Remote Deliberations in the U.S. State Legislatures and inter-parliamentary cooperation

Read Natalie Wood and Pam Greenberg’s from NCSL | National Conference of State Legislatures article

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The National Conference of State Legislatures is an organisation that serves and represents all 7,383 state legislators in the United States of America and the 25,000 legislative staff that work within our state capitols. 


We are bipartisan in our composition and non-partisan in the work that we do. NCSL has a multi-pronged mission: to be a convener and forum for policy ideas, to provide nonpartisan research and analysis to our members, to serve as the voice of state legislatures on Capitol Hill (Headquarters of the Federal Legislative) in Washington/ DC before our federal government, and to strengthen the effectiveness, independence and integrity of the legislative branch of government. 


Natalie Wood leads NCSL’s Center for Legislative Strengthening, which provides analysis, consultation and research for our members on legislative operations and the legislative institution. This includes everything from legislative processes, legislative human resources and legislative information technology, all of which have been affected by the pandemic but we’ll talk more about that in just a moment.


Pam Greenberg works with the NCSL’s National Association of Legislative Information Technology, called NAIL IT, which is a network of information technology professionals, who work in all 50 US state legislatures. 


The leadership of NAIL IT is made up of a 10 member executive committee that guides the program and activities of the association. Legislative IT staff from different states make up the executive committee. NAIL IT’s mission is to promote the exchange of ideas and information on all aspects of informational systems, including management and technical development. Another goal is to provide a network of information exchange for its members. And then last, but not least, to foster better relations between legislative IT staff, the legislators and legislative staff that they serve. 


NAIL IT has a website and an online newsletter, they host a list to serve for members to post questions and receive answers about IT issues they’re facing. NAIL IT also holds occasional web conferencing meetings and, in normal pre-pandemic times, they meet twice a year in person for in-depth training and networking events. 


Let’s have an overview of US state legislative operations in “normal times”. Those who work in state legislatures learn to expect the unexpected. Dramatic floor votes, impassioned speeches, citizen protests and even HVAC (Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning) and plumbing issues can arise on any given day, sometimes in the same day, probably not dissimilar from any of the parliaments or governmental institutions in which you work. 


And they’ve prepared and dealt with many different challenges like earthquakes, fires, wars and even H1N1, however nothing before quite prepared them for how to function through a global pandemic. Over the year of 2020, state legislatures like all public institutions have focused on their continuity of government. This involves executing plans to allow legislatures to convene, communicate and the decision making in an emergency, how to keep members staff and visitors safe, which legislation was critical to tackle and what could wait, should the Capitol stay open to the public, what did constitution and state law require, and what IT options were available, and what would work best. 


It’s important to understand that in “normal times” legislatures and legislative chambers in the US operate in unique ways. In fact we often say at NCSL that there are at least 99 approaches to running a state legislative institution because there are 99 state legislative chambers. 


In 2020, nearly all state and territorial legislatures met. In addition, 39 legislatures have some sort of limit on the days in which they can meet in session. So those are all factors that legislatures needed to take into account as they decided how to move forward. Some pause their sessions so they could assess the best approach moving forward, while others continue to meet in-person. 


However, each legislative chamber had to create contingencies and plans for a meeting during the pandemic. Common themes to continuity planning were enhanced health and safety protocols for physical work in state capitols, moving some staff to remote work arrangements and tapping into new technology tools. 


Legislatures adjusted and in some cases completely revolutionised their approaches for the meeting. They met in sports arenas and in concert venues, outside in reception tents and in fields, in museums, in the capitol but spread out in the chamber, in the gallery or their offices during session or committee hearings, using virtual tools like zoom or they used a combination of these approaches. 


I could talk about all their different strategies all day but I will focus on digital readiness. I’ll next highlight the different ways legislatures incorporated remote participation into their floor operations and their processes. During both the 2020 and 2021 legislative sessions, many US legislative chambers amended their standing orders, adopted new rules or implemented policies to allow for remote participation “on the floor” or informal session and in-committee proceedings. 


In 2021, in at least 26 states one chamber or both has adopted rules or procedures for remote participation on the floor, in at least 34 states one chamber or both has adopted rules or procedures for members to participate remotely in committee, and in at least 5 states one chamber or both has adopted rules that allow members to vote in areas other than the chamber floor, but they’re still within the capitol or on the capitol grounds. 


A legislative chamber’s ability to integrate remote participation obviously hinges on logistical considerations like technology, but also on the legal considerations. Legislatures had to contemplate their legal framework with respect to facets of the legislative process such as obtaining a quorum to conduct business. 


