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Thursday, 14 March 2013

An impossible task?

The Government's Chief Whip Yamfwa Mukanga MP (Minister of Mines and Energy) recently warned MPs against poor attendance in Parliament. In a letter to all MPs he observes:
There has also been noted, a growing trend of honourable members of parliament coming to the House briefly, registering their presence and thereafter disappearing for the rest of the day, thereby missing out substantially from proceedings of the day. This is not only unbecoming, but smacks of dishonesty and is, therefore, unexpected of a member of parliament...This serves to inform you that henceforth, you are all reminded of the fact that you are all duty-bound to attend sittings of the House punctually and be present throughout
Interestingly, some MPs quoted anonymously have said, it is difficult for them to be in the House the whole time because of "the parliamentary by-elections that were taking place in different places...". That seems like a foolish excuse. It is not like all MPs need to campaign or bye-elections are held everyday. The MPs need to stop passing the blame and face up to their responsibility.

The Government Chief Whip's statement though raises a bigger question: How do we get MPs to take their jobs seriously? 

Aside from the Government Chief Whip's letter, is there really anything more that can be done to get MPs to take parliamentary process serious? The problem is that ordinary citizens are not really able to determine whether an MP is performing or not. It is what economists call the "principal agent" problem. The nature of the MP's job is such that only he or she truly knows whether they are fulfilling their function as an advocate and representative of the people. Indeed many things are outside the MP's control.

The other point is that even if an ordinary citizen was able to determine that their MP was underperforming the individual has little incentive to act. The reason is due to what economists call the "free rider" problem. Save for the likes of a few active citizens (the Harringtons of this world), people would prefer to sit on their hands and wait for someone else to bear the cost (and I don't just mean financial) of taking their MP to task for poor performance. We see this in many areas. We always want others to do it for us, not us as individuals to do what we can to hold Government to account. I do and we all do it. Its rational! As a result MPs continue to under-perform.

One thing that may help us act is if more information was provided about how a typical MP spends their time (e.g. through SCORE CARDS). But that doesn't really solve the incentive problems! It simply helps the Harringtons! The other alternative may be to introduce Parliamentary recall - where people can put a petition together to have their MP recalled for another vote. That has huge costs attached to it but it could be a big stick against poorly performing MPs.

Question : What are your thoughts? How can we incentivise MPs to perform better?


  1. Yet another well articulated piece Cho, thank you.

    I have always argued this position that our MP's need to be held accountable and it's from there that we wield the power to direct our future on key issues peculiar to our various areas of need.

    My take is we need an annual review mechanism detailing what needs were expressed and what was delivered policy wise, this of course would need a well structured constituency office consisting independent non-cadre constituents to an extent of paid economists.

    But of course this is only viable with the right calibre
    MP, right now we have a disconnect as most MP's are locals with no exposure and peak of delivery are boreholes and pit latrines. Forget the DUBAI landscape.

    1. Thanks!

      Good point about capacity at the local level. The current offices are poorly manned by cadres. The Speaker should be think more actively on mandatory requirements e.g researcher, diary assistant. But as you say, all of that is predicated on a well educated parliamentarian operating within an appropriate incentive framework. We are a world from that!


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