Digital Transformation

5 min

ParlAmericas: Promoting Public Participation and Parliamentary Diplomacy in the Inter-American System

Parlamericas

Strategic Partners

ParlAmericas is an institution dedicated to fostering parliamentary diplomacy within the inter-American system. Comprising 35 national legislatures from across the Americas and the Caribbean, ParlAmericas facilitates cooperative political dialogue by exchanging good legislative practices and providing tailored resources to support parliamentarians in their work.

 

One of the key initiatives of ParlAmericas is its open-parliament programming, which has successfully engaged with parliamentarians, parliamentary staff, and civil society representatives through various activities. These activities focus on public participation in the legislative process, and the organization has also developed a comprehensive toolkit on the subject, accessible through its open-parliament portal at parltools.org.

 

ParlAmericas believes that public participation is a critical component of an open parliament, along with transparency and access to information, accountability, and high ethical standards. The involvement of citizens in the legislative process is essential, as it not only complements the role of legislators but also leads to more robust collective intelligence. This, in turn, results in higher quality outcomes, inclusive and representative decision-making, and improved understanding of the parliament’s role, ultimately fostering greater trust in the institution.

 

The organization acknowledges that different levels of participation may be more suitable for various stages of parliamentary work, and it focuses on three distinct levels. The first level, consultations, involve soliciting feedback from citizens in a one-way conversation. The second level, involvement, engages citizens in a two-way dialogue with the parliament. Lastly, the third level, collaboration or co-creation, entails citizens and parliamentarians or staff working together to identify solutions.

 

Transparency and access to information are regarded as the foundation of this participation ladder, as they are prerequisites for engaging in other forms of participation. In their efforts to create more opportunities for public participation, many parliaments have adopted digital tools to extend their reach and make these opportunities more accessible to citizens.

 

The COVID-19 pandemic has further highlighted the importance of digital tools in parliamentary work, as physical access to parliaments has been limited and many legislators have shifted to remote work. In many instances, digital platforms have become the primary means for public participation under these circumstances.

 

In recent years, the hemisphere has witnessed significant innovation in this area, with various parliaments adopting interesting tools and good practices to enhance public participation in the legislative process.

 

Empowering Citizen Engagement: Argentina’s OpenLaw Portal

 

In Argentina, the Chamber of Deputies has developed the OpenLaw portal, a revolutionary platform that aims to bridge the gap between citizens and legislators. The portal is designed to facilitate public participation in the creation of legislative proposals or bills. By posting their initiatives on the site, legislators open the floor to the public, inviting them to provide feedback, opinions, and suggestions to improve the text of the proposed legislation. This collaborative approach ensures that the concerns and ideas of citizens are given due consideration in the legislative process. Upon completion of the final version, those who participated in providing feedback receive an email notification to review the updated proposal and see how their input was incorporated. The OpenLaw portal exemplifies how modern technology can foster a more inclusive and transparent democratic process.

 

Fostering Democratic Dialogue: Brazil’s Innovative e-Platforms

 

Brazil’s Congress has consistently been at the forefront of embracing technology to enhance citizen participation in the legislative process. Among its numerous innovative tools is the Chamber of Deputies’ e-Democracia portal, which offers a wide range of engagement opportunities for citizens. Interactive hearings allow the public to watch public hearings, submit questions, and vote on others’ questions, ensuring that legislators address the most pressing concerns during the session. The Wikilegis feature operates similarly to Argentina’s OpenLaw portal, enabling citizens to comment on legislative proposals and bills while also voting on existing comments. The participatory agenda function empowers citizens to contribute to the prioritization of issues and bills within the Chamber.

 

In parallel, the Senate of Brazil has created its own portal called e-Cidadania, offering additional channels for citizens to have their voices heard. Among its key features are the submission or voting on legislative ideas, interactive hearings like those in the Chamber of Deputies, and a public consultation section that allows citizens to express their opinions on bills, proposals, or even proposed constitutional amendments.

 

Digitizing Democracy: Canada’s e-Petition and Committee Engagement

 

Canada has taken significant strides in modernizing its democratic processes, particularly by digitizing the petition process through the implementation of an e-petition system. This innovative approach streamlines the submission and collection of signatures, making the process more accessible and efficient. Citizens can create an account, submit a draft, and, with the authorization of a member of parliament, have their proposal posted on the platform. Once at least 500 signatures have been collected online, the petition is presented to the House of Commons, and the government is required to respond.

