What did TDs do and who did they represent in the previous Dáil?

Just a quick post to provide some findings from the survey of members  (follow link for complete details) in the previous Dáil discussed on last night’s Frontline. Basically, there are no such things as social/political ‘facts’. But when it comes to the ‘role of a TD’ debate – it’s nice to have some evidential basis for discussion (which was lacking in much of last night’s debate).

We asked TDs how they divided their time between ‘legislative’, ‘constituency’, and ‘other’ work activities.  75 TDs responded to our survey. We found that TDs report that they spend an average 53% of their working time on constituency-based work, 38% on legislative work, and 9% on ‘other’ work.  Also, when asked to evaluate the importance of each activity to them, TDs ranked three constituency activities (casework, visiting/leaflets, and lobbying) higher than any legislative activity.

When we asked TDs to subdivide their ‘constituency’ activities, and by far the largest category, at 40%, was ‘working on individual constituents’ cases’, while ‘visiting your constituency/delivering leaflets’ and ‘lobbying on behalf of the general interest of your constituency’ were on about 25% each, on average. So, if the average TD spends 53% of her time on ‘constituency work’ and 40% of her constituency time on casework, then she spends  just over 21% of her overall working time on constituency cases. This was by far the most time-consuming single activity of the 9 that we identified. 

When it comes to TDs’ ‘legislative work’ the picture is rather more fragmented. Committee work, preparing and researching legislation/amendments, and participating in Dáil debates were the top 3 activities in terms of time consumed – taking up 26%, 23%, and 22% respectively. 

We were even able to do some nerdy political science stuff with the data, which gave us some interesting insights into the role of the Irish electoral system in all of this. We sought to find out if having a same-party ‘running mate’ in one’s constituency influenced the amount of constituency work performed. We did so because most of the criticisms of PR-STV revolve around the fact that it pits co-partisans against each other in a battle for constituency votes and that this dynamic means that TDs are unable to focus their attentions on national politics.

We found that having running mates does influence levels of constituency work, and that it does so quite strongly. Of 19 TDs who had no running mates in the 2007 , the average level of constituency work was 41%. This jumps to over 60% for the 28 TDs in our sample who had two or more running mates. We performed a statistical analysis controlling for other relevant factors and it revealed that it is very unlikely (less than 5% probable) that this association is due to random chance. 

Finally, when we asked TDs to rank the groups that they felt that ‘a TD should primarily represent’, it emerged that TDs were strongly in favour of a constituency-specific (rather than a national) idea of their representative role. Constituency groups (all voters in constituency, all TD/Party voters in the constituency) collectively received 63 ‘1’ rankings. National groups (all voters in country/all voters for TD’s party in country) only received 12 ‘1’s while the idea that a TD should represent a specific ‘social group’ was the lowest ranked option, with only 3 ‘1’ rankings (some TDs gave more than one item a ‘1’ rank).     

So, what does all of this tell us? It’s certainly an interesting snapshot of how Irish TDs in the previous Dáil spent their time and how they thought about their role. The fact that those with running mates spent more time in their constituency than those without probably tells us a lot about the pressures TDs face to be responsive to their area. The figures also show how impotent TDs were in terms of influencing the path of the county. The fact that dropping off leaflets in one’s constituency was viewed as more important than researching legislation and legislative amendments tells, to my mind, a depressing story.

It seems to me that the TDs in the last Dáil were caught between two stools in a broken political system.  On the one hand, there is pressure from below: local government in Ireland is basically defunct, and many parts of the state apparatus are unwelcoming to the public that they are meant to serve. So TDs face constant demands to play a ‘brokerage’ role in the individual lives of their constituents. It seems that going to one’s TD is a normal procedure for obtaining medical care, social welfare, and even facilitating a passport application. Non-response to these demands by TDs is met with rejection at the polls, especially when co-partisans are looking to build up their own political base. PR-STV has a role to play here – but only in that it captures citizens’ preferences for one individual over another within the same party (just as many ‘open’ list electoral systems across Europe do). Irish citizens themselves have to take accountability for their actions in voting for TDs on the basis of their work on the ground, and not their policy ideas or actions in the parliament. 

