projects which they can spend at their own discretion. In India, parliamentarians may suggest development works to the sum of 20 million rupees annually to be carried out in their constituency; and there is a special committee of both Houses which liaises with the relevant ministry to assist members in the effective implementation of this scheme.

   A future-oriented problem: email overload

At the other end of the development scale is a problem increasingly being experienced in countries with high Internet usage: that of email overload on parliamentarians and their offices. This has been of particular concern to the US Congress, and their report E-mail Overload in Congress (2002, available from <http://www.cmfweb.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=208&Itemid=>) will be of more general interest. Among problems it identifies are: huge spurts in email traffic when contentious issues hit the public consciousness, but which do not then subside; a large increase in traffic from correspondents outside a member’s district; organisations which use email for indiscriminate lobbying or ‘astroturfing’; expectations of immediate response since the means of communication is instantaneous; limited office budgets for dealing with the load. The report comments:

While all institutions are struggling to adapt to the demands of a ‘paperless environment’, the challenges facing Congress are among the most difficult and contentious. Growing numbers of citizens are frustrated by what they perceive to be Congress’ lack of responsiveness to e-mail. At the same time, Congress is frustrated by what it perceives to be e-citizens’ lack of understanding of how Congress works and the constraints under which it must operate….Until now, rather than enhancing democracy – as so many hoped – e-mail has heightened tensions and public disgruntlement with Congress.

Among the recommendations made to congressional offices are to have a clearly worked out strategy for dealing with email, including one of the latest systems for sorting and storing it, and automating replies where appropriate. These can not only save time and money on paper and postage costs, but facilitate new ‘outreach opportunities’ for initiating communication with different groups of electors interested in particular issues.

As for correspondents, the report makes some recommendations which apply equally to surface mail users. Email to a member of Congress will have greatest impact when it is:

  • from a constituent, with a name and full address;
  • in the constituent’s own words, not copied from a form letter or website;
  • from an individual, not an intermediary organisation;
  • regarding a single issue, not a group of unrelated issues;
  • in an easy to read format, with a clear purpose stated in the first paragraph.
Empowering citizens to seek redress

An important function for parliaments is to provide a framework through which citizens can raise grievances and have them investigated. The traditional channel for members of the public to raise a complaint about public authorities or seek redress has been through their elected representative. The importance of the constituency office in this context has already been noted. An elected member typically has more clout when taking up a case with a government body or public authority than a private individual does on their own. Parliaments have also traditionally allowed a more general access to complainants through the right of petition and through petitions committees. This right dates back to the very origin of parliaments, as a recent NDI publication on Parliamentary Human Rights Bodies reminds us:

The right to petition is at least as old as the institution of parliament itself. It has even been argued that the Parliament in the United Kingdom originated in meetings of the King’s Council where petitions were considered. In France, the right to petition parliament for redress of grievances has existed almost permanently since the French Revolution. With the increase in the influence and importance of parliaments, petitioning parliament became one of the main methods of airing grievances, so that parliaments had to set up special committees to cope with the ever increasing number of petitions. These committees can be considered as the first ‘human rights’ committees as their aim was and still is to redress injustice. (Ingeborg Schwarz, Parliamentary Human Rights Mechanisms, NDI, 2004)

Nowadays such committees are usually reserved for the consideration of petitions indicating a general problem and supported by a large number of signatories. This is the case, for example, in Portugal, where ‘petitioners must be heard whenever a petition has over 2000 subscriptions’. In many countries, a more usual avenue for individual complaint today is through the office of an Ombudsman or Public Protector, whether accessed initially through a member of parliament or, more usually, directly by the complainant. Even in the latter case, it remains the responsibility of parliament to provide and supervise the framework by means of which the rights of the public can be protected.

Originating in Scandinavia, the position of Ombudsman or Public Protector has emerged as a widely established avenue for individual complaint against the actions of public authorities. While the remit of the office differs from country to country, it typically investigates actions of public bodies which involve an infringement of human rights, abuse of office or other maladministration. After receiving a complaint from a member of the public, the Ombudsman will be empowered to investigate it, and where appropriate to seek redress for the complainant and/or a change in the institutional practice that led to the complaint. Although decisions of the Ombudsman in most countries are not binding, they have considerable authority; and it has been argued to be an advantage that they avoid the adversarial approach of the courts and allow for greater flexibility in the remedies and changes in administrative procedure that can be recommended. Here are two brief accounts of the establishment of an Ombudsman’s office, from Ireland and Argentina respectively:

