How are parliaments responding to the Coronavirus pandemic?

8 Apr 2020
The National Assembly for Wales holds the UK's first virtual parliamentary meeting using video conferencing software (Credit: @AssemblyWales)

When countries are facing a national health emergency, the work of parliaments is as important as ever: to scrutinise government decisions, to authorise expenditure, to pass legislation. But how are legislatures around the world responding to the challenges posed by the pandemic, and what are the key issues involved in moving to a 'virtual' operation?

Dr Andy Williamson, Senior Researcher, Inter-Parliamentary Union
Senior Researcher, Inter-Parliamentary Union

Dr Andy Williamson

Dr Andy Williamson
Senior Researcher, Inter-Parliamentary Union

Andy is a parliamentary researcher and consultant specialising in open parliaments, technology and innovation. He is a Senior Researcher at the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s Centre for Innovation in Parliament. He previously served as Director of the Hansard Society's Digital Democracy Programme.

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Parliaments must continue to function, despite the challenges of remote working, social distancing and, of course, the obvious risk to the health and wellbeing of staff and members.

Many parliaments have introduced restrictions on physical access to buildings, limiting it to essential staff and, often, a reduced number of members. In Brazil, Spain, the UK and many other parliaments, staff are now working from home. This means that core operations can continue, and those parliaments that have invested in cloud-based back-office tools are at an advantage.

When parliaments do sit, either in plenary or committee, new procedures are required.

Spain, Brazil, Norway and Finland have all amended their laws to allow for remote sittings. In some instances, more flexible interpretation of laws and procedure could assist with remote working. For example, the Australian Constitution requires MPs to be 'present' and this has so far been interpreted to mean 'in person'. Even Estonia, much heralded for its digital government, has a regulation that prohibits remote sittings of its parliament. The UK Parliament has approved remote committee sittings, and the New Zealand Parliament has instigated a special committee that meets remotely in order to scrutinise the work of the government at this time.

The UK and New Zealand (and some others) have the advantage of an extended Easter recess. This is not so much breathing space as an opportunity to be more strategic and a little less reactive. Nonetheless, there are no immediate or instantaneous digital solutions to make a parliament work remotely, a problem which is further constrained by staff working off-site. (Whilst IT systems can often be supported remotely, they are seldom designed to be solely operated this way.)

Parliaments face a number of challenges, which can be simplified into three key strands:

  • Access for members: all members must be able to access and use the systems.

  • Security of the system: it must be secure enough for its purpose.

  • Veracity of the process: the process has to be trusted, transparent and auditable.

Plenary sessions may be physically hosted in the chamber but parliaments are severely limiting the number of staff and members who are allowed in. This is designed to ensure the session is quorate and to follow public health advice.

Where access is happening remotely, it can be done in two ways:

  • members who are not in attendance can 'drop in' via a video link (this is happening in France, for example); or

  • the full plenary can be hosted online (which is now being done in Spain, Brazil and Wales. The Welsh Assembly held its first virtual plenary session on 1 April, the event which provides this post with its banner image above).

In the House of Commons, it would be feasible for the Speaker and mace to be in situ whilst other members attend remotely. The remote committee sittings that have already been approved in the UK are logistically easier to do and can be a good proving-ground for the tools a parliament might want to roll out further.

Spain has an early advantage: well before the coronavirus, the Spanish Chamber of Deputies developed an app that allows members to vote when they are sick or on maternity leave. It has been used relatively little over the seven years it has been available but it is there, tried and tested. It has now been rolled out to the full chamber. Meetings are hosted using Zoom but documents are shared using the Chamber's internal systems, and voting is done securely through the app.

Brazil has followed suit, hosting over 500 members in virtual plenaries for their Chamber of Deputies and Senate in the last week. Again, Zoom was used for debating but the internal legislative management system was upgraded to provide secure authentication of members and voting.

Other parliaments, without access to such applications, have opted for a combination of video-conferencing and asynchronous voting using secure email. These high-end tools allow for a moderator (effectively, a virtual Speaker) to manage who is speaking and for members to request to speak. Canada, South Africa and others are now testing various applications for remote plenaries. This is a fast-moving field.

The plenary is a public debate – indeed, one of the challenges is finding software that can integrate and feed into broadcast systems in real-time. The issues for parliaments become more complicated when voting or non-public meetings are required. Parliamentary administrations must ensure that votes are cast legitimately, that all members can vote at the prescribed time (Spain's remote app allows for asynchronous voting) and that members have sufficiently stable and fast internet connectivity.

This leads, of course, to a discussion of the relative security of internet-based systems.

There is no zero-risk solution that can run over the internet. As the CIO of one major parliament said privately, it is all about understanding the risks. There is no perfect solution, and parliaments must assess the risks, mitigating what they can and accepting the others.

The system must be secure enough not to be exploited or attacked, and reliable enough for members (and the public) to have trust in it. Whilst Zoom has been under particularly intense media scrutiny, all video-conferencing tools have flaws and issues. These get fixed once they become known and can largely be mitigated through internal hosting or technical configurations that would be inappropriate to discuss here.

Security is always a consideration for the applications chosen to support the work of parliament. Parliaments must be careful not to compromise the security of their work and the veracity of their decisions at this time, and must fully understand the impact and risks of any solution that they are adopting. If they are using cloud solutions, parliaments need to understand where traffic is going and where their data is stored; if it is outside of a parliamentary or government cloud or outside of their jurisdiction, have all the security and legal implications been considered (and mitigated or overcome)?

All of these considerations make re-opening parliament in a virtual setting challenging and complicated. The challenge is made harder by remote working, staff illness and the pressure being placed on technology vendors and infrastructure globally. Parliaments must also be cognisant of their place in the democratic and civic functions of the country. Much work has gone on over the last ten years to open up parliaments to greater public access and scrutiny, and we must ensure that steps towards virtual parliaments, even in the current crisis-led circumstances, do not set this back or create new barriers to building and maintaining trust. In a positive move, the Parliament of Vanuatu will now live-stream its new parliamentary term as the public can no longer access the building.

The digital parliament is a reality; we have seen this already in Spain and Brazil. And it is not just the big parliaments which can innovate quickly and adapt: the Parliament of the Maldives started hosting remote plenary and committee sittings last week.

But there are challenges ahead and the process is far from perfect. Anyone who has used video-conferencing with even a few participants will know that it is a poor replacement for face-to-face debate. Technical glitches, poor usability and lack of technical skills amongst members can all hamper the process and lead to new inequalities in the virtual chamber. There are risks with security and new systems must be trusted and transparent. As we have seen with Spain and Brazil, prior investment in digital solutions has given some parliaments an early advantage.

The UK Parliament sits mid-way, in that it already uses cloud-based tools for administration but has lacked digital infrastructure within the parliamentary process and has a long-standing cultural aversion to it in a number of quarters. It is now working at speed to provide a workable virtual solution before the Easter recess is over.

Banner image: The National Assembly for Wales holds the UK's first virtual parliamentary meeting using video conferencing software (Credit: @AssemblyWales)

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