The Legislative Digital Transformation in the Pacific Region

Read Wendy Hart’s text from the Parliament of New Zealand based on her participation in LegisTech Series

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📌 This text is the result of the transcription of the panelist’s participation in Bússola Tech’s event


My name is Wendy Hart. I’m a senior international advisor with the parliament of New Zealand in the office of the clerk in New Zealand. 


I think we all want to see common outcomes and good for our citizens. We aspire to enhance participation and engagement of people with their representative democratic institutions, and digital tools are a really exciting pathway to narrow the gap between citizens and their elected decisionmakers. 


I’m really pleased to share my experience with you today, specifically on the Pacific Hub of the Centre for Innovation in Parliaments. Now, I will give a little background – to the Centre for Innovation in Parliaments. This is an initiative of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, which is the global organisation of parliaments. The IPU brings together around 180 national parliaments and a number of observers, and has a really close relationship with the United Nations. The Centre for Innovation in Parliaments harnesses the potential for innovation across parliaments, and it brings us together to share knowledge, supporting collaboration on solutions and sharing knowledge with the wider parliamentary community. 


New technologies are having a major impact on all of our parliaments operational environments, in the public and private sector, and also our cultural landscape. This is all exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, the economic downturns and our need to be agile and adapt to change extremely quickly. 


A parliament that can harness these new tools is well positioned to connect with its citizens. Its internal systems will be stronger and its processes more transformative. Social networks and open-data are also exciting parts of the conversation that the Centre for Innovation in Parliaments has been convening. The Centre for Innovation in Parliaments has been around since around December 2008. It’s great to have a platform for sharing strategic documents, planning, digital tools, the best practices around parliamentary openness and engagement, standards and open-data, citizens engagement – which is really important to us here in New Zealand – security issues with the internet and social media, electronic documents, records management, digital library and research services, amongst others. 


The New Zealand Parliament is really privileged to be part of the pacific region. We are quite isolated, down the bottom of the world, so we’re in a different time zone. We’re still in our infancy as a hub, but we’ve had several meetings and there’s a lot of synergy with the work we are doing in the New Zealand Parliament with the Pacific as part of our wider “Tai a Kiwa Stronger Pacific Parliaments Program”, and we all share procedural and practical support and tools with each other to maintain healthy and innovative democracies. 


The pacific region is made up of thousands of islands spread across vast oceans. In terms of information and communication technology, this geographic disparity brings some particular and unique challenges. There are high business and government transaction costs, irregularity of cargo and freight, and this has been compounded by Covid-19 border closures and a reduction in air links, and relatively recent communications cables, and domestic and international fiber optic cables. 


In August, 2020, the New Zealand Parliament was really pleased to have the first virtual sessions of the Pacific Hub. I would like to acknowledge here the leadership and support of the United Nations development program pacific region office, who we regularly collaborate with. 


We were really delighted to have representatives from Australia, the Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Republic of Fiji, French Polynesia, Nauru, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Tonga, Samoa and the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu register for these virtual discussions. I wanted to let you know those names of the legislatures, because you can see the wide array, from the big legislatures of Australia and New Zealand, down to some of the smallest in the world, for example, the Cook Islands. 


We also were delighted to have a special guest, the director of ICT at the Republic of the Maldives legislature. This was a really great way to share knowledge across our different regions. A third meeting of our Pacific Hub was held in February, 2021 and we had representatives from Vanuatu, New Zealand and New Caledonia. This session focused on responding to Covid-19, issues such as responding to MPs needing to work from home, electronic voting, procedural changes and ICT security were all discussed by our panelists. 


Fortunately much of the Pacific has remained free of Covid-19 cases, but a number of the smaller jurisdictions moved very swiftly to implement states of emergency, border closures and quarantine measures to protect vulnerable communities with developing health infrastructure. This closure of borders has had a heavy impact on the economy, particularly those that are tourism reliant and its forecast that full economic recovery will take some years. I mention this because it all has an impact on the legislature’s budgets that are available to invest in ICT infrastructure overtime. 