Ireland: Up to the 1960s, citizens seeking redress generally went to Parliament (or the Petitions committee of Parliament) or to the Courts. The complexities of the modern State, the domination of Parliament by Government, the delays and expense involved in going to Court and the growing alienation of citizens from all these institutions, led to the emergence in the 1960s and 1970s of the latter day Ombudsman, a variation of an office which had existed for many years previously in Sweden and Finland. Denmark was first, followed by New Zealand and Britain and Northern Ireland. The Irish model as set out in the Ombudsman Act, 1980, was greatly influenced by these countries……While the number of complaints each year is small relative to the millions of individual decisions taken annually by our public service, the activities of the Office, undoubtedly, have a cautionary effect on public bodies and an influence on their decisions. (Kevin Murphy, former Ombudsman)

Argentina: Based on an outstanding Nordic tradition, Argentina has established the Office of the Ombudsman that reports to the national parliament. The role of this body is to protect the interests of the citizens, groups of citizens and the community in general in the face of any government act that violates the fundamental rights of citizens. The results of this institution in Argentina have been very promising. Its existence has also allowed for greater participation of the citizenry in the oversight mechanism. In some countries, the Ombudsman reports to the executive branch. But the experience from Argentina supports the general view that this institution should report to the legislative branch. (Eduardo Menem, former Acting President of Senate)

In Latin America, the history of widespread human rights violations under former military regimes has made the establishment of the office of Public Protector (or in some countries a National Human Rights Commission with similar functions) a key element in restored democratic arrangements. Most commentators agree that, to be effective, such bodies should:

  • be completely independent of government;
  • have wide-ranging investigative powers;
  • be properly resourced and cost-free to complainants;
  • be easy to access, both geographically, through local offices, and electronically;
  • report and be accountable to parliament.

In most countries where the office of Ombudsman or equivalent has been established, it is in fact accountable to parliament, either as a whole or through a specific committee. In Malta, the Ombudsman is an officer of Parliament and reports to Parliament through the Speaker. In Ukraine the Parliamentary Commissioner (Ombudsman) for Human Rights is accountable to the whole Parliament for monitoring human rights in the country, and works closely with particular committees of Parliament according to the nature of the appeal or complaint. Her remit covers economic and social rights as well as civil rights. An example of the former is given in the report from her first year of office:

Throughout 1998, the Commissioner and the Parliamentary Committee on Issues of Health Care, Motherhood and Childhood received a number of appeals by employees of medical establishments who complained against excessive reductions in medical personnel and in the network of medical establishments. Having examined the issues raised, the Commissioner and the Committee arrived at the conclusion that the reductions would destroy the sector and violate the rights of many citizens employed in the health system. As a result, an open letter was addressed to the President, the Speaker of Parliament and the Prime Minister of Ukraine, and meetings with the Trade Union of Medical Workers were held. The Ministry of Health finally took the necessary measures to settle the problem.

In Namibia, the Ombudsman reports to a special Standing Committee of Parliament, which is tasked among other duties with the following:

  • to examine, consider and report on the annual and other reports laid before the National Assembly under the Ombudsman Act;
  • to satisfy itself that the Office of the Ombudsman has been carrying out its mandate efficiently and effectively, and to make recommendations accordingly;
  • to confirm that Government offices, Ministries and Agencies are responding positively to queries and are duly cooperating with the Ombudsman Office.

   Human rights committees of parliament

In other countries, the Ombudsman or its equivalent is accountable to a Human Rights Committee of Parliament, which has a broader remit for the defence and promotion of human rights throughout the country. In the Philippines the Committee on Human Rights of the House of Representatives has initiated the establishment of Human Rights Resource Centres (HRRCs) in local government units across the country:

The need was felt for them within the context of armed resistance and protest actions against human rights violations that had become rampant…..When established, the HRRCs will become part of a network that ensures good governance from a human rights perspective. Through advocacy work, the network will include schools and universities, military and police academies.

In Brazil the Parliamentary Human Rights Committee is itself responsible for receiving allegations of human rights violations and investigating them, and constitutes the country’s main human rights monitoring body. Since Brazil is a federal state, and the central government has limited competence over the jurisdiction of individual states, the Human Rights Committee works with the media and civil society to publicise violations in particular localities, and bring pressure to bear on the relevant authorities. In some cases it does this to create a more urgent demand for legislation from the Federal Parliament itself, as one of its members explains:

We have also introduced the use of so-called ‘human rights caravans’. Their aim is to prompt discussion in the federal states, the federation and society as a whole about certain human rights questions. For example, for ten years a bill about institutions for the insane was pending before the National Congress, and it was impossible to have it voted upon. Consequently, we organised human rights caravans in the whole country to make people aware of the situation in these institutions, of the real situation of those detained there, the human rights violations of which they were victims and the fact that they did not enjoy minimum standards of detention. The caravans were given large-scale media coverage, and led to a popular outcry about the situation in these institutions. We finally managed to have the law passed after ten years of debate. The same occurred with the situation of homes for old people.

