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Rhodes > English Language and Linguistics > Latest News

Clashing mindsets in Parliament

Date Released: Thu, 22 September 2011 00:00 +0200

Civil servants from government departments and state-owned entities are often asked to make presentations in parliament.  This is one of the ways in which parliament does its job of overseeing government.  Ian Sieborger from the Rhodes Linguistics department has found that these presentations can be filled with misunderstandings and tension.

Ian is studying the effectiveness of spoken and written communication in the South African parliament, and presented one part of his study at a Linguistics Departmental Research Seminar (DRS) on Tuesday 30 August.  In his presentation, he talked about how a lot of the miscommunication in parliament happens because presenters and the members of parliament (MPs) they present to have two conflicting mindsets.

The presenters want their presentations to be seen as organized, complete wholes which "work" and do not need to be interfered with, like a black box which simply needs to be plugged into a system and will do its job fine without being opened or unpacked in any way.  But the MPs' job is to open the black box and question what is inside it.  They need to ask questions about the details of a presentation as part of their oversight role.

Ian gave the example of a meeting in which the chief financial officer (CFO) of a state-owned entity presented a very vague budget to a parliamentary committee.  A couple of MPs on the committee asked him why one item on the budget, human resources, was so big (it took up over 50% of the budget) and suggested that improper expenditure was concealed under that budget item.  The CFO replied by giving them virtually the same information that he had given in his presentation.  This dissatisfied the MPs, who asked him to return to a later meeting and provide them with a more detailed breakdown of what was in the budget.

Ian’s study shows that presenters to parliament need to come with plenty of extra information at their fingertips so that they can answer MPs’ questions and deflate criticism against them in committee meetings.  Meanwhile, MPs should understand that presenters’ reluctance to answer questions may not just be an indication that they have something to hide.  This reluctance could simply be a natural by-product of the way in which the presenters seek to put together their presentations into a neat, self-contained whole.