The Joint Standing Committee on the Financial Management of Parliament met on a virtual platform to receive a comprehensive briefing on the interventions to expand public participation by Parliament’s executive administration.
During the engagement, the Committee emphasised the importance of public involvement in Parliament’s business and helping the public understand and have the knowledge to participate meaningfully in the country’s democracy.
Members enquired about the administration’s strategy in reaching out to disadvantaged communities, particularly those residing in rural areas without internet access or social media accounts. Those disadvantaged populations should not be excluded and forgotten.
Members suggested the administration needed to be innovative in devising ways to equip the public with sufficient knowledge to participate fully in the country’s democratic processes. For instance, the public should understand why South Africa was part of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), but also worked with BRICS countries. They urged the administration to find ways to make Parliament’s work more relevant and relatable to the public. They emphasised that the central focus of Parliament should be about the public, and not only about politicians. Allowing the public back to the parliamentary precinct should be a priority of the administration. The parliamentary channel was suggested as a good way to provide a weekly interaction between MPs and members of the public. The ultimate purpose was that the administration needed to restore public trust in the institution.
Some Members were concerned about the prolonged petition process, as they felt it might undermine the public’s trust in Parliament. They highlighted the importance of sufficient funding for parliamentary constituency offices (PCOs), and said a set of minimum standards must be provided for a PCO. Those offices should be used as the first line of engagement between members of the public and Parliament.
Some Members suggested the administration should broaden its engagement with a wider range of stakeholders. As the business of Parliament was closely related to many interest groups, the administration needed to engage proactively with key stakeholders. For instance, it should invite sector players to participate in budget debates so that members of the public are more informed and involved in Parliament’s activities. A Member complained about the untidy state of the parliamentary precinct, and urged that action be taken to address the issue.
Interventions to broaden public participation in Parliament
The Committee met to be briefed on interventions regarding increasing public participation in Parliament, in line with the Sixth Parliament’s strategic objective.
Mr Xolile George, Secretary to Parliament (STP), reported that this presentation was being presented to the Committee at an opportune moment, as the Sixth Parliament was approaching the end of its term. Parliament’s executive was now putting together a framework in preparation for the Seventh Parliament next year.
Ms Ressida Begg, Divisional Manager: Core Business Support, and Mr Moloto Mothapo, Divisional Manager: Parliamentary Communication Services, jointly made the presentation.
The administration was cognisant of the decrease of public trust in Parliament and the public’s lack of awareness of Parliament in their own constituencies.
Members were taken through the public involvement mandate of Parliament as laid out in the Constitution - facilitating public participation and involvement is central to Parliament’s mandate.
Members were taken through the court pronouncements on the right of the public to participate in law-making processes.
Members were taken through Parliament’s Public Participation Model - the Model aims to provide a written guideline and opportunities for alignment of public participation activities of Parliament and all its stakeholders; provide minimum norms and standards for public participation in Parliament and improve performance and the practice thereof in Parliament. Key objectives of the Model:
- To develop a “Best Fit” model for public participation in Parliament;
- Mainstreaming public participation in all Committees of Parliament and the Houses including all public participation structures;
- To detail the mechanisms for public participation in Parliament;
- To detail the required institutional arrangements and resourcing for public participation in the Legislative Sector; and
- To clarify the roles and responsibilities for public participation and processing submissions and petitions in Parliament.
The presentation touched on the main ways in which the public can participate in Parliament such as the budget, special programme weeks, public hearings, submissions, petitions etc.
