Written on September, 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced institutions worldwide to adapt to new ways of operating, and the Parlamericas is no exception. Parlamericas, an institution composed of the parliaments of the Americas and the Caribbean, promotes parliamentary diplomacy in the inter-American system through political dialogue and exchange of good practices. It focuses on three pillars: gender equality, open parliament, and climate change. In response to the pandemic, Parlamericas has dedicated itself to supporting its member parliaments and addressing the challenges posed by the crisis.
The Importance of Parliaments Amidst the Pandemic
Parliaments play a crucial role in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic by ensuring that crisis responses receive the necessary legal and budgetary backing. They must guarantee that these responses are effective and reach the most vulnerable populations. As an Argentine parliamentarian noted, the pandemic affects everyone, but not everyone has equal resources to combat it. Strengthening democracies and ensuring governments work for the most vulnerable is critical, with parliaments playing a key role in guaranteeing this.
Rapid Innovation and Virtual Sittings
The pandemic has prompted parliaments across the Americas to quickly innovate and establish virtual sittings and committee meetings to maintain their operations. Brazil led the charge in the region, with countries such as Ecuador, Chile, Paraguay, Argentina, Colombia, Mexico, Antigua and Barbuda, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Bermuda, the US, and Canada following suit. These parliaments adapted to remote work, with some having existing systems in place and others facing larger challenges.
Lessons Learned and Challenges Overcome
Parliaments that moved to remote sittings had to address several concerns, such as amending their rules, laws, or constitutions, ensuring security, upholding equal rights and parliamentary privilege, and maintaining tradition. Moreover, they had to adapt voting practices, provide training and support, and digitize administrative processes. Political will played a significant role in facilitating this transition.
Linking Remote Sittings to Open Parliament Initiatives
Parliaments that had already invested in strengthening and opening their institutions to the public before the pandemic were better prepared for the transition to virtual sessions. Many parliaments had been working on digital transformation to modernize practices and enable better performance for citizens. Open parliaments collaborate with civil society to continuously improve transparency, access to information, accountability, public participation, and ethical standards.
The Future of Virtual Sittings
Virtual sittings will likely continue to be a useful mechanism for parliaments to fulfill their functions in the near future. However, there is a general consensus that completely virtual sittings are not a permanent solution. Legislative processes are more effective when members have the opportunity to engage with each other and stakeholders or citizens in person. Nevertheless, hybrid sittings, which combine in-person and virtual participation, offer potential benefits such as improved gender equality policies, more environmentally friendly practices, and increased convenience for parliamentarians.
Challenges and Opportunities Moving Forward
As parliaments continue to operate remotely, maintaining openness and transparency will be crucial. One significant challenge will be ensuring citizen participation in the absence of in-person engagement. Organizational change is a gradual process that involves various actors, including bureaucracy, administration, parliamentarians, and civil society. The capacity for legislative digital transformation will also be an essential factor in adapting to the changing landscape.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the Parlamericas and its member parliaments to adapt to new ways of operating, including the rapid implementation of virtual sittings and remote work. While challenges remain, the lessons learned and innovations adopted in response to the crisis present opportunities for continued improvement and adaptation.
In conclusion, the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the resilience and adaptability of the Parlamericas and its member parliaments in ensuring the continuity of vital democratic processes. The shift to virtual sittings and remote work has not only allowed parliaments to maintain their essential functions but has also highlighted the potential for digital transformation and innovation in governance. As we look towards a post-pandemic future, it is vital for parliaments to continue building upon these experiences and lessons learned, fostering openness, transparency, and citizen engagement. By embracing hybrid sittings and digital tools, parliaments can create a more inclusive and responsive system that strengthens democracy and effectively addresses the evolving challenges faced by societies in the Americas and the Caribbean.
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