It's hard to trust our leaders. Across the globe, the gap between rich and poor is widening while seldom a week passes without a political figure or big brand being exposed for avoiding tax, involvement in corrupt practices or making decisions that blatantly work against the public good.
Now more than ever, it is critical that citizens are able to hold both public and private institutions to account so that the decisions they make serve us. We rely on them to ensure that people can access the services they need like good schools, effective healthcare and efficient waste disposal.
Active citizens and civil society need to be able to access information about the institutions that govern them in order to scrutinise the decisions they take. Take Jessica, who runs a community campaign group in Kenya. She needs to know who her MPs are and how to petition them. In Nigeria, activist Hamzat needs to find out how much money government has allocated for healthcare in his community before he can put pressure on them to release the funds. Meanwhile, Mary, a journalist in Ghana wants to expose a corruption scandal involving a prominent politician and needs to access a register of his special interests in order to do so.
Parliamentary monitoring groups across the Africa are developing websites which enable citizens to track parliament and their elected representatives like Mzalendo in Kenya, Odekro in Ghana and People's Assembly in South Africa. Users can find out how their MP voted in parliament, what they said in recent appearances and see a register of their interests. They can also access Hansard, written answers to parliamentary questions and information on bill committees.
Other strategies are also being adopted. In Tanzania, where less than 15% of citizens are online, Magila Tech in Tanzania have built the M-Parliament platform which enables citizens to listen to live parliamentary sessions and voice their opinions on parliamentary debates on basic mobile phones. In Morocco, SimSim Participation Citoyenne created Nouabook, where citizens can ask questions directly to their MPs via Facebook.
While the existence of these sites is a necessary first step towards greater parliamentary transparency, in itself, this is unlikely to contribute to greater accountability. For this to happen, the key information contained within them must reach the public in a manner that is easy for them to understand and inspires them to act.
We spoke to some of the leaders of parliamentary monitoring organisations to better understand how they can contribute to this process.
The ease of collecting data dramatically varies from country to country. In Kenya, most of the required information is publically available online and in Tanzania, Magila Tech broadcasts straight from parliament. Contrast this with Ghana, where Odekro must often rely on the goodwill of individual parliamentary service staff to access data or Morocco where it's hard to access any information from parliament and when they do, it's often inaccurate and out of date.
Promotion and Engagement
For citizens to engage with information, first they need to know that these sites exist. Facebook and Google adverts can help. To keep them there, you'll need content which is simple to understand, engaging and relevant to their lives. Blogs, videos and infographics must be showcased front and centre. Highlighting content relating to issues hot off the press like female participation in parliament, youth unemployment and MPs involved in scandals can help pique interest.
Social media is a cheap and effective way to drive traffic and engagement. In Morocco, videos showing MPs speaking about their work are shared frequently while in Kenya, Mzalendo stimulates discussions around controversial bills and issues via Facebook.
It's important to encourage journalists to engage with content. They can ensure that information reaches a wider audience, including the offline majority, in a manner that is easy for them to understand and highlight newsworthy content, which wouldn't be obvious through accessing the site without analysis.
As journalists work to tight deadlines, feeding them simplified content that can be easily translated into stories can help. When Mzalendo provided an infographic to the press, showing MPs levels of participation in parliament, it resulted in front page news stories in two of Kenya's major newspapers.
Civil society groups can use the information available in evidence based campaigning and advocacy work. To build relationships with journalists and civil society, Odekro in Ghana provided them with data journalism training and also works with bloggers.
In many African countries, slow expensive internet and low penetration can prevent citizens accessing information online. Parliamentary organisations have adopted strategies to overcome this. Voice and SMS services, posters and face to face community dialogues with MPs have all been effective.
The Road Ahead
Getting citizens to engage with their leaders isn't easy. Many citizens don't believe they're able to affect change, which discourages engagement. Sometimes, political leaders are reluctant to respond to their queries and requests, particularly in closed party systems or where politicians largely take the party line. It can help to celebrate successful leaders rather than focusing only on their failures.
We're a long way off from a world where citizens can access information about anything they need to know about their elected representatives and the laws that govern them. We need information to be freely available online in easily searchable formats. Journalists, civic groups and active citizens need to be supported to interpret this information and use it for accountability purposes and engagement between citizens and their leaders must become the norm. Only then can we ensure that everyday citizens are able to shape the world they live in by demanding better from their leaders.
If you'd like to learn more about what parliamentary monitoring organisations had to say, you can read this report, created by Indigo Trust: