The Covid-19 pandemic mobilised the Brazilian Senate House in the elaboration of acts and rules that would provide conditions for the house’s public servants to be able to prepare themselves in this new scenario.
The President of the Brazilian Senate House issued 3 acts focused on preventing the spread of Covid-19 on the premises of the house. The Director-General regulated access to the house, as well as established preventive measures. The First Secretary published an act to make remote access to the Senate network more flexible.
For its part, the Secretary of the Senate established a rule regarding documents that could be moved remotely. The act of the governing council authorised remote deliberation by means of software, the remote deliberation system (SDR). On March 12, 2020, our Director-General held a general meeting with the main leaders of the house and communicated how we should act in the light of these acts.
The information technology team, which I lead, held a meeting on March 13, 2020, two days after the pandemic was declared, with 3 requests:
- A solution for remote deliberation, this being the main request;
- Teleworking, an request that had already been handled;
- Screening application for declaring how the person is feeling, to be able to enter the Federal Senate.
The Senate has two remote voting solutions, one for the plenary and one for the committees. The committee solution was developed internally by us, while the plenary was acquired on the market. As the committee meetings were not taking place in 2020, only the plenary had remote voting.
We called our commercial partner and expanded our electronic voting system from the floor through a new acquisition and acquired the remote voting module which is a responsive web application. Our goal was not to restrict the parliamentarian in the use of devices, he or she could use the cell phone, notebook, a desktop or even a tablet. This application has voting panels, leadership orientation and is also available on the internet.
We see many Senators with a TV by the side and following the session through the voting panel, something that any citizen can also do.
We chose Zoom for videoconferencing. The number of videos was preponderant in the decision, and this was important for the Secretary of the Senate, in addition to the speech time control that proved to be better than the other tools, so we adopted Zoom that works by any device, including by phone. In our Zoom licensing there is the possibility of audio conferencing. There were cases of a parliamentarian being in transit or having a connection problem, and this feature allows the parliamentarian to call by phone and to participate in the remote session.
We needed to adapt some information systems of the legislative process, which have been in the house for many years, especially those that receive documentation digitally from parliamentarians, such as the proposals.
The physical plenary floor of the Senate was deactivated and there were no remote sessions there. There were only some solemn sessions. The virtual plenary takes place in another location within the building of the Senate, in our IT secretariat, specifically in our networking operations center, our network monitoring room.
Why do we take the plenary to this room? First, due to the social isolation that the place guarantees. It is a small place and does not have a lot of people. Ventilation is open, and the president of the Senate is close to the room, which is easily accessible. The entire network monitoring room has a video wall with a very good amplitude for the administrator to monitor the entire network service. Since it was something very new, this proximity to the technical team was very healthy for us to be able to attend to any serious problem. There are only 6 workstations, where the president is, added a second parliamentarian, usually a rapporteur, and the support staff of the Secretary of the Senate. The social communication secretary, always a very close partner in the IT department, took all her equipment to this room, managing to brilliantly set up the streaming of remote sessions, including to YouTube, something that was already happening in face-to-face sessions, but now the remote session started to be streamed by TV Senado.
The first remote session was a week after the IT meeting. The Senate met remotely with only the President in the virtual plenary, when the Senate recognised by decree the public calamity in the country.
We ran the test to see if the solution was really working, and we supported the 81 senators. We produced manuals and video tutorials with all the explanations.
There was a remote voting system in the house for many years, so the same system was used, only now using the call by Zoom, the videoconference module. As for the list of speakers and the call to use the floor, we use the Zoom chat, since there are 81 senators, which makes it possible to do this control through this tool. By logging in to Zoom, the presence of parliamentarians at meetings is already counted. Order questions are made by chat as well. And the agenda of the session is communicated by the official means of the Senate, in the same way that it happened before the pandemic. In the first sessions we got to use WhatsApp but the focus should be more formal, by email. The voting panel already worked in the house and was incorporated into the application.
Voting takes place in the application, the remote system module that we already had from our commercial partner, with the first access screen with authentication, with login and password and a captcha control to avoid bots.
After logging in, the parliamentarian sees his name, which session is taking place at the moment and which proposals are to be voted on, with the voting buttons “yes”, “no” or “abstention”. We asked for the photo at the time of the vote for another layer of security, guaranteeing the authenticity of the parliamentarian’s identification. A code is sent by SMS to the parliamentarian’s cell phone, which is another layer of identification. And within the application, in addition to voting, he can see the leadership orientation and also see which senators have already voted.
Security is an important issue. We have multifactor authentication, several layers like password, photo and SMS. We followed all of Zoom’s recommendations for meetings from the beginning and the platform already had a booklet of good practices, which we made sure to follow from the beginning.
We sent the Senators the link to the session that will take place a few hours before the start. They are unique links that parliamentarians receive by email. We require login and, following Zoom’s recommendation, creating a specific network domain with specific mailboxes and e-mails for meetings of the Senate. You cannot enter the meeting without this account. We did Zoom’s security analysis, made a report and thought it was possible to use it.
The environment is distributed, there is a voting system with its business rules there in our data center, there is also a remote module for this cloud voting system, when it is integrated via a secure connection with our on-premise systems. So it is a distribution not only of the load, but of the security of the solution as a whole. Internally to make this integration, we were very concerned with the isolation of network interconnections, it is a closed and specific interconnection. And we have a monitor that is already in the virtual plenary that is the network’s monitoring room, so it was a very useful blend.
Finally, the results. Between March 20, 2020 and September 15, 2020, there were 63 remote sessions, 95 deliberated proposals, with 528 proposals under discussion.
It was a very productive period, as much as before in the pandemic. Many think that the challenges could be lack of personnel, difficulty with the rules of the house, culture, but our house has a very good technical group. The rules of the house were readily revised. In relation to the culture, we did not need a work of persuasion, since everyone understood that it was a necessary move, with emphasis on the public servants who were very motivated and the parliamentarians were well engaged, so much so that the sessions had a high number of presence. So, the biggest challenge was the time to put the Senate to work completely remotely, in 1 week, but we managed to do it.
It had a good repercussion being the first parliament to deliberate remotely. The Senate gave support to some international parliaments, and we made a manual on how we could transmit this knowledge and this technology.
Finally, the legacy that remained with us is a possibility of more simultaneity for members of parliament, in our case senators. Parliamentarians are extremely demanding people, they are always in contact with several people at the same time. So these remote sessions open up the possibility of expanding that presence of the senator a little more broadly. We saw the colleagues of the Senate all united in favor of this initiative, the lesson learned is that cooperation overcomes any challenge.
All this information disclosed is present on the website www.senado.leg.br/sdr
[header image source: unsplash]
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