Over last many Sessions of both the Houses of the Parliament and all the Provincial Assemblies, a single most dominant observation that has been consistently coming out is low attendance in sittings. The observation is part of regular updates on parliamentary performance by the civil society organizations like PILDAT and FAFEN in their respective reports.

In the 24th session (27th July to 13th August 2015) of the 14th National Assembly (2013-18), for example, the average attendance of Members at the start of the sittings was noted as 11%, at the end of sittings 15% while the maximum attendance at peak hours was 40% as per a report by FAFEN. Whereas, the Speaker’s attendance was noted as 86%, the Deputy Speaker was present in the House for almost 93% of the total time of all sittings (14) according to the same report.

The most striking revelation of the report was the attendance of PTI Chairman Imran Khan, which remained at zero for the entire session in all of the fourteen sittings. And this is a politician who has been making a lot of noise since last two and a half years for free and fair electoral process. Does that mean that his reform rhetoric is a farce? And that he is least interested in what the election victors need to do between two elections?

Do these statistics mean that the remaining 7% and 14% of the time during the session when the Deputy Speaker and the Speaker respectively, were not present in the House, the House was on its own? Or the Speaker/Deputy Speaker were enjoying cricket match in their TV lounges? If not, how these stats make sense? These reports certainly point towards an important aspect of parliamentary performance. But does that aspect pertain to Members’ attendance? How significant Members’ attendance is in ensuring democratic governance and carrying out parliamentary functions?

It is rather a positive development in country’s parliamentary history that the civil society and the media are not only watching what the parliament does, but are also being proactive in compiling basic data, which they think is significant in estimating parliamentary performance. Pakistan’s democracy, it seems, is at the next stage of evolution where all important stakeholders of polity are convinced of the democratic continuity, and are now trying to bring the focus to the quality of democracy as well as democratic delivery to the most under-privileged.

While this consciousness is commendable, it would be counterproductive and self-defeating if based on wrong benchmarks that we might set for the quality and performance of parliamentary democracy just to fit in with the narrative of powers that are hell-bent on creating a negative image of democracy and of parliamentary supremacy. It can be quite exciting to get statistics like our representatives’ attendance in the parliament, number of legislative proposals that they bring and number of times they speak in the House. But lack of substantive thinking that should be put in to measure performance of the parliament might prove dangerous – even fatal – for the democratic system in the longer run.

Scratching a bit, the surface of these reports produced by otherwise credible organizations, it is revealed how little debate exists within the civil society and the political scientists in Pakistan about localization of the benchmarks globally available for the measurement of parliamentary performance. A good body of knowledge has been developed for this, by UNDP, Inter Parliamentary Union (IPU), the World Bank Institute (WBI) and Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA). Attendance of the Members in most of their work, is product of many factors rather than just their roll of attendance (many countries don’t go for the roll at all) in the House.

In UK for example, the MPs are not obliged by parliamentary rules to attend the House at any time. It is a matter left entirely to the political parties to make demands of their MPs if they want them to attend certain Sessions, Sittings or Divisions. No records are kept of an MP’s attendance at either House of Commons or the Lords; however Members’ voting records can be accessed if someone wants to ascertain their attendance in the chamber. This, although, might give a distorted picture of attendance as they may be present in the chamber and decide not to vote because abstentions are not recorded in Hansard.

Likewise, the transcript of debates in the House (known as Hansard) records only those Members who speak. Not every Member can speak in every sitting or even, sometimes, every session. In that case, by insisting on all the MPs to attend all the sittings, we might actually be making a mistake of asking them to make their presence even if as silent ducks.

This attendance business, anyway, is very shallow if based on just the attendance register. In National Assembly of Pakistan, MPs do not sign a register nor is any roll is called like majority of the parliaments of the world. The attendance rather is marked by the Secretariat staff sitting in the official galleries specifically for this purpose. The attendance is marked as ‘present’ when a Member makes entry to the chamber beyond a certain marked point. Even if for few moments.

The good things that have started happening in the Senate ever since the new Chairman came in, include uploading Senators’ attendance on the Senate’s website. Now everyone can check any senator’s session habits by visiting this link: http://www.senate.gov.pk/members-attendance. But even this depicts the presence in the chamber while the House is in session. Those trying to measure MPs’ attendance of their work need to factor in a number of ‘attendance’ variables that the MPs divide their time for, in order to perform their constitutional roles of legislation, representation and the oversight of the Executive Branch.

These variables might include the number of meetings a particular MP attends of the Committees s/he is member of, the number of hours s/he spends listening to the grievances of the constituent, the number of Divisions (voting within the House on crucial matters where the House is divided on or beyond party lines) participated by the Member, the number of hours s/he spends scrutinizing budget and other documents related to government’s expenditure, its policy implementation and the delivery of the overall governance. And these are just the few.

How would the independent experts and civil society organizations measure it with such a wide spectrum of variables? This is why independent think tanks exist. This is why institutions like Pakistan Institute of Parliamentary Services (PIPS), Senate Forum for Policy Research (SFPR – an initiative of the Chairman Senate) and Parliamentary Research Center of Former Parliamentarians (underway as an initiative of the Speaker of the National Assembly) exist. This is what the Parliamentary Secretariats must assist by making public as much information as possible.

Currently, despite so many great initiatives taken by the Speakers of 13th and 14th National Assembly and the current and previous Senate Chairs, there is much that needs to be done. While knowing how much is in the pipeline in both the Houses, one wishes if these initiatives are replicated y the Provincial Assemblies too. The media and the commentators need to understand the parliamentary democracy much more in depth before totally dismissing its performance in Pakistan however shaky it seems.

@marvisirmed