Image by Crystian Cruz. The facade and portico of the Parliament building in cape Town, South Africa

Keeping an eye on the parliament in South Africa

People’s Assembly is a project of the non-governmental organisation The Parliamentary Monitoring Group (PMG) in South Africa.

The website provides citizens with an easy way to see who their MP is, find out how to contact them, and view everything they have said in Parliament. It runs on the Pombola codebase.

People’s Assembly has been running since 1998, but the discovery of Pombola in 2012 was to bring about a sea change, as Gaile Fullard, Executive Director of PMG, explains:

We came across mySociety’s own site TheyWorkForYou in 2011 when researching parliamentary monitoring organisations, and met up with them during a study exchange in 2012.

This was before the open data movement had reached South African NGOs, and it was a complete eye-opener what this coding wizardry called Pombola could do for our work.

The background

So, in 2013-14, mySociety worked with PMG to install the Pombola codebase for People’s Assembly. The result has, to some extent, revolutionised the way citizens engage with politics in the country, says Gaile:

The South African electoral system is not constituency based. Our MPs tend to be rather anonymous as they are elected via party list, and loyalty to their party must be 100%. This has led to South African MPs being remarkably unknown to the public — and unaccountable.

Previously, our way of tackling this was to write up detailed reports from the 50 parliamentary committees and make these available to the public. But Pombola can automate this process. It teases out the comments made by a specific MP and compiles them into a profile showing how often that MP has spoken and what they said.

Pombola has given us a completely new dimension for monitoring the South African Parliament, allowing us to advocate for MP accountability.

Pombola creates a database of Parliamentary people and activity that can be sliced multiple ways.

That means that users can find MPs by name, constituency or by browsing debates. And, from an MP’s profile, it’s easy to find all his or her speeches and search through the text to find the points of interest.

Screenshot of the South African Pombola website, People's Assembly

The process

mySociety were heavily involved in the project, visiting South Africa to engage in user testing before the build, and then providing ongoing support and development. We don’t always work this way with partners, but in this case it was the appropriate route for both sides.

Gaile again:

It was logical to work with mySociety as they are pioneers in the field and have experience working with organisations across the world.

They not only ensured that the codebase matched the specific needs of our political system, but also monitored and evaluated our website, conducting user surveys and user-testing groups.

As well as Pombola, People’s Assembly uses mySociety’s MapIt software, which matches  geographic locations with the relevant representatives.

That means that citizens can find out who the MP is that has been assigned to do constituency work in their area — and allow them to give feedback.

The site’s been up and running since February 2014. mySociety continue to support us: just this month they helped optimise our marketing campaign via a GoogleAds grant so we that more people can find our website.

Set up your own Parliamentary Monitoring website with our help Find out more

Good results

Gaile is certain that the improvements brought about by Pombola have contributed to raising the profile of People’s Assembly. Here are some of the effects they’ve seen:

We’ve been invited to be part of the legislative working group for the Open Government Partnership, a group of 65 governments who have signed up to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance.

And a leading South African political journalist tweeted to her 28,000 followers:

Almost every day I give thanks to @PeoplesAssem_SA. If you’re interested in Parliament, is *the* most useful website.

— Rebecca Davis (@becsplanb) June 24, 2015

We’ve entered into a partnership with LivitySA to train their youth reporters, share content and promote the People’s Assembly website.

We’ve been able to have more dialogue with our Parliament, gaining access to data that is not being made public such as MP attendance and the lists of constituency offices to which each MP has been assigned.

And last but not least: MPs and MPLs are slowly coming forward to engage with us about updating their profile pages.

 What next?

We’ll continue to work with PMG, keeping in touch through our mailing list, email and online hangouts.

As time goes on, we expect People’s Assembly to need less help from us, but PMG will be a valuable part of our community, sharing their experience with other parliamentary monitoring organisations around the world, helping us with our research into impact, and feeding back on feature suggestions as we continue to develop Pombola.


Set up your own Parliamentary Monitoring website with our help Find out more

Image: Crystian Cruz (CC)