📌 This text is the result of the transcription of the panelist’s participation in Bússola Tech’s event
I’m Cristina Leston-Bandeira and I’m a Professor of politics at the University of Leeds, which is in the north of England in the United Kingdom in Europe.
We often talk about what digital can do or can’t do and the problems such as polarisation, fake news, etc. What I want to do is to pause and reflect on the nature of the parliamentary institution and to help us think about what it is about the institution of parliament that makes it actually a difficult institution to implement digital solutions and digital opportunities, particularly thinking in terms of engagement which is my main area of research.
I’m going to do this through eight key points, eight key characteristics of parliament that make parliaments a difficult institution to implement the digital.
My first key characteristic is that parliaments are collective bodies, collective institutions, it brings lots of people together and therefore whichever decision is taken within a parliamentary institution, all the different parties, all the different groups of that institution need to be listened to and that in itself leads to slower decision-making processes. The most efficient in terms of speed and ability to take things very quickly would be sort of an authoritarian type of parliament where there’s only one group and there’s no diversity of views. But in the vast majority of parliaments, thank goodness, we don’t have an authoritarian situation, we have different views, different groups and they all need to be listened to. Each of these are all things that don’t necessarily fit very well with digital.
My second characteristic it’s linked to the first point. It’s about the fact that parliaments have deferring views and quite often opposing agendas. Most parliaments will have groups that oppose each other and they can’t wait for the first opportunity to demonstrate that the other group is wrong or has something that should be questioned. This diversity of views and opposing agendas, again, makes it really difficult to make a decision because not only do they have to listen to everyone, they also have to make decisions that are accepted by all the different groups. If they’re not accepted by all the different groups, at least you have to have the feeling that will have the legitimacy to be made, that the groups have been listened to and that it will not cause any other problems that people might come out protesting, not happy with the decisions being made. Herein, I’m talking about administrative decisions within the institution, I’m not talking about political decisions.
There are some parliaments, such as the European Parliament for instance, that even have groups within the institution who oppose the existence of the institution. For example, the European Parliament, where you have lots of political groups who are what we call eurosceptic and think that the EU shouldn’t exist or there shouldn’t be an European Parliament. They’ll grab at any opportunity to show that the institution is just not acting as it should be.
The third characteristic is the lack of a single voice. If you think of a government you will have a prime minister or a chancellor or a president who speaks for the executive, who gives the voice for the executive, who is the image and represents everything within that executive. Parliament doesn’t really have that because of its collective institution and that makes the transmission and communication of parliamentary ideas really difficult because there are so many different views. It’s really difficult to lead in terms of just one voice or what parliament is doing and it also makes leadership really hard. You may have in some cases presidents of parliament, or in Westminster systems speakers for parliaments and presiding officers for parliament and that’s the nearest you can get to someone speaking for parliament. But, even in those cases, they may speak for an abstract construct of the institution, they will not speak for all the different political groups and they are always really careful about that. However, from my research what you see is that in those parliaments, where the presence of the speakers, presiding officers are the most active in personifying that single voice speaking for parliament is where you see the most innovation taking place. Because if you don’t have leadership it’s very difficult to make decisions, particularly in a collective institution and with opposing agendas like in parliament.
My fourth characteristic is the fact that parliaments are what I call “bicephalous leadership”. The bicephalous meaning with two heads, “bi” from two. They have a political leadership and they have an administrative leadership. So, they have the president, political groups, the leaders of those political groups, the leaders, the presidents of the committees or commissions, that’s all the political aspect of the political structure that leads a parliament. On the other hand, you also have the administrative structure, like the secretary-general, the director-general and the heads of all the different services in parliament. Quite often these two groups don’t speak the same language. The political groups tend to be the temporary hosts of a parliament whereas the administrative staff are actually the permanent ones, I usually call them the guardians of the institution. They make their whole career within the institution, they’re there maybe for years, maybe for decades, they see politically the “ships” come and go but they stay there.
Sometimes the contrast between the two of them can again make innovative decisions and risky decisions very difficult. On one hand, on the political side, even if staff come up with innovative ideas, the political side might be very worried about the drawbacks. Like the fact that they’re going to go for an election in four months time or in a year’s time and what sort of consequences would that have to them, so they tend to think in the short term. Whereas in the admin side they’re more long-term thinking but on the other hand, sometimes because they are the guardians of the institutions, because they’ve seen things come and go, can also be those who are much more averse to change and adverse to innovation.
That bicephalus leadership definitely brings in difficulties in terms of adopting digital and it’s interesting in terms of research to look at different structures, different parliaments and how the two of them connect and who is at the top ultimately to make those decisions. Ultimately politicians are the ones who have the legitimacy to make decisions, which are risky and staff don’t really have that legitimacy, so if politicians are not driving an agenda of innovation quite often it’s very difficult for parliament to bring in innovation.
