Measuring TDs’ Dáil activity rates - the method behind the data

Information is compiled using official records released by the Houses of the Oireachtas

 

Earlier this week, we published an article detailing the number of Dáil debates and committee meetings in which TDs had spoken during 2014.

The piece also included an analysis of the use of parliamentary questions - which highlighted huge differences between TDs.

To compile the necessary data, we used KildareStreet.com, which was set up by John Handelaar and Gavin Sheridan in 2009. The website automatically tracks official records released by the Houses of the Oireachtas, and uses a specially designed set of algorithms to collate the information into statistical packages.

The pair took inspiration from the TheyWorkForYou website in Britain, which was established to improve public accountability and transparency of governance in the United Kingdom.

The developers of both sites make all data compiled publicly available, and they have an open source code policy for anyone looking to replicate their operations in other jurisdictions.

KildareStreet.com’s numerology section accounts for everything from TDs’ speaking frequency to the reading level of their speeches. Using some old-fashioned elbow grease, we were able to create a database of information for individual members of Leinster House (who were there for the whole year), as well as Dáil and party averages for speeches and questions throughout 2014.

Overall, it was found that Government TDs were less inclined to contribute to Oireachtas discussions than their Opposition counterparts. Labour deputies averaged the lowest in terms of speaking figures at 51, followed by coalition counterparts Fine Gael (63).

Fianna Fáil (105), Independents (107) and Sinn Féin (123) were ranked highest.

It was much the same for written questions answered during 2014, with Labour on 158 each, Fine Gael on 208, Sinn Féin on 356, Independents on 441 and Fianna Fáil the best on 510.

My use of the term “the best” to describe those with a high number of written answers rankled with some politicians.

Fine Gael backbencher Ray Butler, who received just three written answers throughout 2014, suggested this method of obtaining information was merely a waste of taxpayers’ money. He contended that individual questions may cost as much as €200 to €400 to process.

His observation was echoed by fellow backbenchers Helen McEntee and Joe O’Reilly, who maintained that any information they sought could be retrieved informally and free of cost by liaising with the relevant Government departments. They also said that parliamentary questions were primarily tailored for Opposition TDs who are not in a position to avail of similar links.

However, their view was challenged by fellow Fine Gael TD Bernard Durkan, who asked the most questions and spoke in more discussions than anyone else in the house. Aside from the industrious Mr Durkan, who received almost 3,000 written answers to questions posed, Fine Gael TD for Kerry South Brendan Griffin also asked more than 1,000 questions, lending credence to the perspective that official methods of accountability are not the preserve of Opposition actors.

Speaking from an expert perspective, DCU’s Dr Eoin O’Malley broached the theory that some representatives use the system in a pseudo-clientelistic manner to appease constituents who are looking for answers.

A more detailed search revealed that although some TDs’ questions are predominantly motivated by national or departmental considerations, others chose to dedicate an inordinate amount of questioning to local concerns.

Finally, the detail of speeches made also provided an insight into the peripheral contributions of former high-profile government figures, who found themselves relegated towards the rafters of Leinster House and away from the front bench limelight.

While seasoned campaigners such as ex-minister for Communications, Energy and Natural resources Pat Rabbitte seemed to take last year’s demotion in his stride, others - such as Ruairí Quinn, Eamon Gilmore and Alan Shatter - appeared to fade - at least as far as speeches and questions were concerned.

We don’t know whether they all decided, as Mr Gilmore put it, to “consciously refrain from public commentary”.