Parliament 2.0

Earlier this week, Transparency International Sri Lanka (TISL) organised a workshop on improving the access to and accountability of Parliament, based on a South Asian study of legislatures. Systemic flaws in our own Parliament were anchored to two broad areas – access to internal workings and proceedings, and inadequate, often untimely, Parliamentary output. I was interested in three areas – the use of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) to strengthen parliamentary proceedings as well as access to information, the impact, if any, of Right to Information legislation on the accountability of MPs (comparing South Asian countries that had such laws in place with Pakistan and Sri Lanka, which do not) and whether a higher percentage of women in the national legislature made any qualitative change in gendered law-making, and the qualitative nature of debates across the aisles. TISL’s study did not have immediate answers, but they seem obvious areas to focus on. I chaired a panel on ‘The Role of Civil Society and Media in Promoting Transparency of Parliament’ which attempted to look at how, even with the deplorable media freedom rankings for Sri Lanka even post-war, and without any Right to Information legislation, journalists and interested citizens could engage more robustly with what in fact is a very secretive process of law-making.

It’s not easy. TISL’s report describes a parliamentary system in Sri Lanka hugely beneficial to MPs, which they have no incentive to change and worse, as a speaker noted, actually encourages graft and greed once elected. The point was also flagged that most voters are disinterested in parliamentary proceedings. The workshop was about making parliament more accountable, but the demand from a larger citizenry for such remains abysmal, at best. Speakers repeatedly flagged what was wrong, but ideas on how to make things better were scarce. In a panel I chaired on how civil society and media could play a role, the submissions looked at how in spite of repression, corruption and the lack of enabling RTI/FOI legislation, parliamentary proceedings and its members could be more robustly scrutinised.

Conscientious whistle-blowers today have a range of online platforms they can use to publish and disseminate content, in Tamil, Sinhala or English. There is a high degree of anonymity and pseudonymity on these platforms, making it hard to trace back authorship to an individual unless the information itself is known to a select few, which narrows the field. In the absence of live telecast of debates, MPs have requested the recorded feed and published it online for wider public appreciation. An innovative website like Kenya’s Mzalendo is a model for how, even if the national legislature is weak on transparency, civil society led initiatives can shed light on the background and performance of MPs based on, amongst other factors, Hansard appearances and contactability. The fields of data driven journalism and information visualisation are rich for application in better parliamentary coverage, for example to graphically represent budgetary allocations (depicting more clearly, for example, the vast difference between defence spending post-war vs. education or health) or a visualisations of COPE report findings. These are public texts, but have greater power and appeal over the dense originals when interactively visualised, allowing citizens to explore and understand the nature and degree of corruption. UK’s independent and web based Where Does My Money Go initiative is a great example of this. MPs themselves, like in India, can use Twitter to engage with their constituencies, albeit in a manner more meaningful than the half-hearted and hypocritical attempts by some politicians and election candidates last year.

What’s holding back progress and reform? Well, it’s you. Not mainstream media. Not technology. Not even corrupt MPs. Chances are that you vote, but disengage from governance thereafter. Chances are you are satiated with the piddling and passing reportage that mainstream media suggests is adequate parliamentary oversight. Chances are you think nothing can be done by ordinary citizens to improve what, as the TISL report so damningly flags, is wrong with our parliament today. Even just a few years ago, this argument would have had greater currency. It is no longer the case. Change today is limited only by our imagination to use what we already do to vote in our favourite singers on TV, or check out what our friends are doing on Facebook, to strengthen governance.

I hope we can all be the architects of that change.

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Published in The Nation on 19 February 2012.

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