This proximity to citizens is the basis of parliaments’ representative function. According to John K. Johnson, writing for the World Bank Institute, “Unlike chief executives, who represent entire nations, or bureaucrats and judges, whose responsibility it is to carry out and interpret the law impartially toward all citizens, legislators are responsible for representing the differences in society, and for bringing these differences into the policy-making arena.” The parliament, as the sum total of these differences, is said to represent the beliefs and ideas of a nation.
The representative function of a parliament is characterised by its role as a venue for disparate perspectives, for the expression and debate of issues of local and national importance, and the translation of those debates into policies. For MPs, effective representation requires engaging their constituents in continuing dialogue in order to understand their views and perspectives and to rely on their knowledge on various topics. MPs must then utilise the powers vested in their office (i.e. legislating, participating in debates, authoring questions, etc.) to voice the resulting ideas. Through the parliamentary committees an MP can use the formal structure of parliament to engage constituents and provide them with direct access to the decision-making process within the institution.
MPs must maintain ongoing constituency relations to demonstrate their accomplishments and to seek the input of citizens. Aside from reengaging constituents in dialogue, MPs may also provide other types of constituency services, including casework (i.e. helping to solve constituents’ problems)., facilitation of access to the executive branch and advocating for resources for the constituency. In a growing number of countries, MPs are provided with Constituency Development Funds to allocate limited but significant funding to capital projects that are a priority for the MP and the constituency.
Parliaments must be equipped with the institutional capacities to facilitate the function of representation. Many parliaments have outreach offices that seek to facilitate the flow of information in and out of parliament. They may also contain special services designed to assist the capacity of MPs to communicate with civil society organizations, the government, and other stakeholders. In other parliaments the role of the institution is to provide financial resources directly to MPs and parliamentary groups to enable them to provide staff and facilities in their constituency. More affluent parliaments provide MPs with access to elaborate telecommunications systems and devices to facilitate communication with constituents.
It is also common for parliaments to have bureaus specifically designed to engage other parliaments and institutions from foreign countries. This is known and Parliamentary Diplomacy and it allows for an alternative form of international dialogue to state-to-state interactions through the executive branch. There are international and regional networks of parliaments and, alternatively, networks of like-minded MPs, that promote this form of diplomacy.
Effective democratic parliaments conduct outreach with citizens on an ongoing basis. A parliament may broadcast its sessions via television or radio, most now have websites, and publications designed to help include citizens in the policy process. Because citizens cannot know how they are being represented if the parliament is opaque and MPs uncommunicative, transparency has an important bearing on the representative function.
At its core, what distinguishes a democratic parliament from other branches of government is that its members are elected by and directly represent the citizens of a country. Much literature has been developed on the law-making and oversight functions of a parliament and an MP, but the role of the MP in the constituency has gone virtually unnoticed.
Depending on the electoral system under which an MP is elected, the MP may have a geographic area in which the MP is responsible for representing all the citizens in that area. Even where the MP is elected through a proportional representation system and there is no formal geographic delimitation of boundaries, it is common for parliamentary groups to assign a geographic area or sectoral constituency to its MPs in order to build a stronger relationship with those citizens.
No matter the means of election, citizens expect to see their MP on a regular basis. Where the MP’s constituency is located outside of the capital where the parliament sits, it can be a challenge to be required to be in parliament for sessions that may last nine or ten months out of every year. But the ultimate goal is for citizens to know the MP is working for them while in the capital and for the MP to use various tools to be in constant dialogue with constituents.
It is this dialogue that is so important to the work of an MP and the parliament. Citizens must be provided with access to information about what is happening in the parliament and the positions being taken by their MP and parliamentary group. In return, citizens must have venues for providing their opinions and inputs into the work of the parliament. It should never be forgotten that average citizens have knowledge and opinions about various draft laws under consideration. They also have access to information about how the government is implementing laws and spending their tax dollars. This information must be used to ensure proper oversight of the executive branch of government.
