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Technology holds the key to public’s involvement in E...

Maverick Citizen

Maverick Citizen Op-Ed

Technology holds the key to public’s involvement in Eastern Cape legislature’s virtual meetings

MPs had to get to grips with IT in April 2020 as committee meetings moved into virtual reality.(Screenshot: Marianne Merten)

Those affected by decisions have a right to participate in decision-making, and the pandemic demands leadership and direction from elected representatives to facilitate the public’s involvement as well as access to data to facilitate engagement through electronic platforms.

The Covid-19 pandemic has presented both opportunities and challenges to the functioning of legislatures across the country. They have responded to this unprecedented time in varied ways to ensure that they continue to carry out their mandate effectively under the circumstances, but have done little to ensure the facilitation of public involvement from the start of the pandemic to date.

In a statement issued on 16 April 2020, the presiding officers of Parliament rightly outlined that there has never been a more important time to intensify Parliament’s technological capabilities to ensure that the execution of its constitutional responsibilities continue uninterrupted.

While Parliament has stated that it will prioritise a schedule of virtual committee meetings whose scope of oversight relates to government departments driving Covid-19 measures, public access to virtual committee meetings continues to be a problem.

Public participation is the bedrock on which our democracy rests. The Constitution of South Africa calls for public access to and involvement in the provincial legislative space. Section 118 (1) of the Constitution requires Parliament to not only scrutinise and oversee executive action, but to provide a forum for public consideration of issues and to facilitate public involvement in its legislative and other processes.

The principles of public participation affirm that those affected by a decision have a right to participation in decision-making. Public participation has the potential to enrich democracy by ensuring better decision-making, strengthening accountability to the people and helping to build strong democratic parliaments.

Attempts to participate in the legislative space

On 25 March 2020, the Public Service Accountability Monitor (PSAM) wrote a letter addressed to various Eastern Cape Provincial Legislature portfolio committee chairpersons to inquire about their plans to respond to lockdown-related restrictions in order to continue with their oversight and public engagement work. There has been no response from the committee chairpersons to date, although the communication was acknowledged via the legislature’s Twitter platform.

Action on Legislatures is an informal group of civil society organisations working towards open and accountable legislatures, with a vested interest in promoting participatory democracy. The group has recently written an open letter to the presiding officers of all nine legislatures dated 25 March 2020, as well as a letter to national Parliament dated 20 May 2020 about effective legislative oversight, transparency and engagement during the State of National Disaster.

In the letter to the legislatures, the Action on Legislature group sought to support them and inquire around how they would function for the duration of the national disaster. The group also made various recommendations on the workings of the legislatures, including how best they can work remotely during the pandemic.

The Eastern Cape Provincial Legislature (ECPL) went virtual in the week of 27 April 2020, resuming the programme with portfolio committee meetings. Virtual meetings in the Eastern Cape come with access challenges, which have affected members of the public who want to participate.

The PSAM has worked closely with the ECPL to monitor oversight work of various portfolio committees. Even before the pandemic, there had been concerns raised by the PSAM around access and participation in the legislative. Many of these were outlined during a roundtable hosted by the PSAM and attended by members of the ECPL, which took place on 15 October 2019.

The ECPL Communications Unit has provided an important link between external stakeholders and the legislature. As part of its public participation model it disseminates the ECPL schedule among various stakeholders and organisations, such as the PSAM who work in the legislative space, on a weekly basis via email.

During the lockdown period, the legislature resorted to sharing the calendar via Twitter. While we note the legislature’s attempts to publicise its committee meetings, the calendar has not been shared on a weekly basis with members of the public and the social media platform used is not accessible to many. This frustrates access.

The ECPL has access to platforms for publishing, live-streaming and broadcasting the work of committees. The Parliamentary Monitoring Group provides information on all South African parliamentary committee proceedings and could be another useful platform to be used to publish the legislature’s committee meetings.

Members of the public able to access committee meetings have had to contend with a range of issues ranging from delays in getting the links to the virtual meetings, accessing relevant documents including the agenda, research reports, department reports and minutes for the meetings.

At the time of writing, the ECPL YouTube channel had 19 uploads. Of the uploads of committee meetings, four were sittings of committees during lockdown. The YouTube channel was set up in 2015, but the legislature only started using it in 2020 as a result of the pandemic. The location of the ECPL in Bhisho excludes those without the means to travel to the legislature for purposes of participating in the legislative space.

