Pigs in Parliament: Public Relations 1.0

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Uganda’s New Vision readers may have raised an eyebrow or two earlier this week upon learning that their parliament pigs are to be sold.  Those who missed last week’s backdrop to this story could have conjured up a number of colourful images, most of which would probably be more controversial than the article’s timid illustration: a rather sad picture of two small pigs, painted yellow and looking quite displeased. 

There was nothing timid about the message these piglets were delivering though.  Pinned to their ears were oversized tags which called, in no uncertain terms, for an end to the country’s notorious corruption problems.  The tags referred to the president’s ‘corruption constituency’ and to parliamentarians – pun very much intended - as ‘MPigs’.  The pigs were allegedly smuggled into parliament by members of a protest movement that calls itself the ‘jobless brotherhood group’ and that criticizes what they see as corruption and extravagant spending by lawmakers. 

You could argue about the merits of this kind of ‘protest’ until the cows come home.  There is no denying, however, that this unusual episode is just the latest of many to underline the precarious state of relations between Uganda’s citizens and its parliament.  Far more striking – and far more unfortunate - than yellow piglets was the attempt by MPs earlier this year to award themselves a sizable payrise.  A poor judgment call at best in a country that still struggles with poverty, especially coming from MPs who are reported to take home sixty times the average civil servant’s pay already. 

Parliaments & Public Relations:

While few parliaments have shot themselves in the foot quite so convincingly, Uganda is by no means the only one to face a public relations hurdle.  The UK Houses of Parliament have witnessed an unprecedented amount of criticism in the past year, as have the parliaments of South Africa, India, and Iran, to name but a few.  They have all struggled to explain their way out of elevated salaries and expense claims or, in some cases, repeated allegations of corruption and nepotism. 

Unfortunately for them, and for the many parliamentarians and parliamentary staff whose records are clean, the old ‘any publicity is good publicity’ adage simply does not ring true where parliaments are concerned.  Stories such as these do much damage to the public’s perception of the institution and its work, and help feed the belief that parliamentarians are idle, self-entitled and too privileged to grasp the realities of daily life.  Parliaments urgently need to strengthen not only their records, but their reputations.  Luckily, they are not short of options to do so. 

Taking Action

First and foremost, parliament and parliamentary procedures should be open to the public where possible.  New technologies offer countless opportunities to engage citizens and improve transparency.  The Ghana parliament is embracing innovative IT solutions to solicit more feedback from constituents; Guyana has recently launched a new website that offers live streaming of parliament’s sittings.   

Zimbabwe’s MPs too have demanded live parliamentary coverage, claiming that “people should be given the right to see who is converting Parliament into a bedroom and which MPs are doing work so that non-performing MPs can be exposed.  Gone are the days when Parliament was a mere mortar and brick building that was excluded from the glare of the public.”  Such solutions are only possible if the necessary political support and resources are in place, but they are worth pushing for; seeing what goes on behind the parliamentary curtain is an important step in strengthening the institution’s name and accountability. 

A second point of action for parliaments is to better manage relations with the media.  In a democracy the media can provide invaluable outreach by reporting on what a parliament is doing, but - as the examples above illustrate - they can also cast them in a negative light.  In such cases, learning how to work with or around them is of crucial importance.   When handled effectively, the media are a strong asset –parliaments do well to engage and accommodate them where possible.   

A third strategy involves making parliaments – representative institutions – more representative by bringing more women and youth into the mix.  Parliaments with a sizable number of women parliamentarians have been shown to be ‘cleaner’ and less prone to corruption and nepotism.   Similarly, getting some younger faces in will help freshen up the institution’s image and its workings, as young MPs tend to communicate more openly and more extensively.  Overall, a more diverse and representative institution is better armed to fight corruption, and better placed to engage constituents and deliver need-based results.  

Finally, many international initiatives exist to assist parliaments and parliamentarians in fighting corruption, both within their own institution and beyond.  Close to 170 countries have now signed up to the UN Convention of Corruption; parliamentarians looking to join them can call on the assistance of organizations such as GOPAC, UNDP and the UNODC to help them prepare.  

In short, parliaments are not shy of options.  To avoid finding any more painted piglets on their doorstep, they would do well to use them.  

This is a blog post by Lotte Geunis, Parliamentary Development Officer at UNDP.