Reflections on Alternatives to Keep the Momentum of Institutional Modernisation in the Legislative

Read the written version of a Q&A between the former Vice President of the Brazilian Senate House, the Chairman of the House Committee on Rules in the US House of Representatives, and the representative of Bússola Tech

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📌 This text is the result of the transcription of the panelist’s participation in Bússola Tech’s event


Parliament modernisation efforts are essential for a more effective institution that delivers better laws, better oversight of the executive branch, and better representation. The legislative digital transformation should be respectful with the legislative institution tradition and internal balance of power, preserving its core values but improving daily processes for the betterment of Members, Public servants, and our societies.


With that, we’re happy to share with you all the written version of a Q&A between the Congressmen, the former Vice President of the Brazilian Senate House, – The Right Honorable Senator Antônio Anastasia, the Chairman of the House Committee on Rules in the US House of Representatives, The Right Honorable Congressman James McGovern and Luís Kimaid, CEO of Bússola Tech.


Luís Kimaid: 


In 2020 the pandemic struck our societies and our way of life. Our democratic institutions were affected as well. They had to adapt to the new reality of public debate at a distance. Its continuity was essential for flattening the authoritarian curve from the executive branch in different countries. Imagine hundreds of elected officials convened under our democratic rules to debate the future of our countries – hundreds, when not thousands of miles away from each other. That wasn’t an easy task. 


We learned during the crisis that our institutions are becoming more resilient and digital-ready. This is not the case only because of the temporary solutions to maintain their activities, but by their will to develop a strategy to modernise the parliament to make it more digital, more effective that delivers better laws, better oversight of the executive branch and better representation. 


This process should always be respectful with our legislative institutional traditions and internal balance of power. Towards that goal, legislative public servants and members are working around the clock to make it a reality. We have two outstanding global legislative leaders from Brazil and from the U.S. from the Brazilian Senate House, the Right Honourable Senator Antônio Anastasia from the state of Minas Gerais, and from the United States House of Representatives, we have the Right Honourable Representative Jim McGovern from the states of Massachusetts. 


We know that the technological response to the pandemic varies from parliament to parliament and it can lead the legislative branch to design a digital transformation strategy towards a more effective legislative process more precisely of public policies as well as to ensure the continuity of the institutions work in times of emergency. Let’s take a step back from the solutions and think about the process of change. I would like to do an exercise and look a decade from now and think about our goal for a more digital-ready Legislative House. 


In your opinion, what are the steps we all should take now, as a community to foster an environment to keep the momentum of institutional modernisation? 


James McGovern: 


When this pandemic hit, we were not prepared as to how to run our government virtually or digitally. I mean, we were not prepared for that and we had not given it a lot of thought. There was really nothing in place and so we took a number of steps transitioning into a way that we could operate safely. We moved to a completely paperless process. 


We passed a rule that would allow people to do hearings virtually and another that allowed members of Congress to vote virtually, if they needed to, through proxy voting. We also did something else because we expect that this pandemic will be short-lived and we want to be prepared for the future. 


We want to also decide whether or not some of the things that we’re doing should continue, even when things are back to normal. For that, we created a special select committee on the modernization of Congress. It’s a bipartisan committee, with an equal number of democrats and republicans that are tasked with looking at how we can make the House run better. I’m hoping that the committee will review all the things that we have done during this pandemic to see what works and what doesn’t to understand what we should keep, even when this pandemic is over. When we moved to operate virtually and even be able to have some members vote remotely, it wasn’t unanimous. 


There was great dissension and we had some of our republican colleagues who did not want to move in that direction, since they thought we would look cowardly by operating remotely. Our view is that we need to consider what is safe – none of this was easy to put into place – but others were worried that if this stuff remained in place in the long term, we would lose the special uniqueness of our Congress, in which members of Congress meet in person. There was also an appreciation that you can get more things done in-person. 


You have more constructive conversations in-person and they didn’t want to lose that. These are some of the things that this modernization committee will consider in the future, but we have a mechanism set up to look at this stuff. 


Antonio Anastasia: 


The Member of the House of Representatives of the United States of America responded very precisely. For what reason? 


Because, in fact, the surprise he reports in his response also occurred in Brazil. We did not imagine that the pandemic would last as long as it has, in terms of its extent over time. Unfortunately, also its gravity and, therefore, the adoption of alternative mechanisms of deliberation through remote means, of which we were pioneers here in Brazil, ended up being extended. 


Contrary to what Rep. McGovern reports, here in Brazil, there was no resistance from any of the parties. All parliamentarians, both in the Senate and in the House of Representatives, agreed to implement the remote deliberation system, given that there was no alternative. 


Thus, the system was able to be installed quite rapidly, and the positive result was that we deliberated with a safe and individual vote of each parliamentarian throughout the national territory. In fact, he also responds, and the feeling is the same in Brazil, the physical absence of an eye-to-eye contact of parliamentary debate harms the decision-making process within the scope of the Legislative Branch. But, unfortunately, there is no alternative and, it is always good to remember with great sadness, that out of 81 senators from Brazil, we’ve already had three deaths (dated March, 2021). Three senators died of Covid-19 in the exercise of their mandate during these last months, which demonstrates the seriousness of the disease, not only the thousands deaths in Brazil, but also its effect on the Legislative Branch, a great sadness that affects us all.

[header image source: unsplash] 

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