As well as this ‘pressure from below’, there is an ’emptiness above’. The emasculation of the parliament by the executive means that the Dáil was little more than a talking shop in many of its activities – the real decisions were made elsewhere and deputies sheepishly followed the whip on nearly all matters.

Given this convergence of pressures, it is unsurprising that TDs in Ireland are generally constituency-focused in what they do and how they see their role.

So, can this change? Can TDs engage their constituents on national issues, understand their opinions and interests, and let these opinions and interests  inform their work in the Dáil to make the country a better place for everyone to live in? At this point it’s hard to say. There are some great ideas out there. For the ‘pressure from below’ issues, I think that Johnny Fallon’s idea for allocating TDs space in Citizens’ Advice Bureaus (rather than giving them funding for individual constituency offices) has great promise as a device for ending the relentless ‘race to the bottom’ of constituency work. More powerful local government with more use of internet technology to facilitate responsiveness is also promising – Fine Gael had some interesting ideas about a ‘fixmystreet.ie’ website. For those of you who are interested – here is what the UK version looks like: http://www.fixmystreet.com/ 

Some of the proposals for Dáil reform proposed by the current government parties are also promising – especially in terms of enhancing its oversight role, and changing the order in which legislation passes through the Dáil, both of which would involve making the committees more powerful actors.

Having worked with a Dáil committee I am convinced that they are the way forward for our parliamentary democracy. They give members a chance to become deeply informed on a policy area – allowing them to consult experts and examine how things are done elsewhere in the world. They permit time for constructive discussion, rather than scripted debates where nobody is ever persuaded (i.e., what happens in nearly all Dáil plenary sessions). Finally, they allow for innovative consensus solutions to be built and proposed to the entire Dáil for debate. 

Using this approach, TDs from outside of the government parties can have a constructive and important role to play in formulating public policy. TDs can also have a communicative role stemming from their committee work – they have to explain the policy area and defend their stance on it to their own party and to their constituents. 

But will these proposals ever become reality? That is very hard to say – because those at the top of the political system have (on average) been working in that system for a very, very long time. Will they be able to countenance reforming a system that brought them to power? Watch this space.     

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6 thoughts on “What did TDs do and who did they represent in the previous Dáil?

  1. This presents some very useful evidence – and contributes much to the debate on these issues. Many thanks. It is unfortunate that less than half of the House agreed to participate – and raises the usual question about the representativeness of this self-selecting sample. But the findings seem to confirm widespread anecdotal evidence.

    I am fully in agreement with your concluding paragraphs (no surprise there given previous form), but I think it might be useful to consider (I’ve raised this previously) how and what incentives might be devised to encourage sufficient support throughout the Dail to increase the powers and resources of Cttees. We will be waiting if we are to rely on any movement from the senior levels of any of the factions. The honeyed words and pious platitudes will drip from their lips, but nothing will be done. Indeed they will work furiously behind a flurry of public interest rhetoric to ensure nothing of any substance is done.

    To ensure some progress all it requires is for the realisation to dawn on all backbench TDs (in the main those whose ministerial ambitions have been twarted and those who have a negligible expectation of achieving that rank) that exercising the ultimate auhtority the people have conferred on them to hold government to account, to subject it to scrutiny and to ensure a proper testing and contest of its proposals are as important as – if not more important than – exercising that ultimate, but delegated, authority to govern.

    Those who would be elected by secret ballot to chair suitably empowered and resourced Cttees ahould be accorded the same respect and prestige accorded to ministers. Perhaps TDs are too subject to the tyranny of faction that they fail to recognise that they have the power to create the conditions that would award these prizes – and that personal ambition could coincide with the public interest. Maybe the penny will drop eventually. It surely has not escaped them that the unrestrained exercise of governance has gotten us into the current mess.

    • Thank you, Paul. On the representativeness – definitely would have loved a higher response rate – but it’s always hard to get MPs/TDs to respond unfortunately.

