The National Assembly’s (NA’s) Programme Committee used today’s meeting to assess the effectiveness of working on virtual platforms, as necessitated by the lockdown arising from the Covid-19 pandemic. The meeting was chaired by the Speaker of the NA and Chairperson of the Programming Committee, Ms Thandi Modise.

Mixed feelings were expressed by members of the committee on the newly adopted system. Some Members of Parliament commend it for cutting excessive expenditure often incurred by departments for travelling to Cape Town to appear before the parliamentary committees. On the other hand, some complained about technical glitches the system has brought to bear on the oversight work of parliamentarians.

Ms Modise emphasised unequivocally that “the administrators of committees need to be trained to be able to facilitate these meetings effectively to ensure that their businesses are run thoroughly without any glitches. “This is unchartered terrain and forces us to embrace the notion of e-parliament in a way that we have never imagined before, and we learn as we go,” added Ms Modise.

“Our commitment remains to ensure the work of committees is conducted without any compromise due to technological ineptness on our part.” Ms Modise went on to say that challenges with virtual platforms are also experienced by parliaments in other countries. Referring to the Zoom meeting app, she mentioned that the British parliament had encountered glitches with it recently.

Some members of the committee urged the Presiding Officers to investigate these recurring glitches and others raised concerns about the quality of interaction emanating from the new system. They pointed out that often it is impossible to conduct these virtual meetings in a cordial manner.

Furthermore, there is an evasion of accountability in cases where questions are not fully answered by departments in virtual joint committee meetings. This, they argued, often defeats the purpose of parliament to hold the executive accountable.

  Members of the programme committee said the mandate of the chairpersons of committees is to ensure that there is quality interaction between the committee and the executive, and this “should not be done haphazardly, but in a structured manner to ensure that the quality of interaction in parliamentary meetings is not compromised in anyway.” 

On the problem of presentations that reach members during committee meetings, Ms Modise stated that “no document of any interaction between the two parties should be presented for the first time in the committee meeting. If that is the case, one cannot expect to get a quality response from departments,” as the question will also be compromised.

Significantly, she highlighted the need for committees to do their preparatory work more effectively. “Proper preparation of the committee meetings is more important ... It is of no use to be in a committee meeting not knowing what the department will be presenting on. That defeats the very mandate of our parliamentary work. These are matters that the chairpersons of committees are expected to guard against to enable the committee to get to the gist of things, rather than glossing over them.”

Reflecting back on the need to improve the technical know-how of parliamentary staff in conducting virtual committee meetings, she further stated that “we should be worried about information communication technology (ICT), not the preparatory work of committees”.

 Ms Modise called upon MPs to get used to electronic means of doing their work and assured members of the Programme Committee that she, the Acting Secretary to Parliament, the Secretary to the National Assembly and the Secretary to the National Council of Provinces will work with the ITC department to ensure that the system is strengthened.

The House Chairperson responsible for committees, Mr Cedric Frolick, assured the Programme Committee that his section will do all it can to improve the quality of connectivity of committees. He further assured the committee that “I will interact with chairpersons of committees to address these matters. And we will pay full attention to matters raised and reinforce our technical services to committees.”  

The Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly, Mr Lechesa Tsenoli, stated a need for Parliament to harness the advantages of the fifth generation (5G) wireless to increase the speed and responsiveness of Parliament’s oversight mandate. Parliament’s ability in this regard would not, in his view, be delayed if Parliament were to embrace its virtual systems more efficiently and effectively. 

Ms Modise told the committee that she will ensure that in future there is an ICT person dedicated to each committee meeting to ensure that the committee meetings go well. She further apologised. “We apologise for any shoddy work that has been experienced to date that affected the work of committees. We take full responsibility for that and we will ensure that that won’t happen again in the future.”

By Abel Mputing

7 May 2020