📌 This text is the result of the transcription of the panelist’s participation in Bússola Tech’s event
ParlAmericas is the institution that promotes parliamentary diplomacy in the inter-american system. We are composed of the 35 National legislatures of the Americas and the Caribbean and we promote cooperative political dialogue to facilitate the exchange of good legislative practices and produce tailored resources to support parliamentarians in their work. Through our open-parliament programming, we’ve engaged with parliamentarians, parliamentary staff and civil society representatives through a variety of activities on public participation in the legislative process and we’ve also developed a toolkit on this issue, which you can find on our open-parliament portal at parltools.org.
We view public participation as one of the core components of an open-parliament, alongside transparency and access to information, accountability and high ethical standards. Citizen’s participation in the legislative process is important as it complements the role of legislators and it can lead to stronger collective intelligence, meeting higher quality outcomes, more inclusive and representative decision-making and an improved understanding of the role of parliament, which can ultimately lead to more trust in the institution.
We also recognise that there are various levels of participation that might be more appropriate at different times in parliamentary work and focus on three different levels.
The first is consultations, which is when citizens are asked for their feedback in a one-way conversation; the second is involvement, which is where citizens are engaged in a two-way dialogue with the parliament; and the third is collaboration or co-creation, which is where citizens and parliamentarians or staff work together to identify solutions.
Informing citizens and ensuring transparency and access to information is considered to be at the bottom of this participation ladder, as a requirement to undertake the other forms of participation. As part of these efforts to create more opportunities for public participation in their work, many parliaments have turned to digital tools to expand their reach and to make these opportunities more accessible for citizens.
The pandemic has also restricted physical access to parliament and led many legislators to move to remote work that has also highlighted the importance of these digital tools, which in many cases are one of the few mechanisms that are still available for participation under the current circumstances.
We’ve seen a lot of innovation in our hemisphere over the last few years in this area, and I’d like to highlight some interesting tools and good practices that parliaments have adopted.
The cases from Argentina
The Chamber of Deputies of Argentina has created an openlaw portal, which is a platform that allows citizens to participate in the development of legislative proposals or bills. Legislators post their proposals to this site and open their initiatives to incorporate citizens’ points of view. Comments can be general to provide an opinion on the idea or citizens can provide something specific to a section of the proposal or the bill. Legislators then review the comments and consider them as they developed an updated version of the text. Anyone who comments receives an email to notify them, so that they can look at the final version and see how their proposals were included.
The cases from Brazil
The Congress of Brazil was one of the first in the region to develop innovative tools for citizen participation.
One of these is the Chamber of Deputies e-democracia portal, which includes several opportunities for participation. It includes a section on interactive hearings, where citizens can watch public hearings, submit their questions and vote on others questions, so that the questions that have the most votes are asked by legislators in the session.
There’s also wikilegis, where citizens can comment on legislative proposals or bills and it functions in a similar way as the Argentinian openlaw portal. Citizens can also vote on the comments that have already been added by others.
Finally there’s a third area called participatory agenda, where citizens can contribute to the defining of priorities within the Chamber, for example a committee might submit a series of issues or bills that they’re considering and citizens can vote to see which ones they would the committee should address first.
The Senate of Brazil also has its own portal, which is called e-cidadania, which also offers three main ways for citizens to participate. The first is through the submission or vote to support legislative ideas and those that receive over 20,000 votes are submitted to the human rights and participatory legislation committee, which then provides a response. They also have an interactive hearings section, like the Chamber of Deputies, where they can listen and comment on proceedings. Finally, there’s a public consultation section, that’s a little bit similar to wikilegis, where citizens can express their opinions on bills proposals or even proposed constitutional amendments.
The cases from Canada
In Canada, we’ve seen the digitisation of the petition process, through an e-petition system. Using this system, citizens can create an account, submit a draft and if they have the authorisation by a member of parliament to pass their preliminary review by the clerk of petitions, the proposal is posted on the platform and citizens can collect at least 500 signatures online and then it is presented to the House of Commons and the government is required to respond.
Another example from Canada is the electronic submission of briefs to committees, as part of the study that the committee might be undertaking. This is a way to broaden the variety of actors who have the opportunity to share their views with the committee because any individual or organisation can submit such a brief even if they have not been given the opportunity to appear before the committee personally.
The cases from Chile
The Congress of Chile has created a tool called Virtual Congress. This originally started in the Senate, but it’s been updated to cover both chambers. Bringing both chambers together in such a tool is not easy, as each has their own processes and their own IT systems, but it’s really valuable from the perspective of citizens, who don’t always understand the different roles that the two chambers play. They don’t always know where to look for information and this allows citizens to be able to follow issues or bills even as they move from one chamber to the other. That platform was developed as part of a commitment within Chile’s open-parliament action plan. It was led by the bicameral group on transparency and it received support from the Inter-American Development Bank.