Looking at public participation and the communication strategy of the Sixth Parliament, to ensure improved public involvement, the Parliamentary Service will need to address the following issues:
- Implement interventions focusing on the delivery of public education and information programmes, empowering people to participate in parliamentary processes, mobilising public stakeholders, and capitalising on the use of digital and preferred platforms,
- Implementing virtual public meetings, e-hearings, e-petitions,
- Broaden cooperation with partners and stakeholders including the legislative sector, government, community organisations and institutions,
- Improved coordination of programmes with that of constituency offices,
- Consolidate current programmes, capacities and resources into a single service to support public participation activities. – a single public participation and communication service to Members
Members were taken through the role of Public Education Offices (PEOs), Parliamentary Democracy Offices (PDOs) and Parliament Communication Service and making use of integrated services. Members were also informed of the strategic use of constituency offices - The key objective is to educate the public on the role of Parliament and promote public participation in the processes and activities of Parliament then Parliamentary Constituency Offices (PCOs) are fundamental to this approach …..”
Parliament intended to deepen collaboration with civil society organisations (CSOs) by:
- Collaborating with CSO to reach key stakeholders, particularly in the law-making process
- Draft MOU with CSO working group to cement collaboration – key focus is to create greater access to key stakeholders represented by CSO such as disabled, vulnerable, youth and women.
- Blind SA translates all public education pamphlets into Braille and makes them available to their members
Members were taken through interventions to increase public participation including digital tools, increasing platforms for following parliamentary proceedings, using the website, the Parliament channel, social media, face-to-face engagement and community radio programmes
(Other details of the presentation content can be referred to in the attached slides.)
Mr M Moletsane (EFF, Free State) said the presentation did not adequately cover people living in disadvantaged areas. He questioned how those people could have access to Parliament’s activities since the majority of them were unemployed and had no luxury of access to social media, but they also needed Parliament the most.
Ms S Gwarube (DA) could attest that communities were often not fully engaged on the topics in various public hearings, since such gatherings were usually politically charged. She emphasised the importance of raising community awareness of the work Parliament does and the need to measure the efficacy of public hearings.
She urged the administration to make Parliament more relevant to ordinary South African citizens and suggested breaking up the content of Parliament’s work. The ultimate purpose was to determine how the administration could make Parliament’s work more relevant to people’s lives at home.
She asked the administration what plan it had to bring people back to the institution and to resume in-person parliamentary observance following COVID-19 and Parliament's fire. She cautioned that the administration should be clear that Parliament was not only for politicians but also for the people.
Mr N Singh (IFP) highlighted the prolonged processing of petitions, and suggested the administration should prepare induction workshops for the Seventh Parliament. It should be clear what processes had to be followed upon receiving a petition.
Mr Singh enquired about the budget resources for parliamentary constituency offices. He said there was a need to have a prescribed set of standards for constituency offices, such as the constituency office of the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) Chairperson. He had found that most of the PCOs were under-equipped, with no staff or equipment.
He highlighted the important role of the parliamentary channel, which enabled MPs to interact with the public weekly. He urged political party leaders to participate in this interactive programme to know the communities they serve.
His observation of the public hearings on legislation was that it had almost become a box-ticking exercise. He enquired about the average cost of a single public hearing, and urged the administration to maximise efficiency and reduce the cost of public hearings.
Mr M Rayi (ANC, Eastern Cape) suggested the presentation should be presented to other committees and incorporated as part of the induction programme for the Seventh Parliament.
He encouraged the administration to engage more broadly with other civil organisations. For instance, Parliament’s engagement with universities should not be confined only to Students’ Representative Councils (SRCs). The administration should also engage with labour organisations such as the Federation of Unions of South Africa (FEDUSA).
Mr Rayi was of the view that engagement with the public through public hearings should not be confined only to consultation on legislation. Parliament should also engage with the public on its other oversight work, such as departments’ strategic plans and annual performance plans. For instance, if Parliament was debating the transport budget, it should reach out and invite sector players so that members of the public would be more informed of the policies that would affect their interests.
Mr T Brauteseth (DA, KZN) could attest to Mr Singh’s statement on the prolonged procedure to process a petition because of own personal experience. He described it unacceptable, and urged the administration to find a way to process petitions a lot faster.
