18 June 2019

A Note to the Sixth Parliament: The critical role of Committee Chairperson


Chairpersons play a dominant role in organising the administrative affairs of a Committee and control its budget. In addition, he/she supervises the writing of the Committee's reports to the House (ensuring that the text presented in the House is the one agreed to by the Committee), helps to formulate the agenda, presides over Committee meetings and provides direction to the Committee staff between meetings.

These individuals are also the face of the Committee and often have to communicate its views to the media and the wider public.

Chairs may also spend a good deal of time working behind the scenes – for example maintaining good relationships with Ministers in the Department the Committee oversees, or meeting organisations that want to promote a particular cause.

Given the volume and complexity of the work involved, appointees require the necessary leadership skills, political experience and technical know-how.

Rule 158 of the National Assembly states that:

(1) A committee must elect one of its members as the chairperson of the committee.

(2) The chairperson of a committee, subject to other provisions of these rules and directions of the committee — (a) presides at meetings of the committee; (b) may act in any matter on behalf of and in the best interest of the committee when it is not practical to arrange a meeting of the committee to discuss that matter, if that matter concerns — (i) a request by a person to give evidence or make oral representations to the committee, (ii) any other request to the committee, and (iii) the initiation of any steps or decisions necessary for the committee to perform its functions or exercise its powers; (c) performs the functions, tasks and duties and exercises the powers that the committee, resolutions of the Assembly and legislation may assign to the chairperson; and (d) in the event of an equality of votes on any question before the committee, must exercise a casting vote in addition to the chairperson’s vote as a member.

(3) The chairperson must report to the committee on any steps taken in terms of Subrule (2)(b).

Chairing a multi-party Committee requires diplomatic skills of a high level. Individual styles vary and some Committees may require different approaches. Some Committees are also significantly busier[1] than others, while others are held in greater esteem and therefore subject to more scrutiny.

A strong chair can create the conditions for better committee work and limit the extent of party interference.

If Parliament is to be a strong institution, inspire public confidence and carry out its constitutional functions effectively, the work starts in Committees – Committees are a microcosm of the institution. It is therefore recommended and advised that Committees:

-be lead by effective Chairpersons: this leadership is critical for the way the Committee conducts its business and for ensuring there is the much needed will to get things done. Prof Steven Friedman speaks to the “golden age” of committee independence around 2007/08 where committees vigorously held the Executive to account, working across party lines[2] – this independence, says Friedman, was pioneered by the committee chairpersons. This is what the sixth Parliament needs to emulate. Chairpersons and Committees should also think about the internal proceedings of how meetings are to be conducted. It is recommended that instead of having Departments present near verbatim PowerPoint presentations for majority of the time, presentations and reports must be been sent through well before the time and Members must be prepared to rigorously scrutinize the information provided.  Further, there is value in an inquisitorial-style meeting where each Member is allotted a time in which to have a back-and-forth dialogue with those accounting to the Committee. This is the style adopted during parliamentary inquiries and interviews for appointments. The style leaves less room for hiding and embodies the proactive accountability so desperately lacking. The experience has been that oversight is largely reactive but in changing the terrain and deliberative space in which the function is carried out, this reactivity can be reduced.

Dr Martin Nicol writes that departments, at budget time, a crucial period in terms of parliamentary oversight, produce the same presentations over and over, duplicating information tabled in the Annual Reports and the process is passed off as oversight. The long departmental presentations seem designed to limit engagement time on the content[3] - this reduces oversight to a mere tick-box exercise. The committee reports, duly published in the ATC, often simply repeat the same information. “Oversight” over executive action is based on information provided by the executive itself! There are however pockets of excellence in terms of Committee practice and more of this needs to be emulated in the Sixth Parliament

Chairpersons should insist that only the achievements and especially the challenges are orally presented in depth at meetings[4]. This means that the committee is able to ask as many questions as it wants to and receive detailed responses. Further, it allows MPs to question the overseen entity about more than what is presented in the documents – such as specific complaints that citizens have raised with individual MPs or have written to the committee about

-follow-through: it is important that the House Chair of Chairperson encourage Committees to follow up on previous reports and minutes so that key issues and unresolved matters don’t simply fall by the wayside, especially when a Committee in very busy: each quarter, Committees should review resolutions, recommendations and its reports[5] – this Is active oversight in practice. PMG has been tracking what happens to these written responses requested by committees in an open meeting. In most cases, the committee secretary has to remind the department to provide a written response. Thereafter, 35% failed to provide the response document. PMG eventually managed to get and publish only 27%. A fail. More rigorous follow up is needed as it seems the departments are thumbing their nose at the constitutional check and balance of legislative oversight of the executive[6].

The most effective committees are those where MPs work with a common purpose, understand Parliament’s role and strive for consensus building where possible.

[1] https://pmg.org.za/static/resources/docs/Martin_Nicol-Engine_Rooms_of_Parliament.pdf

[2] https://pmg.org.za/parliament-review/article/steven_friedman

[3] https://pmg.org.za/static/resources/docs/Martin_Nicol-Engine_Rooms_of_Parliament.pdf

[4] https://pmg.org.za/parliament-review/article/gaile_fullard

[5] https://pmg.org.za/static/resources/docs/Martin_Nicol-Engine_Rooms_of_Parliament.pdf

[6] https://pmg.org.za/parliament-review/article/gaile_fullard



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