Role Of Parliament During The COVID-19 Pandemic

Written by  Henry Ndlovu, May 2020; the original article can be accessed here.


The outbreak of the novel coronavirus (Covid 19), which has become a global pandemic, has profoundly transformed the manner human beings and organizations conduct their daily business. Parliaments across the globe have not been spared from the disruptive effects of Covid 19. However, since Parliament is a creature of the Constitution, its mandate and functions cannot be willy-nilly ‘locked-down’. Hence, despite the constraining situation brought about by Covid 19 preventive measures, Parliaments cannot afford to suspend their cardinal functions indefinitely or for inordinately long periods. Doing so will not only be a dereliction of duty but a breach of their constitutional mandate. Given that the pandemic has necessitated formulation of emergency laws and policies, mobilization and re-allocation of public resources, there is, therefore, a justified need than ever before for Parliament to provide the necessary checks and balances to guard against the excesses of the Executive.

Parliaments, therefore, need to develop and implement innovative ways of conducting their constitutional functions given that their traditional ways of doing business have been rendered practically impossible by Covid 19. This paper seeks to explore some of the innovative strategies that Parliaments can implement during the subsistence of the Covid 19 preventive measures so as to ensure that they continue executing their constitutional mandate.

Impact of Covid 19 on Parliament’s Business

Parliaments across the world generally have three basic functions recognized by law, in most cases the national Constitution, and these are; law-making, oversight and representation. However, the Covid 19 pandemic and in particular, the implementation of preventive measures recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) and other international and national agencies have adversely impacted the conventional ways Parliaments are accustomed to in conducting their business. In carrying out the aforementioned functions, the law and parliamentary procedures require Members of Parliament (MPs) to physically assemble at the Parliament building, or to be precise in the Chamber, during plenary session or in committee rooms during deliberative committee meetings.

However, lockdown measures have severely affected Parliament’s ability to meet physically or in-person yet this is the crucial time when Parliament should be meeting frequently to respond to the rapidly evolving crisis by passing appropriate legislation and approving supplementary budgets in response to the demands of the pandemic as well as monitoring government actions. Otherwise, if Parliaments do not innovate but succumb to lockdown measures, their powers and functions will be usurped by the Executive. In fact, this is already happening in some countries as evidenced by the enactment of statutory instruments and budget reprioritization by the Executive without the involvement of Parliament. As suggested below, Parliaments can still remain relevant and play their constitutional duties even during a lockdown period by adapting to the demands of the current situation.

Many parliamentary jurisdictions recognize and embrace the right of citizens to participate in parliamentary business in various ways and some of these ways involve physical human interaction such as public hearings and oral evidence sessions or briefing sessions. In Zimbabwe, this right is enshrined in section 141 of the Constitution. Parliamentary portfolio committees usually criss-cross the country soliciting the views of the public on Bills and key public policies. The Covid 19 preventive measures create a challenge for this to be done. However, Parliaments can still gather public views through other means such as social media platforms and live radio public hearings as explained in greater detail below.


Main Focus of Parliament during Covid 19

During a crisis or an emergency situation, the role of Parliament cannot be business as usual given that the situation may require a radical shift from Parliament’s current business or routine to the enactment of emergency laws and supplementary budgets to deal with the situation at hand. It is, therefore, postulated here that during the subsistence of the Covid 19 lockdown period, the focus of Parliaments should be redirected to the following key areas;

  1. Enacting emergence laws in response to the pandemic
  2. Approval of supplementary budgets or budget reprioritization
  • Oversight on government borrowings and debt management
  1. Oversight on government decisions and actions with respect to policy formulation and implementation as well as public resource management
  2. Representational role of MPs in Constituencies

Innovative Strategies of Conducting Parliamentary Business during Covid 19

In order to perform the above-mentioned duties during a crisis situation, Parliaments have to adapt their conventional ways of doing things and embrace new strategies as observed by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU)[1] among its members. Some of these strategies involve the following;


