My biggest surprise after my first elections came from the realisation that being a member of a parliament is a very unique job: nobody can terminate your contract or lower your salary for the period of your mandate regardless of whether you do a lot or do nothing. The only assessment time is the time of renewal of the mandate, i.e. the next elections. But do people have enough information on how to assess whether the member of parliament has done his job well?
I started to think more generally about how one could evaluate the work of an elected parliamentarian. What are the objective criteria based on which it is possible to measure their work? Are there any such criteria after all? Taking into account that Estonians are known to love all kinds of rankings, it would be a good idea to try to clarify, how could MPs or MEPs be evaluated.
The work of a politician is atypical in the sense that the work done and its effect do not always correlate. There may be politicians who – as technocrats – table many amendments, but are not focused on one clearly defined subject. It may also be that a politician is devoted to pursuing only one topic, which means that they may not have quantitatively much to show for.
Generally speaking, with most topics it is difficult to attribute them to only one person. In order to have something approved by the parliament, there needs to be – in addition to the support of the person who initiated it – the support of other members as well. Therefore, eventually it will, however, become vague who had the idea in the first place or who was the initiator (in most cases it tends to be that a good idea has in hindsight many fathers, but a poor idea turns out to be an orphan).
Let’s look at more specific activities of an MP on which to base the evaluation. The work of a member of parliament elected by the people has, by and large, two sides: legislative work in the parliament and meeting with the voters outside parliament. Whereas everyone has equal amount of time to spend, these two sides should be interdependent – when MPs have a lot of legislative work in the parliament, then it follows that they must have less time to meet with the voters and vice versa.
Work in the European Parliament
The European Parliament is not a parliament in the classical sense – it has no opposition nor coalition and the duties of every member are however quite similar. Many tools have been set up to assess the work of the members of the European Parliament by measuring the following: the number of reports, shadow reports, speeches, explanations of vote, letters sent and the questions put to the Commission, resolutions signed, etc. Every week we receive a note on our current ranking among the 751 Members. My assistants keep telling me that we should produce questions simply to have a better ranking position. But why? This is not substantive work!
This kind of quantitative measuring has resulted in the abuse of the system by the Members asking pointless questions. At present, the MEPs put 1700 oral and written questions a week on the table of the Commission, including questions like “How can we stop turtles and cats from getting run over by cars?” This, however, diminishes the capacity of European institutions to deal with questions that have real substance.
There is an overall consensus that an MEP has more influence when he or she can be a rapporteur of a legislative act (directive, regulation or acts given on the basis thereof). It is not at all easy to become a rapporteur, as this is an opportunity for an MEP to have a very direct effect on the process and thereby gain more influence. Committees have different systems – I can only speak from my experience – some that favour the major political groups, some that with an auctioning system allow smaller groups to bid to lead on a report that falls under their priorities.
Those Members, who are active, i.e. participate in the meetings and submit amendments, have a favourable position. And unfortunately, although one should be able to work in the European Parliament in any of the 24 languages, a rapporteur must speak one of the working languages, otherwise it will be difficult to handle the documentation in due time and coordinate the work of the shadow rapporteurs as well as negotiate with others.
An MEP can also act as a rapporteur in matters falling outside EU competence or where the European Parliament simply issues opinions or draws up own-initiative (INI) reports. VoteWatch keeps separate account of that. The INI reports have definitely more weight than opinions, because they give guidance to the Commission in which direction to take in connection with a particular field of politics.
Influence-wise, the next best thing is to be a shadow rapporteur for a report. The task of a shadow rapporteur is to criticize, comment on and complement the work of the rapporteur, but also be responsible for defending their group’s positions.
Amendments or speeches?
When an MEP is interested in a topic and he or she has not been chosen to be the rapporteur or a shadow rapporteur for this document, the MEP still has a chance to influence the legislative process by submitting amendments. Strangely enough, the analysis presented on MEP Ranking website does not take into account the number of amendments tabled by an MEP, although this speaks volumes both about the member’s activeness as well as influence.
VoteWatch, however, does keep records of the number, but not whether the amendments were any way accepted. As some amendments are not put to the vote directly, but as a part of the compromise, the evaluation based on the amendments adopted is somewhat complicated. The substantive analysis of amendments would probably be much more resource-intensive. There is, of course, the danger that some members submit amendments purely for the sake of tabling them, but their preparation still requires an effort.
The most counted and measured aspects is the number of speeches made at the plenary sessions. In my opinion, the number of speeches should be viewed in conjunction with the tabling of amendments and being a rapporteur, as there are a number of MEPs who do not participate in the substantive work, but take actively floor at the plenary. A good example here would be the members from the far right, who keep raising blue cards (for an opportunity to ask the speaker a 30-second question) and are given the floor for spontaneous “catch-the-eye” speeches after the scheduled speeches are over. They are, however, quite invisible when it comes to the substantive work, because they do not prepare reports of real importance and have not excelled in submitting amendments.