There are two keys to effective constituent relations – access to resources and flexibility. Resources can be provided by the parliament or the parliamentary group to enable the MP to remain engaged with constituents. Where such resources are not available, the MP must be more innovative but should not neglect this responsibility. As for flexibility, citizens will rarely wait to make an appointment to voice their opinion. MPs must make themselves available for access, either through impromptu events or by attending social occasions.
Some of the tools used in constituent relations include:
- Constituency Office: A physical location with office space is a visible symbol of a MPs commitment to a constituency and a place for the MP to meet individual constituents and groups. The space can also be used to support nascent or ad hoc groups who need a place to meet and organize their activities. For more information on constituency offices, please click here.
- Dialogue Tools: The culture and customs of each country will dictate how an MP engages citizens in a dialogue; the key is for MPs to provide active and passive opportunities for citizens to engage and to voice their opinions. For more information on dialogue tools, please click here.
- Constituency Development Funds (CDFs): There is a growing trend for MPs to be provided with a small but significant amount of funds to use for development in their constituency. These funds are most common in commonwealth countries (where constituencies are also more common) and are controversial for a number of reasons, but are likely to remain and may even proliferate in the coming years. For more information on CDFs, please click here.
It is through the use of these and other methods that MPs will build a positive reputation with their constituents. Many have dismissed the political impact of constituency relations on the outcome of elections, assuming that party loyalty and leaders are the main drivers of votes. However, many incumbent MPs who have won close elections or who have held their seats while many in their party have lost, will credit such victories to their work in the constituency. And it is this political impact of constituency relations that cannot be undervalued.
The business of a parliament can be seen as complex and complicated to the average citizen. It is also commonplace for citizens to have a low opinion of parliament and its members. This is why it is important for parliament to promote access to the institution and to be transparent in its activities.
There are several means by which a parliament can communicate with its citizens and provide access to information about how it operates. Such activities are crucial for citizens to better understand the mandate of the parliament and what it is capable and incapable of accomplishing.
Some of the types of outreach that have been used by parliaments globally have included:
- Broadcast of Proceedings: Either though television, radio or, more recently, online, the broadcasting of plenary proceedings (and, in some cases, committee hearings) is an important means of allowing citizens who may never visit parliament to observe how it operates and what their MP is doing. In countries that have recently transitioned to democracy the broadcasts are wildly popular and seen as an important symbol of the new transparency of the parliament.
- Website: Almost all parliaments now have websites to explain their activities and provide basic information about the institution. However, there is a growing trend to have more interactive websites that provide a significant amount of information about all MPs, the work of the committees and the laws that are currently being debated.
- Publications: The use of written material to explain the role of parliament is still an important aspect of parliamentary outreach. These materials can range from the formal, such as the notification of laws and regulations (known as a Gazette in many countries) and the transcripts of plenary proceedings (e.g. - Hansard or the Congressional Record), to the more promotional.
- Children and Youth: Many parliaments have developed materials specifically to educate children about their parliament. These are often delivered to schools to be used as part of an educational program. Youth parliaments allow young adults to select their representatives who then attend in the parliament to hold mock debates. Some parliaments have provided materials online, such as interactive games, to encourage children to learn more about their parliament.
- Mobile Parliament: In parts of Africa and Australia parliaments have left the capital to hold plenary sessions in different parts of the country or state. These are official and legal sessions that bring an opportunity for local citizens that may never visit the parliament to observe it in action.
- Open Parliament: Many parliaments host an open house at least once a year to promote access to the institution. This may coincide with another celebration, depending on local custom, but the general idea is to provide an opportunity for citizens to tour the building(s) of parliament, ask questions and meet parliamentary staff.
Of course there are other types of outreach and parliaments are becoming more innovative in how they promote their activities.
It is important to not confuse parliamentary outreach with other means of representation. Outreach is not the same as dialogue, the former being a one-way communication while the latter is a two-way communication where citizens voice their opinions and provide input into the activities of their MPs and parliament. Outreach has a role to play in allowing citizens to access information and understand the workings of parliament. However, a parliament, its committees and MPs must also be in constant dialogue with their citizens to ensure their work reflects the needs and concerns of the people for whom they work.