📌 This text is the result of the transcription of the panelist’s participation in Bússola Tech’s event
My name is Jeffrey Onganga, I’m the head of media and communications at the Pan-African Parliament.
I think it’s important for me to start by giving an overview of what the Pan-african Parliament is. The Pan-african Parliament is the legislative organ of the African Union. The African Union is a continental body for Africa with membership of 55 member states. It’s important for me to give an idea as to how the Pan-african Parliament works. Currently, we have five members from each of the member states represented in the Pan-African parliament. Those members are selected by the national legislatures. The selected five members need to respect certain criteria, including gender representation and political diversity in the delegations sent to the Pan-african Parliament. The Parliament holds four statutory meetings a year, where decisions are made or legislation is formulated.
Those are what we call committee meetings and plenary sessions. We have these committee meetings in March and in August, and then in May and October for plenary sessions, where resolutions and recommendations can be made to the Assembly of the African Union. Lastly, just as a background to the Pan-african Parliament, it is important to note that as it stands, the Pan-african Parliament plays an advisory and a consultative role to the African Union as all.
In 2014, a new protocol of the parliament was adopted by heads of State and Government, that protocol is meant to give full legislative powers to the Pan-african Parliament, which means that the parliament is capable of making laws for the entire continent. Right now, the parliament is in the business of making modern laws that are then reprised and utilised as a framework by member states. It also provides advisory and consultative services to the African Union, it also provides model laws, and is still advocating for the ratification of the protocol, which requires 28 member states to ratify.
What the Pan-african Parliament does is to bring together members of parliament from the entire continent, share experiences and make sure that problems that are discussed at the African Union level, come from the aspirations of the people, the concerns of the people. The work of the Parliament is based on the agenda, which is the framework towards the Africa we want.
This is why this parliament is critical in doing this work. Now, from March, 2020, like the rest of the world, Africa was affected by the coronavirus pandemic, and that forced many organisations around the world to change the way business is conducted. It’s important to note that parliaments are a different kind of organisation.
Parliament operates differently from other bodies, because parliament is actually supposed to be transparent and ensure that business is accessible, visible and also as a public support and confidence. That’s why many parliaments around the world have tried to adjust to the “new normal”.
How to actually conduct business, making sure that it adheres to health?
In the Pan-african Parliament, specifically, we’ve looked at this as both a challenge, but also an opportunity. What the coronavirus pandemic has done is given us an opportunity to accelerate and to speed up our digital transformation. It placed us in a position where we felt we did not have a choice. South Africa, which is the host country to the Pan-African Parliament, very early on, in March, 2020, instituted a general lockdown, which means that our parliamentarians could not come to South Africa, like they’ve always done to hold meetings, since all the meetings that the Pan-african Parliament has held over the years, since it was established in 2004, have been conducted physically.
The Pan-African Parliament, being an organ of the African Union, depends on funding from member states to effectively deliver on this mandate. What has happened to the entire world has also happened to Africa. Economies were badly impacted by the pandemic, thus it meant that the contribution from member states, to enable the African Union, as a whole, to function properly and also the Pan-African Parliament, particularly, to go on about its business was clearly affected and reduced.
It then became a priority for us, as a secretary, to find new ways and to propose a new path forward as to how our parliamentarians would be able to gather and deliberate on the issues facing the peoples of Africa. It meant that our IT team had to make sure that our facilities were upgraded with high-end internet connectivity. We needed to make sure that we, as a secretariat, were able to continue having meetings online, to test the way we were able to interact, before we were able to bring in members of parliament.
In addition to the upgrade of the internet, we moved many organisational units to Zoom and Microsoft Teams, to hold our meetings. Once we were able to gain enough confidence from the process of gathering, then we started holding these meetings with members of parliament. The virtual committee meetings were surprisingly efficient and a good way for them to, obviously, start deliberating. We encountered challenges, because when you’re moving into digital transformation, you need to take into account the four key aspects: I) The technology; II) The Data; III) The Process; and IV) The organisational change.
While we were putting all the resources into technology, ensuring that we gathered the data and that the process was laid out, I think the change management was very difficult to manage, because even our own members of staff were reluctant to move to this new reality. Let alone our members of parliament because, in Africa we have countries that have progress on different levels. The technology in South Africa is clearly different from the technology used in Burkina Faso, for instance. A member of parliament in South Africa can easily get on Zoom, Microsoft Teams and other platforms to attend and participate in the meeting. It could be more difficult for a member of parliament from Burkina Faso or Guinea to participate in the same meeting, because of some issues in a microenvironment also related to network connectivity, or to high speed internet.
We had to find a way to accommodate everyone, which was not easy. We are working together with our headquarters in Addis Ababa, and we were able to propose solutions to roll out some of our cloud solutions in a phased manner. We’re providing training in Microsoft Office 365 to members of staff, and to our members of parliament. We held several training meetings with our members of parliament for them to, first understand the basics of virtual meetings, but also to be comfortable with moving forward with how we’re able to conduct business in the future.