Here we see a committee acting with civil society as a stimulus to parliament itself to take its broader human rights responsibilities seriously. As the IPU has demonstrated in its recent survey of parliamentary human rights bodies, the defence of the human rights of the population is now a central role which permeates all of a parliament’s work; and it is a responsibility which covers all residents, not only those who qualify as citizens:

First, parliaments legislate and determine the legal human rights framework at the national level. They ratify international treaties and must ensure that the norms set forth in those treaties are translated into national law and implemented. Secondly, parliaments approve the budget and thus set national policy priorities. They must ensure that sufficient funds are provided for human rights implementation and that these funds are used accordingly. Thirdly, parliaments oversee the action of the executive branch and so keep the policies and actions of the executive under constant scrutiny. They can therefore ensure that the government, the administration and other State bodies comply with human rights obligations. Last but not least, members of parliament are opinion leaders and can do much to create a human rights culture in their countries.

Further online reading about ombudsman institutions:

Christopoulos, D; Hormovitis, D (ed.) (2003). The ombudsman institution in south-eastern Europe <http://unpan1.un.org/intradoc/groups/public/documents/untc/unpan014896.pdf>

National Democratic Institute (2005). The role and effectiveness of the ombudsman institution <http://www.accessdemocracy.org/library/1904_gov_ombudsman_080105.pdf>

Ombudsman Information Network (2005). European countries' ombudsmen <http://www.anticorruption.bg/ombudsman/eng/readnews.php?id=2901&lang=en&t_style=tex&l_style=default>

Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (2003). Recommendation 1615 (2003): the institution of ombudsman <http://assembly.coe.int/Documents/AdoptedText/ta03/EREC1615.htm>

Further online reading about parliamentary human rights committees:

Inter-Parliamentary Union (2004). Strengthening parliament as a guardian of human rights: the role of parliamentary human rights bodies. Seminar for Chairpersons and Members of Parliamentary Human Rights Bodies <http://www.ipu.org/splz-e/hr04.htm>

Inter-Parliamentary Union (2005). Parline database: specialized parliamentary bodies <http://www.ipu.org/parline-e/Instanceadvanced.asp>

National Democratic Institute (2004). Parliamentary human rights committees <http://www.accessdemocracy.org/library/1905_gov_parlhrscommittees_080105.pdf>

Citizen involvement in the legislative process

This section looks at citizen participation in the legislative work of parliament collectively, which takes a number of different forms. The most frequently used is the invitation for public submission, or public hearing, by a legislative committee. The institution of public hearings to sound out the views of interested parties on forthcoming legislation has been a longstanding practice of the older parliaments. The practice is now becoming more widespread and systematic.

   Committee submissions and public hearings

An appropriate starting point is with an extract from a handbook of the New Zealand Parliament explaining the significance for democracy of direct citizen participation in legislation:

New Zealand’s system of parliamentary democracy not only provides for citizens to elect their representatives, but also allows citizens to have a say in shaping the laws that affect them. This involvement is achieved by the select committees of the House of Representatives receiving submissions from the public. The system of public input into legislative proposals is an important element in the parliamentary process and in the democratic life of the country. Submissions are also received on parliamentary inquiries and other matters before a select committee. This provides the public with the opportunity to put forward its views on issues and may ultimately result in new laws.

There are different ways in which this process of civic engagement can be organised. The New Zealand Parliament makes an open invitation for submissions to all interested parties, individuals as well as organisations, through the press and other media, including its website. Other parliaments regard civic organisations or NGOs which represent specific issues or interests as the most appropriate vehicle for conveying the views of civil society; and they send specific invitations to organisations known to have an interest in the particular legislation or enquiry under consideration, inviting their submissions. This is what the Turkish Parliament did in wide-ranging negotiations over the revision of the Penal Code in 2004. As a general practice, the Parliament of the Czech Republic arranges ‘public hearings of representatives of the professional and civic sector’ in relation to bills. The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia has an NGO-Parliament contact office to facilitate civic involvement in legislation; it also serves as a check on the standing and representative nature of civic associations. Other parliaments keep official registers of NGOs and other interest groups for the same purpose, and also to ensure that marginalised groups are effectively included in consultative procedures. Such arrangements can also become more institutionalised. The parliaments of Belarus, Slovenia and Tunisia have consultative councils of representatives from NGOs and other experts attached to particular standing committees on an ongoing basis. Latvia and Mali have arrangements for ongoing cooperation with stakeholder groups to improve legislation. In Hungary a Civil Office of the National Assembly was opened in 2002, with the responsibility of establishing a dialogue between the civil sphere and the National Assembly in the legislative process.

