Remote Deliberation in the Pan-African Parliament

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The Pan-african Parliament is the legislative body of the African Union. It is made up of the 55 members of the continent. The Parliament is located in Johannesburg, South Africa. The membership of the Parliament is unique in the sense that its members are drawn from members who are sitting in their national parliaments. 


The pan-african parliament members have two responsibilities, as national members of Parliament and also members at the continental level. 


We operate using six official languages, so simultaneous interpretation is a key for any of our activities. 


Committee activities are spread throughout the year depending on the calendar of each committee. However, 90% of our activities are in-person meetings and it requires members to travel to the venue of each activity. Sometimes we will hold the committee meetings in a different member state, not necessarily in South Africa, so there are situations where the members have to travel to the respective Country where the meeting is being held. If the member is not able to travel, it won’t be possible to be part of the meeting.


Given the fact that we are an institution of the African Union hosted in South Africa, Covid-19 has a peculiar and important impact on our activities. 


The first thing is based on the lockdown that the republic of south africa implemented. There was restriction of movement during the pandemic, so it means that members or staff could not travel and could not physically meet even if we were in the same country. There are also international restrictions which are still in place until today, so it means members cannot travel into South Africa, so we cannot have members coming in.


The other thing that has affected us is the impact of Covid-19 on the african economies. The Pan African Parliament as an institution of African Union depends on contributions from member states and the member states have envisaged to have reduced funding given to the African Union because they are going to be economically impacted by the Covid-19. So one of the decisions that we made is that as much as possible we must ensure that our meetings are held virtually. In fact travel has been reduced to a bare minimum where it is necessary. 


Before Covid-19 impacted our activities, the IT for the Pan-African Parliament had marked some projects. The first project that we wanted to implement was to upgrade our plenary and committee meeting rooms to support the paperless conference. 


We also wanted to implement an open-data portal for the Pan-African Parliament and for the African Union legislative instruments. This includes protocols, treaties, resolutions and recommendations. Internally we were rolling out some cloud-based solutions in a phased-manner. Starting with training on Microsoft Office 365 products to our staff.


The Covid-19 pandemic changed our operations and we had to adapt quickly. The first thing we did is we had to ensure all staff members have equipment and could work from home. 


The Pan-African Parliament used Zoom and Microsoft teams to hold its meetings virtually. Zoom was used for meetings that require simultaneous interpretation or involve external participants. Microsoft teams were used for internal meetings and where we do not require interpretation, since Microsoft Teams doesn’t support interpretation. 


We also held committee meetings as webinars, which got more people participating. There was a challenge in live streaming, because we live streamed only in english and the live stream feature in Zoom did not support selecting a language for the live stream. However we found a workaround and we were able to live stream, but mainly in english. 


We were also forced to enhance our cloud solutions to include document sharing systems, e-signature tools and develop apps that would automate the internal processes. The challenges that we faced when we went remote was that both staff, members and also the political leadership raised concerns on voting and also the need to change our standing orders to accommodate virtual meetings. 


The other main challenge was the ability of members to participate. It meant that we carried out committee meetings and there’s a serious resistance to carrying out the plenary. Participation of our employees in the virtual meetings is a challenge because of the lethargy due to lack of perks related to travel. Time difference was also a challenge due to members being across various time zones, for example a group of members in west africa and another in east africa. There is also very poor internet connectivity in some african countries. Then we do not have coordination with the national parliaments. 


The quality of meetings were also very difficult to manage because we don’t know the devices the member is using, nor do we control the surroundings or the connectivity. It was not unusual for a member to have background noise from farm animals, passing cars or even taking part in the meeting from their bedrooms. Meeting etiquette and remote support management is a challenge also which affects the remote meetings. 


Video conferencing solutions are not designed for parliamentary meetings so there’s a need for apps that support parliamentary practice remotely. Simple simultaneous interpretation was quite a challenge and the solutions that we needed and explored required significant training of users and also training of interpreters. Live streaming and broadcasting is a challenge given the multilingual nature of our operations.


What is the way forward for the Pan-African Parliament IT? The pandemic has forced us to carry out digital transformation within the institution. The things that we were yearning to implement, this pandemic has given us an opportunity to be able to implement it. 


Virtual meetings have also enhanced opportunity for citizen engagement in our community activities and in some cases we actually allow members of the public to make the contribution directly to the members of parliament in the committees. 


Based on decisions of our policy organs, which is the council of ministers and the assembly registers, the virtual meetings are here to stay and as the Pan-African Parliament we are exploring hybrid conferencing solutions that support both local and remote participants. This is important because in the past if a member was not able to travel to the venue of the meeting they were not able to participate in meetings, so there were member states which did not participate effectively because they were not able to send their members to take part in meetings and join us. For that reason, a hybrid solution is going to increase the level of participation of members in our activities. 


There’s also a need for increased innovation with regards to parliamentary and conference assistance. The policy organs have made available increased funding for innovation and also development of active solutions which will increase the quality of the virtual meetings and citizen engagement, at the same time reduce the need for travel. 


Some rules within the secretariat have seen a drastic change in digitisation and some have also become redundant like when you have internal post office service and when you have all processes paperless and digital. It actually made their work redundant and we’ve had to train them and give them other opportunities to contribute to the parliament.


It’s a challenge to convince parliamentarians or even some public servants about the cultural aspects of going digital. Some of us want to meet along the corridors and have in-person negotiations especially given the fact that people need to lobby their interests. Another cultural challenge is to get public servants and members to trust the tools. The change management helps to increase trust in the tools.

[header image source: unsplash] 

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