The platform allows citizens to vote on bills, both by providing a general vote and then a more specific vote to the main themes identified in the bill. It also allows citizens to comment and creates a word cloud with the most common keywords mentioned. Once the bill is addressed by Congress, it also provides a comparison of the votes received on the platform with the actual vote in the chamber. It also has a reward system for citizens for their participation, given the different ways that they interact with the platform.
Finally, it allows citizens to identify bills that perhaps have been inactive within the chamber that they would like to see prioritised by the Congress and through that function they can request for bills to be published on the virtual congress platform for citizen input. I also wanted to mention that the Congress of Chile recently adopted a regulation on citizen participation, which identifies and regulates the different opportunities that exist in the Congress for citizen participation to promote an effective and equitable participation. One of the mechanisms covered by this regulation is this Virtual Congress – Congresso Virtual – specifying that the automatic summary of participation through this tool is to be presented to the committee, who’s responsible for the particular bill to ensure that this feedback is actually integrated within the legislative process.
The cases from Colombia
As part of its first open-parliament action plan the Senate of Colombia has developed a mobile application that allows citizens to live watch Senate sittings and provides easy access to a lot of information about the work of the House and Senators. In that sense, it’s a little bit similar to mobile applications that have been created by the Congress of Paraguay and the National Assemblies of Ecuador and Suriname. This one, however, goes a little bit beyond sharing information, and it also allows citizens to cast a vote of opinion on bills that are being debated in the Senate. These votes of opinion are also broadcasted live to senators in the chamber, as the debate takes place and it also allows citizens to interact with committees during their meetings with a function through which they can publish comments or questions while watching the live stream of the meeting.
The case from Trinidad and Tobago
There are also simpler ways to allow for public participation and legislative debates while using tools that we already have or that are not that expensive to access. For example in the Parliament of Trinidad and Tobago they’ve enabled comment in the live streaming of its sittings and committee meetings on YouTube, which allows citizens to provide their questions the Clerk, then collects the relevant questions and shares them with the Speaker or the Chair of the committee, who can pose them as part of the proceedings.
This is governed by the set of rules which are explained in their YouTube channel to ensure appropriate language and relevant contributions are made through this process. Committees in the Parliament of Trinidad and Tobago are also using SurveyMonkey, which is a cost effective online survey tool to reach out to citizens on issues that the committees are addressing.
Due to the pandemic, many parliaments have also moved towards holding virtual or hybrid sittings and committee meetings or even public hearings, which is also creating a new opportunity for experts or citizens who are appearing as witnesses before committees to do that virtually without having to travel to the capital, which can be expensive and time-consuming, especially in larger Countries.
This is a practice that we expect will continue to remain available in many jurisdictions following the pandemic, as it will save costs, it will save time and it will also contribute to lowering the parliament’s environmental footprint as well.
Individual Parliamentarians promoting participatory processes through technology
We’ve also heard a number of good practices from individual parliamentarians across the years, where they’ve used digital tools to further their engagement with their constituents. For example, we’ve heard of parliamentarians creating short videos for social media to update citizens on an issue that’s relevant to them and that’s also being debated in parliament and asking them for their opinion. Doing live Q&A sessions with constituents on social media, either through video on Facebook or Instagram or even in writing through Twitter, doing virtual town halls with Zoom or other virtual platforms, which has of course become more common since the pandemic, sending newsletters that call for inputs, setting virtual office hours, and also organising local virtual roundtables with experts or civil society organisations to discuss issues that matter to constituents and are being addressed in parliament.
In all of these types of activities parliamentarians describe the importance of setting boundaries and being clear ahead of time, so that they’re able to promote a useful and effective dialogue.
I’d like to share some reflections that we’ve heard both from parliaments and from civil society organizations through our work around these digital participation tools that might be helpful to parliaments as they develop new mechanisms for this purpose or that they upgrade the ones that are already in place.
The role of the legislative institution
The first is around the integration of these mechanisms with the legislative process.
It’s important for these mechanisms to be integrated into the functioning of the chamber and not to exist as a standalone tool. Updating standing orders or supporting regulations to include these tools and how they relate to the rest of the legislative process can be key to ensure that the feedback that’s provided by citizens actually gets considered by legislators, which also helps to build that confidence in citizens that is worth their time to be participating in this process, because their input is valued and it’s actually being considered.
This can be done by amending the standing orders directly, to integrate such provisions or creating a separate regulation or policy, as was the case in Chile and as Ecuador is also currently developing.
To explain the different avenues that citizens have to contribute to the work of Congress, or the national assembly and as much as possible ensure that everyone has equal rights to these opportunities and no one is left behind.
These more elaborate tools like the platforms also require administrative support to ensure that they’re integrated within the rest of the administration of the parliament and the legislative process.
They will need IT support, but it can also be really important to have a team that’s also more closely tied to the legislative process to be engaged within this work, to allow for better integration of these initiatives.
