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Parliamentary scorecard 2023 and the angles media missed

Our parliaments have for long operated like exclusive priesthoods.

Members of the National Assembly, Senate and county assemblies, once elected, seem to forget they are servants of the people. They resort to the agenda of the Executive, political parties, and personal aggrandizement.

Any attempt by Kenyans to gauge their performance is treated with utmost disdain. It is at such moments that MPs disregard their party differences and close ranks to protect their image. They instantly and intuitively throw a sheath of collective siege over the august House whenever the public torch is shone on the various aspects of their work.

This is why it was encouraging when, on August 9, Mzalendo Trust watchdog launched its 2023 Parliamentary Scorecard highlighting the performance of MPs and senators.

The scorecard analyses the contributions of members and the legislative outputs of the 13th Parliament since being sworn in on September 8, 2022 to June 30, 2023. The study correctly acknowledged that “participation [by members] in Parliament is just one of the several parameters that can be used to judge performance.”

Media houses offered the launch adequate coverage. It would suffice to sample some by pulling out their first two paragraphs, as to reflect the most important aspects – in the estimation of respective platforms – of the Mzalendo report.

Capital News: “Members of Parliament have failed to address the concerns of their constituents eleven months into office, a new report has shown. An analysis into the conduct of lawmakers in the bicameral [Parliament] shows a wide disconnect between the expectations of Kenyans and the legislative output since September 2022 when the MPs were sworn into office.”

Titled ‘15 MPs have never spoken in Parliament – Mzalendo Trust report’, The Star began the story thus: “Fifteen MPs have not made any contribution on the floor of the House since they were sworn in, a report shows … The 15 legislators who have not spoken include MPs who have been highlighted in previous scorecards of the 12th Parliament as having not made a single contribution.” The story had a rider that “[t]he performance is exclusively determined by the number of times individual MPs speak in Parliament and as captured in the Parliamentary Hansard. So far, the rankings cover only plenary proceedings, whose information is readily available to the public.”

It quotes the Mzalendo Trust report as saying that the “[i]nformation on committees’ proceedings is not as readily available. The limited access thus makes it hard to incorporate them into the rankings.”

The Standard went to town with the title, “Oscar Sudi still most inactive MP in Parliament”, and nosed it off, thus: “A report released on Wednesday by researchers Mzalendo Trust revealed glaring misalignment between priorities of Parliament and the expectations of the public. The scorecard on lawmakers analysed their contribution[s] and activities in the National Assembly and response to crucial matters during debate in the plenary.”

NTV Kenya headlined its version as, “Sudi, Aladwa and Arama named least active Members of Parliament”, with an intro: “Kapsaret MP Oscar Sudi, Makadara MP George Aladwa and Nakuru MP Samuel Arama have not uttered a word in any Parliament.”

Daily Nation took a regional angle to the story, titling it, “Nandi, Nairobi, Kisumu and Bungoma shine in inaugural scorecard.” From this, it wasn’t easy to know why the regions were shining, until one read the intro: “Nandi, Nairobi, Kisumu, and Bungoma have emerged as the most active and productive counties in the 13th Parliament, according to the inaugural scorecard released by Mzalendo [Trust], Kenya’s premier parliamentary monitoring organisation.”

Although Mzalendo Trust and the media did their part, there are some areas to improve by both wings.

First, any research that fails to capture members’ roles in committees misses the most crucial work of Parliament. Some of those so-called inactive members could be very effective in parliamentary committees and also back home in running the affairs of their constituents: dishing bursaries to needy children and attending seemingly mundane activities such as funerals and incidental societal functions.

Scouring the Hansard reports is a good thing, but it is the easier and lazy research alternative, since most of that information is public knowledge, anyway. There should be nothing to excite the media about this. Mzalendo Trust should have titled its report more correctly: 2023 Parliamentary Member Plenary Speaking Scorecard.

Second, journalists must be alert to story framing. When, for example, Daily Nation uplifts speaking of members on the floor of Parliament to a regional performance contest, it reveals a challenge in editorial judgment. Pray, why did The Standard isolate Kapsaret MP Oscar Sudi for a title when he was in good company of 14 other mum colleagues?

Lesson learnt? Elective politics is largely about public perceptions. The Mzalendo scorecards must be improved to assess all aspects of MPs’ participation. In any case, the studies usually fail to quantify the quality, relevance, and utility value of the so-called members’ performance on the floor of the House. The total number of times an MP speaks doesn’t necessarily amount to quality activity. This is the anomaly whose repair the media must always push for.

As Woodrow T. Wilson, the 28th President of the USA (1913-1921), aptly put it: Congress in session is Congress on public exhibition, whilst Congress in its committee rooms is Congress at work.”

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