Keeping parliaments running in times of social distancing

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If policymakers can’t go to work, the work must come to them


Throughout history, technological advances have changed human lives for the better. 


New technologies have made it possible for us to restructure complex public decision-making mechanisms and even our personal relationships. 


The search for integrating technological solutions in the decision-making process is not simple, much less novel, since it may require changes in the power dynamics.


In ancient Athens, often heralded as the world’s first democratic society, citizens were called upon to deliberate on matters of political daily life, where they exercised their right to vote verbally, or by depositing stones of different colors in ballots called psephos. Fast forward to today, two and a half millennia later, we are talking about remote deliberation and using artificial intelligence to help us create, amend and revoke laws, as well as to audit the actions of the executive power.


As the Brazilian lawyer and commentator Ronaldo Lemos explains, our brains have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years, but our political institutions have all been forged in the past two and a half millennia — and new futuristic technologies are developed every day.


The current crisis caused by Covid-19 poses a series of challenges for how to keep essential activities running in society. In addition to hospitals and supermarkets, this includes the functioning of parliament and elected officials – promoting debates and proposing new laws that underpin efforts to fight the virus. 


What parliaments look like in times of social distancing


Legislative activity – such as proposing new laws and fiscalising the actions of the executive – is central in this moment of crisis. But at the same time, the crisis means that it can’t function as it usually does. At a time when the mere act of people gathering pose a risk to public health, parliaments, which bring together hundreds of people in one room, are forced to rethink how to function — building consensus and deliberating — remotely. Some are turning to digital transformation to solve that challenge. 


Legislative power in Brazil is organised on three different levels — Federal, State and City — and it’s represented by 5.599 legislative houses, 5.570 city councils, 27 state houses and 2 houses of parliament. In total, that adds up to  59,574 elected officials, including 81 Senators, 513 Members of Parliament, 1059 Members of State Parliaments and 57,921 City Councilors. All these people must now find new ways to do their jobs. 


Luckily, some legislative houses in Brazil have tested new ways of using technology to support their activities in recent years — what we call LegisTech.


One notable example is the “virtual floor”, the so-called Remote Deliberation System (SDR), developed for the House of Representatives and the Senate in Brazil, which were launched at the end of March. It was necessary to develop a tool with more specialised features than the usual videoconference software. 


The House of Representatives SDR was developed by the department of technology, and the architecture is composed by an app that MPs can use to register their presence and cast their vote; it also has a management system for the Speaker of the House to guide the sitting, to preserve the legislative process and ensure the transparency measures already in place; and a videoconference service, ensuring remote access for all Members, with microphones controlled by a public servant. Once an SDR sitting is adjourned, all committee meetings are suspended. 


The Senate SDR is the first fully implemented remote deliberation system developed during the Covid-19 crisis. The remote deliberation system was developed by the IT secretary under the direction of the secretary general of the Senate in partnership with the private sector. The system consists in an integration between a videoconference tool and a management tool – managing the presence and voting of Senators during the Senate sittings. The Senate solution implements features of a digital transformation project, using new technologies, but still manages to keep offline channels to assist Senators that might eventually require support with the platform.


We are talking about a process of building a digital governance that requires effort, investment and time and not a leap greater than its technical capabilities, let alone something that was not pacified across different leaders.


Since 2019 the São Paulo City Council has used a similar system to vote on less complex projects — such as commemorative dates and naming rights — but this is the first time it’s used for such complex and important deliberations.

Other notable innovations worth mentioning are InfoLeg, an information application, the Interparliamentary Cloud and the Ulysses artificial intelligence program used in the House of Representatives and the e-cidadania portal of the Federal Senate.


At Bússola Tech, we’re collaborating with the people behind all these initiatives to build a LegisTech ecosystem, which will allow other Legislative Houses to access this expertise, enhance their digital resilience and give them the means to digitalise in response to this and  future crises.


Fighting 21st century problems with 21st century tools


The speed and agility with which the legislative powers have been able to respond to the Covid-19 crisis comes from a long standing process of building expertise through trial and error, which is essential for public innovation. 


The Legislative Power has the capacity to test and scale innovation projects through the offices of individual Members of Parliament, as well as its public servants. 


In order to boost the digital transformation movement in the Legislative Houses, it is necessary to recognize and share the best experiences already in place in the legislative. Copy it, adapt it and paste it. In a research project from 2019, we found that recognizing outstanding projects implemented by public servants has a positive effect on the their moral, even inspiring them to go further their normal obligations, in a positive and propositive way. 


In this regard it’s possible to see a flourishing ecosystem at the Brazilian National Congress, with a series of high level projects being implemented and a leading initiative to award the best public servants in the Brazilian Parliament, an initiative called “Gente que Inspira” (People who Inspired) from SindiLegis. At the state and local level it isn’t possible to see an organised movement to map and recognise the innovation cases in the legislative houses, before the LegisTech Forum.


The collaboration between the Legislative Houses at Federal, State and City level, together with the entrepreneurial ecosystem, can enhance the implementation of projects like those mentioned above, expand the range of digitalization and make them more resilient.


The Covid-19 crisis is, in part, fueled by an unprecedented change in human mobility, which has been brought about by technology — trains, planes and automobiles. 


A problem enhanced by 21st century technologies, requires a response that uses 21st century tools and methods. An even more complex puzzle for the legislative process and for building consensus, in which some houses see the results of years of investment and testing.


Luis Kimaid – CEO of Bússola Tech and Political Scientist

Fábio Almeida Lopes – Political Advisor in Bússola Tech and Internationalist

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