Channels like YouTube must be better used to take the work of the legislature, its committee and house meetings to the people. With the provision of zero-rating platforms like YouTube, communities in the Eastern Cape without access to or with limited access to data would be able to participate in the legislative space.

In an article published on 17 May 2020, the Speaker of the ECPL, Helen Sauls-August, outlined that the legislature would be maximising the use of technology to continue with house sittings, committee meetings and conducting oversight during the pandemic. The speaker of the house confirmed that access to the legislature, through virtual platforms, had been extended to the media, civil society, researchers and citizens who were interested in connecting to meetings and house sittings.

While the ECPL has outlined steps to be taken by members of the public who wish to participate in house sittings, in the article and to date, there has been no guidance on how they can connect to the committee meetings.

On 24 June 2020 and on the ECPL Twitter page, the ECPL invited interested members of the public to attend the virtual house sitting on 25 June by sending their names and contact details to its communication section. There has been no indication from the legislature on how members of the public would be able to participate in committee meetings.

Members of the public able to access committee meetings have had to contend with a range of issues ranging from delays in getting the links to the virtual meetings, accessing relevant documents including the agenda, research reports, department reports and minutes for the meetings.

The PSAM monitors receive a copy of the legislature’s calendar via email. The ECPL calendar comes with detailed ECPL Unit contacts as well as portfolio committee coordinators’ names and contacts.

The ECPL must provide to members of the public direct contact details of a representative who is tasked with assisting the public to connect to committee meetings. PSAM monitors who are monitoring the health and human settlement committee meetings, which have taken place during the pandemic and as scheduled on the ECPL calendar, have reported receiving an agenda, research reports and departmental reports before a committee meeting on one occasion after a request for this had been submitted.

Access and participation 

The legislature must continue to utilise virtual digital platforms including YouTube and Facebook to broadcast all virtual committee meetings and house sittings, and take urgent steps to assist with making digital platforms accessible to members of the public with limited or no internet access.

The legislature’s website can be used to publish further evidence of meetings as well as any information considered or discussed during the meeting, oversight activities conducted and decisions made.

It is essential that the transparency around the work of the legislatures and access be upheld. This is fundamental to achieving the legislature’s function of ensuring that executive action is aligned with the interests of the public, and that checks and balances are in place.

Transparency allows the public to both observe and assess the extent to which their interests are reflected through the legislatures and whether they are holding the executive to account for its actions during the pandemic. It is important that where the executive is seen to be abdicating on its service delivery duties, it be called to account.

Recommendations

Legislatures must consider by what means they will invite public participation in their work during this time.

  1. We urge elected representatives to provide leadership and direction to increase the public’s access to data to facilitate engagement through these electronic forms. For a start, the public should be able to access Parliament’s website and YouTube channels free of charge.
  2.   All committee meetings must be live-streamed and/or recorded and uploaded on the legislature’s YouTube, Twitter and Facebook accounts. Links must be shared on the legislature’s website. At least a week before the committee sits, all changes to the dates and times of the committee meetings must be published on the legislature’s digital platforms.
  3.   The legislature must leverage the partnerships it already has with civil society actors such as the Parliamentary Monitoring Group and the PSAM, who continue to act as invaluable resources augmenting the legislature’s dissemination of information.
  4.   All committee meetings must be regularly recorded or live-streamed to allow members of the public access. Committee meetings that have been recorded must immediately be made available to members of the public and uploaded onto the legislature’s YouTube channels and a notice sent out on Twitter informing the public.
  5. The portfolio committees must also make relevant electronic documents available to the public before the start of committee meetings. These documents must be uploaded on the ECPL website so that the documents can be accessible to members of the public that may not have been able to virtually attend the committee meetings. DM/MC

Tlamelo Mothudi is a health researcher at the Public Service Accountability Monitor under Rhodes University’s School of Journalism and Media Studies. Esteri Msindo is a human settlements researcher there.

Disclosure statement:

The PSAM receives funding from a European Union-funded project, Putting People back in Parliament, led by the Dullah Omar Institute (University of the Western Cape), in collaboration with the Parliamentary Monitoring Group, Public Service Accountability Monitor (Rhodes) and Heinrich Boell Foundation (South Africa).

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