At its core, what distinguishes a democratic parliament from other branches of government is that its members are elected by and directly represent the citizens of a country. Much literature has been developed on the law-making and oversight functions of a parliament and an MP, but the role of the MP in the constituency has gone virtually unnoticed.
Depending on the electoral system under which an MP is elected, the MP may have a geographic area in which the MP is responsible for representing all the citizens in that area. Even where the MP is elected through a proportional representation system and there is no formal geographic delimitation of boundaries, it is common for parliamentary groups to assign a geographic area or sectoral constituency to its MPs in order to build a stronger relationship with those citizens.
No matter the means of election, citizens expect to see their MP on a regular basis. Where the MP’s constituency is located outside of the capital where the parliament sits, it can be a challenge to be required to be in parliament for sessions that may last nine or ten months out of every year. But the ultimate goal is for citizens to know the MP is working for them while in the capital and for the MP to use various tools to be in constant dialogue with constituents.
It is this dialogue that is so important to the work of an MP and the parliament. Citizens must be provided with access to information about what is happening in the parliament and the positions being taken by their MP and parliamentary group. In return, citizens must have venues for providing their opinions and inputs into the work of the parliament. It should never be forgotten that average citizens have knowledge and opinions about various draft laws under consideration. They also have access to information about how the government is implementing laws and spending their tax dollars. This information must be used to ensure proper oversight of the executive branch of government.
There are two keys to effective constituent relations – access to resources and flexibility. Resources can be provided by the parliament or the parliamentary group to enable the MP to remain engaged with constituents. Where such resources are not available, the MP must be more innovative but should not neglect this responsibility. As for flexibility, citizens will rarely wait to make an appointment to voice their opinion. MPs must make themselves available for access, either through impromptu events or by attending social occasions.
Some of the tools used in constituent relations include:
Constituency Office: A physical location with office space is a visible symbol of a MPs commitment to a constituency and a place for the MP to meet individual constituents and groups. The space can also be used to support nascent or ad hoc groups who need a place to meet and organize their activities. For more information on constituency offices, please click here.
Dialogue Tools: The culture and customs of each country will dictate how an MP engages citizens in a dialogue; the key is for MPs to provide active and passive opportunities for citizens to engage and to voice their opinions. For more information on dialogue tools, please click here.
Constituency Development Funds (CDFs): There is a growing trend for MPs to be provided with a small but significant amount of funds to use for development in their constituency. These funds are most common in commonwealth countries (where constituencies are also more common) and are controversial for a number of reasons, but are likely to remain and may even proliferate in the coming years. For more information on CDFs, please click here.
It is through the use of these and other methods that MPs will build a positive reputation with their constituents. Many have dismissed the political impact of constituency relations on the outcome of elections, assuming that party loyalty and leaders are the main drivers of votes. However, many incumbent MPs who have won close elections or who have held their seats while many in their party have lost, will credit such victories to their work in the constituency. And it is this political impact of constituency relations that cannot be undervalued.