Invariably the budgets to run parliament are affected by the general financial climate and there will be ongoing need to work with partners, such as the United Nations Development Program, Australia, New Zealand, and many other partners including the Inter-Parliamentary Union. I’m really pleased to see there’s been private and community interest in digital transformation in the public sector, and particularly in Parliaments. 


Some of the issues that came up during our sessions: we recognise that the Covid-19 pandemic has a tremendous effect on governance systems and structure. A really great quote from one of the UNDP representatives from the pacific was:


“Parliament’s institutions where people need to gather, they meet to fulfill the constitutional mandates of legislation oversight and representation, so what about when they cannot physically meet? We explored the technical aspects and adaptations of policies and procedures, and the variety of solutions based on ICT for parliaments to continue its important work, but really importantly to maintain openness, transparency and public trust. The importance of the parliamentary network, the sharing of knowledge and also our preparedness to respond to emergencies were absolutely essential to our discussions around technology and infrastructure.” 


We noticed the variety and the level and duration of lockdowns varied greatly across the pacific region, and they impacted the way parliaments operated in very different ways. However, there were a number of common themes raised during our discussions as the Pacific Hub. The first of which was business continuity planning. Many of us noted, that we’ve developed or were developing business continuity plans with natural disasters in mind, for example cyclones, hurricanes and earthquakes, but our plans did not contemplate pandemic, therefore we recognise that continual testing and recalibration of our business continuity planning is imperative, and it’s really important that these plans take into account ICT and technology. 


Some parliaments noted that they did not have a business continuity plan or risk management plan at all, and I was really pleased to see that different members of the hub were offering to assist with templates and examples, a really tangible way of how we can support parliamentary resilience. 


I would also like to mention an initiative called the Legislative Assemblies Business Continuity Network, which is a working group composed of participating legislative assemblies with a professional interest and expertise in business continuity. 


Another issue that came up during our discussions at the Pacific Hub was equipment and devices. While we were on lockdown and moving members of parliament and staff extremely quickly to work from home or working remotely, many of our responses relied on the deployment of devices, for example laptops and smartphones. The pandemic has revealed vulnerabilities in the ICTs and equipment supply chain, with an inability to access hardware, particularly out of China for New Zealand in the Pacific. Some staff reported that corporate staff had not worked remotely ever before, and there were emergency requests for hardware, and really quick repurposing of VPN, Virtual Private Network, capable equipment to enable a genuinely mobile workforce. 


A huge conversation, not just in the pacific region, but across all of our parliaments, private and public sector institutions, is cybersecurity in particular. A number of the software products available, for example, Zoom, MS Teams, Cisco Webex and add-ons, like Poly – what we call off-the-shelf products – they’re general purpose products and they’re not necessarily designed for the parliamentary environment. These naturally bring some cyber security and integrity concerns, particularly as some of the work that parliament needs to do is done in private, for example the deliberations of a committee before it reaches an outcome that is publicly disclosed. It was reported that a lot of training was needed to encompass security awareness. Another aspect of course is human error, and this was an issue prior to Covid-19. We’ve done a lot of training around the safe handling of email products and what to do if a human error is made to protect privacy. Some products have been blocked, or as we call blacklisted, for parliamentary use because they were deemed to be insufficient in terms of security for parliamentary purposes, or deemed to be too vulnerable to exploitation. 


In the pacific region, a particular concern is connectivity. Parliaments across the region reported issues of connectivity and internet stability. A number of the pacific parliaments emphasised also the importance of a backup power source or a generator, and this has interdependencies with the natural disaster piece of our conversation, whereby power supplies can be knocked out by cyclones and other natural events. Some noted the need to ensure that bandwidth was sufficient and could support multiple concurrent connections and operations on precinct and off precinct. 


Managing staff and members’ connectivity from their homes and electorates is also a bit fraught, and this is often a circumstance in non-covid times as well. Some parliaments have been issuing mobile modem USB sticks to members and staff as a contingency. 


In the parliamentary environment one of the most interesting parts of this conversation about the intersectionality of digital transformation with our environment is around the procedural aspect. Parliaments, of course, have their standing orders, their procedural rules, and some also have constitutional settings. Some members of the hub discussed some of the constitutional and procedural barriers to conduct plenary and committee meetings virtually. For example, some have the need to be physically present in the chamber or committee, there was no procedure for proxy-voting, e-voting or virtual voting. Furthermore the platforms that we were using, sometimes in a very quick way, did not always lend themselves well to the usual conduct of parliament, for example, managing requests to speak, points of order and the integrity of voting could be challenged. We’re exploring some of the solutions that different parliaments have employed. 


