Parliamentary Response to Crisis: Parliaments upgrade on technology, identify the limits

This blog is released as part of our Parliamentary Response To Crisis series in collaboration with the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s Parliaments in a Time of Pandemic series in which they look at how parliaments are facilitating the implementation of the emergency health measures recommended by the World Health Organisation, what impact physical distancing and confinement is having on the way parliaments function and how parliaments can debate, pass legislation and scrutinize the actions of government.

Adapting to the Covid-19 crisis is crucial for companies across the globe. GPG is intending to extend and expand what we have always done by continuing communication, providing advice, guidance and mentoring to our partners whether we are in-country or not. Our work with the Mongolian Parliament (outlined further in a future blog from Executive Director Sue Griffiths) began last month with an online discussion attended by Speaker of the Mongolian Parliament G.Zandanshatar, together with Director of the Parliamentary Research Institute D.Badamdash on ‘Virtual parliaments’.

Despite the challenges of security, technology, and procedure, many of the world’s parliaments are successfully moving online to counter the threat of coronavirus. But these imperfections mean that virtual assemblies can only be temporary solutions.

Brazil and Spain already had much of the technology in place and enough resources to install whatever else they needed. But smaller parliaments have also transitioned to virtual assemblies. In the Indian Ocean nation of Maldives, the 87-seat People’s Majlis has been meeting online since March.

“The parliaments doing this best are the ones with a good link between technology, process, and the overall management of parliament,” says Andy Williamson, an expert from the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU).

“Maldives have had a really solid strategic planning process.”

The use of online conference technologies, such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams, does not replace the nuance and richness of face-to-face interactions. But at least security concerns can be reduced by identifying the weaknesses and addressing them.

“The key challenge is that parliaments need to keep their procedures alive,” says Williamson. Members of Parliament need to be present and able to ask questions. Any votes have to be audited and recorded.

“This is tricky stuff,” says Williamson.

For those Parliaments with less financial and human or IT resources, including those that are hit by coronavirus, technical assistance is available. Some parliaments are sharing expertise. The IPU is also advising many chambers. It is also facilitating a group of parliaments to discuss better packages with technology companies such as Microsoft.

The Limits of Technology

Technologies may allow Parliaments to prioritise vital legislation, such as emergency measures, but these technologies may reach their limits as Parliaments seek to pass more complex legislation, such as budgets.

“Video conferencing will function and it will continue to function quite well,” says Williamson. “But I think we will see a degradation in the quality of debate.”

Nor can video conferencing tools help Members of Parliament to connect with their communities, who must figure out how to protect their health, education, small business, most vulnerable groups, and more. Extra upgrades may be needed so that Parliamentary Members can work remotely, share documents, and perform other functions that are standard in the corporate world.

The critical question then for parliaments is how much to invest in these technologies. Parliaments are vital to manage the crisis. But moving Assemblies online is a complex task and nobody knows how long the crisis will run for. Will the investment be good value for money? With such uncertainty, it is hard to know.

“We are not talking about business as usual” says Williamson.