Lamia Imam (B.A. Hons and LLB, Canterbury) pursuing a Masters in Public Administration at the LBJ School of Public Affairs (University of Texas at Austin), focusing on election law, empirical & financial analysis of public policy, campaigns and public relations. She previously worked at the NZ Parliament for the Labour Leader’s Office, at the Office of Treaty Settlements, and at the Texas House of Representatives. This month she presented, as part of a team of researchers, on the use of social media by congressional committees at the Congressional Research Service in Washington D.C. and this summer she is undertaking a MBA internship at Dell in Austin, examining Dell’s capabilities to meet the technological needs of K-12 students.
This month, a group of my peers and I presented at the Congressional Research Service on the use of social media by congressional committees. Our team of researchers under the direction of a professor from the LBJ School of Public Affairs examined Tweets and Facebook of posts of all the congressional committee accounts available and analyzed the ‘why’ and the ‘how’. We had a programmer ‘scrape’ all posts from a specified time period and then we coded them to evaluate the data. Overall, our conclusions were that committees were largely using social media to push their party’s political message rather than to promote and talk about actual committee business.
The experience over the last year made me wonder about the function of legislative committees in general in the context of social media. In recent years, just from my cursory observations, there have been several instances where the work of our own select committees has garnered a lot of media attention. Remember when Kim Dotcom appeared before the intelligence and security committee? While I was working in Parliament, certain estimates hearing after the budget would have a lot of media presence and I distinctly remember the high profiled submissions during the passing of the Video Camera Surveillance (Temporary Measures) Act 2011. I was actually in the room when Geoffry Palmer told off Simon Bridges on a point of law as he was submitting. It was priceless and I imagine there’s only a handful of people that remember it.
Unlike the US, New Zealand committees do not come across partisan despite the partisan actions within them. Let me explain that further. When a Bill is referred to a committee, generally the work reflects the party’s position, particularly with politically charged bills such as those relating to asset sales or changes to the Employment Relations Act. However, committees are where opposition can command some power because it is an opportunity for them to influence the final outcome. Minority reports on bills can be a way to push the political message and even force the Government’s hand into changing parts of legislation.
Also unlike the US, New Zealand select committees do not have a social media presence. US House and Senate committees have separate majority and minority accounts, which are often under the control of the chairman and the ranking member respectively. I do not believe that New Zealand would require that level of partisan social media presence of committees, however, a committee account under the direction of the clerk may be useful. New Zealand select committees are a place where collaboration and evidence based policy decisions are made, which run contrary to the adversarial exchange we see on TV or online.
One of the things that we did in our research of congressional committees was to analyze the use of hashtags and outbound communication. Hastags are a good way to aggregate tweets on a topic and committee accounts can often provide the lead specifically related to committee business. So to bring it back to the NZ context, a hashtag would have to be something specific to select committee so as to not get confused by general #nzpol content. With regards to outbound communication, we examined one way and two-way communication. Congressional committees generally limit themselves to one-way communication i.e. pushing their message (‘their’ being the party message rather than committee message in most instances). I don’t envision NZ select committees to behave this way but during public submissions on particular (controversial) legislations or estimates hearings when the Ministers appears, it would be interesting for the committee to get/see feedback via social media.
I know that the Speaker is looking into the use of Twitter during Question Time but I think restriction of social media use when it comes to Parliament is regressive. There are already too many archaic rules that govern Parliamentary process. We need to bring Parliament out into the sunlight, get people involved and engaged, educate the way it works so we can contribute to the committee discussion where real change takes place. Our voice should not be limited to a vote every three years followed by three years of helplessness. Parliament is ours. We the public have every right to engage with it and understand the very institution that governs almost every aspect of our lives. Social media has the power to provide that link that no other tool in history ever has, with as much ease as it does.
As part of the Library of Congress, they provide nonpartisan policy research to Members of Congress just like our Parliamentary Library in New Zealand.