  • Physical Sittings of Parliament

Parliaments can still meet physically to transact their business but in a manner that observes the WHO guidelines on Covid 19, particularly the observance of social distancing requirement and the use of appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE). Given the large size of some Parliaments, this may necessitate reducing the number of Members of Parliament (MPs) that may meet at any given time. Parliamentary presiding officers and political parties represented in Parliament can devise an appropriate formula. In this situation, Parliament should only meet to deal with urgent business such as passing a supplementary budget to provide additional resources needed to effectively implement Covid 19 preventive measures. In addition to supplementary budget, it is crucial also for Parliament to approve government’s borrowings during this Covid 19 period as more resources are mobilized either through domestic borrowing or from multilateral lending institutions in order to mitigate the effects of the pandemic. In Zimbabwe, this important responsibility for Parliament is clearly spelt-out in the Constitution, Public Finance Management Act and the Public Debt Management Act. Such sittings of Parliament may also be done if there are urgent pieces of legislation to be passed in response to the Covid 19 pandemic to ensure that decisions and actions taken by implementers are done within the confines of the law.

Besides urgent plenary business of Parliament as discussed above, it is also crucial for relevant Portfolio Committees to continue meeting so as to provide oversight on the Executive. Again necessary measures should be put in place and strictly adhered to ensure that safety of Committee Members and staff attending such meetings is guaranteed. In this case, it is very crucial for the Portfolio Committee on Health to be given a latitude to meet regularly in order to provide effective oversight during the subsistence of the pandemic. This is so because most government efforts and resources are being redirected to the health sector. The Budget Committee and the Public Accounts Committee should also be allowed to meet to ensure that public resources and finance are used transparently and accounted for. It may also be necessary for a Portfolio Committee that deals with social welfare issues to meet in order to ensure that vulnerable members of society; e.g. People with disabilities, orphans, elderly etc, receive government support during the Covid 19 lockdown period. Other parliamentary portfolio committees should only be allowed to meet as and when an urgent need has arisen.

In order to limit the presence of MPs within Parliament’s premises in line with the social distancing requirement, portfolio committees may alternate their meeting days and also committee members can alternate attending these meetings. This can assist in decongesting Parliament’s premises.

  • Virtual Sittings of Parliament

Where Parliaments cannot meet physically even in limited ways as discussed above, the only other possible option is transacting business virtually. For many Parliaments, this may be an uncharted territory and as a result may present some teething problems. However, as noted by IPU, many Parliaments have had to resort to “remote working tools” despite the technical and security challenges involved. Some of the virtual platforms that some Parliaments are employing in transacting their business include Skype, Zoom, Webinar, YouTube, Facebook, Whatsapp among others. Zoom, because of its flexibility to accommodate a large group of participants, has become the most popular social media tool. The British Parliament adopted a policy to temporarily conduct its plenary sittings on Zoom and has since been doing this until mid-May when the policy will be reviewed[2]. South African parliamentary committees have adopted the YouTube platform for conducting live meetings.

As illustrated by the above-cited examples, it is possible for parliamentary committees to transact business without meeting physically but virtually on any platform of their choice to deliberate and make recommendations to the Executive on issues related to Covid 19. Some of the pertinent issues that have come to the fore in many countries since the advent of the coronavirus pandemic, which require the attention of parliamentary committees include;

  1. Additional financial resources to the health sector
  2. Scrutiny of emergency laws
  • Preparedness of the healthcare systems and facilities to manage Covid 19 pandemic
  1. Oversight on the procurement, provision and distribution of PPE
  2. Human rights abuses arising from the enforcement of lockdown measures
  3. Oversight on public finance expenditure
  • Oversight on financial donations/grants for Covid 19
  • Transparency and Accountability regarding social safety nets; identification of beneficiaries, distribution of relief etc
  1. Provision of water and sanitation services
  2. Food production and supply chains (access, availability, affordability of basic commodities and incentives to farmers)
  3. Economic stimulus packages for the industry (sources of funding, terms, etc)

Constituency Activities

Through their representational role, MPs can still perform their constituency related duties during the Covid 19 lockdown period. Many countries have created Covid 19 Response Teams/ Task-forces to coordinate the implementation of Covid 19 measures. These teams operate both at national and local levels and members are drawn from various government departments. MPs have a duty, therefore, to monitor how these teams are carrying out their duties. If they observe challenges or problems in the manner these teams are discharging their duties, MPs will be within their mandate to bring up such issues to the attention of the Executive or relevant institutions in order to have those challenges addressed.

