The Covid-19 disease was an unexpected event that accelerated the digitalisation of the Tunisian Parliament. The first case of Covid-19 was registered in Tunisia on March 2nd, 2020 and the decision to declare the lockdown in Tunisia was taken by the government on March 20th, 2020, to be effective on March the 22nd, 2020.
On March 26th, 2020 a plenary session was held by the parliament and a series of decisions were approved to deal with the virus. The decisions were to carry on with the plenary sessions as well as meetings of all the committees and all sorts of official meetings in the parliament, through the videoconference tool. All official meetings would be remote, which includes the plenary sessions, the meetings of the chairman of parliamentary groups, the meetings of the committees and the meetings of the parliament desk. So all official meetings would be remote.
The other decisions that are worth mentioning here meant to establish easier and flexible procedures for the lawmaking process. The first decision was that the proposals by the executive branch about Covid-19 would not follow the ordinary procedures and deadlines. The second decision was that the remote plenary session would start without waiting for a final IT solution. The third decision was that the parliamentary desk had the capacity to call for remote plenary sessions that would include voting online.
One important law was voted on the same day giving to the head of government the capacity to issue decree rules instead of submitting law drafts to the parliament, and that is for any urgent matter that requires an immediate decision to be issued in relation with Covid-19. Consequently the field of competence of the head of government became larger while the field of competence of the parliament was reduced in that period.
Working from a distance needs a legal framework, thus on March 26th, 2020 there was a controversy in the plenary session about that issue and what the parliament bylaws allowed. They tried to see if the parliament bylaws allowed working from distance. The deputies reached the consensus at the end by interpreting article 127 of the bylaws in a large way. Indeed this article provides that, according with the article 127: “The vote is public and maybe through one of these procedures: 1. an electronic vote; 2. by raising hands; 3. by public call”. The electronic vote mentioned here could allow the votes from a distance.
In addition, I’m going to give some ideas about the technical aspect. From the start, all deputies at the beginning of the term received tablets and they were trained to use it. The first choice was to make the remote meetings by Zoom platform, it was tested but it didn’t work. The definitions of the parliament served to work with the software Microsoft Teams, and the first online meeting took place on this software. There were some difficulties, and because of that the technicians adopted Microsoft Forms to allow voting from a distance. So, the combination between these two softwares gave at the end a good result. The deputies could work from home, official letters were addressed by the parliament through the 24 regions of Tunisia, and we had to call the governors to help and assist deputies in working from a distance.
The parliament officials had to be present in the grounds of the parliament for the necessary preparations but also to coach the technicians in the regions and to provide the necessary connection to the deputy’s homes. They had to add some cameras, so that the deputies could both participate in the debates and be seen, and they also had to make the necessary arrangements to make sure that the vote could take place without any problem.
The department team worked with its own resources, we did not need any external assistance, either human or technical, even the software Microsoft Teams and Microsoft Forms were available in the parliament before.
The results of the experience was that the first online meeting of the parliament desk took place on March 25th, 2020 and it was attended online by 12 deputies. The officials of the parliament had to be present in the media room of the parliament and the agenda was the organisational aspects of the plenary session of March 25th, 2020. As the number was limited to just real members, the result of this first experience was encouraging.
To guarantee the success of the operation, the technicians had to work closely with the technicians in the regions and they also made several simulations in advance. The first remote meeting of the plenary session took place on April 3rd, 2020 and the software used again is a Microsoft Teams, not yet Microsoft Forms for voting. For this first meeting out of 240 deputies, 104 attended the session, 54 of them from a distance and the others were present in the parliament. The vote took place remotely and the draft law was adopted by 83 votes.
The parliament desk met the following day to evaluate this first experience. The result was satisfactory with the first online experience in the history of the parliament. It’s the first time that the parliament organised such a remote meeting and, despite the difficulties, the parliament desk was satisfied with these first results and they consider the difficulties as being normal.
The parliament desk comprised the technical conditions of remote meetings and the technical traditions. For this first remote meeting, some deputies criticised the conditions of this meeting, in particular they criticised the delays, the instability of the connection and the low quality of the images. They asked to improve the conditions and not to stop this experience, so they wanted to improve the transition to move forward. The parliament technical team explained that these parameters were due to brief instability of the internet connection and they also added the second microsoft software which is Microsoft forms.
As all parliament meetings, the plenary session was broadcasted on TV. All meetings of the plenary sessions were broadcasted on TV and citizens and other stakeholders could see this first performance.
The plenary session was scheduled for May the 12th to debate the decision of stopping the remote meetings as part of the decisions that stopped all measures taken to fight Covid-19, since at that time the disease was slowed down. The vote was postponed and it was scheduled again for June 2nd and the decision was finally taken to stop remote meetings on July 4th, ordering to come back to ordinary meetings at the end of all remote meetings. The vote also put an end to the capacity given to the head of government to issue decree laws in relation with Covid-19.
To evaluate the performance of the parliament during this period of remote meetings, between March 26th and July 4th, 2020 the following results can be mentioned: 12 remote plenary sessions were organised, 17 remote meetings for the parliament desk took place during the period and 64 remote meetings took place for the parliamentary committees. So, the results are quite important and encouraging. In terms of law drafts examined by the plenary sessions, 19 drafts were examined during that period and 11 of them were approved. On the other hand, the head of government issued 29 decrees in the same period.
Through the remote meetings the work could be considered close to normal. What we can say is that the rate of presence was higher thanks to remote meetings. The digitalisation experience is over, but now we know that it is possible and then with this experience I’m sure that the parliament will come back to this way of organising remote working.
[header image source: unsplash]
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