The business of a parliament can be seen as complex and complicated to the average citizen. It is also commonplace for citizens to have a low opinion of parliament and its members. This is why it is important for parliament to promote access to the institution and to be transparent in its activities.
There are several means by which a parliament can communicate with its citizens and provide access to information about how it operates. Such activities are crucial for citizens to better understand the mandate of the parliament and what it is capable and incapable of accomplishing.
Some of the types of outreach that have been used by parliaments globally have included:
Broadcast of Proceedings: Either though television, radio or, more recently, online, the broadcasting of plenary proceedings (and, in some cases, committee hearings) is an important means of allowing citizens who may never visit parliament to observe how it operates and what their MP is doing. In countries that have recently transitioned to democracy the broadcasts are wildly popular and seen as an important symbol of the new transparency of the parliament.
Website: Almost all parliaments now have websites to explain their activities and provide basic information about the institution. However, there is a growing trend to have more interactive websites that provide a significant amount of information about all MPs, the work of the committees and the laws that are currently being debated.
Publications: The use of written material to explain the role of parliament is still an important aspect of parliamentary outreach. These materials can range from the formal, such as the notification of laws and regulations (known as a Gazette in many countries) and the transcripts of plenary proceedings (e.g. - Hansard or the Congressional Record), to the more promotional.
Children and Youth: Many parliaments have developed materials specifically to educate children about their parliament. These are often delivered to schools to be used as part of an educational program. Youth parliaments allow young adults to select their representatives who then attend in the parliament to hold mock debates. Some parliaments have provided materials online, such as interactive games, to encourage children to learn more about their parliament.
Mobile Parliament: In parts of Africa and Australia parliaments have left the capital to hold plenary sessions in different parts of the country or state. These are official and legal sessions that bring an opportunity for local citizens that may never visit the parliament to observe it in action.
Open Parliament: Many parliaments host an open house at least once a year to promote access to the institution. This may coincide with another celebration, depending on local custom, but the general idea is to provide an opportunity for citizens to tour the building(s) of parliament, ask questions and meet parliamentary staff.
Of course there are other types of outreach and parliaments are becoming more innovative in how they promote their activities.
It is important to not confuse parliamentary outreach with other means of representation. Outreach is not the same as dialogue, the former being a one-way communication while the latter is a two-way communication where citizens voice their opinions and provide input into the activities of their MPs and parliament. Outreach has a role to play in allowing citizens to access information and understand the workings of parliament. However, a parliament, its committees and MPs must also be in constant dialogue with their citizens to ensure their work reflects the needs and concerns of the people for whom they work.