He recalled the sense of pride that he had felt in the past when he showed people around the parliamentary precinct. It was an institution that represented the country’s history and the state of Parliament then had been neat, clean and everything was functioning. The symbolism was that it used to be a beacon of hope to show people what could be achieved in South Africa. In contrast, he described the state of the precinct as dishevelled and shabby. He had walked past a pile of refuse on the premises, and seen a dirty coffee cup by a broken window. He expressed his sadness over seeing such a state, and urged the administration to utilise the recess period to get Parliament looking clean again.
He suggested the administration consider using technology for public hearings and set up virtual town halls with good audio and visual systems so that community members could interact with Members through those town halls, without transporting the entire committee, which would incur huge costs.
He requested an update on the administration’s work on the fourth and fifth floors of the Plein Street offices.
The Chairperson highlighted the importance of following up on the Committees’ recommendations and resolutions.
Mr B Radebe (ANC) reiterated the importance of public participation. He quoted a study conducted by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) which showed that South Africans were losing trust in Parliament, which was concerning. He urged strengthening public education to improve the public’s participation in democracy. He recalled the time when the public's trust in Parliament was very high, when Parliament had called all the big retailers to account for the skyrocketing food prices. He thus highlighted that engagement with the public should be multi-dimensional instead of being confined only to consultations around legislation. He implored the division of Parliament to call for public hearings on the BRICS summit in August so that the public understood the geo-political context of the country. The public should understand why South Africa was involved in the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), but also worked with BRICS countries.
He agreed with the view of Mr Singh on the funding of PCOs, and complained about the marginal budget increase for these offices. The insufficient budget would hamper service delivery. He also supported that there had to be a set of minimum standards for PCOs.
Mr X Qayiso (ANC) agreed with his colleagues’ views on the PCOs and the need to expand public knowledge.
He disagreed with establishing a committee for communication purposes, because Parliament already had its own structure that dealt with communication.
He again highlighted that reaching out to rural and informal settlements, where few people had social media, remained challenging for Parliament.
Mr Brauteseth clarified his point of a virtual town hall, and pointed out to Mr Qayiso that the identified hall should have all the prerequisites set up. He totally understood his point about the network challenges in some constituencies, but the identified spots would all have a sound system.
The Chairperson understood his point, and affirmed that his suggestion was correct.
Mr Mothapo explained Parliament’s administration’s communication approach, which included a mixed package of interventions to reach out to those far-flung areas. In partnership with the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS), the administration also uses community radio programmes to reach those constituents. Leaders of Parliament, such as chairpersons of oversight committees of both Houses, would sometimes appear on radio stations to discuss bills, inputs before committees, and so on. To manage the cost, the administration signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with community radio stations, organisations, and the National Community Radio Forum, to cut costs for certain activities. He reported that one hour on those radio stations would cost between R200 000 to R300 000. The administration also had a targeted approach, and would select radio stations with more coverage to reach out to more people.
Mr Mothapo said the administration was negotiating with cellphone network providers to provide zero-rating for Parliament’s website, and one network was already coming on board. It was also in discussion with others, such as MultiChoice, to provide parliamentary activities to households with a MultiChoice satellite. Despite the fact that there were rural areas where the network was a challenge, there were also many villages with sound network systems and households that used the MultiChoice satellite. Since MultiChoice supported the Parliament TV channel, the administration was in discussion with them to ensure that the Parliament TV channel was accessible not only to premium subscribers, but also to the cheapest option which those communities subscribed to as well.
Mr Mothapo agreed with Ms Gwarube’s input that the administration should work to make Parliament content more relevant to people’s daily lives on social media. The administration had established a social media team within the communication services to take on the task.
He said the programming of Parliament's TV channel had improved in terms of its content over the years. The channel added insightful educational content, such as an educational documentary to inform the public about committees’ work, the two Houses of Parliament, the law-making process, the rights of South Africans, bills, etc. The administration continuously bolstered its programming and ensured that it was well-funded.