On the other hand, one cannot say that the number of speeches counts for nothing. The floor is given according to a rigorous set of rules and, therefore, the number of speeches must say something about an MEP’s work. In the first order the floor is given naturally to rapporteurs and shadow rapporteurs, the remaining time allocated to speeches is divided among different MEP groups on the basis of the D’Hondt method. The allocation of speech time between the Members of one political group is the group’s internal business, but in our group the order is more or less fixed so that after the rapporteurs come the chair followed by vice-chairs and committee coordinators. Thereafter come the Members who belong to the respective committee or delegation and then those MEPs who have contributed actively to everyday less glamorous work, for example prepared the group’s positions on one or the other issue.
If we viewed the number of speeches in conjunction with the number of amendments, we should be able to pinpoint those MEPs who come to the plenary sessions for the show and those who have taken active part in the discussions. According to the MEP assessment system, speeches include explanations of vote, but the latter are, in practice, given by assistants and trainees in order to improve their MEP’s speech ranking (and, as a result, their overall ranking). Therefore, in order to get a clearer picture, we should keep those things apart.
MEP activity analysis websites do not keep account of the MEPs’ speeches made in the committees or at the group meetings, although substantive decisions are taken especially there. This is partly due to the fact that group and committee meetings are not always public.
How to evaluate?
Account is also kept on the MEPs’ attendance, but in my opinion this is not a valid aspect. You could be present at a meeting and still do nothing. At the same time it could be argued that if you are not there, you cannot influence the processes. I dare say that looking simply at an MEP’s attendance record does not tell much. In case there is a strong need to take this into account, then this should be done in connection with the MEPs’ attendance at committee and group meetings. But as it is still possible simply to sign in and leave after that, this does not give an accurate picture of their real work.
To draw a preliminary conclusion, an MEP’s activity in the parliament could be evaluated by the following (in the order of importance):
1) the number of reports;
2) the number of shadow reports;
3) the number of amendments (adopted);
4) the number of speeches at the plenary sessions.
Not only in the parliament
The work of an MP does not consist only of dealing with the legislation in the parliament. A big part of it is also devoted to outside work – to the interaction with the voters. This applies both to Members of the European Parliament as well as members of national parliaments. Before running in the European elections I read a book about the European Parliament where it was pointed out that one of the biggest dilemmas of an MEP is to find a balance between being visible in your constituency and doing substantive work in the parliament. According to this book, the British MEPs are the most visible, but their attendance records are, as a rule, also the worst. In Estonia, we have the same problem, although distances and state-wide media coverage are on a different scale.
There are many ways to keep in touch with the voters. One of them is to have meetings with people. This is not taken into account anywhere. The meetings can be of various types starting from big public gatherings and visits to large organisations to one-on-one contacts. Another way is to publish press releases that give a short overview of the delegate’s activity and are mostly meant to provoke interest and further questions. An op-ed provides an opportunity to explain one’s views in more detail than a press release.
The work outside parliament also entails taking part in political TV programs, but places in these are mostly reserved for group or party leaders or experts in the particular field of discussion. Therefore, a parliamentarian has very little say in the choice of quests.
The weekly overviews cover the presence of MPs in the traditional media, but articles and pieces published in the social media are not taken into account. Before the widespread use of the Internet, politicians had to have access to some national newspapers to have their message communicated, but now social media tweets and messages are recapped also in national media. In other words, the importance of social media (blogs, Twitter, Facebook) in reaching the voters is constantly increasing. If the voters are there, then it is clear that that’s where the politicians must be too. I wish there was an overview on the use of social media by the MPs, i.e. on how many followers every MP has. There is however an overview on MEPs active in the digital sphere here, but I am not sure how many voters are aware of it.
The election day
If the schedules of the MPs or MEP-s were public, it would, perhaps, be possible to make a comparison with other MEP-s or MP-s, but as meetings as well as electorates are different, such transparency would only have the effect of satisfying people’s curiosity about what the MPs do outside parliament. In the end, close contacts with voters are vitally important for any politician who wishes to be re-elected and, therefore, it will probably be measured by the next election results.
It could be argued whether the evaluation or ranking of MPs is reasonable, considering that the final mark is given by the voter on the election day. However, I am of the opinion that in order for the voters to be able to make an informed decision, more attention should be paid to the substantive aspect of the statistics related to the MPs’ work. This would make the public more interested in the work the MPs do and would help to explain its substance. If the work done is surrounded by mystery, then “the employer” might not be able to make an informed decision on the election day about whether to extend the contract with an MP or not.
This article was published in EPToday on 12th of October 2015