South Africa, Politics

R1.8-million later: When Parliament embarks on a bad trip

By Marianne Merten 25 April 2016

Parliament is in fight-back mode. Late on Sunday it issued a 1,660-word missive against news reports that its top administrators spent about R1.8-million on trips to three overseas legislatures in a benchmarking exercise. On Monday that statement was distributed in-house, alongside the official report on those visits. But despite its fiery language, the statement doesn’t disprove the facts of the trips and the report seems inapposite with recommendations of a parliamentary press to “tell its own narrative”, charging broadcasters for parliamentary content and looking into a parliamentary protection service with “full powers of search and seizure”. By MARIANNE MERTEN.

City Press, in a story also carried by its sister newspaper Rapport, reported on Sunday that Secretary to Parliament Gengezi Mgidlana, accompanied by other top administrators, late last year spent almost R1-million on a trip to London and Edinburgh, and R900,000 on a visit to the Turkish legislature followed by the Inter-parliamentary Union meeting in Geneva, Switzerland.

The 10-day visit to the UK and Scotland parliaments was signed off by a junior official in the office of Mgidlana, who then sent a memo to “note the proposal” to National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete and National Council of Provinces (NCOP) chairwoman Thandi Modise. Travel bookings include business class flights, chauffeur-driven cars and five-star hotels. According to Parliament’s responses in the article, all this was in line with parliamentary policy prescripts and the institution’s 2014 to 2019 strategic plan.

On Sunday evening at about 21:30 in a 1,660-word missive, Parliament said the report was “malicious”, “sensational”, “baseless” and “calculated to besmirch and damage the name of the institution, its administration and the good names of the officials”. But the statement doesn’t dispute the costs or the travel arrangements, saying only that no official attended any of the Rugby World Cup games taking place at the time, something the report did not claim.

Nor does the media statement dispute that an official in Mgidlana’s office approved the travel although procurement policies cap such authorisation at R250,000. Instead, Parliament said the documents on which the newspaper article was based were “unauthorised documents sourced from people, who either could not explain them, or the activity was outside of their scope and level and/or grossly overstated their knowledge and authority”.

City Press said it had repeatedly, but unsuccessfully, requested the report on the trips. But on Monday parliamentary staff received that report, entitled, “Report on the 2015 benchmarking study tour to Turkish, Scottish and United Kingdom Parliaments”. Daily Maverick has seen this undated report by an unidentified author.

Steeped in jargon and verbal flatulence, the 41-pager starts as follows:

In this changing and globalising world, with multilayered geopolitical landscapes and varied economic realities, Parliaments remain the veritable hub of representative democracy.”

It gets better.

Indisputably, effective parliaments do not only shape policies and laws that respond to the needs of citizens, but they also carry people’s hopes and aspirations and see to it that such laws and policies are translated into desirable societal outcomes.”

And there’s more:

Under this bewildering rise in global and local complexity and interdependence, parliaments are compelled to immerse themselves in the global space of ‘parliamentary innovation’ and identify cutting-edge best practices. In an evolving and increasingly inter-connected world, parliamentary actors and managers in the administrative arm of parliaments need to know two important factors; firstly, they need to know on which direction does the knowledge flows and secondly; what are the new trends and best practices in the legislative sector at a regional, continental and global level. In so doing, visiting a number of other legislatures and see at first hand different ways in which parliamentary democracy occurs becomes imperative.”

(NB: The errors are those of parliamentary scribes, not Daily Maverick’s.)

Perhaps it’s best to move straight to the recommendation of the report on the overseas trips, which Parliament said provided value for money.

At the Turkish parliament the South African visitors were impressed by the access for disabled citizens (Back home there are wheelchair access ramps to each building, although not all of them are ideally located).

Recommendations include restructuring Parliament’s research unit to serve the institution as a whole, rather than a specific committee, as is the case now, and to print parliamentary papers internally (That is already happening to some extent, albeit in reduced print runs and with some delays).

Parliament “must continue to negotiate” with the SABC for its own free-to-air channel and should develop its own copyrighted content for sale as parliamentary proceedings continue to be broadcast on DStv channel 408 (a social responsibility project of MultiChoice, Daily Maverick has been reliably informed).

Other recommendations include that Parliament should restructure its communication services and establish its own press: “This will enable Parliament to write and communicate its own narrative without the assistance of or interpretation by third parties,” the report said (There already is “In Session”, the in-house magazine, and other publications), and develop the Parliament website “so that it serves as the main information portal/repository on parliamentary information”. (The website already displays parliamentary programmes, statements by committees and presiding officers, while other documents such as Announcement, Tablings and Committee Reports can be searched for).

More money would need to be found incrementally, the report said. “Some of the recommendations may be realised through the back-to-basics project without necessarily incurring additional costs.”

The recommendations from the visits to the UK and Scottish parliaments include quarterly customer satisfaction surveys among parliamentarians, the rotation of committee clerks, the clarification of the roles of committee content advisors and researchers, and resourcing Parliament to conduct its international obligations.

Public outreach programmes “must be focused on themes relevant to identified communities”, while Parliament should charge broadcasters for content and explore “the possibility of extending assistance to constituency offices” (Political parties at Parliament receive financial allocations for these offices.)

Also to be explored is the insourcing of cleaning and catering services and the possibility of establishing its “own protection service with full powers to search and arrest”. After all, security remained a major concern to Parliament, according to the report. “Although the visitors’ centre issues temporary permits, visitors are not escorted in the precincts to ensure that they reach their destinations. Schoolchildren are allowed to loiter in the precincts without supervision. As a results, (sic) not all visitors may be accounted for. Co-operation between Parliament protection services and the South African Police Service must be revisited to ensure that proper security services are provided in the precincts.”

To conclude. “Undoubdtedly, Responses (sic) to the challenges facing parliaments today have to be rooted not only in in-ward looking strategies, but also in critical thinking and foresight faciliated by benchmarking and/or knowledge exchange and sharing,” said the report, whose author remains unidentified.

What remains unclear is the status of this report within Parliament and how, if at all, it may impact on the 2014 to 2019 strategic plan when it is revised for next year. However, what Parliament made clear on Sunday was that it has no obligation to include the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu) in such benchmarking exercises, which are “a necessary and strategic management tool”, not an outcome of negotiation processes.

But the March 2015 agreement between Parliament and Nehawu says that after agreeing to a review of the total cost of employment: “Furthermore, the employer and the union will conduct a benchmark exercise with other legislatures, including state-owned entities, which results may form part of the review”. The process was meant to be finalised within three to nine months in the 2015/16 financial year, which ended on 31 March 2016. In October 2015 Nehawu embarked on an unprotected strike over performance bonuses that had been agreed to, which Parliament said it could not afford, and conditions of service. The union and Parliament are understood to be still before the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) over last year’s dispute as performance bonuses have yet to be paid.

Instead, Parliament’s media statement of Sunday implies an anti-transformation ploy. “Parliament urges those resisting change to focus their energies on positive institutional processes that will make Parliament an effective organisation that supports Members (parliamentarians) and eventually benefit the citizens,” the statement said. “In this regard we urge those focused and engaged at resisting change and the necessary transformation to join Parliament’s leadership in its positive endeavours. Ensuring value for money and utilising resources provided effectively starts with us.”

On Monday, Daily Maverick was told by Parliament that it was considering approaching the Press Ombudsman over the City Press and Rapport stories. Although Parliament has been asked by the United Democratic Movement (UDM) to investigate these trips, no comment on that was made. DM

Photo of SA Parliament by Bertrand Duperrin, via Flickr

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