Remote Deliberation Experience in National Assembly of Ecuador (Asamblea Nacional)

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

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In the National Assembly of Ecuador, like all parliaments, we have tried to react as quickly as possible to fight this pandemic, this crisis and the restrictions it imposes, and I have prepared a summary text for that.

 

Ecuador is a country with a National Assembly made up of 137 members. This parliament has as main functions: to legislate, to audit and the political control in the Ecuadorian State. It is administered by an administration made up of this community of seven representatives of the assembly members. 

 

The assembly for its legislative work is divided into three ministerial parts, each of them is made up of approximately 10 assembly members. 

 

As far as the particulars of the pandemic in our country are concerned, on March 16th, 2020 when the State of emergency was decreed, the assembly immediately looked for alternatives, moving forward with its planning and the first thing that was determined as necessary was the issue of regulation.

 

Previously, it had not been the case that these sessions needed to be held remotely or virtually, so it was necessary to implement or regulate these sessions through a legislative resolution, so that together with the technical effort that was made, the tools that were gathered, the first virtual meeting was held on May 24th, 2020.

 

We have summarised the aspects that had to be verified in order to be able to carry out this implementation, it really is not merely a technical issue, it has to do mainly with legal aspects, with political aspects and secondly with technological aspects.

 

In terms of legal feasibility, the first thing is that both the constitution and the parliament’s own rules provide for the possibility or the non-restriction that these sessions can only be physical, that there is the possibility that they can be held remotely away from the seat of parliament. 

 

Additionally, in order to enable the regulation, it is important to justify in this case the emergency in the States of exception that motivate the functions to be held remotely. As for political viability, it has to do with the issue of all the participants or members involved in the institution, in terms of having the political will to hold the sessions and to seek solutions to be able to do so, without gaps. In the country specifically, the president achieved the consensus that it is feasible and that all movements and political groups support the implementation of the session. And finally, the technological issue in terms of its feasibility, which has to do with the parliament’s own infrastructure, starting with the equipment. 

 

We had to deal with the infrastructure and the equipment the MPs had at hand, so it was required that our technical staff worked directly with each of them, configured them remotely and gave them remote assistance so that they could connect to video conferencing platforms and specifically to the electronic seat system.

 

In general, apart from the tools available, it is necessary that the technical staff team has the ability to bring together all these tools to make the respective adaptations, combining proprietary software with free software and also using the few resources that are sometimes available. 

 

In terms of this feasibility, as far as the technical part is concerned, a summary has been made here that it is necessary to manage it as a project, even though it is a legislative issue. 

 

I believe that this is the beginning of a very important transition in parliament, as I believe that we have all been forced to migrate to the electronic parliament and it is important that within this transition we clearly define the objectives that we want to maintain and many of the principles that must be respected in the parliamentary aspect, such as transparency, participation, accountability. All these issues that must not be lost in the digital sphere. 

 

Similarly, to manage the project it is important to determine the scope, how far the parliamentary process is going to be automated or digitalised, whether it is only the meetings, whether it is the plenary sessions, whether the whole process of managing the laws, all of this has to do with the scope of the project. And finally, the methodologies for managing this transition, which generally have to be agile given the short time available to react.

 

Specifically, in our case, in terms of the implementation of virtual sessions, these are all the issues that had to be addressed, the planning, the basics, the outline, the legal work for the virtual sessions through a resolution, the actual activation of the remote meeting tools. In our particular case this is done with Zoom, but several tools were evaluated and all the access and management controls that must be implemented so that only the assembly members participate and also so that there is an organisation within the participation. Likewise, access was given to all the processes of the plenary sessions through a remote access software tool to our electronic voting system and all this was supported and trained with our technical staff to the different members of parliament who have to do with the tools that were used.

 

Well, here we have a summary of all the tools that are used specifically in the National Assembly, the main objective is to manage the plenary sessions and also the sessions of the committees virtually, which are achieved through video conferencing via Zoom, remote access is made with AnyDesk to the application. 

 

The video-conferencing system, the electronic meeting system, which is virtualised with VMware, all of this while respecting the legal framework that was defined and technically supported by a technical staff of approximately 10-12 people who provide direct support to the plenary and committee sessions in our country. Everything is framed within the organic law of our National Assembly.

 

This is a system that has been in place since 2012, which allows for the registration of the assembly member, authenticating the assembly member, in person, which was done through fingerprints. 

 

But by changing to the remote mode we had to use username and password mechanisms so that the assembly member could enter specifically to his remote computer, this system once allows the registration both for the quorum and for voting, allows the request to speak, counts the time of use of the floor and finally allows the electronic vote online. 

 

This is a completely interactive system, as soon as the assembly member is selecting his or her vote, it is immediately reflected on the main screen which vote he or she has made: affirmative, negative or abstention, on the screen, that is, at this moment they can check that the button they have made corresponds to their will.

 

By virtual office we mean the whole set of tools that allow members of parliament to access the documents that a normal parliament handles. A parliament normally handles many documents, many bills that are in process and that requires access by different people to the documents and this obviously constitutes the virtual office. In our case, just before the pandemic we had implemented a document management system based on electronic signatures which facilitated us and helped us a lot to be able to manage the virtual office. And this is one of the points we emphasise here, that we manage electronically signed documents, which allows documents to be issued remotely and also allows several people to sign electronically on the same document when they are bills or reports.

 

The issue of the agenda also includes the calls and the parliamentary agenda. In other words, when and how the meetings will be dealt with, which is why we use applications to exchange electronic messages and the scheduling of sessions, specifically on an email tool such as Zimbra, as we will see later on. 

 

In addition, everything that is required is the collaborative management of documents to build the different legal instruments and the different reports that are required prior to approving a law or a resolution. And finally, it is also necessary to access the historical repository of documents, the previous documents that were normally in physical form and that in most cases have had to be digitised so that they can be accessed remotely through a digital repository and with these parameters, this specific application in the National Assembly.

 

In conclusion, in terms of corporate document management, we use Nextcloud, the internet, institutional mail with Zimbra, digital files are managed with Alfresco, all documents with electronic signatures with our own system called dts, and the online office suite with LibreOffice.

 

I want to highlight the importance of the information channels to guarantee the transparency of the proceedings virtually, as we have kept all our channels open, such as the National Assembly of Ecuador application, the information systems, the social networks, the different legislative media, such as radio and TV, which have continued to broadcast these virtual sessions and to deliver the respective information through the different channels so that citizens are informed of what the National Assembly is doing.

 

As of July 31st, 2020 these are the results: 47 plenary sessions, 84 votes in plenary sessions, 892 interventions by assembly members in plenary sessions, and 432 committee sessions. With these additional months of work, these numbers have grown up.

 

In all this time, more than five laws have been approved for the Ecuadorian State. In summary, the lessons learned are that although it is true that this has been a complicated environment for parliaments, it has been a propitious moment to make the leap towards modernisation, towards electronic parliaments. However, it requires political leadership to carry out these changes, which have to do with the digitalisation of parliamentary processes, and obviously have to be regulated and adjusted to the legal regulations in force in each country, and if not, it is necessary for these regulations to be generated.

 

We believe that these processes are not just for now, they will continue, it is not specifically appropriate that we are going to return to completely face-to-face sessions, they will be mixed in the near future. Despite everything returning to normality, we have seen that this is an important mechanism for parliamentarians to have time to be in the territory with their communities, always within all this management we have kept in mind what are the milestones for guaranteeing transparency, participation and access to information generated by the National Assembly. 

[header image source: unsplash] 

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