The Parliament of Iceland has a twin-track approach, both inviting specific submissions from relevant organisations and accepting them from individual members of the public:

It is a standard procedure in the Althingi, the Iceland Parliament, that the legislative standing committees ask for written opinions (submissions) from those who are affected by the bills which the committees are dealing with. In practical terms ‘those affected’ refers to interest groups and similar non-governmental organisations and societies. This reflects an established parliamentary opinion that those affected by legislation have a democratic right to be heard and consulted. Furthermore, any member of the public has a direct access to the standing committees in the sense that everyone can send a written submission to committees (either by letter or e-mail) regarding any bill that the committees are dealing with. These ‘spontaneous’ submissions, which are not formally requested by the committees unlike those mentioned earlier, are all made available to committee members. It should be added that all submissions to committees are available to the public……and there are plans for making these documents available to the public immediately after they have been tabled in the relevant committee.

The Parliament of Moldova puts its most important draft laws on its website in order to involve civil society in the debate:

For instance, this is exactly how the opinions and proposals of ordinary citizens and of representatives of NGOs were requested in the process of examination and final adoption of the Law on rights of the persons belonging to national minorities and the legal status of their organizations; the Law on the protection of consumers; the Law on the approval of the Concept of national policy of the Republic of Moldova and other laws.

   Some issues of concern

The extracts reported above indicate some issues of frequent concern relating to the involvement of civic organisations and NGOs in the legislative process. One relates to how representative they are of a particular constituency or social interest. A second concerns how independent and self-organising they are, rather than government-inspired and financed. A third relates to the respective weight that is given to different organisations, and a concern about the undue influence that some powerful and well-financed organisations may come to exert over the legislative process.

These concerns indicate the importance of parliament legislating to provide both a facilitative and a transparent framework within which the organisations of civil society can operate: for example, by encouraging a voluntary and not-for-profit sector, and requiring a public register of all bodies which seek to engage in parliamentary lobbying, including full details of membership and sources of income. It can also ensure that all submissions from civil society are conducted through regular channels and that the proceedings are made public. The German Bundestag, for example, has specific rules stipulating that groups wishing to express or defend their interests before the legislature must be entered on a register. The Polish Parliament was at the time of writing processing a bill on lobbying activities, ‘which it defines as any kind of activity carried out by lawful means aimed at influencing public authorities to take into consideration arguments and interests of specific social or professional groups. The bill establishes admissible forms of influencing decisions made by public authorities and sets out forms of lobbying supervision.’

   An enabling approach

The other side of the coin to preventing undue weight being given to powerful interests, is that of positively enabling submissions from ordinary members of the public. One way of doing this is through effective advance publicity of dates of public hearings and committee meetings. Another is the provision of advice to the public on how to approach the relevant committee, and how to frame a submission that will have some influence upon it. Among the handbooks published by the New Zealand Parliament is one on Making a Submission to a Parliamentary Select Committee. It is designed ‘to help those writing a submission to produce it in a form that is easily read and understood by members of the committee. This will enable a submission to be more effective and for its recommendations or suggestions to have a greater impact on the committee.’ Its recommended format for making a submission is shown below.

Box: Extract from handbook on Making a Submission to a Parliamentary Select Committee


To the …………………………………………………………… Committee

on the …………………………………………………………… Bill/Inquiry


1. This submission is from (name of individual/organisation and address)

2. I/we wish to appear before the committee to speak to my/our submission. I can be contacted at: (List your daytime telephone number). I/we wish that the following also appear in support of my/our submission (List names and positions in organisation)

3. (If an organisation, give brief details of your organisation’s aims, membership and structure and the people consulted in the preparation of the submission)

General/Summary (if a long submission)

4. I/we support/oppose the provisions of this bill because (state reasons why). I/we wish to make the following comments (views on the general intent of the inquiry)

Clause (Bill)

5. I/we support/oppose the provisions of this clause because (state reasons why)

Clause (Bill)

6. Although I/we agree with the general intent of this clause, I/we feel that (note any changes you would like to see made and be as specific as you can suggesting new wording for the clause if you wish)

