Monday, June 24, 2024

Are MPs really responsible for dilapidated schools and roads in their constituencies?

If you are on social media, you would be familiar with the hailstorm of location-based Facebook groups that were created “to discuss economic, social and cultural affairs of our village” but have mostly become cesspools of sociopathic misconduct and whipping posts for Members of Parliament. Among those who are forever trussed up to this post and being mercilessly whipped with persistently prickly posts is Kabo Morwaeng, the Minister for Presidential Affairs, Governance and Public Administration and Molepolole South MP. If a section of a public road in his constituency is potholed, he is deemed responsible. But are MPs really responsible for potholed roads, dilapidated schools, long queues at health clinics and a host of other service delivery cock-ups?

In any healthy system, authority and responsibility are proportionate attributes that counterbalance each other. When such balance is struck, there is reasonable expectation of holding those with authority and responsibility accountable. In unhealthy systems, authority and responsibilities are unbalanced, the outcome is disastrous and it is difficult to hold anyone accountable.

From the perspective of one too many Botswana voters, MPs are responsible for service delivery in their respective constituencies. The problem with this perspective is that MPs don’t have legal authority for service delivery – they instead rely on ministers and civil servants they don’t supervise. With the authority-responsibility balance having been upset in such manner, there is no realistic basis upon which to realistically hold MPs accountable for cock-ups in service delivery.

Having no legal authority, all MPs can do is agitate for service delivery by using the various platforms at their disposal but such agitation doesn’t always work. An MP can’t pick up the phone and instruct the Council Secretary to renovate dilapidated classrooms at a local school. Notwithstanding the fact that the MP has no responsible, some would still hold him responsible for the state of those classrooms.

To be clear, such agitation does bear fruit in some cases. A senior civil servant says that merely putting in written notice with parliament staff to ask a minister about a service delivery problem in a constituency can result in corrective action being taken such that when the question comes to the chamber floor, a minister would be able to announce that “officers are on site attending to that problem as we speak.” However, that doesn’t happen in all instances and MPs have been known to complain about the same issue for the entire life of a parliament.

Moral of the story: it is unrealistic to hold MPs accountable for service delivery failures because they don’t have legal authority to ensure that services are delivered. Such authority lies with ministers and civil servants – whom MPs don’t supervise.

Received wisdom is that MPs “represent the interests and concerns of their constituents” in parliament – which is an opaque job description and doesn’t crystallise service delivery. An MP can table a bill or motion or ask questions on service delivery-related issues but there is no clear and legally-defined process through which he can compel relevant authorities to deliver services.

The only real legal authority that MPs have is to make laws as provided for by Section 86 of the Constitution: “Subject to the provisions of this Constitution, Parliament shall have power to make laws for the peace, order and good government of Botswana.” In practical terms, the real duty of an MP is to make laws, not deliver services. They have legal authority to do the former but none such with regard to the latter. They have to plead with ministers and senior civil servants to get services delivered but are on firmer ground and can move assuredly where law-making is concerned.

As political candidates, future MPs themselves complicate matters by making people believe that they can deliver services. However, the record shows that the best of them only succeed at being a thorn in the side of the powers-that-be than in delivering services to their constituencies. While still in office, former president Festus Mogae weighed in on the issue of MPs promising to deliver services in an unusually interesting way. He said that voters shouldn’t be duped with grand electoral promises because what developmental programmes are implemented in a constituency or ward are the result of the national development plans and district development plans. By the same token, blame for public service delivery disasters should fall squarely on the shoulders of those who are responsible for implementing those plans – ministers and civil servants.

Voters who have unrealistic expectations of MPs are themselves a weak link in the political chain. “Voter apathy” is ordinarily used to refer to lack of interest in participating in elections but even some of those who vote are apathetic in one other respect: completely disengaging with the political process in between election cycles. Examples from around the world show that electoral democracy works best when people stay engaged with the political process after election day.

Keeping local officials accountable is just as important as voting them in and voters have an essential role in ensuring that elected officials actually deliver on their campaign promises. The reality of the Botswana situation though is that post-election day, most voters don’t monitor performance of MPs and stay vocal; don’t seek to influence how MPs vote on motions and bills, don’t attend public meetings; don’t follow parliamentary proceedings; don’t organize with fellow constituents/voters to lobby MPs in a more coordinated, organized way; and don’t participate in primary elections that produce a candidate they will vote for in the general election. In other words, most Botswana voters are not invested in making the system work for them.

There is also the voter who does the least possible to educate him/herself about representative democracy. This voter measures the effectiveness of his/her MP by the number of parliamentary questions that MP asks and motions he tables – and all too often by how well the MP plays to the gallery. The reality though is that the representative work of an MP occurs across many more platforms. An MP may not ask a question in parliament about a problem in his constituency that needs to be fixed but quietly engage directly with the government department that can fix that problem.

Ultimately, it is not just MPs who should be trussed up to the whipping post. 

RELATED STORIES

Read this week's paper