My name is Eduardo Rojas and I am the general director of information technology and telecommunications of the Senate of the Republic in Mexico. The Congress in Mexico is divided at the federal level into two chambers: the House of Representatives and the Senate House.
I lead a working group that is not partisan, it is not political, it is a technical group. I have been working in the Senate for 8 years. We work for the different parliamentary groups that are occupying the majority and the presidencies of the governing council of the Senate of the Republic.
At the beginning of 2020, like other parliaments around the world, we had the need to implement solutions to try to maintain the continuity of the Senate’s operations in the midst of a pandemic that took us all by surprise. Our work has many implications, but I am going to concentrate on the actions we take to face the need for continuity of operations in the Senate of the Republic.
Legislative work is the main product of the Senate House and yet it has many civil servants, technical areas, such as investigation and administration that had to maintain their operations. In that sense, at the beginning of April, 2020 we began to use some applications based on videoconferencing to be able to maintain the continuity of the work. Thanks to videoconferencing tools we managed to implement an entire platform overnight, actually a virtual work infrastructure so that the Senate could continue working even from the home of each of the civil servants.
In 2020, we have been able to host nearly two thousand virtual work meetings for all areas of the Senate: administrative, parliamentary, technical and legislative committees. We did all this with the technical support mainly composed of specialists in videoconferencing tools and practically all the meetings have been carried out without any setback. The only problems were domestic connectivity, problems with computer equipment or some off-market mobile device that no longer supported the application, but we managed to solve it.
Of the most relevant virtual meetings, the most important are those that have to do with the permanent committee of the Congress. The pandemic fell in the Senate of the Republic in its most complicated schedule, during the final part of the month of April 2020. The month of April coincides with the end of the regular period of sessions, so that the main part of the pandemic, the Senate as well as the House of Representatives was in recess.
There is a recess that goes from May to August of each year and during this recess what works is a reduced version of both Houses called “the permanent commission of the union congress”. It is a set of 37 legislators, 19 deputies, and 18 senators who meet in one of the two Houses. Without a doubt, it was the most important and most relevant sessions that had continuity thanks to technological work. Eight virtual sessions were held, one each week, in some weeks there was a face-to-face session and in others the session was not held.
Each of these sessions lasts four hours and, unlike the ordinary period for the House of Representatives and the Senate, there are no legislative votes in the permanent commission. In other words, opinions that become law are not approved, but the permanent committee simply considers some legislative aspects that have to do with a point of agreement, appointments, and require what is called economic votes. In other words, they are not roll-call votes in which each legislator makes public the meaning of his vote, but rather they are votes that are simply counted in plain sight with the hand raised.
The plenary floor of the Senate was disabled by the pandemic and only the president of the Senate, Senator Mónica Fernández, and two secretaries could be physically present, making virtual presence through devices. The Webex board was connected with the real-time broadcast of the congress channel which is connected to the television channel and the official social media of the Senate, such as YouTube, Twitter and Facebook.
We used the Webex platform in one of its two modes, meetings for slightly shorter sessions and the webinar mode for longer sessions. We decided to use Webex basically for security reasons, although we know that many parliaments around the world use different platforms. I do not think there is one solution better than another, it simply was better suited to our circumstances, particularly because the manufacturer of Webex and a good part of the telecommunications infrastructure of the Senate of the Republic are Cisco, so it was naturally possible to integrate it into our infrastructure. We reinforced this platform with an integration to the platform of Microsoft Teams through the active directory.
One of the challenges was the training and the explanation of how to access these solutions remotely because there was no time to do face-to-face training workshops. A small group of colleagues did a great job contacting legislators, either by phone or by email. In this way we managed to maintain and give continuity to the permanent committee. We must go from enabling sessions of the permanent committee to enabling remote sessions of the full Senate. The House of Representatives has a slightly bigger problem because there are 500 deputies, but in our case we have 128 senators and the way we are preparing to do that is basically to prepare them to have hybrid sessions where some of the legislators are in plenary session and some others are virtually connected.
We are preparing the assistance in the vote to do it through a remote application with facial recognition. The plenary session of the Senate in Mexico is fully systematised. We have an automated audio system and video to record attendance and voting is recorded on a large board that is in front of the House.
What we have to do is to take these digital solutions that work in plenary sessions and make them available outside the plenary session through these mobile applications. With an application or on a mobile device, in this way integrate the two systems, the physical and the digital. We were prepared to do the total integration of legislators inside or outside the plenary session of the Senate. We can see that in a session a legislator who is outside the plenary is present through the screens. Its sound is integrated into the ambient sound of the plenary and reciprocally whoever is outside the plenary session. A Senator who is outside the plenary session would feel integrated into the plenary session, since we have a signal feed from cameras in the plenary session and inject it directly as an additional user on the Webex platform.
These were the main components of the solution that we had envisaged. It wasn’t implemented yet, not for technological reasons, but because the Mexican Congress has decided that to enable the remote voting, it was necessary to have some legal reforms. Some deputies and senators thought that legal reforms at the constitutional level were required, others believed that reforms at the regulatory level within each chamber would be enough. This was a debate from the legislative point of view, but we are prepared so that any of the decisions of the legislators have their technological counterpart immediately.
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