Parliament’s relation with the executive is a matter of continuous attention. It holds the executive accountable on behalf of the people. Yet, its relation to the public is surprisingly remote. Peoples’ reception of the mass and social media as the primary accountability tool of democracy has relegated the parliament to a second or even tertiary position in accountability system. A primary explanation for this, in our context, might be the existence of an authoritarian, clientelist and conflict-prone party system that disempowers the parliament and dries up the public confidence in it. This, however, is not the only explanation behind this. Citizens around the world are losing faith in politics and its process. So far, the parliaments also remained ‘closed’ institutions unconcerned about engaging the people. Things are however changing. Public engagement is increasingly perceived as the most significant trust building and legitimising tool.
Traditional avenues of parliament-citizen interactions are well known - parliamentary publications, news media coverage, public visit to, and observance of, parliament in action and individual members’ physical contact with their constituents. Some of the more recent tools are radio and tele broadcast of parliament, parliamentary clerk and internship for graduates, youth parliament movement, parliamentary outreach programmes and education initiatives, public petition to, and public participation in, parliamentary investigation and hearings. The most recent addition to the process, however, is the use of digital media like websites (institutional and individual), weblogs, social media outlets (institutional and individual) and e-petition to the parliament.
Ideally, a parliamentary public engagement strategy would consist a five-step process of - information sharing, enhancing public appraisal of parliamentary institutions and processes, enhancing peoples’ sense of identification with parliament, enhancing public participation in parliamentary process and lastly, inciting public intervention into the process by guiding parliamentary agenda.
Despite accessibility barriers, internet has a role in opening the parliaments up. Parliamentary websites constitute a stepping-stone in the engagement process. Official sites of parliaments, their officers, committees and MPs share information on their work and pave the way for the subsequent steps. Greater flow of the information helps raise public understanding of the institution.
Compared to that, weblogs and social media outlets interact rather than disseminate. These two-way communication channels allow comments, debates and replies that shape dialogue in public domain. The interactive nature of social media and blogs strengthen the vertical tie between representatives and citizens and horizontal tie between the commenters from the public. This again would develop ideas, set agendas and make people understand the parliament and feel associated with it. Peoples’ participation in parliamentary deliberation and agenda setting by improving the quality of consultation between the legislators and constituents. Parliaments are increasingly using tools like e-petition and online publication of draft laws for opinions. Parliamentary committees also hold online consultations on current topics of their enquiries.
The ultimate potential of an online parliament, however, lies in the chain of transparency and vertical accountability it brings to the system. Digitalisation of parliament should improve general behaviour among MPs, by making them feel incentivised to meet citizens’ expectations. Jurisdictions like ours however have some contextual barriers to this.
Firstly, websites of parliaments are developed in a purely archaic mode of information sharing. MPs’ websites and social media outlets are also invariably used to sensitise political strife, greasing the party leadership and propagating pure partisan agendas. These online outlets are maintained in a bureaucratic fashion that prefers cheap acclamation over meaningful dialogue and hence fails to address the policies and laws that really matter to the people.
Secondly, the clientelist and dynastic nature of our politics help temper the actual ‘expectation’ the people should have on their representatives. A 2010 study of Ghana found that public expectation was primarily personalised, like payment or remission of bills, fees, taxes, etc for individual constituent. Claims for localised or constituency interests - like roads and schools stood the second in line. People would next like to see their MPs being vocal in parliament. Then came the expectations that MPs are meant to fulfil - legislation and executive oversight.
Increased presence of MPs in the social media and worldwide web in such jurisdictions would therefore not necessarily produce a direct chain of accountability between the people and their representatives. Our experience in Bangladesh shows that even an explosive level of online and social media revolution here is inadequate to generate an extended culture of accountability. The accountability chain being constrained within the authoritarian leadership and potential opposition, representatives can afford paying simply no-heed to the public pulse.
Thirdly, and to the most unfortunately, online vigilance here is affecting the parliament so negatively and damagingly as to turn people away from the political process. Peoples’ resignation, withdrawal and distancing themselves from the system is evidenced by the alarmingly low voter turn-out in our recent local and national elections.
The parliament-citizen nexus has historically been territorial. Recent virtualisation of political sphere and emergence of an extra-territorial “e-constituency” have created new challenges for the parliament and MPs. The challenge is one of chalking out a state-of-the-art public engagement strategy. Internet empowers the people to bypass traditional media gatekeepers and lower some of the barriers to participation, but it is not expected to raise public interest in participation unless a robust public engagement strategy and a congenial political environment is in place.
The writer is Doctoral Candidate (Legislative Studies), King’s College London.