A number of governments have scaled up social welfare programmes to provide social safety nets to vulnerable members of society whose numbers have swelled due to Covid 19 lockdown measures. It is, therefore, within the duty of MPs to oversee the identification of beneficiaries and distribution of social protection relief in their constituencies to ensure transparency and accountability. This will ensure that such social protection assistance reaches deserving beneficiaries and thus guard against corruption and partisan distribution of such relief assistance.

Given that Portfolio Committees cannot conduct field visits to physically assess the preparedness of healthcare facilities vis-à-vis Covid 19, MPs can fill this void in their constituencies and share information so gathered with the relevant portfolio committees through virtual platforms. The relevant committees can then deliberate on the issue and come up with recommendations to the Executive.

MPs can also play a crucial role in raising the awareness of the public regarding Covid 19 and disseminate information in their constituencies regarding measures being implemented by government to combat the spread of the disease. In this regard, MPs can collaborate with civil society organizations (CSOs) and community radio stations to disseminate relevant information to the constituents. In most rural constituencies Whatsapp has proven to be the most popular social media platform. This is, therefore, another tool that MPs can make use of and thus be able to play their representative role despite constraints brought about by Covid 19 pandemic. However, in carrying out their constituency duties, MPs need to be exemplary in adhering to prevention measures so that they are seen to be practising what they preach to their constituents.


There are no signs in the horizons that the Covid 19 pandemic will vanish any time soon given that it takes time to develop effective vaccines. Parliaments should, therefore, adapt to the new reality and realign their procedures and processes accordingly. The only way for Parliament to remain a relevant pillar of democratic governance in the face of Covid 19 pandemic is to harness new technologies in executing its constitutional mandate and functions. Parliament cannot afford to ‘lockdown’ its functions as this gives the Executive the ruse to assume those functions thereby eroding the vital principle of checks and balances. There is need for accountability by government even during a crisis; on how public resources are being used for instance.  This helps to curtail potential Executive excesses of power and public resource utilization or management.


By Pepukai Chivore: Parliament Budget Office- Zimbabwe

“…And they say we have no teeth!” This blog discusses a collaboration between Parliament and the Southern Africa Parliamentary Support Trust in Zimbabwe to institutionalise more meaningful and accountable reporting to Parliamentary Committees from government institutions. Read more…

Realising information opacity from Ministries, Departments, Agencies (MDAs), the Parliament Budget Office (PBO) in Zimbabwe designed a reporting template which has been adopted and institutionalised by Parliament. Bang!! If you don’t report, or don’t provide enough information as required on the template, we name and shame! Parliament of Zimbabwe is mandated by Sections 119(3) and 299 of the Constitution of Zimbabwe (2013) to monitor and oversee all state institutions in order to ensure that all revenue is accounted for and all expenditure has been properly incurred and recorded. This is further buttressed by provisions in the Public Finance Management Act (PFMA, 2009) which compels MDAs to submit monthly and quarterly financial and accompanying reports to their respective portfolio committees.

The PBO’s intervention has assisted in the attainment of the right to social accountability which obliges the state (agent) to justify and explain its public resource management decisions and actions and to take corrective action where weaknesses are observed. This is done through openness and accessibility by the public to information about government activities especially in the use of public resources. Access to information is a fundamental human right which allows people to scrutinize the actions of their government and is the basis for informed debate by Parliament.