The decision needed to be made after we held about six to seven committee meetings online. It became clear that this was going to be the new normal, and perhaps it was an opportunity in terms of how we are going to interact instead of conducting missions all over the continent. Perhaps doing it online was going to be the new way, then the decision was made, at the leadership level, to just transform digitally, to lead a digital transformation that would enable the Pan-african Parliament to really move into a different space. This is still ongoing, because it entails investment, it demands time from our side and staff of parliamentarians. Working from home, for many of our staff, is a new thing.
As we are moving to the digital space with parliament, what is critical is voting, because in parliaments we vote on laws and motions and as one of the key elements is voting on the leadership of the parliament. The bureau of the Parliament needs to be elected, which means that an election needs to take place.
Over the years, these elections have taken place physically, and the concern of our members of parliament, for the most part wanting to be candidates to this election, is how do you conduct a virtual election and make sure that it is, not only, transparent, but also fair to candidates.
It has been our task to make sure that using this platform, that we are able to conduct online voting for members of parliament and in electing a new bureau. It also needs to give confidence to these members that this can happen in a manner that provides enough elements for them to believe in the process.
We have already started our committee meetings online, because committee meetings, like many parliaments, they prepare the work of the primary sessions. While we still have many members of parliament hesitating, we are moving forward, smoothly, with incorporating the aspect of digital transformation into the work of the Pan-African Parliament. We are able to get our members to share things, as basic as sharing documents, making presentations, editing documents and providing feedback. Those are the things that they didn’t think were possible, but today we are able to do it, and I think this is only the beginning. As an example, the African Union conducted fresh elections in February, 2021, which saw the reelection of a Chairperson and the commissioners of the African Union commission. That new team was renewed and for the first time that election was conducted online. The IT team worked with our colleagues in Addis Ababa to see how we’re going to implement it and, obviously, use that as a model to transfer, and also move forward with the way we are going to be conducting our own elections.
Digital transformation is a process, it impacts not just us, as members of the secretariat, but also members of parliament, who do all the work and produce legislation and model laws. It also impacts the delivery to the general public and how we’re able to serve society. People were given access, since this is a Parliament of the peoples of Africa, so anyone could come and attend the proceedings. Since we have the Covid-19 restrictions on the fact that we are not going to be holding many meetings physically at the parliament headquarters, and the fact that there’s a decision from the Head of Secretary that the whole meetings this year will be held online, we also have to think of how best can we, in our digital transformation process, serve the citizens of Africa, so they can also participate and virtually see what is going on in their parliament. Through the different meetings that we’ve held, we tried many elements and stages, inviting members of the public to make submissions in seminars. However, not everyone wants to make submissions, some people just want to follow the proceedings and see what is going on.
We’ve made provisions for citizens and stakeholders, who want to participate in the work of parliament to take part in, whether the Zoom and Microsoft Teams meetings, to be given access. We use Zoom when we have these big webinars that need to accommodate a lot of people, and then we invite third parties and other stakeholders to come and make recommendations. What we really did this is to improve our livestreaming. Our livestreaming on Facebook, on Twitter and on YouTube, making sure that everything we do is livestreamed to our audience across the continent, on our platform, so that they can follow the work that we do.
We are doing more upgrades and getting people to adopt the new way to be comfortable going forward. But, we are not under any illusion that this is going to go smoothly all the time. As we hold meetings, we still have a few challenges, such as a member of parliament wanting to mute and unmute, a member of parliament attending a meeting in an environment that is noisy and with people walking around them. We still have difficulties, because we put together guidelines on how to participate in the online meeting, without any disruptions. Many of our members of parliament, especially those of a certain age, still have difficulties coming to terms with adopting those basic practices.
We are pushing forward, but we know that this is going to be a process. The fact is, virtual meetings are here to stay. What we are doing as this pandemic eases up and moves to a different stage is, as we are exploring hybrid conferencing solutions, which will be able to accommodate two types of audiences. The audience that’s comfortable with technology, that’s comfortable working from wherever they are, and the second is the audience that still finds it difficult to adapt, and prefer to be in the chamber of the Pan-african Parliament and attend meetings.
As we look into the solutions, we also see different products coming into the frame. We’re looking into the future and we’re seeing that different solutions will be offered. I think we have a great opportunity to explore all those avenues and to make sure that we adopt a technology that goes with the way we, as the Pan-african Parliament, work.
The specificity with the Pan-african Parliament, that doesn’t work in isolation, we work with all parliaments in Africa, and what we’ve noticed is that they are also moving full swing into digital transformation mode. Because we’re able to interact with them, through virtual platforms, parliaments in many countries, in Malawi, in Zambia, in Nigeria and Ghana, are voting online. In South Africa hybrid has become the new wave for quite some time.
The challenges remain the same, there are still a number of our parliamentarians not understanding, perhaps, the ins and outs, but that is part of the game. There are always going to be people that do not come to the party very easily or at the same pace as everyone else, but the reassurance is that, in Africa we are seeing this trend. Our parliaments are able to vote, to conduct hearings, and to do the business of parliament online, without having to spend a lot of budget flying people in and out. If we continue with this trend, it is clear that we are moving into a new space. The irony is that this was facilitated mostly by the pandemic.
The pandemic itself was negative, because of the number of people, the number of jobs we’ve lost to the virus, and because of the way of life that has changed. The other side of the situation, we had the opportunity to explore new solutions and how we can work virtually and still stick to the core business of parliament.
[header image source: unsplash]
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