As Zambia heads towards the 2011 presidential and general elections, it is important people are enlightened on the role their elected representatives, especially at constituency level, play on their behalf in fostering development and governance in the country.
Parliamentarians carry out their duties at two levels: in Parliament in Lusaka, the seat of Government and in the constituency.
Members of Parliament (MPs) who do not hold ministerial position belong to atleast one of the Parliamentary Committees that devote time and efforts to examine in detail the Government policies or the way certain matters of national concern are being managed.
Therefore, in this position, the MP plays what is known as the oversight function through which he or she provides checks and balances on the executive arm of Government.
The MP, as a representative of a constituency, is entitled to raise issues in the House through a Private Members' motion that concerns his or her constituency.
Such issues may include among others the state of public infrastructure, land disputes, disasters or health among others.
Parliament, however, does not sit throughout the whole year but has time when it goes on recess. This period accords an MP the opportunity to either attend Parliamentary Committee meetings or visit their respective constituencies.
In the constituency, the MP's attention is primarily focused on facilitating and initiating community-based development projects and on guiding the constituents to understand the various policies of Government, development agencies and of cooperating partners as these affect them and the constituency in general.
Such meetings are of great importance as they provide a platform for dialogue in the development process.
At present there are 150 elected members of Parliament in Zambia who represent people in 150 parliamentary constituencies.
Constituency offices provide a formal meeting place for the Member of Parliament with his or her constituents. These offices are central places for constituents to exchange ideas and information to empower the MP in carrying out his or her work as the people's representative.
In other words, constituency offices serve as centres for MPs to undertake outreach activities in their constituencies.
Parliamentary constituency offices are a sources of valuable and informative literature on issues such as parliamentary debates, annual reports, newsletters and other legislative and governance issues.
Just as the executive or the president of Zambia is represented by the District Commissioner's office and the judiciary by a local court in each district, the constituency office fosters the presence of the legislature at the constituency level.
Parliamentary constituency offices are extensions of the National Assembly. They are not established for political purposes. The moment
the office is used for political activities of the party where the MP belongs, members of other political parties will not be free to visit
that office to meet or talk to the MP.
As a result of this, the MP will find it difficult to effectively carry out his or her functions of being the representative of the entire constituency.
Therefore, the success and relevance of the constituency office is to be judged by among other things, the wide cross-section of people that call at the office and interact with their MP, the number of issues the MP tackles and outreach activities that he or she undertakes.
The manner in which the constituency office receives or treats visitors will either encourage or discourage people from visiting the office.
It is therefore, critical that constituency offices always remain accessible to all regardless of political affiliation or status in society.
It is for this reason that both the national flag and the legislative flag are hoisted outside the constituency office to signify the non partisan nature and character of the office.
However, a number of factors have impacted adversely on the importance of this office. These include, but not limited to inadequate and dilapidated transport and communication infrastructure and the misconception among constituents that a parliamentary constituency office belongs to an incumbent political party.
Nonetheless, the National Assembly of Zambia (NAZ) is dedicated to promoting objectivity in the operations of the parliamentary constituency offices. The move has made it necessary to develop neutral messages that avoid partisanship in daily operations, functions and roles of these offices.
Constituency offices to some extent have also not fully been utilised by constituents. It is for this reason that more innovative ways be derived to transform the facilities into more relevant, approachable, visible and user friendly establishments that would stimulate interest and confidence on the part of the people.
It is from this and other factors that a communication strategy has been formulated by the National Assembly of Zambia to present a combination of targeted interventions for enhancing Parliament-people interaction with an effective feedback process.
The strategy will aim to strengthen the effectiveness of the already existing tools. In addition, it is anticipated that the strategy will act as a catalyst in bringing about efficient communication and improved relations within National Assembly of Zambia (NAZ), between NAZ and its stakeholders and between leaders and the electorate.
Through the communication strategy, the National Assembly is expected to transform itself into a more approachable, user-friendly and open institution with established communication lines with the Zambian people and other stakeholders.
The overall goal is to enhance the National Assembly's ability to communicate and relate with key stakeholders including members of Parliament, civil society organisations, constituents, cooperating partners, and constituency offices thereby taking Parliament closer to the people.
The proposed communication strategy will also aim at ensuring an effective two-way communication process particularly from constituency offices is enhanced on all issues of public importance and as well as enlightening constituents on the roles and functions of the National
Assembly with emphasis on the role of Members of Parliament and the role of constituency offices among others.
Speaking during the stakeholders' workshop for the Formulation of a Communication Strategy for the National Assembly of Zambia prepared and submitted by Panos Institute Southern Africa in Lusaka recently, Clerk of the National Assembly Doris Mwinga said part of the reforms at the National Assembly involved increasing the involvement of citizens in the legislative process.
In a speech read for her by Deputy Clerk of Administration Cecilia Mbewe, Mrs Mwinga also noted that one way of doing so is by developing a communication process that will ensure a two way flow of information between the National Assembly and the parliamentarians on one hand and the citizens on the other.
"It was realised that in order to achieve this goal, a strategy should be formulated to enhance this two way communication where as much feedback as possible from citizens is encouraged," she said.
Chairperson of the Parliamentary Reforms and Modernisation Committee Faustina Sinyangwe said the National Assembly during the past 10 years, has been implementing the parliamentary reforms with the prime objective of improving parliamentary oversight of activities of the executive while facilitating increased citizen participation in national affairs.
"While these reforms are bearing fruit in making the National Assembly more responsive and representative among other things, we realise that the enhanced communication process that allows Members of Parliament and their constituents in particular to interact more closely is needed.
"In this way, citizens will participate more actively in ensuring that their needs are better represented and their Member of Parliament visits the constituency and eventually actualise development in communities," she said.
Ms Sinyangwe said development to be achieved, a communication strategy was desired that will fill the gaps of communication between MPs and their constituents.
Panos Institute Southern Africa executive director Parkie Mbozi said the communication strategy is crucial due to various interactions and increase in demand for accountability in the governance process.
Mr Parkie said his institution is always pleased to be involved in supporting partner organisations like the National Assembly in improving communication with its various publics.
The communication strategy therefore is one step in the right direction to increase dialogue between citizens, cooperating partners, youths, women special interest groups, the media and MPs as representatives of the people in Parliament.
It is envisaged that the formulation of the National Assembly communication strategy will have a positive impact in bringing the people and their representatives in Parliament closer in fostering development.