Parliament monitors budget implementation by scrutinizing government policies, programmes and expenditure plans in order to ensure that they are in line with legislative intent and are governed by documented policies and procedures. With technical and financial assistance from the Southern African Parliamentary Support Trust (SAPST), we developed, as the PBO, quarterly reporting guidelines for use by MDAs. The guidelines spell out the content expected in budget performance reports with particular emphasis on performance budgeting, which has been the missing component. Information on the guidelines gives Portfolio Committees adequate information and a clearer picture of how each MDA is managing public resources under its jurisdiction. The guidelines were developed after the realization that not all MDAs were complying with reporting requirements to Parliament. Where MDAs complied, the reports were mostly financial in nature with very little or no accompanying information or narratives of the performance matrix vis-à-vis set targets.  This is complemented by a report tracking tool which acts as a dashboard for everyone to see who is reporting and who is obstinate.

The guide borrows heavily from the Public Service Accountability Monitoring (PSAM) rights-based approach on social accountability monitoring framework, which focuses on the entire public resource management system of the State.

The PBO goes further to assist Parliamentary Committees in analysing the reports and providing options to the Committees to ensure transparency, accountability and probity in the utilisation of funds. As a result of this intervention, there has been an increase in reporting compliance by MDAs, from 4 % (5 out of a possible 112 reports) in 2016 to 39% (41 out of a possible 105) in 2018 giving an overall compliance rate of 39%. In 2019, compliance rate stands at 68%( 30 out of a possible 44).

The analysis of reports by the PBO has also enhanced Committees’ capacity in playing their oversight role on the Executive. There has thus been an improvement in the quality and content of reports. The reports are uploaded on the Parliament website for everyone with internet access to see how MDAs are utilising public resources allocated to them. The idea behind sharing these reports is to enhance transparency, out of which an informed citizenry will develop a demand conscience that ultimately puts pressure on government to deliver.

This intervention has entrenched a culture of reporting in MDAs. As the PBO, we are also working with the supply side (MDAs) with a view to improve the quality of reporting through undertaking continuous capacity building of accountants and Finance Directors in the MDAs. We have observed and learnt from our intervention that embedding transparency practices in laws, rules and procedures sets a good framework to guide behaviour. Although this may be contested, we put forward that it is important to legislate for everything rather than leave it to the goodwill of the Executive. We have also learnt that Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) play a crucial role in oversight through a parallel process of analysing budgets and government policies. Their analysis feeds into Parliament debates as well as them seizing any opportunities for dialogue provides a firm basis for sustained advocacy for increasingly transparent fiscal policies. On the strength of such an intervention, citizens can engage duty bearers on the basis of evidence and participate proactively and effectively in governance processes.

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South Africa needs a functioning parliamentary budget office: now’s the time to fix it

Article by Seán Mfundza Muller, Senior Lecturer in Economics and Research Associate at the Public and Environmental Economics Research Centre (PEERC), University of Johannesburg

South Africa’s Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO) is in complete disarray. In the 10 years since it was established by law, and the five years it has been in operation, the Office has failed to adhere to key principles of institutional and political independence, technical credibility and transparency. For these and other reasons it has failed to give parliamentarians, and the public, a credible alternative analysis of South Africa’s public finances.

With the swearing-in of a new Parliament and president, there is a chance to change this for the better. The first six months will be crucial. They will determine whether the Office can be set on a path that will lead to a proud institutional legacy. If not, the institution will be a waste of public money that generates mediocre and politically compromised analysis – in which case it should be euthanased.

South Africa’s parliamentarians may look further afield for inspiration. For example, the history of the American Congressional Budget Office illustrates what’s possible. Its founding director, Alice Rivlin, who died last week, was not just an accomplished bureaucrat. She was also an economist of calibre in her own right. And the legacy she left in the form of the US Congress’s budget office is one of a technically and politically credible institution that plays an important role in that country’s democracy.

Parliamentary budget offices have been established in many countries. They can play a valuable role in any democratic system by providing impartial, expert advice to parliamentarians about public finance issues in a transparent manner. This strengthens oversight of government’s public finance decisions by parliamentarians and civil society.

South Africa’s is in urgent need of reform. The Constitution envisages a fundamental role for Parliament in holding the state to account and ensuring the voices of citizens and civil society are heard beyond elections. With the current state of the economy and public finances, there are few areas more in need of credible, robust oversight.

