Public Participation in Parliament - a survey of participants

 

“One of the most important questions of political life – perhaps the most important of all is that of the nature, extent and strength of relationship between people and government, between rulers and ruled” – Blondel, 1995

"Public Participation in Parliament - a survey of participants" looks at public hearings in Parliament from July 2015 to June 2016, based on survey responses from 77 individuals and organisations — specifically, who the key participants are, why they get involved, their observations about Parliament’s role in the process and what can be done to improve the process. This report comes at a time when key pieces of legislation have been returned to the National Assembly due to insufficient public consultation. Examples are the Expropriation Bill returned to the House by the President due to reservations about inadequate public participation and the Restitution of Land Rights Amendment Bill returned to the National Assembly by the Constitutional Court that found Parliament failed to fulfil public participation adequately.

Public participation is the backbone of legitimate democratic governance and a healthy democracy. It allows for the opening of parliamentary processes, encourages public accountability, transparency, inclusion and meets a vital constitutional requirement. Public participation remains central to the mandate of Parliament – oversight and the passing of legislation ultimately has to be done with the interests of the public in mind. Public participation thus lies at the heart of the work of Parliament.

The report provides an assessment by the survey respondents of the participation process in parliamentary committees. Lack of time to participate by the public came up sharply as an impendiment in the survey although surprisingly 46 per cent said that the average comment period provided by Parliament for bills of 17 calendar days was adequate. Many respondents said ideally four weeks would be best. Participants were also probed about  whether they were satisfied that their submission was adequately taken into account or considered30 per cent of respondents were not satisfied while 37 per cent of respondents felt Parliament did not take public input seriously. Providing feedback to participants on how the committee had considered submissions, or would generally move forward with the process, would assist in ensuring the public felt their submission was considered and not part of an obligatory showpiece – 79.5 per cent of survey respondents indicated the feedback process on submissions, after the public hearing was held, was inadequate. It was also brought to the fore that, troublingly, only 15 per cent of public hearings over the 2015/16 timeframe of this study involved topical matters or as the Constitution states "matters of national importance" as compared to 72 per cent of public hearings covering legislation.

Our survey also brought to light many of the impediments relating to public participation in Parliament. Key obstacles unpacked included lack of time, lack of funds and capacity and the perception that committee members did not seem to be taking the process seriously. These impediments, in turn, have further consequences and effects on the public participation process in Parliament. Thereafter the report discusses opportunities and suggestions for effective and meaningful public participation that have been drawn out from the survey responses.  This includes standardisation of the process between  parliamentary committees,  addressing the lack of feedback provided and suggestions for Parliament to solicit more input and interaction.

This report underscores the importance of public participation and the shortcoming in the current system. The legislature has a duty to design meaningful public engagement processes that can make a difference.