Specific comments (Inquiry)

7. I/we wish to raise the following matters under terms of reference 1, terms of reference 2 etc (expand on your views and give reasons for them)


8. (list any further recommendations or conclusions that you wish the committee to consider. You may wish to restate recommendations mentioned earlier in the text)

Source: Office of the Clerk of the House of Representatives of New Zealand (2005), Making a Submission to a Parliamentary Select Committee. <http://www.parliament.nz/en-NZ/HvYrSay/Submission/>

Although this suggested format is helpful, it already presupposes a certain familiarity with the ways of committees. In this context, the submission from the South African Parliament emphasises the special difficulties experienced by the poor and marginalised in getting their voices heard in Parliament. It quotes a statement to this effect from the former Speaker, Dr Frene Ginwala;

In South Africa, the gap between those with the resources to influence government and those whose influence, for historical reasons, is limited by poverty and disadvantage is deep and wide. Thus, there is the very real danger that while the voice of the powerful may be heard, the majority remain imprisoned in the silence to which their history and circumstances have condemned them.

In the context of contribution to parliamentary committees specifically, the submission identifies a number of constraints:

  • Time: heavy time obligations for poorer sections of the population preclude active participation in anything beyond basic survival and the maintenance of livelihood.
  • Access to the media: Although access to the media is vital for public participation, the section of the population that has no exposure to the media is likely to be poor, rural and African with little education.
  • A lack of transport: It is not always easy for people to afford or access transport to visit Parliament.
  • Sharp inequality in education: A prerequisite for an informed and active citizenry is a literate population.
  • Language diversity: The choice of language used by government and the simplicity of the language used impact significantly on the ability of citizens to obtain information and to participate.

Among the strategies developed to mitigate these constraints have been the distribution of resources to marginalised groups to enable them to make effective submissions and attend hearings; the holding of committee meetings in the provinces; and the institution of a People’s Assembly (see below). The submission acknowledges that such strategies are very resource intensive, and that inequalities of influence continue to present a challenge.

Other countries have addressed this issue by holding public hearings on legislation in localities across the country, and by conducting them informally through oral evidence, which is then compiled for consideration by the relevant committee of parliament. In an effort to promote better citizen involvement, the House of Representatives in the Philippines conducts ‘out of town public hearings particularly in the far-flung barangays of the country, and ensuring that constituencies, sectors and concerned interest groups are given sufficient opportunities to be heard and to present their side on legislative issues.’ The National Assembly of St. Kitts puts all Bills into the public domain for scrutiny and comment after first reading, so that the views of the public can be taken into account at second and third readings:

This was the case with the recently passed Education Bill 2005 which had its first reading in 2003. Since then several town hall meetings were held and the Bill was widely discussed on radio talk shows. A committee was set up to report to Parliament the outcome of all these meetings and discussions. After the report was submitted the Bill then had its second and third readings, taking into consideration the comments of civil society.

Interestingly, a similar process of public discussion has been undertaken by the committee reviewing the salaries of parliamentarians, including public meetings, radio discussions and call-in programmes.

   The public forum or chamber

In a few countries the engagement of civil society in the work of parliament takes the form of an organised public forum or chamber, as these examples from the Lebanese Republic and the Russian Federation show:

Lebanese Republic: In order to further communication between the Lebanese Parliament and the civil society organisations, and to activate the participation of these organisations in the policy making of Lebanon, the Forum of Parliamentary Dialogue was established in 1999. The Forum of Parliamentary Dialogue, which is considered as a non-governmental organisation, aims at conveying the views, aspirations and proposals of the civil sector to the Parliament. Among its objectives are: securing information for the parliamentarians on the programmes of the NGOs, organising joint activities between the parliamentary joint committees and the civil society organisations, and providing the latter with access to the publications and works of the Parliament……It also organises workshops and training courses for MPs, committee secretaries, experts, representatives of the civil sector, academics and journalists, dealing with policy making in Lebanon and the participation of civil society in its formulation.
Russian Federation: The most important law aimed at the further development of democracy in Russia and strengthening the role of parliament has been the Federal law ‘About the Public Chamber of the Russian Federation’ introduced by the President of the Russian Federation and adopted by the State Duma through the third reading of March 18 2005……As an intermediary between society and the administration, the Public Chamber will be composed of the widest range of public organisations from civil society, with the task of producing an evaluation of different legislative initiatives from the point of view of the interests of society……The working term of the Chamber will be two years, and its tasks will be implemented through the expert analysis of projects of federal constitutional laws, federal laws, normative legal acts of the federal executive power, bodies of government of the regions of the Russian Federation and organs of local government. Its expertise will also be used to evaluate Russia-wide initiatives in respect of constitutional laws, and for the protection of the freedom and legitimate interests of citizens and their associations. Decisions of the Public Chamber will have recommendatory character, and take the form of conclusions, proposals and appellations.

