By Alice Plate
“Usually when I tell people I work at the parliament, they think that I take notes like a court reporter.”
Ms Keiba Jacob has been a Procedural Clerk for the Parliament of Trinidad and Tobago for more than seven years and she’s been brought into Papua New Guinea (PNG) with other clerks from Australia, New Zealand and Fiji to share her experiences with colleagues in the PNG Parliament.
She’s part of a two-day training seminar facilitated by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) for PNG’s parliamentary staff in Port Moresby to help them prepare for administering a new government following national elections in July 2017.
Ms Jacob said that getting the general public and members of parliament to understand just how crucial parliamentary clerks are is a big challenge.
“In most jurisdictions, the parliament is responsible for approving public expenditure, so the parliament says ‘yes you can spend $50 million a year’, therefore the parliament through the executive is responsible for ensuring that the money they have allowed you to spend is spent in the manner that was intended.”
“Parliamentary committees are a check and balance on the executive in a particular area to ensure they do what their supposed to do, when they are supposed to do it, to make sure the people get value for money. It’s a critical role,” Ms Jacob said.
Roy Trivedy, UNDP Resident Representative and United Nations Resident Coordinator agrees that committees are the main engine rooms of parliament – where most of its work is done.
“They are significant to all three parliamentary functions – representing citizen interests, legislating, and overseeing the executive branch,” Mr Trivedy said.
In PNG there are more than 30 parliamentary committees undertaking considerable tasks and Mr Trivedy says UNDP is providing support to the PNG Parliament to assist it to modernise processes, practice and procedures to promote effectiveness of Parliamentary Committees.
“Our training is helping ensure Parliamentary Committees are properly organised, staffed and resourced to discharge their duties,” he said.
Ms Jacob said the training being offered by UNDP is vital because there are no formal courses available which provide adequate preparation for parliamentary staff.
“There’s no university to learn legislative studies or what we do, so you can study anything but when you get there you are not going to know what to do and how to do it and that’s why staff development and peer training is critical,” she said.
Held at the State Function Room of Parliament in the nation’s capital, the seminar introduced staff to parliamentary committees focusing on functions, powers, procedures and explored issues that govern the effectiveness of parliamentary committees.
There are many obstacles to overcome for clerks in PNG, with eight staff responsible for 31 committees.
The National Parliament’s Acting Manager of Parliamentary Committees Werner Cohill said the opportunity to upskill and receive training is more than welcome and will help them make their committees more effective.
“It’s very good training and this is the first of its kind for staff. The workshop sets the stage for staff to look for what they need to do to prepare for the new parliament in August 2017,” Mr Cohill said.
He said attending the seminar and sharing experiences has been very worthwhile.
“The training has opened the minds of the staff here and to what their roles are, what is expected from them and what is expected from the chairs, what they have to do in terms of write ups – research and briefs and report writing. Also, defining the relationship between the staff and the chairs – what’s expected from each,” he said.
With extensive experience in the parliament of Trinidad and Tobago, Ms Jacob said she provided some candid advice at the seminar.
“I shared with them that we all have problems and it requires passion and innovation to overcome those problems. You have to want a difference. You have to want to believe that you can make a difference and that you’re doing this, not just for a regular job, that you can make a difference in your country if you get these committees to work,” she said.
Ms Jacob said being an effective parliamentary staffer requires a lot of time, effort and energy.
“You have to keep trying and get constant feedback from members. If members are not coming to meetings you need to ask them why, if they are not reading your briefs, you need to ask them why,” she said.
She said while her parliamentary colleagues in PNG have a big task ahead, it’s achievable.
“I think they have a lot of work to do, but they have done a lot of work and that’s what’s more important,” Ms Jacob said.
The PNG Parliament’s Acting Manager of Parliamentary Committees Mr Cohill is confident that if staff can get the right training and get committees to work then they can make a difference to democracy in PNG.
“In the long run, we are, in one way or another, supporting the parliament’s democratic system we have here and the notion of accountability.”
Mr Cohill is hopeful more training will be provided once the new Government forms in August 2017, for committee chairs and deputies, and their staff, to ensure everyone understands the challenges ahead.
The seminar is funded by the New Zealand Government’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade through the UNDP Pacific Parliamentary Effectiveness Initiative Project.