Remote Deliberation in the National Assembly of Zambia

Read Michael Mukuka’s article from National Assembly of Zambia

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


My name is Michael Mukuka, I’m the Information and technology Director in the National Assembly of Zambia. I’m going to share the innovations that we’ve been doing in the National Assembly of Zambia in order to adapt to the Covid-19 pandemic. 


The first thing the National Assembly of Zambia had to address was the requirement to amend the standing orders, so we could continue the legislative business in the era of Covid-19, since we couldn’t act in a different format from what it is in the standing orders. 


We quickly started working on amending the standing orders to get it ready for the Covid-19 guidelines and it also allowed us to be able to gather in a hybrid format. Once that was done, then we moved on to make sure that we set up the hybrid system to continue the parliamentary business. 


Performing parliamentary business is something that you can’t just get software to help you to transact the legislative activities, it’s something that requires innovation, something that you need to come up with yourselves. 


Our team started working on it in May, 2020. We started working in-house on an application called eChamber. We created this application and then we integrated the various systems that help us manage the business of the house. We are using Zoom for the videoconference, which we’ve integrated with our Bosch Public Address System and many other applications that we’ve developed. 


The interconnection and integration are of the utmost importance and that has taken place on the parliament’s television, on Facebook, on Twitter. All these channels are integrated to be able to meet the aspiration of our members. 


We developed the application eChamber, and Zoom is getting video and voice. The rest of Zoom functionalities have been deactivated to make sure that members are not using those. Sharing screens, messaging and other features have been deactivated. The eChamber works integrated with a Zoom connection and it includes some features like member registration, raising a point of order, indicating to speak and the voting process. Currently, we’re able to do the voting by using the eChamber system. Also, you can call for a voting using the eChamber system, where you can determine if the house has the quorum. 


We’re dealing with members and we want to make things as simple as possible so that it is not difficult for them to operate the application. When the member touches a plus sign, they indicate they wish to get on the speakers’ list and when the member finishes speaking they will touch in the sign to come out of the speaker’s list. 


They are able to come on the speaker’s list, whether the member is in Lusaka, our Capital and the Headquarters of our parliament, or in other places. The other functionality is when the member wants to raise a point of order if they press the bell button, the name comes out that this member from this constituency is asking for a point of order and the House Speaker sees it and calls the member to make his or her point of order. Once it’s finished, it clears automatically. 


We’ve been using electronic voting for some years now, so we are used to it. When the members want a voting to be called, they have to reach a minimum number of people. So when the members are not satisfied with the House Speaker decision, they will indicate it and, once the members reach the minimum quorum, then the voting is put on the floor. 


This is how we proceed in order for us to conduct the business of the house. It must be business as usual, no difference from the time that the members were physically coming to parliament to sit in the plenary hall. There is no difference at all, because they’re having the same feeling and we’ve tried by all means to maintain the same standards.


We also made sure that our data centre and the internet broadband were upgraded. For the first time, we provided members with tablets for them to make full use of the digital capacities in the house. They can use the same application to access a repository with all parliamentary documents, so they don’t need to send documents by WhatsApp. Before the implementation of the application, we were sending documents on WhatsApp or by email, but the application now enhances the document distribution.

We have upgraded the network to make sure that the video traffic is not a problem. Wireless coverage increased tremendously and we are developing more tools. We want modules developed to make sure that our members are able to undertake their business with less difficulties. We made sure that we train our members, in fact, the first two weeks before the house started a virtual sitting, we started training our members using the virtual meeting platforms Zoom and eChamber.


Some of the achievements in the Cerimonial State Opening of Parliament was done using our aggregate system and it went very well. We didn’t have any major incidents and from the time that we started using the video conferencing system, we’ve configured the features that we use in that. 


Full session of parliament from June to July 2020, we used the hybrid system. The committee meeting was multilingual so we had to use an interpretation system within Zoom. We’ve done a lot of video training and training using Zoom. Multiple parliament meetings are now held using Zoom, the committee meetings are held using it, now our members are really getting comfortable with that.


Some of the challenges that we faced initially was the acceptance in the house. The first time that we talked about using hybrid systems, the members were afraid that they were going to embarrass themselves and that it was not going to work. However, the House Speaker made a decision in that direction for the implementation of a hybrid system. 


Another challenge is the virtual meeting etiquette, because we have to control the members wherever they are, we have to make sure that all the members are muted and when the members are about to speak, all the other ones are muted. We were required to do that because of some unruliness that happens from time to time. The implementation schedule was really difficult, thus we had to come up with solutions and implement them within two weeks. It was a serious moment and when our team experienced pressure and stress.


We need to have an adequate review of systems prior to their release. What we normally do is, before deploying any system, involve the members and staff, because the chances of success in the implementation are exponentially higher. When you use it for staff you know it works for members. Then we take members alone so we have a continuous curve for improvement. We continue training our members from time to time, almost every week. We engage our members to train and ensure that they’re up to speed. 


We make sure that we keep on upgrading and coming up with different innovations in order for us to be able to be relevant to our members of parliament and provide platforms that are going to be useful to them.

[header image source: unsplash] 

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