Uganda’s Parliament is now beating with a new pulse – thanks to innovations in its communications department that have taken advantage of the increasingly popular internet to disseminate news and information targeting the Members but more so the general public.
On a typical day, a dedicated team of about 30-strong staff members, develops hundreds of easily digestible news items in different formats such as a few-dozen-character Twitter posts, Photos and the slightly more detailed but concise news stories.
This has helped to ensure that the general public is up-to-date with information about the entire legislative process right from what is to be discussed, popularly known as the Order Paper, what is transpiring both in the Plenary and in the Committees of Parliament such as Committee on Statutory Authorities and State Enterprises (COSASE) through live reporting using Twitter.
Take for instance, this week’s debate that was triggered by MP John Baptist Nambeshe (Manjiya county) to introduce a private member’s bill aimed at regulating religious organizations. Within the house, the issue provoked a heated debate among many MPs, as to whether or not faith-based organisations should be regulated. The emotions that usually accompany faith issues will likely play out in the public domain beyond the high walls of Parliament.
Besides fulfilling the routine function of information dissemination to the public, Parliament has taken a deliberate decision to use the internet as a tool for creating greater openness and transparency about its activities.
For example most of the statements by Ministers that are presented on the Floor of Parliament are made available in soft copy formats. In addition, the full text of proposed laws, technically known as bills, made available on the Parliament website.
“Gone are the days when Ugandans had to wait for the next day’s newspaper or the evening news bulletin to know what had transpired in Parliament. Now you can follow every event live on your phone from anywhere in the world,” says Chris Obore, Parliament’s Director of Communications.
Indeed, the internet is proving a reliable tool in ensuring that Parliament, as an arm of the state meets its obligations to the citizens of Ugandan.
Objective Number 11 of the National Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy of the 1995 Constitution states that; “The State shall take all necessary steps to involve the people in the formulation and implementation of development plans and programmes which affect them.”
By enabling easy access to vital information such as bills and ministerial statements in real time or within a few minutes of being tabled, Parliament is being pro-active in fulfilling its Constitutional obligation of enabling the public to access information in the possession of the state. This democratic exercise helps to ensure that as a key organ of the state, it endeavours to involve the people while also fulfilling the responsibility of transparency and accountability to the people about its activities.
That Parliament is practising what it preaches is a breath of fresh air in a government system that still heavily bureaucratic and largely opaque about its dealings.
For whereas the government passed the Access to Information Act 2005 as a tool to empower the citizens with the right and channels to demand information in the hands of the state, most ministries and government agencies are not willing to share information they hold as custodians.
The introduction of the Ask your government web portal platform appears to have done little to increase the public’s access to information as seen from hundreds of requests that take months without being answered.
Besides, most of the Ministry websites take months to be updated and rarely do they offer vital information say on policies, strategic plans or engage the public in a lively fashion the way Parliament does.
Besides current news reports about Parliament debates, the legislative organ has lately introduced number of initiatives aimed at monitoring businesses transacted over a specific period of time.
This week, for example, Speaker Kadaga Announced the introduction of the Bill Tracking System and a Mobile Application known as ‘Ugandan Bungeni’ that allows members of the Public to view and monitor the status of each bill during the legislative process.
The Bill Tracking system complements other efforts such as the online daily publication of all the proceedings in the Hansard and the publication of annual ‘Business Transacted’ reports at the end of every session (Year of Parliament).
Looked at in comparison with other government agencies, the high standard for transparency and accountability that have been set by Parliament, have redefined the rules of engagement between public institutions and the general public. The question remains, how fast can other government entities copy this enviable effort, for it is commendable.