Opportunities and Challenges: Remote Deliberation Solution in Canada

Read Soufiane Ben Moussa’s from House of Commons of Canada article

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Hello, my name is Soufiane Ben Moussa and I am this Chief Technology Officer of the House of Commons of Canada. I want to introduce the House of Commons of Canada and especially our digital services. Our team has around 400 people doing development and supporting broadcast operations and any technical demand related to that. 


It’s important to speak about some of the strategies that we took, around four or five years ago, since they were very useful in the context of our latest ICT plans towards two big elements: one of them is anywhere, anytime computing; the other one is cloud adoption. 


These two strategies, especially the “Anywhere Anytime” computing, was fully implemented since last 2019. It took us about four years to implement and essentially it allows members to work from anywhere in Canada, actually anywhere in the World, using the devices that we provide them, such as laptop and mobile devices. This came very useful when covid-19 hit us. 


The other that I want to speak about is our business continuity plans. For many years we have maintained a business continuity plan where we have anticipated various types of failures, however we never anticipated or we never planned for a pandemic. We plan for losing a building, for losing access to a building, then we prepare a remote location where people can meet, but we never planned that all our infrastructure of 5,000 employees, such as members, member’s staff and the parliamentary staff would not be able to come to office and would be required to work remotely. 


Even though our business continuity plan helped and we used it, there are some scenarios we never anticipated for. 


The other element is from a parliamentary business perspective, the core business of the House. For the last 10 years, we implemented a platform called prisms. This platform allowed for the transcription, the publishing, the record-keeping and it had a couple of key elements also related to electronic voting, voting group management and vote publishing. 


Any solution that we have to propose after voting needs to integrate with this platform. This platform is the key machine for the whole operation of the procedural business. It’s not a matter of going and buying a product. We have to take that into consideration. Based on this and the 13th of March 2020 the House was supposed to be recessed only for two weeks, It had been recessed for four weeks to reduce the chances of propagation of the virus and to keep members in their safe. 


Canada extends through five time zones and it takes six hours flight from east to west four hours in north to south flights, very similar size as Brazil. Then we have a member’s office. Any place where humans are there is a member office. When this decision hit, many of these members were not close to their office. Our biggest challenge before even the House sitting took place was how can we make sure that these five thousand people are connected safely. We created a crisis management team and we have multiple subteams reporting to the crisis management team. 


Some of the people are mandated just to locate where the members are and what is the best communication method we can reach them and assess their connectivity. Some of the members don’t have a device, since they were on vacation and they left their device in the office. There is a challenge in finding a way to deliver devices to the member or member staff and the administration who’s going to support them. We started with the IQ support team, because those are the people who needed to be equipped the first in order to be able to support the rest. 


We have a small crew of around 50 people who kept coming to the office as a support staff and then essentially within the first week we’ve been able to equip the majority of the people to ensure that they have connectivity and then move to the more difficult area – a rural area where practically there is no other than satellite-based services and we make sure that we have agreement with the provider in places to provide for those Members of Parliament. 


Last but not least, we have geared up all our IT security team. We have developed partnerships with the national security partner and many other different parliaments across the World to increase our monitoring and to analyze what’s the impact of the member working from home.


How are we going to protect Members of Parliament? That’s really what took us the biggest amount of time, to ensure the security of those Members that we introduced the technology. We introduced 24/7 monitoring, not just cyber security of our platforms and how fast we can move people to Office 365 cloud, something we have fast-tracked.


The second phase presented challenges to the United Kingdom and many Commonwealth Parliaments. It has been a while since we haven’t seen a lot of changes in the rules and regulations of the parliament that need to be done. There are things that we cannot do in the virtual World and then there is some motion that would be voted on. Members came in a pro-rated way and they have to sit physically to ensure that those motions are adopted which are the requests for virtual sitting of committee. 


We’ve integrated Zoom with our platform. We had challenges very similar to other Parliaments, such as the interpretation. At the beginning, to ensure that the people know how to use the tool, the challenges of embodying Members and ensuring that they have the appropriate connectivity, that they know how to use the platform, that they have the equipment. 


At the beginning there were some political challenges in regard to some members using the video as propaganda and they are putting symbols or messages behind them and it also created a big discussion about how we’re going to ensure that it would not happen. Our biggest challenge is that still we cannot do an e-voting solution. While we, the administration, are prepared to respond to the needs of a parliament we haven’t got the official request to do so (September, 2020).


There was a cultural shift that is happening in the working model in general that finally made remote working is possible. There are some discussions if we still need the same space in the future and if there are some employees who should never come back and keep working remotely.

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