📌 This text is the result of the transcription of the panelist’s participation in Bússola Tech’s event
My name Esteban Sánchez, I am Head of technological operations of the Chilean Chamber of Deputies and I have been cooperating in many of the projects and solutions that we have developed as a result of this pandemic. Many of these projects already existed before the pandemic. They were already implemented, and others were implemented as a result of this problem that affects us.
First, what was the main axis to face this pandemic?
I could summarize it in one word: the continuity of the operation of the Chamber of Deputies of Chile. Parliamentary functions as I believe in all countries are determined by its bylaws. Basically, in the Chamber of Deputies we focus on three major parliamentary functions, which are: the debate, the voting and the proposition of documents.
Another thing that we also tried to have in terms of continuity is the parliamentary culture. The dynamics of how these functions are carried out and determined by internal regulations and also by parliamentary culture regarding how to vote.
Transparency was very important to our parliament and that determined that whatever was done in parliament regardless of the method, we had to be just as transparent as it was done before.
Several modifications had to be made, mainly for parliamentary functions. Modifications had to be made in the constitution and in the constitutional organic law of the national congress to clearly define operational aspects. Before, it was restricted exclusively to the physical presence of a parliamentarian in the meeting room, defining that remote or remote presence was also valid for the effects of the quorum and the effect of voting.
Another interesting thing we had to do is the implementation of physical infrastructure to enable both the session room and the rooms of the committees of the Chambers of Deputies, so that they could correctly face this new way of working. We also had to implement a large number of technological infrastructures through the information system and other things that I am going to detail below.
One of the first things is the digital infrastructure. It was one of the great challenges that were presented to us when facing this pandemic. The first session of the remote Chamber of Deputies was on April 21st, 2020. Between this date and September 15th, 2020, there have been 54 remote and hybrid sessions. In other words, there have always been deputies who attend remotely and deputies who attend in-person in the Chamber of Deputies. The project was to set up a session room that would allow the participation physically and remotely, without a difference to the deputies.
We had to assure the parliamentarians that when they wanted to make a speech they could do it without problems, that everyone would listen to it, that the TV channel that we have was going to broadcast it, and that it was on YouTube channel. It was totally transparent whether the speech was remote or physical within the Chamber of Deputies and for this, such modifications were made. Some of the modifications are simple, such as installing TVs inside the session room, so that the same deputies present could see the remote deputies.
Also to ensure the debate, we already had an existing tool that we called “room work”; Fortunately, 100% of all the documentation has been digitalised, that is, the remote deputies could perform all the functions that they perform within the session room. For example, the reports of the bills are digitalised and the compared documents are also available several days before the sessions.
This tool has already been working for at least 10 years, so there was already a naturalness of the deputies to use it and what was done is that from a closed environment that was the session room, this tool was connected to the internet so that the deputies that wanted to participate remotely could use the same tool. There were security mechanisms and authentication validation. It was a great advantage, having all the processes, the documents in the session room completely digitalised. In that regard, we did not have to do much, only integrate it so that remote deputies could participate.
To enable remote discussion, we implemented Zoom. We tested a lot of tools, between Microsoft Teams, Zoom and we decided on this tool that suited us the most. Between April and September 2020 there have been 1,434 remote speeches, that is around half of all the speeches. A remote speech could last between 5 to 10 minutes, and there is no difference in a face-to-face speech, it has the same limitations in terms of the amount of time, in how much information is available.
Regarding remote voting, we were also fortunate that we had a very robust electronic system that allowed electronic voting, within the Chamber of Deputies. What we had to do in response to this emergency was the remote implementation of these votes.
It was done through an application made by us. There is another voting agenda, which is the script that is being voted on that is sent to mobile devices so that remote deputies know what they are voting on. This information is sent to the mobiles. An important information about these mobiles, they use an encrypted web API to receive the votes and there was a process of consolidation of the votes that are received within the session room and the votes that are received remotely. This consolidation process is important because the result that physically appears to the Chamber of Deputies and that is published a few seconds after the end of a vote is a final result that includes all the votes. It led us to the fact that the voting process for the use of a single vote could last up to a maximum of 2 minutes including in all the results.
We tried to develop a user-friendly solution and considered a certain usability criteria for the deputies, especially for the deputies who had any inconvenience in terms of the usage of technologies. Between April and September, 2020 there were 505 hybrid sessions. A little less than 50 percent have been face-to-face votes. That is one of the challenges, this duplication of functions that must be carried out, remote voting and physical voting, consolidating it and delivering a coherent result.
A very important aspect on why we chose Zoom, was because it allowed us to integrate it into our voting system. We had to consider, and this is one of the lessons we learned, that even if we develop a very usable application that requires low bandwidth to vote, there will always be a percentage of parliamentarians who cannot vote for any reason, such as bad internet connection, visual difficulties amongst others. If it is detected that the member has problems voting, other mechanisms are activated to register the vote. The important thing was the continuity of the parliamentary functions of voting. We could not allow them to make it difficult for him to exercise his right to vote. We developed an application that was integrated with Zoom to detect if the member was connected, since there were also regulatory modifications that we had to follow. For example, a deputy could not vote if they have their video camera off. That was a regulatory modification, so we had to integrate it in some way to our voting system and that was done through this application that was also developed by us. However, it is important to handle exceptions, both voting or other things.
Finally, as a result of this emergency, the virtual office had to be implemented, which is basically a platform where parliamentarians can present documents that start processes. For example, a very common document is the parliamentary motion document that initiates the proposal. We have 21 types of documents from the proposals to medical leave, permission to be absent from the session, and so on. Between April and September, 2020, there were 1,005 completely digital documents entered through this platform and digitally signed. There were 251 draft resolutions, 240 parliamentary motions, and 223 audit reports, which is also one of the functions of the Chamber of Deputies in Chile.
So this has been a tool that has been quite successful within the House, because it has been comfortable for the deputies to present the documents regardless of where they are.
I would like to mention that it has been a challenge for us to face up to this pandemic. We had an advantage that we had a previous platform that was digitalising a large part of the processes and documents. However, we had to make exclusive information systems for the pandemic. A common case is: in the Chilean Parliament, unfortunately, deputies who had a medical leave or were ill could not make use of their right to vote because there was no system that would correctly verify who voted.
With this application members are already identifying that this problem could be solved by remote voting, and also in the presentation of documents that can be done anywhere in Chile and at any time. MPs have been very comfortable using these apps. I believe that the good news or what we can get out of this pandemic is that new systems and new dynamics have emerged from the parliament, which will be useful for the future.
[header image source: unsplash]
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