Training was also a big theme. Members and staff generally embraced the use of innovative ICT solutions and digital technologies during lockdown measures, but training sometimes was provided in quite an ad hoc fashion. We didn’t have the luxury of time, and some ICT staff themselves had no experience with the product. They were reporting a lot of self-directed learning, for example, having to search the internet or for product information. This is an opportunity, I think, that their hub can share knowledge on training techniques as well. 


Support parliaments in the pacific are often staffed by very limited numbers, who have multiple different roles. There was an increased pressure on the small number of ICT staff in the pacific and on service desks, if they exist. Some of the issues were really simple to resolve, for example we had members of parliament locking themselves out by providing their incorrect passwords. One solution that New Zealand employed to reduce traffic to our service desk and analysts was to provide single sign-on wherever possible using tools such as Azure ID to federate with third-party tools. 


I touched on this in my infrastructure introduction, but investment in ICT infrastructure, the procurement of hardware and software, and the capacity for sudden transition are going to be ongoing challenges for many parliaments. I suspect there will be some austerity measures and budget reductions that impact our ongoing investment in technology. Parliaments have also been encouraged to think about moving away from their local infrastructure, for example, from local servers to use cloud-based technology in storage for security. Investment in infrastructure and access to technology are long-term issues that will require multi-year proactive approaches. 


Notwithstanding this there have been very many positive outcomes. Pacific parliaments reported how virtual tools had enabled them to engage with many more of their members and communities. Pacific parliaments reported enhanced engagement through digital tools with remote locations and communities. They also mentioned how great these tools were to engage in international meetings and discussion without needing to fly for several hours. 


We still have very strong support programs across the pacific that have been undertaken remotely, for example one of our parliaments, the Legislative Assembly of Tonga had a floating budget office initiative with the United Nations Development Program, with assistance from Fiji, New Zealand, Australia and many other counterparts. They were able to conduct this research and analysis remotely and still assist the parliament. 


I’d like to share with you one of the stories that came out of our pacific region hub meetings. Fiji has been doing great things to innovate and meet the needs of citizens. The Parliament of Fiji reported that it prioritised the safety and welfare of members and staff while needing to maintain the key functions of parliament. It had support from the speaker and business committee in parliament to enable this. It wanted to emphasise the public health measures in place to ensure the safety of MPs and staff. Public access to the parliament precinct were restricted, however the parliament and committee sittings were being broadcast to free-to-air channels and live stream to the parliament Facebook page and website. Additionally, plenary and committee sittings and papers were shared electronically. New standards and services were set during this period. To ensure business continuity the parliament utilised tools to work remotely, for example the Microsoft Office 365. They did have some hybrid approaches with some members being physically in committee rooms and others joining remotely.


During this period they ran an astonishing number of committee meetings and some of them were simultaneous. They also made sure their members could work remotely and members were issued with laptop, smartphones and wi-fi access to allow for on-demand viewing and sharing of documents. Senior committee clerks were also given these tools. The parliament also engaged a vendor based in New Zealand to integrate its video conferencing technology, so they reported that cargo took around three weeks in implementation and installation a few days further than that. I mentioned that because it’s just an example of how long some of these solutions can take to deploy in the region. They also put new equipment into the committee rooms for example LED screens and wired access points to ensure that they could have some hybrid committee meetings.


Furthermore they integrated their systems with their chamber for the digital recording system. That parliament again reported that the members’ response was really positive and they quickly adapted to change with some basic training undertaken during the configuration of devices. Looking forward to that, parliament has said they’d like to optimise the use of the hybrid broadcast platform and explore more cloud-based technology. We were really pleased to hear about Fiji’s experience with digital technology transformation and also partnering with others to ensure their success. 


The Pacific region has benefited greatly from having the center for innovation hub. We’ve had some wonderful discussions and shared a lot of solutions, challenges and frustrations.

[header image source: unsplash] 

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