About Chancellery of the Riigikogu of Estonia
Written on September, 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted institutions around the world, forcing them to adapt to the rapidly changing situation. The Riigikogu, the parliament of Estonia, a small Northern European country with only 1.3 million inhabitants, was no exception. In this essay, we will discuss the measures taken by the Estonian parliament to facilitate remote deliberation, the technological innovations implemented, and the implications for Estonia’s legislative process moving forward.
Initial Response to the Pandemic
In March 2020, as the first wave of COVID-19 hit Estonia, the Council of Elders of Riigikogu decided to reorganize the work of the House in accordance with the emergency situation declared by the government. The working schedule was altered, with plenary sittings held only on Mondays and Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) on Wednesdays. Public and media access to the sittings was provided through live web coverage.
The Council of Elders instructed the constitution committee to prepare a regulation enabling electronic communication during emergency situations. There were no legal obstacles to teleworking for committee meetings, and after a short testing period, the first teleworking committee meeting took place through Microsoft Teams. Thousands of meetings followed, with many committee meetings available for public viewing.
Challenges in Implementing Remote Plenary Sessions
While committee meetings could be conducted remotely without legal obstacles, plenary sessions faced constitutional challenges. The constitution committee initiated a working group on April 13th, 2020, to enable remote plenary sessions. Meanwhile, the Riigikogu explored technical possibilities to facilitate remote participation in plenary sessions.
Several technical tests revealed the need for additional software to support remote plenary sessions. On May 20th, 2020, the Riigikogu passed a law enabling remote plenary sessions. By that time, however, restrictions had been relaxed, and there was no immediate need for remote sessions. Nevertheless, the parliament continued developing the necessary software.
Developing a Remote Session Environment
During the summer of 2020, the Riigikogu completed a new remote session environment, integrated with the existing voting information system. The remote sitting software, web-based and not an app, provides a live image from the sitting hall with minimal delay. It allows parliamentarians to select microphones and cameras, ask procedural questions, vote, and perform other necessary tasks during plenary sessions.
The software employs responsive technology, making it accessible on small devices such as iPads and smartphones. Though testing and configurations have been carried out, the system still requires further tests and adjustments before it is fully operational.
Continued Use of Remote and Hybrid Meetings
Committee sessions continue to use Microsoft Teams, with each committee deciding whether to conduct remote or hybrid sessions. Physical meetings have also resumed, as face-to-face interaction remains valuable. The Riigikogu can now change its working schedule quickly if necessary, providing flexibility in the face of future emergencies.
The Estonian parliament’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic showcases the importance of innovation and adaptability in the face of unprecedented challenges. The development of remote sitting software not only enables the Riigikogu to continue functioning during emergencies but also provides an opportunity to modernize the legislative process in the future. While the hope is that the remote sitting software will not be needed due to a resurgence of coronavirus cases, it serves as a testament to the resilience and adaptability of Estonia’s parliament.
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