Allowing the public back into the parliament precinct was a tricky issue. Mr Mothapo said the Secretariat to Parliament (STP) would comment more on that.
He informed the Committee that Parliament’s communication was more accessible to the public than before. Prior to Covid-19, there were only about three to five YouTube channels that streamed committee meeting proceedings, whereas there were now more than 20 of those channels that enabled the administration to stream committee meetings simultaneously.
Mr Mothapo explained that the three parliamentary democracy offices (PDOs) in the provinces had been established as a pilot project to see how they could assist parliamentary constituency offices in strengthening their work. An assessment of the pilot project would be made in due course to review the effectiveness of those PDOs.
He agreed on the value of forging partnerships with civil society organisations and cultivating voter education through the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC). Part of the administration’s plan was to empower the public to participate meaningfully in the country's electoral processes.
He noted Mr Singh’s input on petitions, and agreed that training new Members on how petitions should be processed was important. In addition, the administration was also working to develop a page on Parliament’s website for public petitions so that members of the public could deposit petitions directly to the institution.
He agreed that there had to be a discussion on the budget for PCOs, although the discussion would not be in this meeting. There were several issues to be considered. For instance, there were offices leased and not owned by Parliament. The Committee and the administration needed to have a comprehensive discussion regarding the funding, the minimum standards, as they had in the education system for schools, the location of those constituency offices, public awareness of those offices, etc. He noted the concerns that some of those PCOs might be far from villages and that the majority of South Africans were unaware of the existence of PCOs or had never interacted with them.
Mr Mothapo confirmed that creating space for political parties to interact with the public through Parliament’s channel was one of the items the administration wanted to achieve before the Seventh Parliament.
He totally agreed with Mr Brauteseth on his suggestion of a virtual town hall.
Ms Begg said that the ultimate outcome of the effectiveness of its public education programmes could be shown by citizens’ ability to make meaningful comments at public hearings. She reported that all the staff responsible for public education had undertaken a course on public participation at the University of Stellenbosch, which was at Level 8 in the National Qualification Framework (NQF). Her division was now looking at the practical aspects, to educate citizens of different age groups, cultures, etc. One example that she mentioned was the work which her division had done to capacitate the public in preparation for the public hearing on the Department of Social Development’s (DSD's) Children’s Amendment Bill. Her division had prepared extensive information for committee Members for that engagement and identified key stakeholders who were relevant for that piece of legislation.
Regarding the public’s access to Parliament, Ms Begg indicated that the administration had taken it on board that all committee meetings must occur in the precinct.
Ms Begg provided more information on the administration’s strategy to strengthen the public education programme. The administration had engaged with universities to incorporate a public education programme on the legislature's role. Further, with the assistance of students from the faculties of law and political science, the administration also developed an assessment tool to evaluate the effectiveness of those programmes. She reported that the administration would also work on a voter education programme later this year.
She said the PDOs had started their piloting phase in 2018. In 2015, an assessment had been conducted on the feasibility of PDOs, and the finding had been that the idea was viable. Former Speakers Baleka Mbete, and Ms Thandi Modise had agreed that the PDOs should be retained and be extended to other provinces in due course. The administration had been unable to expand the PDOs due to budget constraints.
She commented that handling petitions was one of the administration’s performance targets, and was included in the integrated petitions framework. Since the National Assembly (NA) and the NCOP had different processes for handling petitions, the process should be clear when an individual citizen submits a petition.
The average cost of a public hearing in a district was about R300 000. The administration always made considerations, such as whether committees needed to go to all nine provinces for those public hearings, since most committees in the NA and the NCOP had the public hearing mandate.
Ms Begg said that Parliament’s administration assesses its impact on the ground through the annual IPSOS survey. The impact depended on the available resources, but the administration was collaborating with civil society organisations to increase its reach on the ground.