The Parliamentary Budget Office could play a major role in ensuring that this happens. But to do so it must be a technically credible institution that is entirely independent of political influence. Unfortunately, the first opportunity to do this was squandered – resulting in 10 lost years.


The creation of South Africa’s own parliamentary budget office by the Money Bills Act in 2009 was an important step. But the process of its establishment was flawed from the start. And those failures have recently been compounded and concealed.

One thing that is clear is that since its establishment the PBO has been in thrall to political influence – most notably from factions within the majority African National Congress (ANC). Such political influence also appears to have obstructed any clean-up of the office.

The problems around the appointment of a credible director illustrate this well.

In 2018 the ANC in Parliament rushed through, with no public consultation and no serious consideration of his performance, a reappointment of its first director. A few months later, shortly after the completion of a forensic investigation into a range of alleged irregularities, he resigned.

The director’s post has now been vacant for almost nine months with no attempt to fill it. Initially Parliament said a series of acting directors would be appointed to give internal deputies a chance – a terrible argument. But even that has reportedly not been done, leaving the post vacant and Parliament arguably in violation of its own law.

The committees responsible argued that they wanted to let the new Parliament choose its own director, but that implies the post will be filled based on political considerations which it should not be. Furthermore, while the reappointment of the previous director was brief, it allowed him to reappoint staff whose contracts would have ended. This deprived any new director of the opportunity to appoint staff untainted by the institution’s recent history.

Meanwhile, the Parliament spokesperson has sought to obscure the existence of the forensic investigation. The final report is yet to be placed in the public domain and there is no indication that any action has been taken.

Another big challenge is the fact that under the previous director an informal advisory board was created that was composed of only ANC MPs. This was arguably illegal at the time. Recent amendments to the Office’s founding legislation have ill-advisedly formalised this politically homogeneous structure in law and given it the power to appoint an acting director.

Concerns were raised about this during the public consultation process, but inexplicably ignored. The implications of that are now becoming apparent.

The former house chairperson who oversaw the original, invalid board, Cedric Frolick, was expected to be replaced by Nomvula Mokonyane. Both have been implicated in corruption during the State Capture Inquiry.

While it has recently been reported that Mokonyane has withdrawn from Parliament of her own accord, it remains to be seen who will replace her. If anyone deeply implicated in corruption oversees the appointment of an acting director it could sound the death knell for the Office.

On the positive side, under law the multiparty committees of finance and appropriations retain responsibility for recommending a new director. Who the ANC appoints as chairpersons of these four committees will be important – for the Office and public finance oversight more generally. Another potential positive is that the new Speaker, Thandi Modise, has a better reputation for non-partisanship than her predecessor.

While the Speaker has little direct responsibility for the budget office in law, within the political structures of Parliament they can either hamper, or enable, committee chairpersons in acting in accordance with their legislated duties to oversee a functional and nonpartisan Office. But at this point it is unknown whether Modise was complicit in past inaction and the active shielding of the Office and its director from accountability.

If the new Parliament is to do better, the appointment as director of a technically credible economist who is robustly independent and of the highest ethical repute will be crucial. Implementation of amendments to the Money Bills Act, which explicitly establish the Office as a juristic entity, will also be important.

Civil society and the public at large should pay close attention to both matters in order to ensure that the institution is not compromised a second time. The experience of other countries suggests that if the ANC under President Cyril Ramaphosa ensures the Office is established credibly, it could turn out to be one of his most valuable democratic legacies in decades to come.The Conversation

Seán Mfundza Muller, Senior Lecturer in Economics and Research Associate at the Public and Environmental Economics Research Centre (PEERC), University of Johannesburg

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Promoting Social Accountability in Southern Africa – What Works?

The report Best Practices in Strengthening Social Accountability in and Oversight Capacity for Rights-Based Public Resources Management in Health (SRHR) and Agriculture (Food Security) in Southern Africa’ documents and analyses key approaches undertaken by the Partnership for Social Accountability (PSA) Alliance in each of its four target countries (Malawi, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe) during the first phase (2016-2019) of the regional project.

