OPINION: What Is ‘Public Engagement’?

Professor Richard Herr is Adjunct Professor of Governance and Ethics at the Fiji National University. The FNU acknowledges the support of the Fiji Sun and that of the Embassy of
11 May 2015 13:08
OPINION: What Is ‘Public Engagement’?

Professor Richard Herr is Adjunct Professor of Governance and Ethics at the Fiji National University. The FNU acknowledges the support of the Fiji Sun and that of the Embassy of Japan through the Candidates’ Manual School’s programme.


Welcome back to Parliament 101. Last week we had a reader’s question regarding the office of the Speaker and her role in public engagement.

This set Parliament 101 to thinking about how aware you might beof the ways to influence Parliament. So, this week we ask, “What is public engagement?”

Public engagement is the term parliaments use to describe the various means that they have developed to connect their work with the community.

Of course, in its broadest sense, public engagement is the first and most essential job of any democratic parliament. It is why our Parliament exists, after all.

We call Members of Parliament “representatives” because their job is to represent the views of their constituents and the general community in Parliament.

The Parliament is the highest expression of citizens’ basic rights to exercise their political freedoms.

In much earlier times, public engagement was left solely to the MPs.

Since Members wanted to be re-elected, it was in their self-interest to engage with their constituents. MPs had to know what the people wanted if they were to win votes.

This kind of engagement was a two-way street, of course. Not only did the Members have to ask for constituents’ views and opinions, but the people had to be willing to share their concerns.

Political parties were created in large part to help facilitate and improve this most vital of connections between MPs and the public.

Party organisations routinely served to collect the opinions of the public to give these to the Member. They also assisted the Member by passing information back to the constituents.

This arrangement has become more and more refined as parties have become more institutionalised and administratively complex organisations.

Today it is almost an industry. Some parties even have machines that automatically write and can sign letters to voters with the Member’s signature to make every letter look like a personal response!

However, there are limits to using parties as a means to promote understanding of, and engagement with, the Parliament.

Every Member of Parliament is obligated to help any citizen that asks for help with an issue if possible. Nevertheless, realistically, an MP’s time is limited.

If someone says they voted for the Member or his party or helped with the election campaign, their concerns are likely to get a bit more priority even from the hardest working MP.

The same applies to the political parties.

Political parties want to recruit new voters and increase their membership, naturally. But, since they have limited resources too, their interest is mainly in winning support for the party

Thus, in recent decades, parliaments everywhere have taken on the public engagement role directly themselves.

They have developed programmes both to reach out to the public and to promote a more active engagement with the community. The parliaments do this as an institution, separate from Members’ and their parties’ constituency activities.

Generally, there are three basic aims that parliaments have in promoting public engagement. These are to educate the public, to assist media coverage of its work and to facilitate participation.

We can see each of these missions at work in the Parliament of Fiji.

The Parliament has a flagship project called “Our Say” intended to encourage students of all ages and levels to learn more about the parliament.

This project not only provides appropriate information to all four levels of education, it also addresses the second aim of public participation. It encourages young people to become active participants.

And, education is not just for the schools. The 19th century English authority, Walter Bagehot, claimed that educating the whole nation was one of the parliament’s highest duties.

The Parliament of Fiji sends a vehicle it calls the“Parliament Bus” into the community as a travelling display and information roadshow to enable adults as well as young people to learn more about how Parliament works.

Parliament 101 touched on another project last week that the Parliament has to inform and educate. This is the “Meet the Speaker” programme.

Dr Jiko Luveni is not only the official face of the Parliament inside the chamber, she its highest ranking champion outside the Parliament.

If you get a chance to meet the Speaker at your school or in a community meeting, you should speak up. She is there to hear your views and concerns just as much as to explain Parliament to you.

The aim of assisting the media to provide coverage of the work of the Parliament contributes to educating and informing the public, of course. But, its most important role may be in guaranteeing transparency.

The openness of Parliament in making decisions is a key element in its legitimacy, which means the Parliament must be seen to be open.

Helping all the media to have access to Parliament is a major contributor to public engagement through transparency.   However, once it was a hard fight to get any press access to the Parliament.

Today, we take Hansard, the Parliament’s public record of debates, and the Press Gallery for granted. (Both the reporters covering Parliament and the areas reserved for them in Parliament are commonly called the Press Gallery even if they work for TV or radio media)

Modern media coverage requires both new physical as well as procedural assistance from the Parliament.

The media need access to MPs and the use of material from the floor of the Parliament.

This involves making rooms available for interviewing MPs and providing access to live and recorded broadcast materials. It also means media-friendly rules to allowthe media to use these new technology sources freely.

The Parliament of Fiji not only helps the media cover Parliament, it also has created its own small media outlet.

The Parliament News project delivers news to the regular media for their use, of course. But it also posts information on its own website and sends alerts and stories via such means as You Tube, Facebook and Twitter.

When Parliament is in session, you can watch the MPs at work on a computer or smart phone via the Parliament’s live streaming page. You could find out more about these and other options from the Parliament’s website: http://www.parliament.gov.fj/Home.aspx.

At the end of the day, all of these measures for public engagement are to promote the ultimate objective of increased participation.

For this objective to be met, you and other citizens need to be aware of the engagement opportunities that the Parliament has created.

Are you aware of these possibilities? You might have used some without knowing it if you used parliamentary materials for school reports or writing to the newspapers.

There are things you can do beyond the opportunities mentioned in this column (e.g. visiting the Parliament Bus, meeting the Speaker or getting news from the Parliament’s website).

You could ask your school or a Member of Parliament to arrange a visit to the Parliament or go with your family to see the displays in the Parliament Discovery Centre in Parliament House.

And, if you are parent, you can make these arrangements for your children if their school has not done it yet.

Remember that Members need to know what the public think. So, writing a courteous letter to an MP to explain a problem or raise an issue helps the MP to be a better informed representative.

It is important that young people not yet old enough to vote have a voice. You can participate meaningfully in public affairs without voting.

Even if you are still in school, you can petition Parliament and even make a submission to a parliamentary committee. The staff at Parliament House will help you if need it. Their contact is on the website.

Public engagement helps the Parliament and the community together to turn the energy of public interest into light rather than heat; into trust rather than cynicism; and into action rather than alienation.

Feedback: newsroom@fijisun.com.fj


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