It is crucial that a parliament be able to hear directly from citizens as it conducts its business. This is so for two reasons. First, it enables parliament, as an institution, to produce better laws, as the process by which the law is passed will have benefited from the insights of those that live and work on a daily basis in relation to the subject of the law. Secondly, it ensures that citizens, trade organizations, trade unions and civil society groups are more accepting of the laws passed by parliament, as they will have had an opportunity to comment and to have their voices heard.
There are several tools that most committees have if and when they decide to engage the citizens as they consider draft laws and monitor the activities of the government.
Surveys: Committees can commission research that includes the tabulation of public opinion on a specific subject. This will result in a more scientific, quantitative set of data that can be used to support the committees in their deliberations. Such surveys can be done by parliament or by hiring outside professionals.
Web-based: A growing means of consultation is to use the internet to seek comments on draft laws or specific topics. This can be done through online surveys or a broader request for comments. This type of consultation can result in large numbers of submissions; however, committees should be cautious as online consultations can be coopted by interest groups or may reflect only a segment of the population that has access to the internet.
Field Visits: In order to get a first-hand look at the impact of a draft law or government activity, committees can travel outside of the parliament (and the capital) to visit specific communities or groups that are impacted by the subject being investigated by the committee. For example, if a committee is considering a new law on health insurance, it may want to visit one or more communities outside the capital to meet with physicians, nurses, health care workers and patients, to hear their perspective on the draft law. Such a visit may also include the touring of a hospital or health clinic.
Public Meetings: Whether in the parliament or in specific constituencies, committees can organize informal meetings in which citizens and civil society groups are asked to attend and provide comments on a draft law or a subject being investigated by the committee. These meetings will look similar to public hearings, discussed below, but are less formal and allow for a freer exchange between committee members and citizens.
Private Meetings: A legitimate means of consultation is to have private meetings with select groups and individuals that are affected by the work of the committee. This should never be the only form of consultation, but it can provide a more detailed and nuanced level of knowledge that can enhance what has been gained from more public engagements.
Public Hearings: A more formal approach to public consultations. The two terms are often confused. To be clear, public hearings are a subset of public consultations, being a formal meeting in which citizens and groups are asked to testify before the committee and the committee members have an opportunity to ask questions. All such proceedings are often recorded and media is present. The process involved in conducting a hearing can be complicated and cumbersome, but the result is a formal record of how those impacted by a draft law or subject are affected and their recommendations for change.