She stressed that public participation should not be confined only to supporting the law-making mandate, but should also be extended to governance and international arrangements. Citizens needed to know to which international agreements South Africa was a signatory, and what impact it would have on their lives. The administration had designed a public participation plan to educate citizens on the implications of the BRICS parliamentary forum, etc.
Mr George noted Mr Brauteseth’s input on the untidy state of the parliamentary precinct, and gave an undertaking to look into the matter and ensure the clean state of Parliament.
He reported that the fifth and sixth floors of the 90 Plein Street building should have been completed by mid-June. However, there had been a difficulty with the contractor, and the contractor later had to withdraw. That had resulted in the delay, since the administration had had to urgently appoint another contractor to take over the work that had been started. He assured the Committee that the new contractor would be introduced on site on Monday, and the administration had given the contractor a deadline of the end of June to complete the rest of the work. Hopefully, the work would be completed during the Members’ recess.
Mr George said the administration was reactivating its public visits to the Parliament programme. However, he repeated the current constraints, and said that the administration was looking at acquiring more committee rooms to make Parliament what it should be.
On the PCO and PDO funding, he said that the administration undertook to look into those areas. The administration would complete its organisational re-design very soon, ensuring that its under-capacitated divisions would be capacitated from those three piloting sites.
He commented on the cost of public hearings being between R900 000 and R1 million. However, he pointed out that the issue went deeper than the pure cost and the funding model of Parliament. Various reports, including the State Capture Report, highlighted the need to deepen public participation. The administration was working on the funding model.
He stressed the importance of cultivating agility in Parliament so they tackled issues as they came. He called for a revamp of the petition system. He referred to an incident he had heard on the news today about an orange farm in Johannesburg that had not had energy for three years. Should the PCOs or PDOs effectively work, those issues would have been fed into those offices and be reported to the executive. Parliament had to show people it was agile and responsive to restore public trust.
The Chairperson reminded Mr George that he still needed to respond to her comment on how the administration could improve the tracking system to follow up on committees’ decisions and resolutions.
Mr Masibulele Xaso, Secretary to the National Assembly, informed the Committee that there was a tracking system of committees’ resolutions in Parliament, where Parliament’s presiding officer was responsible for communicating resolutions and getting follow-up responses from the executive. However, that system was imperfect, because some follow-up responses come through the Office of the Presiding Officer of the Speaker, and are then referred to the committees concerned, whereas other responses go directly to those committees. Parliament needed an integrated tracking system to address the issue.
Adv Modibedi Phindela, Secretary to the NCOP, suggested completing that cycle by having committees themselves acknowledge responses which they had received from the executive and what the executive had done, and then those Committees could report back to the House themselves. He believed that it would be a better tracking system.
Mr Rayi said that he had been a Chairperson of a committee and that committee had been submitting reports with recommendations to the plenary session, but they had not once heard any feedback from the Office of the Chairperson, nor from the Minister.
Mr Rayi found it unacceptable that the affected individuals or communities sometimes had to wait two or three years before their petitions were processed. He said that Parliament was the last resort before those people had exhausted all other means. He further recommended that petitions should be categorised with macro issues which could be referred to a committee, and minor issues should be referred to the Minister or provincial premiers. The bottom line was that petitions should be fast-tracked to help people on the ground.
Mr Brauteseth wholeheartedly supported the suggestion that petitions should not go to the petition committee, but should go directly to the Select Committee concerned so that the process would be completed much faster.
Adv Phindela explained that most petitions dealt with the line functions of a Select Committee. In most instances, petitions usually went to the petitions committee before being referred to the relevant Select Committee.
He noted Mr Rayi’s complaint about the Select Committee, which he chaired, never having received any response. He acknowledged that the executive’s response rate was very low, no matter how many reminders Parliament’s administration sent them.
The Committee agreed to review the tracking system in general.
The Committee minutes of 19 May were adopted.
The Chairperson adjourned the meeting.
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