Parlamericas is an institution composed of the parliaments of the Americas and the Caribbean that fosters parliamentary diplomacy in the inter-american system. We facilitate political dialogue and the exchange of good practices along three pillars of work: gender equality, open parliament and climate change. Since the start of the pandemic we’ve been focused on supporting our member parliaments and addressing the challenges that have come with Covid-19 pandemic. And, as we all know, parliaments have a fundamental role in addressing this pandemic by ensuring that responses to the crisis have the required legal and budgetary backing, that they’re effective and that they reach our most vulnerable populations.
Like a parliamentarian from Argentina stated in one of our meetings on parliamentary oversight: “the pandemic is not democratic, we’re all in the same sea but we’re not necessarily all in the same boat. So, strengthening our democracies and making sure that our governments are working for the most vulnerable is critical and parliaments are key in ensuring that”.
The crisis became a catalyst for quick innovation in parliaments to enable virtual sittings and community meetings. We saw quick changes in many national parliaments across the hemisphere starting with Brazil, who led the charge in the region, but also in Ecuador, in Chile, in Paraguay, Argentina, Colombia, Mexico, Antigua and Barbuda, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Bermuda, the US and Canada, to name just a few. All of which had held some form of sessions or committee meetings virtually, some already had some systems in place, while others started with a larger challenge.
The response to ensure continuity was a significant undertaking by parliamentary administrations across the region, most of which had to set up their systems from other parliaments across the rest of the world, in a very short amount of time and everyone deserves all the recognition that they’re receiving for this incredible work.
I wanted to share with you some of the main lessons learned. In addition to new systems, many parliaments who moved to remote parliamentary sittings had to amend the rules of the house, their laws or even their constitution in some cases. This was mostly the case in Latin America, whereas in Westminster parliaments, at least initially, there seemed to be more flexibility and, in some cases, some form of sitting was possible within existing rules either by creating a committee of the whole or suspending some standing order articles prior to the session.
Security was a big concern throughout the region, one key solution that many parliaments have implemented was to separate the video conferencing system from the rest of the systems for voting, for document management, for attendance recording, to use biometrics, our multi-factor authentication, to validate the parliamentarians identity at several stages of the process, to use the video conferencing, to record their attendance and to vote.
There was a concern about equal rights and parliamentary privilege and many parliamentarians sought to address this by ensuring that virtual sittings provided the same opportunities to all members to participate in the debates and the same parliamentary privilege that they would have in person in the chamber is granted in the remote solution as well.
Some expressed that initial solutions that had been established, like in-person sittings with smaller numbers of parliamentarians, were infringing on their ability to effectively represent their constituents and they were looking forward to ritual studies as an opportunity to ensure that everybody would be able to participate equally.
Another common thread of conversation, particularly in Westminster systems, was along the lines of tradition, there were a lot of debates in these parliaments on how to maintain parliamentary tradition while moving towards a digital way of operating. For example, when it comes to symbols of authority in the chamber and one of the solutions that was explored was having the speaker participate and lead the sitting from within the chamber itself whereas other parliamentarians would participate remotely.
Voting practices have ranged dramatically from smaller parliaments who have adopted practices of voting by email, by roll call or on screen simply by raising their hand or showing a card of a certain color to indicate their vote or through remote access to the desk voting system in the chamber that was already in place or even the creation of new applications for that purpose.
Another aspect that has been key is training. It was critical to provide ongoing support to parliamentarians who are accessing the portal systems every day and to train both staff and parliamentarians on these new systems prior to their initial use.
And finally, we looked at the importance of digitalising other administrative processes for parliaments who had not already transitioned to paperless and mostly electronic processes. There was a need to digitalise the rest of the parliamentary process that staff supporting this could also continue their work remotely and that it would integrate more seamlessly with the virtual cities.
The political will was a major factor in this transition across all governments in the region for all the reasons mentioned above and, in addition to others, related to the national political landscape in eight countries. Now, I would like to link this to open parliament initiatives.
