AN ADDRESS PRESENTED BY THE SPEAKER OF BAYELSA STATE HOUSE OF ASSEMBLY, RT. HON. KONBOWEI BENSON FRIDAY, AT OGBIA LEGISLATORS ASSESSMENT FOUNDATION’S 2012 CONFERENCE/END OF YEAR CEREMONY ON THE TOPIC: LEGISLATORS AND PEOPLES’ REPRESENTATION; THE BAYELSA DREAM PROJECT, AT OGBIA TOWN ON DEC. 2012 BY 12 NOON.
I am delighted to be part of your conference, with the theme, “legislators and our democracy, our collective roles”. I am pleased to inform you that the State House of Assembly, in the last nine months has passed twenty two bills and several motions. The House is working cordially with all the other arms of government. I want to commend the Ogbia Legislators Assessment Foundation for this initiative.
In every part of the world, it appears that politicians are struggling to meet the ever-expanding expectations of their voters. Evidence from countries around the world suggests that politicians are not held principally to account for their legislative scrutiny or oversight of the executive, but rather for the tangible benefits that they can deliver to voters. Although generally termed ‘constituency service’, it is apparent that forms of this activity occur in list-based electoral systems too, and that it is growing everywhere. Discussions with politicians highlight the extent to which their capacity to deliver is being stretched to the limits and that it may be taking them away from their parliamentary duties.
Parliaments’ resilience reflects their ability to adapt and evolve to public expectations. Parliaments and individual Members of Parliament therefore need to develop much more strategic responses to the growth of constituency service. Constituency service is an accepted and expected part of the job of parliamentarians, just as it appears to be growing in volume, content and complexity by the day. It is a responsibility that no parliamentarian can shy away from. Constituency service is now seen as central to the concept of parliamentary representation by the public and politicians in general.
The topic assigned to me has more to do with constituency services, therefore permit me to focus on constituency services and the public expectations of what politicians should deliver for citizens in their localities. The challenge for parliaments and politicians is to respond strategically to public expectations in a way that reinforces their role in finding collective solutions to citizens’ concerns.
Constituency service covers a huge range of potential activity, but can be broadly grouped into four categories, including support to individuals; which ranges from helping to find work or opportunities, designed to buy support, grievance-chasing; in which citizens have a particular problem with a government service, such as welfare entitlement or bureaucracy, with the Member of Parliament acting as an influential friend to help resolve such problems; policy responsiveness, in which voters try to seek or influence a Member of Parliament’s opinion particular issues, especially votes in parliament; project work, in which politicians seek funds for the development of the area or for the promotion of the local economy, with Members of Parliaments, using their position to secure government funding for such projects.
However, it is dangerous to expect that Members of Parliament will provide materially for their voters and act as principal development agents for the area. Representative’s roles have developed in direct response to the needs of citizens; several politicians feel obliged to make provisions because people had no one else to turn to for help in most cases than their representatives. In response to the increasing volumes of work, the official resources devoted to supporting these efforts have to also increase. Most obviously, the number of countries with constituency development funds (CDFs), including Nigeria, has increased dramatically in the last decade, providing locally administered pool of money, designed to support the community to promote economic development at the grassroots.
In many ways, constituency development funds (CDFs) are an obvious response to local need and often specifically seek to empower the Members of Parliament in that role. Given the level of public expectation and the attachment to the role amongst politicians, constituency service will not disappear. It is, and will remain, an essential element of parliamentary representation. But it needs to be done better, and in a way that reinforces the central roles of parliament. The challenge for parliamentary systems around the world is not simply to provide more resources, but to channel constituency work by moving from: the specific, to the strategic: finding policy solutions to common problems, rather than dealing with each case on its own, from the individual to the collective: finding responses that benefit a number of people, rather than individuals, from the local to the national: finding ways of bringing constituency expertise into the parliamentary and policy process much more systematically.
