Remote Deliberation in the Riigikogu, the Parliament of Estonia

Read Ahto Saks’ text from Riigikogu | Parliament of Estonia about remote deliberation

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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 Ahto Saks and I am the administrative director of Riigikogu, the parliament of Estonia. First, just to contextualise, Estonia is located in Northern Europe. We have only 1.3 million inhabitants, which shows that we can do many things even though we have few people .


In September, 2020 the Riigikogu worked according to its regular schedule and all plenary settings could be followed by live broadcasting on the regular web page. As of September 2020, the cases of coronavirus here were increasing and the second wave was almost here, consequently something needed to be done. 


In March, 2020, when we were hit by the first wave of the Covid-19, at the beginning of the restrictions, the number of cases weren’t so high, but started to increase rapidly. The Council of Elders of Riigikogu decided to reorganise the work of the House in accordance with the emergency situation declared by our government, to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. 


It was proposed to change the working schedule, plenary settings at each Monday’s sitting, until the end of the emergency situation, plenary sittings would be held only on Mondays and PMQs was only on Wednesdays. The public and the media can watch live coverage of the sittings on the web. 


The Council of Elders has also instructed the constitution committee to prepare a regulation that would enable electronic means for communication during emergency situations. There were no legal obstacles to teleworking at committee meetings. After short testing, the first committee meeting through teleworking was held already in the same week, for that we used Microsoft Teams. Several thousand meetings have already taken place. Many of the committee meetings were also available for everyone. 


However, it was not legally possible to hold remote sittings for the plenary sessions, the same constitutional committee started looking for a possibility to change our laws. We initiated on April 13th a group working on bills to enable our plenary sessions remotely. We also started looking for technical possibilities for the old plenary session. We did several technical tests and it was clear that we needed some additional software. The constitutional committee was aware that the change to necessary software could not be ready by the time the law was drafted. On May 20th, 2020 passed a law that enabled the plenary sessions. At that time, a number of restrictions had already been relaxed and there were no longer any reasons for long distance sessions. We received the very first version of our new software and we started first testing.


During the summer time in 2020, we completed a new remote session environment that was fully integrated with the existing voting information system and we hoped that such integration brings us a better quality and results. 


Our new remote sitting software is based on the web, it’s not an app, it has a live image from the sitting hall with minimal delay. The parliamentarians can, in this software, select microphone, camera, ask procedural questions, use voting and do anything else that’s necessary to do in plenary sittings. 


On the technological side, the most important thing is our video and we gave the chance to develop it. The website uses responsive technology, so it’s also supported by all small devices, like ipads and smartphones. 


We performed a lot of testing and configurations and, in case of emergency, we are ready to use it so far. However, several tests and some other configurations still need to be done before it can be completed. We hope to use that system not only for the remote sittings, but for ordinary sittings too.


Our committee sessions continue to use Microsoft Teams and each committee can decide for itself whether they conduct a remote or a hybrid session, but it’s also good to see each other face to face, so many physical meetings already started.


When we started our fall session in September, 2020 the Riigikogu worked according to its regular schedule but it can be changed quickly if needed. 


We can’t make the process of innovation quickly, we have to just take small steps. Now we have the software and we can use it in the near future but I hope we should not use it because that will mean that the cases of coronavirus have increased.

[header image source: unsplash] 

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