An institution with a similar purpose, though typically meeting only once a year, is that of the People’s Assembly. In South Africa the first such Assembly was convened in 2004 to celebrate ten years of democracy. 60 representatives from the five sectors of youth, people with disabilities, women, beneficiaries of land reform and labour were invited to reflect on the impact the Bill of Rights and the Constitution had had on their lives, and to give impetus to further reforms in their respective sectors. The proceedings were broadcast live, and led to a decision by Parliament to adopt the Assembly as an annual initiative.

   Some criteria for good practice

From the preceding accounts, it would be possible to put together a list of items of good practice for parliaments seeking to involve the public, both as individuals and as organisations, in legislation and other committee work of parliament. It might include:

  • a publicly available register of NGOs and other bodies, organised by subject interest as well as alphabetically;
  • a similar register of experts;
  • effective publicity through different media giving due notice of forthcoming parliamentary bills, enquiries, public hearings, etc.;
  • targeted invitations to relevant organisations and experts, including representatives of marginalised groups as appropriate, to make submissions or give evidence;
  • procedures for tabling submissions from individual citizens;
  • a handbook and/or training sessions on how to make submissions or give evidence to parliamentary bodies;
  • a public record available on line of all submissions made.
  • public hearings arranged in local centres, with written summaries of oral evidence.

Further online reading about modes of civil society participation in legislative processes:

Krafchik, W (nd). Can civil society add value to budget decision-making? A description of civil society budget work. International Budget Project <http://www.internationalbudget.org/resources/library/civilsociety.pdf>

National Democratic Institute, Parliament of the Republic of Namibia (2001). Public participation in the legislation process. <http://www.accessdemocracy.org/library/1408_na_publicpart_093101.pdf>

The Scottish Office (2000). Involving civil society in the work of parliaments. <http://www.scotland.gov.uk/government/devolution/cpsp-00.asp>

   Women and legislation: a sectoral example of NGO-parliament cooperation

Among the most effective examples of NGO-parliament cooperation, especially in developing countries, have been those involving women and women’s groups. One of the consequences of more women entering parliaments has been their ability to use their established contacts with women’s NGOs to help leverage progressive legislation. For example, as part of its outreach programme, the South African Parliament conducts women’s workshops in rural areas to train leaders of local communities in the understanding of parliament and the law-making process. These sessions can also be used to obtain submissions on legislation currently before parliament, and on the implementation of existing legislation, as was done on the implementation of the Domestic Violence Act of 1998 and on possible amendments to the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act of the same year. In 2002 the Parliament published a book, Women in Lawmaking: A Study of Civil Society Participation, which presents a historical perspective of the role of women in influencing laws in South Africa, and sets out concrete steps for their effective participation in the lawmaking process.

Some parliaments have established ongoing institutional arrangements between women’s NGOs and relevant parliamentary committees, such as the human rights, equality or women’s committees. In Mexico a Parliament of Women in Mexico has been meeting annually since 1998, composed of federal and local legislators together with women from civil society across the country. Its purpose is to guide the legislative agenda on gender equity at all levels of government and in all aspects of social and economic life. Even in the short time it has been in operation, it has substantial achievements to its credit:

This experience of shared responsibility between the Legislative Power and the Civil Society has brought about fundamental achievements for gender equity in Mexico, such as legislation to combat violence against women; the creation of Equity Commissions in the House of Representatives as well as in the Senate and in most of the local congresses; there are reforms on the issue of political participation of women in representative posts and the creation of the National Women’s Institute…… In these ways the Parliament of Women has represented the most relevant meeting point between the Mexican Congress and civil society for permanent exchange, analysis and suggestion of proposals to incorporate the perspective of gender in the legislation of our country.

In the early years the work of the Parliament of Women was carried out through workshops over a period of two days, with a concluding plenary. In 2005 the workshops were spread out throughout the five states in the country over a period of a fortnight, with a concluding session over two days at the House of Representatives. Its work is coordinated by a special Bicameral Commission of legislators drawn from both chambers of the federal parliament.

   Gender budgeting

A particularly notable feature of the cooperation between women’s NGOs and parliamentarians in a number of countries has been the practice of ‘gender budgeting’. This involves a systematic analysis of budget proposals and outcomes, so as to identify their differential impact on men and women respectively. Such analyses may reveal that women are disadvantaged not only by low budget allocations to specifically women’s concerns, but that, say, generalised cuts in agricultural spending may fall particularly heavily on poor women farmers and their household income.