One key lesson learned throughout 2020 where parliaments have been transitioning to virtual sessions is that the Parliaments have invested in strengthening and opening their institutions to the public prior to the pandemic were miles ahead when it came to make this transition.
Many of these parliaments have been working on digital transformation as a way towards modernising practices and enabling parliaments to better perform their functions to achieve better results for citizens. This is part of a larger sense of efforts towards creating more open parliaments, these are parliaments that work in collaboration with civil society to continuously improve their practices to be more transparent, to facilitate access to information, to be more accountable to the public, to provide opportunities for participation and to hold the highest ethical standards.
It’s really important that these objectives remain top of mind as parliaments continue to operate remotely. The public needs leadership from parliament to maintain transparency and access to information to publicly document and effectively communicate their work and to comment to the executive to do the same and to counter disinformation, which has become a second pandemic.
Parliaments can also continue publishing their expenses and overseeing government spending, particularly with respect to the crisis, to ensure accountability. Many parliaments have adopted virtual tools to gather public input into matters that they are debating and these tools can continue to be used. The new tools can be created to facilitate that collaboration or consultation with citizens in this time of crisis where it’s not possible to meet in person. It’s also important for ethical standards and rules around lobbying regulation to continue to be respected, this has a really big impact on trust in public institutions and we need this trust to work our way out of this pandemic.
Prior to the pandemic, many parliaments have adopted open parliament action plans. These are plans that are co-created between parliament and civil society and include specific commitments to improve openness within the institution.
Since the pandemic, these parliaments have continued to work on these commitments to make sure that they’re implementing it and through this process they’re strengthening their institutions and making themselves better equipped to address future challenges that our world might face.
What does this mean for the future of virtual sittings within our region and the Americas and the Caribbean that, given the state of the pandemic?
It’s safe to say that virtual sittings will continue to be a useful mechanism to allow parliament to fulfill their important function in the near future. Based on the discussions we’ve had in the region, we feel that there’s a general consensus that completely virtual sittings are not a permanent solution and that the legislative process is more effective when members have the opportunity to meet and engage with each other and with stakeholders or citizens in person.
However, that doesn’t mean that all the work that’s been done to transition to virtual sittings is lost and that there is not an opportunity to continue to run some sessions virtually or to allow the virtual participation of some members in sessions that are happening mostly in person. So, it’s a type of hybrid sitting, for example, when parliamentarians are on parental leave which can do a lot to improve gender equality policies within parliament or even on sick leave or when there are national natural catastrophes or even to allow parliamentarians to spend more time in their districts, and even more environmentally friendly practices.
After a while we’ve seen that they’ve had the highest turnout of participation by parliamentarians in sittings since going virtual, so we have to assume that convenience is an important factor.
The challenge as we move forward is to ensure that as we continue improving our systems and our procedures for remote sittings but we also continue operating in an open and transparent manner. And in that area one of the biggest challenges is around citizen participation because, while many parliaments have already adopted participation tools that are digital, there’s always been this thought process that these digital tools should be accompanied by in-person opportunities for participation as well, because the digital did not replace the in person.
However, that in person is impossible for the moment and we need to find a way for citizens to be able to participate in the work of the parliament and feel that their opinions matter, that they’re being taken into account without that person-to-person engagement.
The change in organisational structure and the change in political tradition is definitely one of the largest challenges. As we know, any kind of organisational change does not happen from day to night, it’s a gradual process that needs to involve different actors. In the case of parliaments, it needs to involve the bureaucracy, it needs to involve the administration of the parliament, it needs to involve the parliamentarians and, as we’ve seen recently with this push towards open parliament action plans, there’s a large benefit to involving civil society in this process as well, Whether it’s civil society organisations or academia to help create effective plans to move this forward an intervention.
The capacity for the legislative digital transformation is obviously an important challenge, not only capacity within the parliament but the appetite and the need for it within society. In some Countries, there is less inclination for people to want to engage with digital tools and so in some cases, it might be more valuable for parliaments to look at working with radio or working with different types of in-person mechanisms to reach populations that are in more remote areas that they’re not able to engage through digital tools.
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