Increasing Public Participation in the Legislative Process in Timor-Leste

Jason Wood. Jason is a JD Candidate (2022) at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University. He is currently co-President of the ASU chapter of the National Lawyers Guild and serves on the board of the International Law Society. Jason plans to pursue a career in criminal law, either domestically or internationally.

This summer I interned with the Judicial System Monitoring Program (JSMP) in Dili, Timor-Leste. One of JSMP’s mandates is to promote public participation in lawmaking at the national level, both through civil society organizations (CSOs) like JSMP and through the direct participation of citizens (e.g., public forums with legislators). My research focused on identifying “best practices” from countries facing similar challenges to Timor-Leste in this area.

In many modern democratic, industrialized “Western” nations, the government can publish draft laws and solicit feedback via the internet in one or, at most, two languages and safely assume the vast majority of citizens can easily participate if they choose to. In a developing country like Timor-Leste, once you look outside the large cities, the challenges become obvious. Internet and smart phone penetration numbers are growing but still low, as are literacy rates (68% in 2018). Parliament conducts business in Portuguese and a Timorese language called Tetun, but many rural villagers primarily speak an indigenous language, of which Timor-Leste has several. Even when villagers speak Portuguese or Tetun, they might not be able to read or write it or they might lack the fluency required for a meaningful discussion of technical and nuanced legal issues.

JSMP and other organizations have carried out several initiatives to improve public participation levels in Timor-Leste. In 2018, JSMP conducted a training session for 30 community members (mostly from the local council) of a rural village to increase understanding of the national law-making process. JSMP regularly sends its team members to rural villages to discuss important draft laws and collect input to deliver to committees of Parliament.

The Asia Foundation also works in Timor-Leste with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to develop skills, conduct public opinion surveys, coordinate a discussion group of young, reformist leaders, and promote the political participation of women. This work is funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

A number of international organizations are focused on the challenge of increasing public participation around the world, particularly in nations where citizens have historically lacked a strong voice in government. The National Democratic Institute (NDI) regularly publishes case studies of recent participation efforts and also maintains a toolkit for governments that want to increase their outreach efforts.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recognizes the importance of public participation to economic growth and stability. Like NDI, OECD publishes case studies from various countries and maintains a large library of resources for government and CSOs. OECD runs the Innovative Citizen Participation Project and provides an innovative collaboration and learning space called Participo.

ParlAmericas is an institution representing 35 countries in the Americas, with a focus on government transparency and citizen participation. It produces a number of guides and tool kits regarding public participation, including Citizen Participation in the Legislative Process.

Many of the countries where these organizations work have faced similar challenges to those in Timor-Leste. I hope that by comparing and contrasting these situations, and the various participation efforts they have carried out, I was able to provide relevant recommendations so that JSMP can continue to develop their best practices for public participation in Timor-Leste.

Of course, one of the biggest challenges to this work was having to do it all remotely. It is one thing to analyze data from a report or survey. But in order to make practical recommendations, it is important to really understand what it is like to be a rural citizen in a remote area of Timor-Leste trying to participate in the political system. For example, 67% of all citizens reported having to travel away from home, take time off work, or both just to cast their vote in the most recent elections. It has been difficult to gauge how realistic any recommendations are without experiencing the daily reality of living in the country.

I look forward to travelling to Timor-Leste when things are back to normal, meeting the people I have been working with, and adding some very important context to my research. And hopefully with enough time for some amazing scuba diving!

Share this post