Picture: GCIS
Picture: GCIS

Political and social pressure may be driving up parliamentary attendance numbers, judging by the people’s assembly parliamentary attendance online tool.

For January-June 2017, there was only one minister absent from their oversight committee meeting (international relations & co-operation minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane) — against six ministers in the same period last year.

Thirteen MPs are listed as sharing the "honour" of having the worst attendance record in terms of committee meetings, having attended 0% of theirs in 2017

But there are still some habitual no-show MPs shirking their duty. Thirteen MPs are listed as sharing the "honour" of having the worst attendance record in terms of committee meetings, having attended 0% of theirs in 2017 — though some are no longer members. The list of current MPs missing in action comes to four: the ANC’s Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Zukiswa Ncitha and Fezile Bhengu, and the EFF’s Julius Malema..

There are 34 MPs with perfect attendance: 18 from the ANC, 14 from the DA, and two from the EFF. The most prompt (lateness is recorded in the tool) and present MP is Leonard Basson from the DA. Viewed as a proportion of their overall seat numbers, just 7.2% of ANC MPs, 15.7% of DA MPs, and 8% of EFF MPs lay claim to perfect attendance of these meetings.

"We want people to be able to monitor ministerial willingness to account to the parliamentary committees," explains Megan Lessing, good governance co-ordinator for the people’s assembly.

"Though it is not a formal performance indicator … willingness to be accountable in parliament is important. For parliament’s role in holding the executive to account, the committee system is probably the most effective forum. Here, MPs can scrutinise and probe as far as the committee chair will permit; and the executive has to justify their decisions and performance. Committees can only perform their work optimally if there is a willingness by ministers and their deputies to attend proceedings and be held accountable."

Lessing says the format and information listed on the site evolves as the people running the system gain access to more data and learn more about the site.

"When we first launched the tool in February 2016, we got immense pushback from smaller parties," she says. "We had to take into consideration that parties with just a few MPs cannot attend all the committee meetings."

It decided to limit the attendance information listed to the three biggest parties (ANC, DA and EFF). MPs also take umbrage with being marked as absent when they were absent "with apologies" — but the tool only allows for present or absent designations.

Despite the wealth of comparative attendance information, this rankings tool page is actually less popular than the MP/minister profile page listings on their site, suggesting that the site users care more about reaching specific representatives than benchmarking their attendance against others.

"Analytics of our site shows people would rather look directly at MP/ministerial profiles — [accounting for] 48% of unique visitors — where the individual attendance is displayed rather than the attendance visualisation tool."

These profile pages typically include full names, photos, positions held, as well as a breakdown of the attendance records over the years. The profiles also include direct contact details, such as e-mail and even mobile numbers, social media profile links, and their register of interests as declared.

This is one of a handful of sites and tools focused on transforming publicly available data into a more usable format, to promote accountability. Similar projects include the municipal money tool from treasury (municipalmoney.gov.za) and Media Monitoring Africa’s Wazimap tool (wazimap.co.za) which collates census and electoral information on district and municipal boundaries.

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