 

Additionally, Canada has broadened the range of stakeholders who can contribute to committee discussions by allowing for electronic submission of briefs. This offers individuals and organizations the opportunity to share their views with the committee, even if they cannot appear before the committee in person.

 

Bridging the Legislative Gap: Chile’s Virtual Congress

 

Chile’s Congress has developed the innovative Virtual Congress tool, which consolidates both chambers’ activities to provide a seamless platform for citizen participation. This initiative not only eases access to information for citizens who may be unfamiliar with the distinct roles of the two chambers, but also encourages active engagement in the legislative process. The Virtual Congress tool enables citizens to vote on bills, provide general or theme-specific feedback, and comment on proposals. A word cloud feature highlights the most common keywords mentioned, giving a quick overview of public sentiment.

 

Furthermore, the platform allows citizens to identify and prioritize inactive bills that they would like to see addressed by Congress. The Virtual Congress tool showcases how technology can enhance transparency and promote effective and equitable participation in the legislative process.

 

Expanding Public Engagement: Colombia’s Multifaceted Approach to Citizen Participation

 

In Colombia, the Senate has made significant strides in promoting public engagement and enhancing transparency by embracing innovative technologies. As part of its first open-parliament action plan, the Senate developed a comprehensive mobile application that not only allows citizens to access essential information about the work of the Senate and individual Senators, but also live-stream Senate sittings and stay up-to-date on legislative developments.

 

Taking public engagement a step further, the mobile application enables citizens to cast an opinion vote on bills being debated in the Senate. These opinion votes are broadcasted live to the senators in the chamber during the debate, allowing real-time insight into the public’s stance on critical issues. This interactive feature demonstrates a commitment to incorporating citizens’ voices in the legislative process and fostering a more responsive democracy.

 

The mobile application also provides an avenue for citizens to engage with committees during their meetings. A built-in function allows users to post comments or questions while watching live-streamed meetings, facilitating direct interaction between citizens and committee members. This feature helps bridge the gap between the public and their representatives, promoting a more inclusive and participatory legislative process.

 

Colombia’s commitment to fostering public engagement in the legislative process has led to the development of a robust mobile application that goes beyond information sharing. By providing opportunities for real-time interaction and active participation in the legislative process, Colombia is setting a new standard for citizen engagement and transparency in the region.

 

Harnessing Accessible Technology: Trinidad and Tobago’s Innovative Approach

 

In Trinidad and Tobago, the Parliament has adopted a pragmatic approach by leveraging existing and cost-effective tools to facilitate public participation in legislative debates. They have enabled comments on live-streamed sittings and committee meetings on their official YouTube channel, allowing citizens to directly pose questions to the Clerk. The Clerk then shares relevant questions with the Speaker or the Chair of the committee, incorporating them into the proceedings. This approach is governed by a set of rules explained on their YouTube channel to ensure appropriate language and relevance of contributions.

 

Additionally, committees in the Parliament of Trinidad and Tobago have turned to SurveyMonkey, an affordable online survey tool, to reach out to citizens for input on issues they are addressing. This demonstrates how even simple, readily available tools can be effectively harnessed to promote public participation in the legislative process.

 

Embracing Virtual Participation: Post-Pandemic Opportunities

 

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many parliaments to adapt by holding virtual or hybrid sittings, committee meetings, and public hearings. This shift has inadvertently created new opportunities for experts and citizens to participate as witnesses before committees, without the need for expensive and time-consuming travel. In the post-pandemic era, many jurisdictions are expected to continue offering these virtual participation options, as they save costs, time, and contribute to a lower environmental footprint for parliaments.

 

In summary, the cases from Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, and Trinidad and Tobago demonstrate how technology can enhance citizen engagement in the legislative process and foster a more transparent, inclusive, and participatory democracy. By utilizing innovative tools and platforms, these countries are setting a new standard for democratic dialogue and collaboration between citizens and legislators.

 

Individual Parliamentarians promoting participatory processes through technology

 

The adoption of digital tools by individual parliamentarians has paved the way for innovative engagement with constituents. By leveraging social media platforms, parliamentarians can create short videos to inform citizens about issues being debated in parliament, seek their opinions, and provide real-time updates. Live Q&A sessions on social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter enable direct interaction between parliamentarians and their constituents. Virtual town halls and roundtables conducted through platforms like Zoom facilitate discussions with experts and civil society organizations on pressing issues. Additionally, newsletters, virtual office hours, and local virtual roundtables foster a more inclusive decision-making process. Parliamentarians emphasize the importance of setting boundaries and managing expectations to ensure effective and meaningful dialogue, demonstrating that technology has the potential to revolutionize citizen-legislator interactions. These digital methods, when used effectively, can transform the relationship between the public and their elected representatives by fostering greater trust, transparency, and understanding.