My fifth characteristic is visibility. I know we always talk about how closed, how opaque and not transparent parliaments are, but actually if you look at it from our political institutions they are the most visible that we have. I could almost bet, whichever system you go to, that you’ll find that the parliament, congress, assembly, whatever you call it, will be the most visible political institution. People will recognise more immediately the building of the parliament, they might not know its parliament, they might think it’s the government but they will recognise the institution usually. Quite often news is reported mirroring whether they’re reporting on the government or whatever they’re reporting on politics, they will project that image on parliament. Anything that happens in parliament, partly because of the opposing agendas, a diversity of groups communicating all the time and competing with that communication raises the level of visibility. Visibility is fine but it also brings with it its vulnerability. The leadership of parliament makes decisions that can be very visible and it can seem like a mistake and is very easy to criticise because it is visible.
My sixth is more to think about in terms of engagement and in terms of present communication with the public, because that’s my main area of research. The parliaments tend to have an apolitical voice, obviously politicians have a political voice, however the institution itself of parliament can’t be political, can’t be party political. Likewise the staff and the officials can’t be part political, they have to be unbiased at all times, they have to at all times show no party favoritism whatsoever. When these institutions employ things like social media, it is usually very blunt and neutral and that is because the staff behind the social media accounts will be trying very hard to not express any political ideas because they’re trying to be apolitical, they’re trying to be unbiased. The problem is that engagement in politics or engaging people with political ideas does involve discussing politics one way or another. It is an issue that a lot of staff struggle with and a lot of them try to stay away from anything like social media or digital engagements because they say it’s not up to them to say the views, it’s up to the politicians. That can be an issue in terms of driving engagement and innovation in the use of digital tools and using the opportunities that they create in terms of engaging with the public.
My seventh characteristic is that there’s only a few and far between parliaments. In a large federal country like, where you have lots of different states you will have the national parliament, the congress and then you’ll have a sub-state parliament. In a case like that, there’s a little bit more of exchange of ideas. There are obviously networks that try to stimulate the exchange of practices and to learn from that. But it’s not really that easy, particularly when you start having different types of political systems, with different cultures, with different languages and that lesson-learning becomes really hard.
I talk with staff from many parliaments and they express exactly the same concerns as staff from another parliament, but they think they’re the only ones in the world who are facing those difficulties or they might think they’ve done something that is very innovative when other places are doing the same. And that’s because there’s such a lack of knowledge of what other parliaments are doing in terms of innovative areas like engagement.
My final and eighth characteristic about parliaments, which make the use of digital quite difficult is the timings of political cycles and how that affects decision making. If any of you work in politics you’ll know that the political cycles can be very unpredictable, can be very fast-paced, can change at any moment and this can be really difficult than to use, to adapt in terms of the digital tools.
So, with these eight characteristics what I’ve tried to show is the fact that is in the nature of a political institution like parliament to have these characteristics and all of this leads these institutions to be very slow at decision-making processes in terms of their own administrative, in terms of their own processes it also makes them very risk-averse. There’s a few solutions to this and I’ve grouped them around five points.
The first one is the investment in staff and resources. There are traditional types of staff, they’re not communications engagement digital type of staff, they’re staff who know about law, who know about drafting, who know about procedure. Quite often there’s this idea that digital doesn’t need specialised stuff and resources but, parliaments need staff that understands about communication, understand about engagement, understand about how to use digital.
Secondly is the willingness to experiment and pilot. In Brazil, in both the Chamber for the Deputies and in the Senate, there have been initiatives where staff are encouraged to present innovations, to bring in projects, to bid for ideas and that’s really important. Many partners don’t do that and that willingness to experiment, to try different things and to accept that some of them will not go that well and others will. This really needs to be there, in terms of driving that innovation, particularly an institution like parliament for the characteristics I just said to you.
The third one linked to this, is that acceptance that risks need to be taken. That often is really difficult to convey and implement when you are in that leadership position, mostly because you are the person whose decision may backfire really badly to you. But that acceptance that risks need to be taken really is important.
My fourth point is to start small and build on that. There are parliaments that actually started huge investments and changes and sometimes don’t necessarily work very well. That actually becomes much more risky in many ways, because it’s more expensive and if you want to change again it’s a lot of work and you don’t take the staff with you anymore because they’re tired of such a big change. Some experiences showed that Parliament that starts very small has more success on these changes, taking everyone with you rather than starting very big and then building on that.
Finally, my fifth recommendation is that parliaments work with outside organizations. Quite often, for lots of different reasons, parliaments take it upon themselves to do it all by themselves by their own staff but there’s so many organizations out there, particularly digital, that have the experience and expertise to develop lots of ideas. And quite often parliaments are a bit too adverse to develop partnerships with outside organizations but, for what i’ve seen, the most innovation has been when parliament have accepted to work with outside organizations for different types of purposes.
So, we’ve got eight characteristics that make parliament a difficult institution to bring digital in and five keys ideas in there to try to address those problems and trying to bring it digitally into parliament to make it work.
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