In South Africa a Women’s Budget Initiative was established in 1995, involving an alliance between two NGOs and sympathetic parliamentarians. The NGOs provided the necessary research and analysis which parliament itself was not adequately resourced for, while the parliamentarians for their part provided the key leverage with government to bring a more gender-aware approach to budgeting across the different ministries. Gender budgeting has also now been developed in a number of other countries of sub-Saharan Africa, notably the United Republic of Tanzania and Uganda, and includes analysis of budgets of local government where responsibility for delivery of many government services rests. The experience overall suggests that the practice of gender budgeting can help men as well as women, for example in identifying wasteful uses of resources, or a general weakness in parliament’s powers and procedures for budget oversight. Currently there are ongoing programmes of gender budgeting in over twenty developing countries as well as many developed ones. The challenge is to keep an initial impetus going over time, especially when change to one or two key parliamentarians may erode the necessary parliamentary backing for the initiative.

Further online reading about international collaboration and training programmes on gender budgeting:

Gender responsive budget initiatives <http://www.gender-budgets.org/>

International Budget Project (2006). Related websites - by topic area: gender, youth, and development <http://www.internationalbudget.org/resources/sites/gender_youth.htm>

Inter-Parliamentary Union, United Nations Development Programme, World Bank Institute and United Nations Fund for Women (2004). Handbook: Parliament, the budget and gender <http://www.ipu.org/PDF/publications/budget_en.pdf>

Reports of IPU seminars on Parliament and the Budgetary Process, including from a Gender Perspective:

Inter-Parliamentary Union (2000). Regional seminar for English-speaking African Parliaments, 22-24 May 2000, Nairobi (Kenya) <http://www.ipu.org/pdf/publications/nairobi_en.pdf>

Inter-Parliamentary Union (2001).Seminaire regional pour les parlements francophones d'afrique, 1er-3 novembre 2001, Bamako (Mali) <http://www.ipu.org/pdf/publications/mali01_fr.pdf> (document in French)

Inter-Parliamentary Union (2002). Regional seminar for ASEAN+3 parliaments, 23 to 25 July 2002, Manila (Philippines) <http://www.ipu.org/PDF/publications/manila02_en.pdf>

Inter-Parliamentary Union (2004). Regional seminar for parliaments of south-west Asia, 26 to 28 May 2003, Colombo (Sri Lanka) <http://www.ipu.org/PDF/publications/colombo_en.pdf>

   Citizen involvement through political parties

The contemporary preoccupation with civil society and NGOs should not lead us to overlook a more traditional way in which citizens have involved themselves in the legislative process, and that is through membership of political parties. Here the influence of party members has typically been exercised through a number of channels: through candidate selection or voting for leadership positions; through ongoing links with an individual representative at constituency or district level; and through regional and national party conferences and policy forums.

However, party membership figures in most western democracies are currently in a process of long-term decline, which can in many cases be linked to a decline in internal democracy within parties, and the marginalisation of those who do not support the leadership line. Political parties have always had to manage the potential divide in political views between their active members and the voters whose support they need to win an election, but current modes of doing so in many parties have not been conducive to attracting new members, especially among a younger generation. Examples of party renewal can be cited from one or two countries in most regions of the world, typically associated with particular election campaigns; but a more widespread and sustained renewal of the democratic base of political parties is overdue, given their importance to the representative process.

   Citizens’ initiatives and referendums

As a different means to bridge the gap between parliament and citizens, a number of countries have introduced or considered introducing a right of citizens’ initiative, whereby citizens may submit proposals for legislation themselves directly, rather than merely proposals to amend or comment on legislation already before parliament. In some respects the distinction implicit here between a reactive and a proactive engagement of citizens may be overdrawn. As we have seen, wherever there are ongoing arrangements for linking a parliament with civil society groups, these will result in suggestions for new or amended legislation, and these must count as a form of civic ‘initiative’. The same is true wherever parliaments call for public debate on a subject or hold enquiries on specific issues with a view to future legislation, as many now do. However, the citizens’ initiative constitutes a distinctive right, and usually depends upon the collection of a minimum number of signatures from the electorate if it is to proceed.

