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.