There is a general sense that the exponential development of technology will have only one possible effect on democracy: the erosion of institutions threatened by malignant algorithms and fake news that make even essential social cohesion unattainable.
That happens because the nature of technology’s impact depends on what society makes with it. Although it results from society’s development, technology is not indicative of social advance in and of itself, as it is not inherently good. When using technological progress in a necessarily positive way, we lose sight that it is not the technical aspects that delimit its value but, instead, its application.
Following this rationale, could better use of technology in the legislative process helps to counterbalance the damage that it is doing to the electoral and public debate processes? There are some promising signs that it’s going in this direction.
The legislative branch of government is discovering the realm of digital transformation around the globe at a fast pace. However, it might be different from what you would expect. Thousands of articles describe how each sector was impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic and the rapid implementation of remote capabilities for companies and other organizations. This process happened in the legislative houses as well, and it will have an impact for decades to come.
Parliaments are late adopters in technological innovations due to the nature of consensus building in the decision-making process and their historical institutional traditions in its functions, which must be respected. It means that a legislative digital transformation strategy must be focused on the increased effectiveness of the legislative process in a way that doesn’t upset institutional traditions and the internal balance of power.
The focus of a digital transformation strategy in the legislative houses is to provide a more effective data-generating legislative process to enable staff to perform their duties better and faster and members to have a more qualified decision-making process. If inefficiency is found in the legislative process, it is reasonable to say it is not thereby chance, and it can be attributed to an internal power dynamic.
Despite the different systems and political dynamics, enough similarity exists to understand common challenges and solutions for the digital legislative transformation. The challenges for amending a legislative bill or implementing a remote capability, for example, are similar in different legislatures when we avoid the political noise and specificities from the standing orders. Even though legislative actors must be aware of each House’s unique nature, they can also use this compass to understand obstacles in the institution’s daily activities.
We will highlight some challenges parliaments face and the globally innovative solutions that can digitally transform legislative activities, known as LegisTech.
One of the most exciting approaches was employed in the Irish Parliament, the Oireachtas. It performed a comprehensive study on how other legislatures worldwide dealt with their digital transformation demands. With this data, the IT team from the parliament had the means to determine their priorities and learn from other legislatures’ experiences.
Another experience helpful to parliaments is establishing a modernization committee or an innovation lab (including members of parliament and staff) to centralize discussions about the topic. The houses of representatives in Argentina and in the United States have experienced exceptional results using this tactic. Interestingly enough, the Argentina modernization committee recently proposed the implementation of remote parliamentary offices throughout the country, decentralizing the access for national political representation and ensuring legislative activities in the cloud.
The Infoleg App has been the cornerstone for the digitalization of the Brazilian House of Representatives for years. The app centralizes information about the legislative process. Members of parliament and staff commonly voice their desire to be aware of what is actually transpiring in the legislature, particularly for a crucial vote or the content of a bill.
This solution offers a centralized application that harnesses the power of a digital legislative process in the back-end of a legislature. It provides detailed information on MPs, plenary sessions, committee meetings, bills, and legislation, similar to DomeWatch in the Democratic Leadership in the US House of Representatives. It is an effective tool for developing a qualified decision-making process, and it can be a turning point for party leadership.
The Covid-19 pandemic has taught a critical lesson—to even the most digitally mature legislatures around the globe—about the user experience in digital transformation solutions. The tools we mentioned above focus on staff members; they do not necessarily impact political dynamics or demand a mandatory action by the MP.
Legislatures have designed remote, and hybrid deliberation systems that have directly impacted members’ activities like no other tool ever implemented has. It required intense collaboration between the Clerk’s office and the IT teams to develop simple but intuitive digital solutions that were politically feasible and acceptable for members. In Brazil, the Senate House did a remarkable job of transitioning senators who were not digital-ready to the remote reality by investing heavily in human resources assistance.
The Knesset in Israel is using a remarkable experimental method that uses simple and clear language to test user-experience methodologies in their web page and redesigns the site map, prioritizing information according to its relevance to the public. If a citizen cannot find useful information about the legislative process in the parliament’s digital channels, it might be because there are improvements to be made in the website or app design or the way information is prioritized.
Let’s hope that many more countries and legislative houses will be inspired by these examples, which are at the forefront of the solution. Technology can be a powerful tool to ensure institutional continuity and democracy.
In times of crisis, parliaments must innovate and cooperate.
There are numerous examples of Parliaments proving that the democratic traditions embedded in our decision-making process are not adversaries of technological innovations—quite the opposite. However, a digital Parliament should be mindful of its traditions, reinforce them, and digitally reinvent how we incorporate them into our daily lives.
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