Written on September, 2020
The Pan-African Parliament (PAP) is the legislative body of the African Union, consisting of 55 members from the continent. The Parliament, located in Johannesburg, South Africa, plays a unique role as its members also serve in their respective national parliaments. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the PAP has had to adapt its operations to maintain its legislative duties and promote regional integration while facing challenges related to travel restrictions, funding shortages, and technological barriers. This essay will discuss the impact of COVID-19 on the PAP, its response to the challenges presented, and the way forward for the organization in the digital age.
Impact of COVID-19 on the Pan-African Parliament
The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly affected the PAP’s activities on various levels. Lockdowns and travel restrictions imposed by the South African government and other countries have made it nearly impossible for members and staff to travel and physically meet, even if they were in the same country. International restrictions further complicated the situation, making it difficult for members to travel into South Africa. Additionally, the pandemic’s devastating effect on African economies has led to reduced funding for the PAP as member states struggle financially. Consequently, the PAP has had to find alternative ways to continue its operations and fulfill its mandate in the face of these challenges.
Adapting to a Virtual Environment
In response to the pandemic, the PAP made a strategic shift to virtual meetings to maintain its legislative work and ensure continuous operation. The organization acted quickly to provide staff members with the necessary equipment to work from home and utilized video conferencing platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams for internal and external meetings. Zoom was particularly useful for meetings requiring simultaneous interpretation or involving external participants, while Microsoft Teams was used for internal meetings where interpretation was not required. Despite some challenges with live streaming and language interpretation, the PAP managed to maintain its operations and even increased public participation in committee activities through webinars.
Enhancing Digital Infrastructure
The pandemic has acted as a catalyst for the digital transformation of the PAP. Projects that were initially planned but not yet implemented, such as paperless conferences, an open-data portal, and cloud-based solutions, were fast-tracked to adapt to the new virtual environment. In addition, the PAP expanded its cloud services to include document sharing systems, e-signature tools, and apps to automate internal processes. This allowed for a more streamlined and efficient workflow for members and staff, as well as promoting transparency and accessibility to the Parliament’s work.
Challenges Faced in the Transition to Remote Work
Despite the successes of adapting to remote work, the PAP faced several challenges during this transition. These included concerns about voting procedures and adjusting standing orders to accommodate virtual meetings, ensuring the integrity and legitimacy of the legislative process. Difficulties with member participation due to time differences and internet connectivity issues also posed challenges, with some members struggling to engage in virtual meetings effectively. Managing the quality of meetings was another obstacle, as the PAP could not control member devices, surroundings, or connectivity, leading to distractions and interruptions during meetings.
Furthermore, current video conferencing solutions are not designed for parliamentary meetings, creating a need for apps that support parliamentary practice remotely. Simultaneous interpretation, live streaming, and broadcasting were particularly challenging given the multilingual nature of the PAP’s operations and the need for significant user training and interpreter education.
The Way Forward for the Pan-African Parliament IT
The pandemic has created an opportunity for the PAP to accelerate its digital transformation, enhance citizen engagement, and streamline its operations. With virtual meetings now a permanent fixture, the PAP is exploring hybrid conferencing solutions to support both local and remote participants, increasing member participation in activities. Hybrid solutions will allow member states that previously struggled to send their representatives to participate more effectively in PAP activities, fostering a more inclusive environment.
Promoting Innovation and Technological Development
The PAP’s policy organs, such as the Council of Ministers and the Assembly, have recognized the importance of investing in innovation and technological development to improve the quality of virtual meetings and citizen engagement. They have made increased funding available for these efforts, which will help the PAP develop tailored solutions for parliamentary and conference assistance, addressing the unique challenges faced by the organization.
Adapting Roles and Embracing Change
The transition to a digital environment has led to a drastic change in some roles within the PAP secretariat, with some positions becoming redundant due to digitization and paperless processes. To address this, the PAP has offered training and new opportunities for affected staff members to contribute to the Parliament in different capacities, ensuring a smooth transition and promoting adaptability.
Overcoming Cultural and Trust Barriers
One of the challenges in embracing digital transformation is convincing parliamentarians and public servants to accept the cultural aspects of going digital. Many individuals prefer in-person negotiations and interactions, which they believe are essential for lobbying and promoting their interests. Additionally, there is a need to build trust in digital tools and systems to ensure their widespread adoption. Change management strategies will be crucial in helping members and staff embrace these new technologies and integrate them into their daily work.
The Pan-African Parliament has faced significant challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it has successfully adapted to maintain its legislative duties and promote regional integration. By embracing digital transformation, overcoming the challenges of remote work, and investing in innovation and technological development, the PAP has ensured the continuity of its activities and enhanced citizen engagement. As the organization moves forward in the digital age, it will continue to refine its digital infrastructure and adapt to new challenges to better serve its members and the people of Africa.
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