In democratic parliaments, MPs are elected by the citizens. Some electoral systems upon which MPs are elected are based on geographic constituencies (either single MP or multiple MPs per constituency), while other systems may have formal or informal links to ethnic, religious or other sectoral constituencies through party lists. In either case, for an MP to be successful, the citizens must have some sense that they are being effectively represented in the parliament.
This proximity to citizens is the basis of parliaments’ representative function. According to John K. Johnson, writing for the World Bank Institute, “Unlike chief executives, who represent entire nations, or bureaucrats and judges, whose responsibility it is to carry out and interpret the law impartially toward all citizens, legislators are responsible for representing the differences in society, and for bringing these differences into the policy-making arena.” The parliament, as the sum total of these differences, is said to represent the beliefs and ideas of a nation.
The representative function of a parliament is characterised by its role as a venue for disparate perspectives, for the expression and debate of issues of local and national importance, and the translation of those debates into policies. For MPs, effective representation requires engaging their constituents in continuing dialogue in order to understand their views and perspectives, and to rely on their knowledge on various topics. MPs must then utilise the powers vested in their office (i.e. legislating, participating in debates, authoring questions, etc.) to voice the resulting ideas. Through the parliamentary committees an MP can use the formal structure of parliament to engage constitiuents and provide them with direct access to the decision-making process within the institution.
MPs must maintain ongoing constituency relations to demonstrate their accomplishments and to seek the input of citizens. Aside from reengaging constituents in dialogue, MPs may also provide other types of constituency services, including casework (i.e. helping to solve constituents’ problems), facilitation of access to the executive branch and advocating for resources for the constituency. In a growing number of countries, MPs are provided with Constituency Development Funds to allocate limited but significant funding to capital projects that are a priority for the MP and the constituency.
Parliaments must be equipped with the institutional capacities to facilitate the function of representation. Many parliaments have outreach offices that seek to facilitate the flow of information in and out of parliament. They may also contain special services designed to assist the capacity of MPs to communicate with civil society organizations, the government, and other stakeholders. In other parliaments the role of the institution is to provide financial resources directly to MPs and parliamentary groups to enable them to provide staff and facilities in their constituency. More affluent parliaments provide MPs with access to elaborate telecommunications systems and devices to facilitate communication with constitiuents.
It is also common for parliaments to have bureaus specifically designed to engage other parliaments and institutions from foreign countries. This is known as Parliamentary Diplomacy and it allows for an alternative form of international dialogue to state-to-state interactions through the executive branch. There are international and regional networks of parliaments and, alternatively, networks of like-minded MPs, that promote this form of diplomacy.
Effective democratic parliaments conduct outreach with citizens on an ongoing basis. A parliament may broadcast its sessions via television or radio, most now have websites, and publications designed to help include citizens in the policy process. Because citizens cannot know how they are being represented if the parliament is opaque and MPs uncommunicative, transparency has an important bearing on the representative function.
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