Monday, October 31, 2005

Written questions

DPF responds to my quick and dirty Question Time statistics, pointing out that this is not the be-all and end-all of Parliamentary performance, and that there are often good reasons why MPs do not ask anything:

However oral questions are a bad tool to judge how productive MPs are. If MPs don't ask many oral questions, it is usually not for lack of trying. The larger parties meet every morning to decide what questions will be asked, and who asks them. And often you have MPs try day after day and week after week to get their pet question asked. However if their colleagues don't agree it is a priority, then they don't get the chance. Also even if there is an issue in someones portfolio area, it may be given to an MP more experienced in trapping Ministers.

So you can't label someone an under-performer on the basis of their lack of oral questions.

I fully agree - Question Time is only part of the picture. We also need to look at (for example) whether they ask supplementary questions and whether they speak during debates on legislation. However, both of these are still limited resources, subject to the whims of the party. Fortunately, there's another metric which isn't quite so limited:

A better measure in my opinion would be written questions. Written questions (and OIAs) are how MPs dig up issues and scandals in their portfolio area. No matter how obscure the portfolio, an MP should be continually firing off written questions relating to it. You get to know the portfolio much better, and you often get good material for a release.

I suggested this in my original post on Parliamentary statistics - and the good news is that its fairly easy to gather raw numbers: the Office of the Clerk has a handy search page, and you can cycle through the names. As with Question Time, the database covers the period 13th February 2003 to 2nd of August 2005. The results are here. As before, I've sorted by party, then by number of questions asked.

As expected, government MPs virtually never asked questions. The average number of questions asked by non-government (meaning non-Labour and Progressive) MPs was 599, and the median 330. ACT's Murial Newman is by far the star performer, with almost 4000 questions asked, but there's also a swathe of ACT and National MPs who were extremely active in holding the government to account, with more than 1000 questions each. But there were twenty non-government MPs who submitted fewer than 100 questions over two and half years. Some, such as Clem Simich, Kenneth Wang, Tariana Turia and Donna Awatere-Huata, had excuses (though not good in the latter case). As for the rest - inlcuding Mike Ward, Shane Ardern, and most of NZFirst and United Future - you really have to wonder what they were doing with their time.

Again, I should note that this is not the complete picture, and it should be viewed in conjunction with other data. But looking at the information we have, there are already a couple of MPs who rank near the bottom in both. Maurice Williamson and Doug Woolerton asked exactly zero written questions over the last term, and had only three oral questions between them. So, what exactly are they doing to earn their salaries...?


Just on the Williamson and Woolerton thing, I don't really know what their party roles were, but I think a performance metric has to allow for the role of party managers and whips, who may not ask a lot of questions or speak in debates, but who are instrumental in sorting out the line the party's MPs will vote on a particular issue and making sure that happens.

On written questions too, I think it is important to think about judging this by the outcomes rather than the inputs. Newman may fire off loads of questions and OIAs, but are they just broad 'fishing expeditions' that catch the odd big fish, or is there a policy strategy that her questions materially contribute to developing - just for example...

Mr K

Posted by Anonymous : 10/31/2005 08:27:00 PM

Using verifiable on-line data to evaluate individual "parliamentary performance."
pp=Parliamentary Performance
qa=questions asked
pa=Parliamentary attendence in hours
di=disciplinary incidents (sending outs, "naming")
sw=speaking words (word counts from Hansard)

Each MP could be ranked from 1 upwards best to worst. For opposition MPs only.


Then again Dunne composites his worst offenders list each year so he'll have the info for that. Leaves out so much with crude models.

A great performer may only ask a few questions a year but be the right ones, hit the headlines, get results, bolster credibility to target audience - Ron Mark is usually good at getting value for money, whereas how many of dear Muriel's ravings were of any value? Check out her filthy website if you want to view her effort at a Whangarei Stormfront branch. Since when was a site including the title "debate" have 100% of all content and responses from one extreme side only? I don't want to look again to find out whether that's still true!

Posted by Bomber : 10/31/2005 10:24:00 PM

Mr K,
Muriel was a very hard working MP

Posted by Anonymous : 11/01/2005 03:00:00 AM


I'm not questioning whether she was hard working or not, but this debate is about how to judge performance and lots of hard work does not necessarily equal a good performance, IMHO.

Mr K

Posted by Anonymous : 11/01/2005 09:47:00 AM

Tim: I think the aim of this sort of exercise is to prevent information to the public, rather than produce any general "score". The public can make up their own mind about how many written questions an oral question is worth (particularly if any public database has links).

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 11/01/2005 10:19:00 AM

I/S: "Prevent"=present in your comment immediately above?!

As I say my model is crude and is more quantitative than qualitative so perhaps pp=parliamentary participation rather than performance.

Posted by Bomber : 11/01/2005 12:55:00 PM