 

The role of the legislative institution

 

The integration of digital mechanisms into the legislative process is crucial for their effectiveness. It is important for these tools to be embedded within the functioning of the chamber, rather than operating as standalone entities. Updating standing orders or supporting regulations to include these tools and clarify their relationship with the legislative process ensures that citizens’ feedback is genuinely considered by legislators, ultimately enhancing public trust in the system. This can be achieved by amending standing orders directly or by creating separate regulations or policies, as seen in Chile and Ecuador. Ensuring that citizens have equal access to participation opportunities is essential, as it helps prevent marginalization and promotes inclusivity. Administrative support, IT assistance, and a dedicated team closely tied to the legislative process are vital in facilitating the integration of these initiatives. In many cases, a citizen participation office or a communications department can ensure that the tools remain connected to the work of legislators.

 

AI enhancing participatory tools

 

The use of artificial intelligence (AI) in supporting participation in the work of parliaments is becoming increasingly prevalent. AI technologies can analyze large amounts of data, making it easier for legislators to process feedback from citizens. For instance, the Chamber of Deputies of Brazil has made significant progress through a program called Ulysses, which created a chatbot to answer citizens’ questions and analyze data from participation platforms. Chile’s virtual Congress also uses algorithms to assess information submitted by citizens. AI can help process the vast amounts of data generated by citizen participation more efficiently, enabling legislators to make better-informed decisions.

 

Education and participation in the legislative process

 

Education and incentives for participation are important aspects of engaging citizens with the legislative process. While digital tools continue to improve and reach more citizens, they are not yet as widely used as they could be. This highlights the importance of integrating these tools with educational efforts, both online and offline, such as youth parliament programs, school initiatives, and outreach activities. Incentives for participation can also encourage people to engage with these platforms, such as the points system adopted by the Congress of Chile or annual awards for engaged citizens.

 

Open-parliament action plans and participatory tools

 

Many of the digital participation initiatives have resulted from open-parliament action plans, which are co-created by parliaments and civil society representatives to identify priorities and make parliamentary work more transparent and inclusive. These plans have been instrumental in driving the development of innovative tools and fostering a creative feedback loop between parliament and civil society. This collaboration ensures that the tools are as effective and useful as possible for the public. Parliaments with more limited resources can benefit from cost-impact analyses to determine investment priorities and focus on improving transparency and accessibility.

 

Conclusion: Technology as a Catalyst for Citizen Engagement and Parliamentary Diplomacy

 

ParlAmericas has been a driving force in promoting public participation and parliamentary diplomacy in the inter-American system. As demonstrated by the various cases and initiatives in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, and Trinidad and Tobago, technology has been a catalyst for enhancing citizen engagement in the legislative process, fostering transparency, inclusivity, and participatory democracy.

 

By leveraging digital tools and platforms, these countries have successfully bridged the gap between citizens and legislators, creating a more informed and engaged public. Furthermore, the integration of AI technologies has allowed for more efficient processing of citizen feedback, empowering legislators to make better-informed decisions.

 

Education, incentives, and open-parliament action plans play a crucial role in driving the success of these digital initiatives, highlighting the importance of collaboration between parliaments, civil society, and citizens. As technology continues to advance, it is crucial for parliaments to remain innovative and adaptive, ensuring that citizens have equal access to participation opportunities and fostering an environment of trust and transparency.

 

The COVID-19 pandemic has underlined the importance of digital tools in the legislative process and demonstrated the potential for virtual participation. As parliaments emerge from the crisis, it is essential to continue embracing digital innovation, to maintain and further expand public engagement, and to strengthen parliamentary diplomacy within the inter-American system.

 

ParlAmericas’ work in supporting and facilitating the adoption of these digital tools across the Americas and the Caribbean has been instrumental in shaping a more inclusive and responsive democratic landscape. By continuing to advocate for public participation, transparency, and access to information, ParlAmericas plays a crucial role in fostering an environment of trust and cooperation between citizens and their representatives.

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