      On your other points I agree – an election by secret ballot of Ctte chairs would, by itself, massively enhance the prominence of the role.

      The amazing thing is that the Dáil like any system where the majority are excluded from power – it can only happen with their own collusion (either tacit or active). The TDs themselves, all 166 of them, each has the power to make the Dáil something that we can be proud to call our legislative chamber.

      • Agree. For me, this has come full circle. I have always believed that the only people who have the power to make any changes are the 166 TDs who are elected and, irrespective of the quality and quantity of external campaigning, analysis or comment, it is they who must form a view on their role and then decide. By force of habit those who elect a government from among them are either compelled or obliged to provide uncritical support. Those on the losing side feel compelled or obliged to maintain adversarial opposition frequently irrespective of the merits or detriments of specific proposals. The fact that this ritual has ill-served the public interest should compel them to consider what they are empowered to do and capable of doing in the public interest. If they think the devastating and precisely delivered verdict of the people on 25 Feb. was limited to a change of personnel in the Cabinet, of the identity of special advisers and of the factional dispositions in the Dail, the governing factions need to think again. The laudable and abiding faith of the Irish people in the democratic process should not be tested to destruction.

        The other key output in your research is the requirement to reform and empower local government to relieve and protect TDs from this ‘pressure from below’. This again will require a sea change in entrenched attitudes. But again it’s down to our TDs.

        As always I oscillate between hope and despair. I just don’t know what more can be done to encourage them to open their eyes.

  2. I apologise for appearing to hog this thread, but I might be permitted one more observation – and a suggestion.

    The editors and principal contributors on this board have performed an enormous public service to date. There is now, following the election, a programme of government in place – which, in the context of political governance, contains elements advanced consistently by the principal contributors here and whose implementation will require monitoring.

    What we now need is a ‘programme for restraint and scrutiny of government’ and a ‘programme for the devolution of central government to the local/regional level’. These are programmes that no government will willingly pursue; these are primarily for TDs not on the governing or opposition front benches.

    Occasionally, we have benefitted from the participation of TDs on threads here – but it has been sporadic and limited. If there is any agreement on the necessity of the ‘programmes’ I have identified above, is there any potential to engage more effectively with TDs to explore the possibility of developing these programmes?

  3. That’s a great suggestion, Paul. A first priority in any such campaign would be to identify the key decision maker(s). Not being in Ireland, maybe I’ve missed something, but it seems to me as if nobody is actually in charge of pushing through the PFG reform committments. Brendan Howlin has a role in public sector reform – but I’ve no idea if his remit extends to political reform.

    Also, do you (or any other readers/contributors) have any idea for broadening the reform movement to include a larger portion of the Irish public? What sort of event or organisation could play that role? There are many small reform groups but they are currently fragmented and have few resources.

    • Matthew, I’m pleased you see some merit in my suggestion. And you’re right about the PFG reform commitments. Everybody in government is responsible; and nobody specifically is responsible. The ball is being placed on the kicking tee for a mighty hoofing into the long grass.

      The first step is to separate the PFG reform commitments into those that ideally should be initiated by the Department of the Taoiseach and those that should, more properly, be initiated by the Dail (even if the Government were subsequently to adopt them). The second level separation is of those that require amendment to the Constitution before they may be enacted from those that may be enacted directly.

      And you’re right about the need to keep these commitments to reform in the minds of the public. The imminent final (?) bank restructuring will distract attention for some time – and this might suit the Government, but it is important to keep the pressure on.

      I still think that communicating to the all backbench TDs the incentives to, and benefits (both personally and in the public interest) of, reform (and the potential downsides of a failure to reform) could be a fruitful approach.

      The irony is that, while it is possible for citizens to engage directly with their individual TDs, it is not possible for citizens to engage collectively with all TDs – in particular, backbench TDs. The message is simple: “we have delegated our ultimate authority to you for possibly 4 to 5 years; the Dail is yours; you have elected a government; now use your delegated powers in the Dail to reform its procedures in our interests – and in yours.”

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