📌 This text is the result of the transcription of the panelist’s participation in Bússola Tech’s event
My name is Michael Mukuka from the National Assembly of Zambia. I’ve been working for the National Assembly of Zambia for about eight years as the head of ICT. We’ve been involved in a number of ICT initiatives, up until the Covid-19 hit the nation. Like any other nation that has been hit by covid, Zambia was not spared and therefore we had to find a solution to make sure that the constitutional mandate of parliament is undertaken, despite the challenge with the pandemic.
That’s how we went around to shop for what kind of solution we needed to use. The way parliaments operate, it’s quite unique. There are a lot of things that happen during the management of the House, a number of procedures that have to be followed, but the first thing that was done was simply to try and change the standing orders. When the standing orders were changed to enable the House sitting using the hybrid system, that was the beginning of it all.
The Digital Response from the National Assembly of Zambia to Covid-19
Every system worked well and we’ve had some challenges. The main challenge is basically one: the mindset of the members. This is a challenge across the world, to get members to be trained and be proficient in the use of technology. A number of them are not born in the digital age, so it’s challenging. We managed to get around that by training our members to make sure that they are able to use the systems that we put in place. Besides that, came the issue of the infrastructure. The infrastructure was not built to handle so many video connections, to support the video traffic, so we had to expand and enhance our on-premise infrastructure, the network infrastructure, even the bandwidth for internet connectivity, and making sure that we had serious redundancies in case one internet connection failed.
We had to spend a lot of money to enhance or upgrade our infrastructure to manage the business under the new normal, as we call it. The network and the physical hardware infrastructure had to be expanded. We never bought devices for the members of parliament to use, and this time around we’re forced to get them tablets. There’s the catch: initially, we thought the members of parliament could be put in different rooms in the parliamentary precinct, but we faced a challenge, people considered the Parliament as an epicenter for the pandemic.
We needed to come up with an aggressive way of doing things, where you don’t have a lot of members coming within the parliamentary precinct, with even the members’ staff operating from home. That’s exactly what we did. It brought its own challenge about connectivity of our members, because three-quarters of our members are based in rural areas, where connectivity is a challenge. We had to deal with that issue to make sure that they were in a place where they could connect to the internet and be able to participate in the proceedings of parliament, either in committee sittings and meetings or basically in the sitting of the House. We are handling approximately 10 to 15 committees in a single day, besides the sitting of the House. The issue and the catch has been, we have never done the electronic voting with the members being in every part of the country. It was the first time that we had to do it. Since we started the sittings using a hybrid system, from last June 2020, we haven’t had that.
We’ve been able to have Parliamentary sittings, but we’ve not been able to go for a division of voting, which requires members, if they’re physically sitting in the house, to divide, part the other members going to one lobby and the others to another lobby.
We stopped doing it when we started using the electronic voting system, in 2007. We started using an electronic voting using the push system, but this particular one, we developed our own application called e-chamber. What this e-chamber does is to allow a member to raise what we call a “point of order”. We are using the e-chamber system to do that. Once someone places a point of order, it records that a member wants to speak, and one member is allowed per time. E-chamber also allows the members to come up with what we call “divisional list”. When you want to vote on a particular matter using the division voting, the first thing we do is basically to make sure that members, about 12 members of parliament, must indicate that they want a divisional vote. But we never experienced that.
We are using two systems here: Zoom and e-chamber. If the members want to raise their hands in the video, they can do that, but the e-chamber does an excellent job in gathering the speakers list. It will actually put in order the way the members are requesting, and also the division list. A division list cannot be attained in Zoom, but it can be reached in e-chamber. The members raised when it came to voting. We tried to vote electronically under the hybrid system, where almost all our members are in various parts of the country, so we used our e-chamber and because of the traffic coming in, the application could not hold it and just froze. Fortunately, it was at a point that the house had to adjourn, so we were saved by the bell. The following day, we decided to use Zoom for voting and we quickly trained our members to be able to use it for their division voting, whilst we’re using e-chamber to actually come up with the division lists. Once the threshold is reached, we go to Zoom to do the voting and it has worked very well for us, at least the four votes that our members have cast. However, we have identified some minor things, which we are going to engage soon to make sure that we clear, as we are working on our e-chamber.
The most challenging issue for the first time using the e-voting, under the hybrid system, and senior members of parliament, especially from the opposition, tell you that it is not going to work and everything will just collapse. That’s the most challenging moment that I’ve found. To counter that, you would simply have to be strong and put your case across and tell them it’s going to work and, of course, for us it has worked.
We’ve been holding a lot of meetings and we are fine, at this point.
The Southern African Hub of the IPU
The global centre for ICT in parliaments was based in Rome and was supported by the Chamber of Deputies in Rome. It worked well for some time and, unfortunately, the founders withdrew when we had the economic recession in 2008. When it happened in 2009, the IPU took the initiative to come up with the centre for innovation in parliament. Zambia was picked as one of the countries that would coordinate the Southern African Hub. We have a number of initiatives that are happening within our Southern African Hub. The Hub has around 14 countries and it has been very interactive in working together as a group.
In 2019, we had our first meeting, where we came up with the plans on how we go about and how we are going to collaborate as various parliaments. The Hub is looking at information sharing and also the personnel – the technical staff – that we are able to tap into the technical skills of various members of parliament. For instance, if a member has an issue or a strategic plan to be done, they come to the hub for assistance.
We have been conducting a number of sessions almost on a monthly basis. We are working with the South African Parliament to try and make sure that the e-chamber application, which Zambia started, is given to them to have a look at it and see how best they can improve on it, so we can use it in the region to support our parliaments.
Looking at the fact that our parliaments are basically conducting business in a similar manner, we are able to share some of the applications with colleagues. If a member of parliament has a challenge and they don’t have a technical skill, we are able to provide it, to make sure that we tap into other technical skills from another parliament to assist with a challenge at hand.
We have the Clerks or Secretary-Generals of parliament forming the top layer, from there, we have a committee of ICT directors, and then from there, we have the thematic committees of experts in various areas of ICT, where they’re working in application development. We have this thematic group and experts that are helping with resolving the actual problems that we are facing.
This is how we organized and the Southern African hub has been performing quite well in the way we’ve been working and supporting each other, collaborating, and information sharing.
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