Subnational Houses in Brazil: Remote deliberation in the Legislative Assembly of Rio de Janeiro
The history of remote deliberation in the Legislative Assembly of Rio de Janeiro began with the concern to avoid social contact and how to do it without allowing the legislatures to function normally.
So, the first order of business of the House was through an act of the Governing Body to suspend meetings and face-to-face events and later propose a resolution that regulated the deliberative meetings for the plenary sessions.
Our second concern was how to make the meetings happen with the participation of all the actors of the legislature, such as parliamentary advisors, the parliamentarians and the civil servants of the committees. A very important channel in this process was the TV channel of the House called TV ALERJ.
We implemented Zoom, a tool that the Brazilian Senate House was also using. We learned from the experience of the Senate, and we used the webinar function in the first week, with the virtual room accommodating 100 people with the subscription that the House had and this gave the parliamentary and communication advisors the ability to act.
TV ALERJ was an extremely important tool for this transition to happen. We tested Zoom and saw that the platform met our demands, and that it was possible to connect the vital sectors for the legislative process to happen, such as the editor of debates, the TV ALERJ, the IT team and the teams that assist the legislative process both in plenary and in the committees.
The parliamentarians understood and decided in a plenary session that only the House Committee on Rules could give opinions on proposals related to the fighting against the Covid-19 pandemic. The other committees started to give their opinions orally at the time of the plenary. All proposals were processed on an urgent basis, allowing the adoption of this measure, thus enabling the remote deliberation system.
The House was able to implement remote deliberations very quickly, in less than two weeks. We tested Zoom twice and did two fictional sessions, with real guidelines and proposals, but those sessions were for training purposes only. The third session was held with the same agenda and the same discussions, but in a binding way, and everyone felt safe. The Speaker of the House brought a lot of security, since he trusted the team. Many civil servants fell into the at risk group and others were afraid and asked for their vacation, which reduced the number of employees. Even with this small number, we worked in shifts to preserve people’s health as much as possible. Adding to that initial challenge we had the need to invest and maintain our technological devices, such as connectivity and machines.
The parliamentarians had some difficulty in adapting in the first two weeks, but many aides and even the family helped them. Our team spoke to each person, over the phone, or by going to the office or providing technical advice remotely. After the first two weeks, everyone was more comfortable and felt confident to implement adaptations to the needs that arose, always concerned with involving all actors in the change process.
Between March 31, 2020 and September 17, 2020, we held 320 sessions, 68 ordinary and 252 extraordinary. 779 proposals focused on Covid-19 or related to the pandemic were discussed in plenary. In the House Committee on Rules we had 774 proposals discussed at these meetings. The committees held 49 public hearings, something that brought the public closer to Parliament.
The Speaker of the house decided that the maturity to start holding committee meetings was already there. Committee chairmen are meeting with their members through Zoom, as they already were already comfortable with the plenary sessions they held. This is what improved transparency and brought the public closer. If, for example, the public did not know what a committee meeting was like, they had the opportunity to participate in the discussion of proposals and to know that when it is not remote, people can participate.
Remote work has provided this adaption and it will leave a legacy. The Legislative Assembly is relocating and we are already looking at remote conference rooms. Technology has provided us with something inevitable, but accelerated by the emergency created by the Covid-19 pandemic.