As the representation of the people's will, parliament serves as an essential link between citizens and the policy making process. Effective two-way engagement with constituents is critical to building trust and ensuring that the legislature responds to the interests and desires of the communities they serve.
In Armenia, a series of recent reforms have shifted incentives and opportunities related to legislative engagement with constituents. In the 2015 constitutional referendum, Armenians adopted a parliamentary form of government rather than the semi-presidential system previously in place. Under this new system, the Assembly’s 101 seats are assigned on a proportional basis with a closed party list. In other words, voters cast their ballots for political parties rather than individual candidates. Furthermore, in 2021, Armenia abolished individual legislative districts; members of parliament (MPs) are now elected to a single national constituency. Under the new system, MPs lack ties to a specific district and, thus, have less incentive to conduct community outreach. While these new political rules may present some benefits, they also tend to weaken the relationship between legislators and constituents, potentially leading to a lack of trust or diminished accountability.
NDI has a strong partnership with the National Assembly, the legislature of Armenia. In 2019, under the auspices of the House Democracy Partnership (HDP), NDI conducted a technical cooperation visit on Legislative Oversight, Citizen Engagement, and Constituent Services. Takeaways from this visit included the need to familiarize MPs with tactics and tools for citizen engagement, as well as the requests from the Armenian National Assembly to assist with the establishment of closer collaboration among women MPs and to enhance staff capacity through more engagement with NDI programming. Since 2020, NDI has organized a parliamentary internship program that has placed interns and fellows in more than 40 MP offices and 10 committees. Building on this relationship earlier this year, the National Assembly requested NDI’s assistance to identify and support options for strengthened constituent engagement.
As part of a broader program of engagement, in 2023, NDI Armenia called on HDP for a return visit aimed at highlighting the value of and good practices for robust constituent engagement. Over the course of three days, MPs and parliamentary staff held a series of meetings in Yerevan with a former U.S. Congresswoman, congressional staffers, and an international expert to explore diverse strategies aimed at making the constituent engagement process more effective.
During the meetings, the MPs and staff acknowledged several challenges to conduct effective constituent engagement, including the need for civic education regarding the role of MPs, and the lack of resources such as limited staffing and budgetary constraints. They further highlighted that most of the public engagement is carried out through political party convenings.
HDP delegates shared successful practices applied around the world. Those suggestions included:
The Open Parliament agenda is a proven approach to connect with constituents. Through that model, the Parliament could co-create an Open Parliament action plan with civil society that includes specific commitments aimed at legislative openness.
The National Assembly could allocate specific days, such as thematic days focused on agriculture or education, to invite the public and involve them in parliamentary discussions;
The National Assembly can actively conduct educational programs to raise awareness about the role of MPs and how the citizens can engage with their representatives;
Organizing events related to upcoming legislation can be an effective way to gather public feedback and establish systematic channels for citizens to contribute to policy-making;
Despite limited resources, MPs can still host informal town hall meetings in public spaces, party offices, cafes, local libraries, or similar areas;
Embracing digital communication tools and social media platforms can also play a vital role in increasing engagement. The delegates shared some effective strategies to maximize social media outreach among constituents;
Introducing online forums or interactive platforms dedicated to specific policy discussions can encourage active citizen participation and input.
The event facilitated a meaningful exchange between members of parliament, parliamentary staffers and the HDP delegates, emphasizing the significance of constitutional engagement and the tools and tactics required to plan and execute effective public involvement. The participants highlighted the benefits of the discussions and expressed their intention to incorporate some of the strategies mentioned above into their parliamentary activities, which will help to foster a more inclusive and responsive governance approach in the National Assembly of Armenia. Additional strategies include opening parliament to the public by organizing tours, conducting more consistent engagement with citizens, creating videos that explain the legislative process, including for schools, and highlighting what MPs do.
Constituent engagement, particularly in a nascent democracy like Armenia, is critical to connecting and informing citizens of the work of their government. NDI’s partnership with Armenia’s National Assembly and programming will continue to find ways to best engage and empower Armenians in the democratic process.
Author: Supun Dahal, NDI Democratic Governance Team
NDI is a non-profit, non-partisan, non-governmental organization that works in partnership around the world to strengthen and safeguard democratic institutions, processes, norms and values to secure a better quality of life for all. NDI envisions a world where democracy and freedom prevail, with dignity for all.