In a democracy, what is the best way to ensure that politicians and other elected representatives do their jobs and are held accountable to their electorate? In the UK, at least, the relationship between press, public and parliament has undergone some pretty radical changes in the past half century or so. The deferential, almost fawning, tone that was a hallmark of political interviews for the first half of the 20th century has been replaced by a much more combative and robust style of questioning. The experiences of Anthony Eden in 1951 and the former Home Secretary, Michael Howard, in 1997 couldn’t be more different and they’re both worth a look if you haven’t seen them before.
While these may be relatively extreme examples, they do beg an important question (and one that is being tackled by some of our grantees). In order to engage with MPs, should you use a carrot or a stick? Do parliamentarians respond better to constructive engagement and encouragement or is the best way of ensuring their honesty and integrity through a more combative naming-and-shaming approach? As with many things in life, it depends. SimSim, our parliamentary monitoring grantee in Morocco, have built an approach that revolves around personal engagement with parliamentarians and it has paid some early dividends. Although the country lacks a tradition of citizen-MP engagement, SimSim have been able to start building such a tradition by targeting proactive MPs interested in engaging with citizens. Through online questioning, YouTube and Google Hangouts, SimSim have been able to engage both citizens and parliamentarians in matters of public debate. With 38 MPs signed up, 100 questions submitted and a response rate of around 60%, the tactic of positive engagement is having an effect. In Kenya, meanwhile, Mzalendo‘s People’s Shujaaz Awards aim to create an atmosphere of healthy competition among parliamentarians by awarding the hardest working and most effective MPs.
For small organisations taking their first steps in the world of parliamentary monitoring, a more conciliatory approach makes sense. After all, such organisations rely upon the cooperation of parliaments and parliamentarians and a combative approach is unlikely to achieve that. Moreover, unlike media corporations or household names, these small organisations often lack the access to media and the public that would enable them to conduct a thorough naming and shaming. It’s hard to know which approach is best, but understanding the local context is clearly key in such cases. But it’s important to remember than softly softly isn’t always the easy way out – in some cases, it’s the best policy.