In the face of global challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, democratic institutions worldwide have been required to adapt and innovate, and the Senedd Cymru (the Welsh Parliament) is no exception. As a modern institution established in 1999, the Senedd Cymru has embraced digital technology to maintain its democratic functions and improve engagement with the Welsh citizens it represents. This essay discusses the digital transformation of the Senedd Cymru, highlighting the opportunities and challenges it has encountered in the process.
The Journey to Digital Transformation
The Senedd Cymru had a head start in the realm of digital transformation, with a history of integrating technology into its operations even before the pandemic. The Senedd building, opened in 2006, was equipped with digital technologies to facilitate parliamentary functions. For instance, members have been voting electronically, and committee witnesses have participated in meetings virtually for years.
The pandemic brought an increased reliance on these digital means of communication, not only for internal operations but also for engaging with citizens. The Senedd Cymru continued to hold online discussion forums, partner with tech companies like Microsoft and Google to facilitate online deliberation, and maintain communication with the citizens it represents. As such, transitioning to a hybrid model of operation during the pandemic was less of a culture shock for the Senedd Cymru than for other parliaments.
Challenges and Solutions in the Digital Shift
The challenges the Senedd Cymru faced in this transition were more technical than constitutional or procedural. Meeting the bilingual needs of the Welsh and English-speaking population and finding a reliable platform for digital operation were significant. To address these challenges, the Senedd Cymru adopted a licensed version of Zoom and developed a voting app to enable remote voting.
Moreover, the pandemic put a strain on certain teams within the parliament, such as the IT team, necessitating staff reallocation to maintain operational efficiency. The Senedd Cymru was also faced with the challenge of continuing to engage with young people, especially during the first-ever Welsh Youth Parliament and the 2021 elections, where 16 and 17-year-olds could vote for the first time.
Benefits and Drawbacks of Digital Transformation
The digital shift has had numerous benefits, most notably increasing accessibility. With sessions and events recorded, citizens could participate at their convenience, breaking down barriers of geography and time commitments. The shift has also seen increased diversity and first-time participation in parliamentary activities.
The digital engagement has provided greater flexibility for members of the Senedd, allowing them to attend sessions from different locations. This increased flexibility has also led to more access to government ministers and financial savings in travel and accommodation costs.
However, digital engagement is not without its drawbacks. Building relationships and maintaining attention spans can be challenging in the virtual space. The future of digital engagement will need to balance these drawbacks with the benefits to ensure inclusivity.
The Role of Digitalisation in Enhancing Parliamentary Engagement
As the pandemic exacerbated existing societal challenges, Senedd Cymru’s engagement activities had to be restructured. The advent of digital technology provided an excellent opportunity to continue reaching out to citizens in innovative ways. Online events, in-depth interviews, and focus groups became the new normal. These tools allowed citizens with lived experience on various issues that committees were scrutinising to have their voices heard.
The Senedd also ran online workshops, presentations, and events for younger people, educating them about how democracy works in Wales and how they could participate. A virtual tour of the parliamentary building was developed, and the first-ever online democracy festival was held in 2022.
Navigating Engagement Challenges During the Pandemic
The pandemic posed significant challenges, particularly concerning engagement with young people. The Senedd was in the midst of delivering its first-ever youth parliament, comprising 60 young people elected from different parts of the country. The project had to be quickly transitioned online, despite the previous year’s face-to-face interactions with youth parliament members.
Furthermore, the parliamentary election in May 2021 was the first time 16 and 17-year-olds could vote in a Welsh election. This presented another challenge: effectively engaging with these young voters during a pandemic. Despite these obstacles, the Senedd managed to transition seamlessly to an online model, demonstrating resilience and adaptability.
Looking Forward: Opportunities and Challenges
The global public health crisis has indisputably forced both citizens and democratic institutions to change at a greater pace than ever before. The Senedd’s experience during this period offers significant insight into the potential opportunities in involving citizens in parliamentary work and how members can be better supported to carry out their functions.
The shift to an online default system has significantly improved accessibility, removing barriers related to geography, transport, and time commitments. Recorded online events offer the flexibility of engaging after the event, an added benefit for people with busy schedules. A more diverse range of participants has been observed in online workshops and events. However, it’s essential to ensure that groups unable to participate electronically are supported in different ways.
The main negative aspect of online engagement is the difficulty in relationship building. People’s attention spans are often shorter when attending virtual conferences or events compared to in-person interactions. Nevertheless, the members of the Senedd have adapted well to meeting virtually or in hybrid formats.
The Future of Parliamentary Operations
There is an increasing public expectation to continue participating remotely and access recorded events even when restrictions lift. Therefore, it is crucial to identify what works best in person and what works well online. The future will likely involve a combination of online and face-to-face engagement to offer more options, flexibility, and accessibility.
The most considerable uncertainty moving forward lies with the members’ decisions on how they prefer to carry out their functions. Some members might prefer virtual or hybrid options, while others may favour in-person meetings. Regardless of the preferred method, these decisions will significantly impact how citizens link with their representatives.
The balance between promoting the work that members carry out in their parliamentary function and what they do in their constituencies could be improved if members can balance online and face-to-face work better. This could potentially allow them to spend more time in their local areas and feel better connected to constituents.
The Senedd Cymru’s transition to digital operations amidst a global pandemic highlights the potential of digital technology in parliamentary operations. It has shown the possibilities of a more accessible, diverse, and flexible mode of citizen engagement and parliamentary work. The shift has not been without challenges, but the lessons learnt during this period will shape the future of parliamentary operations. Regardless of the methods chosen, the primary aim remains the same: to ensure a democratic system that effectively represents and engages with the constituents. The goal is to ensure a democratic system that effectively represents and engages with all citizens, promoting an inclusive, accessible, and transparent governance model. The digital evolution in parliamentary processes is not merely a response to a temporary crisis but a step towards a more modern, resilient, and people-centric parliament.
Supporting and donating to this library is more than a contribution; it is a vote for the importance of freely accessible knowledge and a pledge to our shared intellectual growth. Each donation aids in the curation, preservation, and expansion of our resources, ensuring the continued availability of relevant and timely content. It helps us sustain the quality and breadth of our offerings, enabling us to serve our diverse community better. Your contribution signifies your commitment to fostering a vibrant, informed, and connected community, underpinned by the principle of equitable access to knowledge.