The irony is that people see their lawmakers principally as development agents, not a legislator, and they expect the representative to always help in times of needs. They want the lawmaker to help them in getting jobs, pay for children’s education, get their phone fixed and ensure that bad roads are mended. Voters’ expectation is that the MPs will find funds from their own pockets to help their constituents. This is an expectation that cannot be met by lawmakers, even as such could lawmakers to become more vulnerable to corruption. However, rather than treating each case one by one, my advice is for parliamentarians to seek collective solutions in helping people to help themselves through innovations such as the development of constituency microfinance scheme or credit union, which is a co-operative owned by the people. Such savings can finance loans for people with smart business ideas who would otherwise struggle to borrow money from a traditional bank.
When you give people in need a one-off gift, you empowered them to use their industry and enterprise to earn a living. That way, you create a breed of social entrepreneurs, bringing much wider benefits to the community. This approach to constituency service has many benefits. It raises the profile of the Member of Parliament and changes the dynamics between politician and people. The basic challenge for an MP in a large constituency is how he could reach out to then people, with a view to touching and transforming people’s lives.
The key issue is how you have maximum impact in helping the urban poor in the community, who are often overlooked. Lots of the problems people face may be very similar. The more you can find collective solutions, the more effective you will be. However, parliaments need a much more strategic analysis of the causes and sources of pressure for change. Although many parliaments believe they are doing as much as they can to improve their organization and consult with citizens, their responses to public expectations are sometimes constrained by gaps in their own analysis of the factors driving reform. A fuller analysis is likely to give parliaments a much better understanding of the causes and consequences of public opinion. Perhaps more importantly, it would provide a realistic assessment of what is achievable from within parliament, identify where external support is needed and establish a measure against which success could be judged.
Parliamentary efforts to improve the relationship with voters need to be based on an understanding of how the role of the individual representative is changing.The Member of Parliament is the single most important point of contact with parliament for the vast majority of voters. The way that the Member of Parliament’s role is perceived by the public, will do much to determine public attitudes toward parliament and politicians. Institutional reforms will, in turn and often inadvertently, reinforce or shape that perception. A more strategic analysis is needed to harness some of the pressures for change into reforms that reinforce the roles of parliamentary representatives and of parliament itself in the public mind.
Successive reforms have worked gradually to restrict the scope of the parliamentary mandate, often for very good reasons, and usually in response to public pressure. However, the challenge is to balance calls for greater accountability, ensuring that Members of Parliaments have enough scope to reflect, deliberate and decide in the state or national interest. The public expectation is that Members of Parliament should account more regularly for their activity, even as Members of Parliament are elected to act on behalf of voters. Therefore parliamentary reforms need to reinforce that sense of delegated authority.
Parliaments need to collaborate more fully with external organizations to strengthen links with the public. The relationship between parliaments and citizens can hardly be as direct and straightforward as it should be in theory. There are now hosts of mediating bodies that summarize and interpret parliamentary activity, broadcast parliamentary proceedings and rate performance of individual Members of Parliament. In short, the process of parliamentary representation is more complex and intertwined with outside organizations than ever before. Such organizations are potential allies in reinforcing the central roles of parliament and drawing the attention of a much wider audience to parliament.
The challenge is to keep up with the public by displaying responsiveness and resilience and continually renew that relationship with citizens. This will be a permanent process of evolution, but the signs are that most parliaments are alive to the size of the task. The results of a recent parliamentarians’ survey suggested that constituency service was the single most time-consuming feature of the work lawmakers. Yet it is clear that this function is immensely important to both citizens and politicians indeed. It is an accepted and expected part of the job of every parliamentarian. Numerous opinion polls in different parts of the world suggest that the public perceives constituency service as the most important part of Members of Parliaments’ role, while Members of Parliaments themselves undoubtedly see the benefit of responding to voters’ needs for various reasons, not least, as it is likely to enhance their chances of re-election.
In short, Members of Parliament in every part of the world appear to be facing the same sorts of problems. Voter expectations are high and appear to be increasing. The capacity of the MP to respond to such issues is being challenged by the volume and diversity of cases and the level of (often financial) support that citizens request.
Constituency service is not only a response to citizen’s demand, but also a consequence of politicians’ search for such activity as they attempt to improve their profile and public image. How parliaments and politicians have responded to this increased workload, particularly in relation to the resources that Members of Parliament are allocated is left for the citizens to judge. I therefore call on Bayelsans with good business ideas to take advantage of the state micro-credits.
Thank you and God bless.