A citizens’ initiative may be advisory on parliament or mandatory; alternatively, it may lead to a popular referendum on the proposal. This latter is the case in Switzerland, the country with the most experience of citizen initiatives. Before the 1970s, the right of positive initiative was very rarely used in Switzerland, compared with the right to call a negative referendum or veto in opposition to a proposed law of the federal assembly. Since then, initiatives have become much more frequent, partly as a result of the growth of social movements and protest campaigns, especially on environmental and consumer issues; partly also because of the rise of professional ‘initiative entrepreneurs’, able to organise the collection of signatures across the country. In the twenty years between 1974 and 1993, the Swiss voted in no fewer than 167 referenda, of which 63 were positive initiatives proposed by citizen groups. This average of about eight per year has continued in the period since.

The other European country with a substantial experience of legislative referendums is Italy. Here, however, the provision of Article 75 of the constitution is only for a veto or abrogative referendum, and is subject to half a million signatures and approval from the Constitutional Court in respect of its validity. Yet this has also been seen as a device for positive initiative, since it applies to any existing legislation; and repealing a longstanding law or a part of it can lead to significant change. This was true of the referendum to allow assisted fertility treatment, and would equally be true if proposals for a referendum to take Italy out of the Euro zone and restore the lira as the national currency were ever adopted.

   Recent developments

Of the more recent democracies the parliament of Slovenia has introduced a facility whereby one third of deputies or the National Council or 40,000 voters may call for a referendum. In some instances parliament is not authorised to adopt a law pending the outcome of a referendum, whereas in others a referendum may have the effect of overturning an adopted bill, as in Italy and Switzerland.

These constitutional provisions should be clearly distinguished from those where the right of citizens’ initiative is a device for putting issues on the parliamentary agenda, and where parliament reserves the prerogative to itself for deciding whether and how to take the issue forward. This is the case in most countries which have instituted a provision for citizens’ initiative. In these cases the number of citizens required to promote an initiative tends to be much smaller than for a referendum. In the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, for example, where it requires 150,000 signatures for a referendum, only 10,000 are needed for a legislative proposal which parliament will decide whether to take forward or not. In Costa Rica there is an Office for Popular Initiatives where citizens can present suggestions, initiatives and proposals for laws. Ecuador gives citizens and social movements the power to propose legislation, and to take part in discussion of those bills which the National Congress has agreed to consider. Portugal has since 2003 a right of Citizens’ Legislative Initiative in force, whereby initiatives subscribed to by over 35,000 electors are mandatory for discussion and vote in the Assembly of the Republic. These are also opened to wider public interactive discussion through the Assembly’s Internet ‘webpage’. The House of Representatives of the Dutch Parliament has been investigating the possibility of introducing a citizens’ initiative at the national level, again with any decision to rest with the House as to whether and how to take such an initiative forward. ‘The introduction of the citizens’ initiative could prove beneficial in several ways,’ it observes, ‘most importantly by reducing the distance between citizens and politics.’

   Direct and representative democracy

This concern to bridge the gap between citizens and politics, in conclusion, can be seen as the driving impetus behind many of the measures reviewed in this section. We have seen a number of different ways in which parliaments are working to involve citizens in the legislative process, both through contributions to work on bills in progress and through suggestions for new or amended legislation. These may involve: open invitations to citizens to make submissions on bills; invitations to specified NGOs and social movements; ongoing arrangements for collaboration between parliamentary committees and citizen groups and experts; special forums or chambers for civil society, whether meeting independently or jointly with parliamentarians; procedures for citizens’ initiatives and referendums; or some combination of a number of these modes. Which of these modes, and in which combination, is most effective will naturally depend on local circumstances. For example, resource and other constraints may make the use of the referendum impractical, whereas a right of citizen initiative which leaves the final decision to parliament may be eminently feasible. Whatever the modes selected, all the evidence indicates that parliaments are taking the responsibility to engage citizens in the legislative process very seriously.

Do these developments call into question the integrity of representative democracy, or the claim of elected representatives to speak on behalf of their whole electorate, in contrast to a direct democracy which favours the organised, the vocal and those with the most intense views? The sharp antithesis often drawn between direct and representative democracy is a misleading one, since representatives have always engaged in an ongoing dialogue with their electors, and been subject to influence by them. The significant feature of the measures reviewed above is the attempt to make that process more systematic, transparent and inclusive, so that it is not monopolised by a few privileged interests operating behind closed doors.

Further online reading about citizen initiatives:

C2D - research and documentation centre on direct democracy (2005) <http://c2d.unige.ch/>

Project ACE (2004). Citizen initiatives. Focus on Direct Democracy <http://aceproject.org/ace-en/focus/direct-democracy>

Zimmerman, J (2001). Citizen initiative. Administration and Cost of Elections Project


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