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Strengthen constituency information centres

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The establishment of Parliamentary Constituency Information Centres is a significant milestone in the history of the Parliament of Zimbabwe.

The establishment of these centres is part of the institution’s programme to reform its operations and conduct its business more effectively.

But the question on many people’s lips is whether these centres are really working or serving the intended purpose. If not, what can be done for the centres to realise their potential?

Parliament Constituency Information Centres are parliamentary offices located in constituencies.

They are considered worldwide as one of the important means to enhance the representative role of Parliament.

Representation means Parliament must reflect the popular will as expressed in the choices voters make for their representatives in a free and fair election.

A representative Parliament is one that is socially and politically representative of the diversity of the people, and ensuring equal opportunities and protection for all its members.

What is of major importance is substantive representation.

Such representation means interests, values, aspirations and opinions of the people being represented are truly promoted and succeed in becoming part of the policies implemented.

At the very least, the aspirations of the people should be truly promoted and have an influence on the formulation of policies.

The constituency offices are therefore supposed to promote substantive representation in order for the MPs to make a difference on the lives of the people.

The Parliament of Zimbabwe embarked on a major exercise to establish the centres in all the previous 120 constituencies during the life of the Fifth Parliament from 2000 to 2005.

Their mandate was to act as an extension of Parliament at constituency level.

It was envisaged that anyone would visit the constituency office and be able to obtain copies of all parliamentary publications such as portfolio committee reports, the order paper (sitting agenda), Bills gazetted and the Hansard, which is the verbatim transcript of the proceedings of parliamentary sittings.

Information communication technology was going to be spread to the constituency information centres in order for constituents, regardless of political affiliation, to walk into the office and access the Internet for Parliament-related business and meet with their Member of Parliament.

Each office was also going to be manned by a full-time officer paid by Parliament.

The concept took off fairly well and Parliament did a great job to publicise these offices.

Their performance has however been mixed. There are some MPs who have really tried to make these centres functional by making available parliamentary documents such as the Hansard and other publications.

Much more however still needs to be done to make them fully functional.

The first important thing is that these constituency offices must be treated strictly as parliamentary offices and not an individual MP’s office.

They must be used for parliamentary business and not political party business.

The Parliament of Zimbabwe must meet in full the cost of running these offices and not for an individual member to subsidise the operational costs such as rentals, electricity and water charges.

Many Commonwealth countries, including the United Kingdom, fund offices with political party affiliations, which can easily contaminate the basic principle of representation.

Constituents should be able to visit or to contact the local MP at a politically neutral office, neither provided by a party organisation nor the individual legislator, since the constitutional role of MPs demands that they represent all constituents regardless of party affiliation.

A neutral parliamentary constituency office is therefore important to ensure clear division between party and constituency responsibilities of MPs, respectively.

The constituency offices should be manned by highly qualified, competent and well-remunerated staff.

The staff must not be mere secretaries but people who can competently respond to public queries around law-making, Executive oversight and representative functions of Parliament.

The conditions of service must be improved in order to retain staff and not lose such important institutional memory.

The staff member should be able to serve any MP, whether from Zanu PF or MDC. There must be a clear distinction between political party officers and parliamentary officers.

The constituency offices are supposed to fulfil a wider role than simply providing MPs with office space and assistance.

They are also expected to become an entry point for civil society organisations.

The primary objective is to provide citizens and local organisations with the opportunity to engage MPs on the problems and needs of constituencies.

Local people are of course most likely to stress economic and social concerns, as is common in most emerging legislatures around the globe.

The issues that people will bring to the centres and that MPs must be ready to respond to are likely to include food, health-care, work problems, education, pension entitlements, peace and security.

The demands of constituents for such services by MPs will undoubtedly be hard to satisfy.

However, if MPs can demonstrate genuine capacity to listen and to advocate on behalf of constituents, government agencies will be more hard pressed to find ways to respond to the concerns of citizens, or to admit that they are failing in this respect.

Face-to-face meetings with community groups and citizens at constituency offices will provide an opportunity for the MP to explain the actual role of Parliament and properly manage public expectations of what the MP should do.

The meetings must discuss legislative business before Parliament and not for citizens to think that they are meeting the MP to be given money to pay school fees and buy food.

A regular schedule of office hours, where the MP is available for consultation is therefore vital to ensure that the people accept and value the new constituency offices.

Parliament should designate fixed blocks of time in the legislative calendar, where MPs are expected to be working in their respective constituency office.

In South Africa, such fixed periods in the calendar are known as “Constituency Time”. In Sri Lanka, Parliament is in session during the first and third weeks of each month and MPs work in their constituencies in the second and fourth weeks.

In Chile, the fourth week in a month is set aside for constituency work.

It is only when the MPs begin to effectively use their constituency offices for serious parliamentary business that constituents will feel that they are genuinely being represented.

The negative sentiment about an MP will disappear as long as the member is visible in a constituency and there is a strong bond between the MP and constituents.

And because the MP represents everyone in a constituency regardless of political affiliation, he/she is able to develop multiple loyalties through political cooperation, thereby laying the foundation for the emergence of a constructive conflict culture, which is better able to manage conflict without resorting to violence.

Effective use of constituency offices provides local content and human context to decisions made by members in the Legislature thereby giving citizens an opportunity to measure the performance of legislators as their representatives.

The concept of parliamentary constituency offices is a very noble one.

In my view, all the 210 constituencies in the House of Assembly and those constituencies with elected representatives in the Senate should have constituency offices that are truly parliamentary offices.

A person residing in a constituency must be able to freely walk into a constituency office and obtain all the information that he/she requires.

Office hours must be set aside for the MP to meet with constituents and respond to their queries and solicit their input on issues that are before Parliament such as Bills and the National Budget.

John Makamure is the Executive Director of the Southern African Parliamentary Support Trust. Feedback:john.makamure@gmail.com

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