In many cases we’ve seen that there’s a citizen participation office, or a communications department or another group who’s closely aligned with the legislative work of the parliament, who can ensure that the tool remains connected with the work of legislators. The second point I wanted to mention is around retroaction. Along the lines of what I mentioned earlier regarding citizens’ trust in the process. It’s important to demonstrate how their feedback is being considered and to communicate this with them clearly, so that false expectations aren’t created, because this potential disconnect can have really negative impacts on their trust in the institution.
It should be clearly explained in the platform and a link to the corresponding regulations should also be included if applicable and interactive tools that show how any feedback was integrated are also great, like those um that i’ve mentioned in the platforms by Argentina, Brazil and Chile.
One question that we’ve heard often about digital tools is how to make sure that the people who are participating in these tools are real people, and not spam or even bots created by lobbying organisations to sway the process in a non-transparent manner. To address this challenge most platforms require all users to have an authentication process. To create an account and to provide a certain amount of information, which in many cases includes an email, a street address or an ID number. This can also allow parliaments to analyse the views expressed by citizens on these platforms by the different regions of the Country which can also be valuable for legislators.
As these tools are developed and a lot of parliamentary processes are digitised it’s important to also invest in cybersecurity systems and protection to prevent against any attacks, especially as i mentioned if these tools are collecting personal information from citizens, like addresses or ID numbers. The next point I wanted to make is around simplifying citizen participation. Many countries in the region have a process for citizen proposals or legitimate legislative proposals by citizens, which require citizens to receive a certain number of signatures from fellow citizens in order to be able to present a legislative proposal to their parliament.
It’s great to have such an opportunity, but it also requires a lot of effort by citizens and drafting a proper legislative proposal can be very difficult for someone without legal training and that requires a lot of effort from the parliament also to support citizens in this process. These digital tools provide an alternative, where citizens can explain a problem and propose a solution without drafting a full legislative text, which can then be left to the legislators afterwards. The electronic collection of support from other citizens is also much less time consuming and more feasible for a regular person to undertake.
AI enhancing participatory tools
I also wanted to mention artificial intelligence. We’re seeing more and more exploration on the use of artificial intelligence to support participation in the work of parliaments. The Chamber of Deputies of Brazil has advanced significantly in this area, through a program called Ulysses, which among other things has created a chatbot on its website to answer questions from citizens and to analyse data received through the participation platforms. Algorithms are also used in Chile’s virtual Congress to analyse some of the information submitted by citizens as part of their participation on the platform, and these tools can be really helpful to try to make sense out of large amounts of comments in a much quicker way.
Education and participation in the legislative process
It’s obviously still a work in progress and there are no perfect solutions yet, but there are lots of interesting advances in the region and I think this is an area that’s going to be growing and that we should keep an eye out. Regarding education and incentives for participation, it’s important to think that while these tools continue to improve and reach a larger number of citizens, they’re probably not as widely used by the public at large as they could be and so, that highlights the importance of connecting these tools with education efforts that the parliament might already be undertaking, whether online or offline, like through youth parliament, school programs or other outreach activities to explain the role that they’re undertaking to explain the role of parliaments and to use those opportunities to promote the different mechanisms that exist for citizens to get engaged.
It can also be helpful to create incentives for participation to get more people to join these platforms and to stay committed to participating in different processes, such as the points process adopted by the Congress of Chile or even having an annual award for engaged citizens among other options.
Open-parliament actions plans and participatory tools
I also wanted to mention that many of these initiatives have been results of open-parliament action plans that have been co-created between parliaments and civil society representatives to identify priorities and make parliament’s work more transparent and inclusive. These plans have been a really great mechanism to propel and support the development of these innovative tools as a creative feedback loop between parliament and civil society that helps to ensure that as these tools are developed, they get constant feedback from external actors, so that the end product is the most useful that it can be for the public.
Many parliaments have also continued their open-parliament action plan process virtually since the start of the pandemic. From April, 2020, this includes Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica and Paraguay. Finally, for parliaments with more limited resources, it can be helpful to do a cost impact analysis to determine priorities for investment.
There appears to be a common understanding that a certain level of transparency is required for citizen participation processes to be effective and so it might be worth focusing investments there first, so that citizens can be better informed before extending participation opportunities.
If this is already in place, then it might be beneficial to look at tools that already exist in open source formats that could be easily replicated or adapted, or to look at other opportunities through channels that already exist, like free Survey tools, YouTube, Facebook or even the parliamentary Radio or TV channels.
I’d like to conclude by mentioning that these tools are not a replacement for in-person interaction between citizens and parliament, but they can complement that interaction by providing additional opportunities that are more accessible and can reach a larger larger number of citizens in a shorter amount of time.
Many of the parliaments that have developed these tools have done it with technical and financial help through collaborations with other parliaments, academia and other experts and are very open to continuing to sharing these tools with other parliaments, who might be interested in learning more and possibly adapting these tools to their national circumstances at ParlAmericas, through the open-parliament network and our parliamentary staff network.
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