PSA Alliance consortium member SAfAIDS utilised its comprehensive and widely respected best practice documentation methodology to assess one intervention in each of the four countries. Recognising the innovative design of the project, the exercise sought to draw upon and deliberate ‘what works’ and what the ‘picture of success’ looks like, as well as identify unintended outcomes and recommendations to inform future programming, policy decisions and funding, both for the next phase of the project as well as other similar projects in the region. Between September – November 2018, the PSA Alliance interventions were assessed using a participatory documentation process. Selected interventions were assessed against a seven-point criteria, including effectiveness, cost-effectiveness, relevance, ethical soundness, replicability, innovativeness and sustainability.

The report concludes that the PSA Alliance has realised notable achievements in strengthening capacity for social accountability among parliaments, media, local government, traditional leadership, CSOs, and farmers organisations. The four (4) best practices provide evidence that through the project interventions communities are now more structured to exercise their accountability roles through health committees in Tanzania and Mozambique and, for women smallholder farmers, to critique and effectively raise concerns on the farm input support programme (FISP) in Zambia. Additionally, the unique facilitation approach employed by the project led to the establishment of the parliamentary budget office (PBO) in Malawi where other efforts have failed. Overall, the report indicates the strength of the PSA Alliance approach is in its creation and work through multi-stakeholder partnerships, which have effectively generated trust, buy-in and sustainability.

Tanzania: Supporting social audits and community interface towards re-establishment of Health Facility Governance Committees in Kilosa and Mbozi districts of Tanzania

The PSA Alliance project in Tanzania facilitated the re-establishment of Health Facility Governing Committees (HFGCs) in the districts of Kilosa and Mbozi. Community score cards previously conducted in the two districts identified that health funds at facility level were not properly managed, due to a lack of functioning HFGCs. The project supported the local government to organize public meetings for citizens to confirm or elect HFGC members. Twelve HFGCs were re-established (5 in Kilosa and 7 in Mbozi). After the reestablishment, all members were trained on their roles and responsibilities with clear linkages to the social accountability monitoring (SAM) model.  Success in establishing the committees was realised through facilitation of community participation in social audits and interface meetings and engagements.

  • Watch a documentary explaining the impact of the committees in the Kilosa District.
    Read the Tanzania section of the best practice Report.

Zambia: PSAM as Transformative Tool to Improving Agricultural Service Provision: Case of FISP in Zambia

Through the PSA Alliance, smallholder farmers, particularly women, were trained in social accountability and advocacy at the community level, with the aim of promoting their effective participation and contribution in public engagements on the delivery of the Farm Input Support Programme (FISP). Thereafter, the project supported the hosting of community interface meetings, where community members and the duty bearers discussed concerns with the FISP design and delivery. Through the interface platforms, the assertiveness of women smallholder farmers has improved, enabling them to mobilize their communities to raise issues directly with duty bearers.

  • Watch a documentary highlighting the approach in Zambia.
    Read the Zambia section of the best practice Report.

Mozambique: Establishment of Health Committees in Chibuto District of Mozambique 

The PSA Alliance led the establishment of health committees in four communities in Chibuto district, Gaza province. The project provided the committees with capacity training on social accountability, followed by support to engage in community awareness raising events on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), and monitoring of service delivery within health facilities. Communities are now demanding change based on their monitoring and promoting positive change in SRH service delivery.

  • Watch a documentary on the actions of the health committees in Chibuto district.
    Read the Mozambique section of the best practice Report.

Malawi: Supporting the Establishment of the Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO) in Malawi

The PSA Alliance undertook an innovative approach, based on a thorough power analysis, to generating support for the establishment of a parliamentary budget office in Malawi. In partnership with the Speaker of Parliament, the project’s efforts led to the formation of an inter-ministerial and parliamentary task team to coordinate and lead the establishment of the PBO. While previous efforts to establish a PBO have failed over the past 16 years, the PBO finally became a reality in 2019.

  • Watch a documentary on the strategy to establish a PBO in Malawi.
    Read the Malawi section of the best practice Report.