01 August 2019

Training Members of Parliament

“Training must be integrated in our budget because it is absolutely crucial. We can see the value and even those people who have now left Parliament and gone through this support are absolutely grateful for the academic levels they have reached while being supported by Parliament and they have become more skilled members of the public following that”

 Lechesa Tsenoli, Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly

The job of an MP is varied and often misunderstood. They participate in debates; process legislation; make appointments; conduct inquiries and scrutinise government performance and budgets. MPs also have responsibilities outside Parliament where they conduct investigations/oversight, do party work (campaign etc..), consult with the public and serve people in their constituency areas.

New MPs learn very quickly that the job is a lot more than they had imagined and that it will be a steep learning curve. Parliament is governed by established rules, conventions and practice and it can take years to get to grips with all of this. At the start of the Sixth Parliament, 42% of MPs were newcomers and had no prior legislature experience.

“When I first came to Parliament, I was very naïve and I didn’t understand what was happening. I thought working in Parliament was only coming to the Chamber. Little did I know that most of the work is done in Committees. If the Sixth Parliament can concentrate on induction and clarify to new Members how important it is to be serious about the Committees and that you need dedication and commitment to the Committees. It is about fulfilling the wishes of the communities that elected you. Members must to go back to the communities and tell them how they can assist us in passing legislation that we work on in Parliament”

Ms Priscilla Mantashe, ANC Member of Parliament

New MPs coming from established parties have an advantage as they can lean on the knowledge and experience from their colleagues while the situation is harder for those whose parties never had representation in the legislative body before. Further, MPs from smaller parties often have to spread themselves across a number of committees while their counterparts can specialise on one or two portfolios.

There are no specific education requirements to become a parliamentarian, but it helps to have a broad educational background. Parliament’s performance is dependent on the calibre and capability of individuals elected to serve in it. Political parties have different systems, criteria and interests when they select their members. They also do not have the necessary capacity, expertise and resources to develop MPs and provide them with the specialised training they need.

To address this gap, Parliament prepares an induction and educational programme for all MPs.

The orientation of MPs started after the election results were declared. These sessions were aimed at preparing MPs for the first sitting of the legislature. The second phase of the induction comprised of information sessions on a range of topics including: MPs’ constitutional mandate and responsibilities; MPs’ interests, ethics and Code of Conduct; MPs’ conduct and participation in plenary sittings of the NA and the NCOP and in committee meetings of the two Houses; the Parliamentary Budget Office; law making and public participation; MPs’ facilities and benefits; security at Parliament and relations with the media.

“…when we look at the induction model for Parliament, I think there is room for what is referred to as ‘creativity’ and problem-solving. In our daily work we are confronted with problems in Parliament itself, in our relationships as MPs. In the absence of effective creative political solutions, they undermine the potential that we have to act effectively together. If I was aware of this, as I am now, we would have made provision for support, including outside, for all of us as public representatives, not only as MPs, but provincial members and municipal councillors, to have, as part of our ongoing training, creative problem-solving because what we have to deal with requires real creativeness to resolve the problems that we confront among ourselves as a team but also in our relationship with the public”

Lechesa Tsenoli, Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly

On their own, induction programmes are insufficient as they tend to be short and touch on the most basic details. It is therefore combined with practical studies, exchanges with peers, study visits to different parliaments, engagement with civil society and other experts (including institutions supporting democracy) and ongoing training on specific key themes. Further, Parliament encourages MPs to capacitate themselves by registering for courses that would support them in their work.

“…we have had a very useful relationship with universities in South Africa right from the beginning, over the past 25 years. Over time the relationship with universities was built around what we call capacity-building for Members and this we have done with the collaboration of and funding by the European Union to enable Members to study in appropriate areas of their function. This has been very useful, and a significant number of Members who arrived here without tertiary education have progressed, some to receive doctorates, others have masters, and others are in the pipeline to reach those academic heights. And it’s been a very useful programme”

Lechesa Tsenoli, Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly

Apart from this, MPs also need soft skills to do this job well. These include: communication skills; critical thinking, conflict management and teamwork to name a few.

Time management is also critical: speak to any MP, and most will tell you about the difficulty juggling various tasks and having to read large volumes of material.

During an induction session held in Parliament recently, Speaker Thandi Modise emphasised that chairpersons are largely expected to hold themselves to high standards of integrity in spite of the  hurly-burly of parliamentary politics. With committees expected to develop expertise, gather information and do detailed work that must underpin properly informed decisions, chairpersons need to have a clear grasp of issues being dealt with in their respective committees. They are expected to ensure that meetings or hearings which they preside are conducted in accordance with the Rules.

It will be interesting to watch the new class of MPs develop and progress over the next five years. In this digital age MPs will have to embrace technology and use social media as a platform to connect with constituents and shine a light on their work.

One thing is certain, all MPs will have to use the training and orientation provided to hit the ground running and ensure they contribute to an effective Sixth Parliament. We need lawmakers who are prepared, knowledgeable, committed and are able to ask probative questions.

Read: https://www.sals.gov.za/docs/pubs/Practical-Guide-for-MPs-and-MPLs-2019.pdf

Read: https://issafrica.s3.amazonaws.com/site/uploads/BudgetGuide_for_MPs.pdf

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People's Assembly

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