Remote Deliberation in Trinidad and Tobago

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Trinidad and Tobago is located at the southernmost end of the Caribbean, 7 miles off the northeast coast of Venezuela. After eight years of renovations, we reopened our parliament in January, 2020 but then in March, 2020 we were forced to close it because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Our parliament is traditionally called the Red House. 

 

We had the first virtual committee meeting on May 21st, 2020. It was the appropriations committee that was chaired by the speaker of the house of representatives. It was the first time that we were having a virtual committee meeting. So all of us, the staff as well as the committee members. The next day, we had our second committee meeting and that one was the joint select committee on social services and public administration. For that meeting, they also had an in-person meeting. That meeting dealt with the educational system during the pandemic and we had all of the stakeholders on board to have the meeting virtually during the pandemic, because there were concerns about how we continue to educate our children during this pandemic. 

 

The IT and broadcasting units are responsible for the setup and control of the Zoom meetings, the links were sent to the house and senate committee members as well as the staff who were due to join the meetings. Initially, the members were required to register for the meetings via a link, this was to secure the meetings and to eliminate persons who are not eligible from disturbing the meetings. 

 

The information on the meeting, including the Zoom link and the agenda, would be sent to members via email once a meeting was scheduled. At the beginning of the meeting, the committee secretary would usually give instructions to members on sitting position, checking the lighting and the angle of the cameras. 

 

At the parliament building, the IT broadcast staff were responsible for hosting the meeting, recording it as well as broadcasting it. If members experienced technical issues, assistance was provided by the IT staff who were located at the office. Virtual meetings were recorded in the broadcast control room and then used for review by the committee members. 

 

Some of the major cyber security concerns we had was to prevent people from invading the meetings. Companies and schools have been hacked and we have been seeing this in Trinidad and Tobago, where meetings have been hacked by persons who display profanity on screen as well as they share documents that are not appropriate. 

 

We are ensuring the documents that we share are safe on the platform, so it was decided not to share documents via the virtual meetings but to use email and private cloud services to share the documents to members instead. 

 

We did not have any internal rules that required changing and the standing orders of the house and the senate remained the same. The videoconference solution is only used for committee meetings because, for virtual plenary sessions, changes to the standing orders for both houses of parliament would have to be made. We have had so far 11 virtual committee meetings until September, 2020 and, with a higher rate of participation from members 

 

A major challenge we had was getting the members to use Zoom. Getting the members to use Zoom was a little bit difficult, since they were not used to this reality, so that was one of the things that we had to continue to insist for the members to do. 

 

One of the benefits that we found at virtual meetings was that members could stay in their homes or offices and participate in meetings without having to worry about social distancing or rushing to the meetings. In 2020, there were some protests in Trinidad and Tobago and because of that the sitting of the senate had to be postponed because some members couldn’t make it through the traffic to get to the meeting. 

 

The parliament’s ICT department provided us with this helping them to set up connections to meetings. A few of the chairmen used committee meetings right here in parliament as their space to participate so that they would have immediate access to their committee secretary, since the secretaries were in the room with the chairman while the other members stayed at home or stayed in their offices.

 

Parliament’s work can continue even though members are not all in the same place. Full attendance was recorded for most of those committee meetings. I suspect that we will also have full attendance for house and senate meetings once we can go virtual for those as well. 

 

Remote work, which was not previously taken seriously throughout by the parliament has now become a critical aspect of the functioning of the parliament. The use of technology has provided ways to allow greater collaboration with staff and other organisations as well as to ensure the continuity of business.

Trinidad and Tobago is located at the southernmost end of the Caribbean, 7 miles off the northeast coast of Venezuela. After eight years of renovations, we reopened our parliament in January, 2020 but then in March, 2020 we were forced to close it because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Our parliament is traditionally called the Red House. 

 

We had the first virtual committee meeting on May 21st, 2020. It was the appropriations committee that was chaired by the speaker of the house of representatives. It was the first time that we were having a virtual committee meeting. So all of us, the staff as well as the committee members. The next day, we had our second committee meeting and that one was the joint select committee on social services and public administration. For that meeting, they also had an in-person meeting. That meeting dealt with the educational system during the pandemic and we had all of the stakeholders on board to have the meeting virtually during the pandemic, because there were concerns about how we continue to educate our children during this pandemic. 

 

The IT and broadcasting units are responsible for the setup and control of the Zoom meetings, the links were sent to the house and senate committee members as well as the staff who were due to join the meetings. Initially, the members were required to register for the meetings via a link, this was to secure the meetings and to eliminate persons who are not eligible from disturbing the meetings. 

 

The information on the meeting, including the Zoom link and the agenda, would be sent to members via email once a meeting was scheduled. At the beginning of the meeting, the committee secretary would usually give instructions to members on sitting position, checking the lighting and the angle of the cameras. 

 

At the parliament building, the IT broadcast staff were responsible for hosting the meeting, recording it as well as broadcasting it. If members experienced technical issues, assistance was provided by the IT staff who were located at the office. Virtual meetings were recorded in the broadcast control room and then used for review by the committee members. 

 

Some of the major cyber security concerns we had was to prevent people from invading the meetings. Companies and schools have been hacked and we have been seeing this in Trinidad and Tobago, where meetings have been hacked by persons who display profanity on screen as well as they share documents that are not appropriate. 

 

We are ensuring the documents that we share are safe on the platform, so it was decided not to share documents via the virtual meetings but to use email and private cloud services to share the documents to members instead. 

 

We did not have any internal rules that required changing and the standing orders of the house and the senate remained the same. The videoconference solution is only used for committee meetings because, for virtual plenary sessions, changes to the standing orders for both houses of parliament would have to be made. We have had so far 11 virtual committee meetings until September, 2020 and, with a higher rate of participation from members 

 

A major challenge we had was getting the members to use Zoom. Getting the members to use Zoom was a little bit difficult, since they were not used to this reality, so that was one of the things that we had to continue to insist for the members to do. 

 

One of the benefits that we found at virtual meetings was that members could stay in their homes or offices and participate in meetings without having to worry about social distancing or rushing to the meetings. In 2020, there were some protests in Trinidad and Tobago and because of that the sitting of the senate had to be postponed because some members couldn’t make it through the traffic to get to the meeting. 

 

The parliament’s ICT department provided us with this helping them to set up connections to meetings. A few of the chairmen used committee meetings right here in parliament as their space to participate so that they would have immediate access to their committee secretary, since the secretaries were in the room with the chairman while the other members stayed at home or stayed in their offices.

 

Parliament’s work can continue even though members are not all in the same place. Full attendance was recorded for most of those committee meetings. I suspect that we will also have full attendance for house and senate meetings once we can go virtual for those as well. 

 

Remote work, which was not previously taken seriously throughout by the parliament has now become a critical aspect of the functioning of the parliament. The use of technology has provided ways to allow greater collaboration with staff and other organisations as well as to ensure the continuity of business.

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