As a result, some US legislatures decided that remote participation was not an option for them. Another thing to know is that in most cases these rule changes are designed to be temporary at this point. They may end by a certain date or they are tied to emergency orders. Whether or not these practices will continue post-pandemic remains to be seen, and it’s also not to say that legislatures didn’t have the ability to participate remotely in the past. Some, in fact, did, with respect to committee proceedings and others in limited ways allowed remote participation on the floor per rule, so it definitely was not the constant thing that happened. 


Remote participation for legislators has been one of a few tools that allow legislative bodies to be flexible in response to the challenges of meeting during the pandemic. In practice, plugging into the process virtually varies considerably across the US. Take these examples for instance: some chambers like the Vermont House and Senate, the Virginia House of representatives and the Washington House of representatives have been totally or almost totally virtual, others are using it as an option. The presiding officer or committee chair must authorise a fellow legislator to participate virtually and examples of this include Colorado, Nevada and South Dakota. Virtual participation doesn’t just mean video, doesn’t just mean Zoom or Microsoft Teams or some other platform, it can mean conference calls which is the case in New Jersey, both the assembly and senate are allowing conference call capability for their remote proceedings but they’re also interplaying that with Zoom for committee hearings and in-person meetings as well. 


Some rules only specify, as I mentioned before, that members may participate in another location within the chamber of the capitol or capitol grounds. Alabama House, the Arkansas House, the Texas House and both chambers in Connecticut and Kentucky have rule language with these types of provisions. The final big operational change, like many of us, legislative staff worked remotely over the course of 2020. 


The covid-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on US state legislative information technology offices. IT offices acted swiftly in 2020 to ensure continuity of the legislature, changing priorities and building new applications and systems in record time. 


Prior to the pandemic legislative CIOs and IT directors identified the following as their top five priority issues in a survey that we conducted: 

  1. Security threats and taking increased security measures.
  2. Developing or enhancing legislative applications. 
  3. Developing or supporting tools for online and citizen engagement. 
  4. Developing or supporting collaboration tools.
  5. Developing or refining systems to enable a paperless environment. 


In August 2020, in the midst of the pandemic, we surveyed these legislative CIOs and found that they had shifted priorities and provided new services to meet the demands of a remote workforce and to support virtual legislative sessions and hearings. Despite the new priorities one issue remained at the top, that is security. It is not surprising since the shift to more remote work also heightened security threats. 


Legislative IT staff worked quickly in 2020 to provide equipment, to ensure network security and provide training and support for legislative staff and legislators who began working from home, some for the first time. Programmers worked to develop or implement new voting applications, such as remote voting tools. 


IT staff in many legislatures, also set up and secured video conferencing software so that legislative proceedings could be conducted remotely. They created ways to prevent intrusions to the Zoom calls and looked at multi-factor authentication for legislators participating and voting in the calls. 


Importantly, IT staff allowed time for testing, training and practice to make sure the legislative process translated to a virtual one, and that legislators and staff could understand, be comfortable with, and still comply with legislative rules and procedures. 


While all 50 state legislatures had already provided live streaming for the floor sessions for many years, IT professionals worked in 2020 to provide more coverage of committees and public hearings and to make recordings available online for on-demand viewing by the public. 


In committee rooms, in state capitals, IT staff had to set up screens, equipment, cameras so that the meetings could be live streamed, and many also added closed captioning to live streams and recordings for this past year for the first time, although some had previously done so. 


In 2021, as legislative sessions began, we saw a huge uptick in the number of legislatures providing online opportunities for public participation. Many legislatures added online forms so the public could submit electronic comments and opinions about bills or upload written testimonies, and many also created online forms for citizens to request to testify before a committee without having to visit the state capitol. 


Some legislatures have actually publicly stated that these technological changes are in fact dramatically increasing public participation in the process and in their tracking. North Dakota, for example, recently noted that as of January, the live streams had drawn more than 234,000 live and on-demand views and that remote testimony drew just over 1,500 registrants. The theme of increased public access as a result of these modifications has been echoed in other legislatures as well. 


But on the flip side, some have argued that closed state houses coupled with remote participation can be problematic, citing concerns about citizens who lack technology or access to broadband. Still others have said that a Zoom room simply cannot replicate the important interactions that normally occur in-person under capitol domes. 


We at NCSL will continue to serve as a resource and connection point for our legislatures and our members as they learn from each other over the course of the pandemic.

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