We Need Intentional Virtual Parliaments
Victoria Hasson explores the potential pitfalls of virtual parliaments and how innovation in response to the pandemic must only be pursued if it points in a more democratic direction.
Around the world parliaments are going virtual. But what this looks like, and its implications for the institution’s democratic standing, varies as widely as the impact of COVID-19 on any given country. The dangers of going digital are easy to anticipate and beginning to surface.
What is clear is that while we need virtual parliaments, we do not need them at all costs.
Not all parliaments can afford the ICT solutions they need and digital platforms create new dynamics to the representative system, not least on issue of personal and institutional data security.
To be legitimate, every new virtual procedure must comply with the fundamental principle of equal participation amongst MPs. The problem is, digital platforms struggle to allow this, even in countries with access to high-speed data transmission networks.
Moreover, it is not simply a matter of access to digital platforms but also a matter of what types of practices and behaviours those digital platforms engender – do they promote inclusive participation or enable exclusionary practices and abuse of power?
Last week, the opposition in South Africa requested the Speaker of the National Assembly to urgently address ‘the current chaos reigning in some of the virtual portfolio committee meetings’.
By their measure, the manner in which some committees have been run on virtual platforms has actively hampered parliament’s constitutional oversight role, as committee chairs unilaterally determine and set time limits for MP contributions; routinely misinterpret the rules of parliament; and lack the requisite knowledge about virtual platforms to host the meeting and maintain discipline.
Many of us have long sought to renovate democracy by calling for the transformation of our political institutions.
The COVID pandemic shows us that parliaments can no longer afford to be the ‘dinosaurs of democracy’, not only because of the need to ‘go virtual’ but also because it has dramatically altered the role of democratic representation.
The lives of citizens are now filtered through national strategies of COVID-19 crisis management, and the enabling legislation that has superseded traditional structures of democratic governance.
Moreover, simultaneously and in every country across the globe, the life of every citizen changed, and with it the type and level of demand placed on its system of representation.
Long-established parliamentary practices and procedures that allow parliaments to react and respond to social need have never before been in such high demand while so readily rendered unfit for purpose.
Yet we do not want COVID-19 parliaments, we want contemporary parliaments. And by most measures of democratic efficacy we wanted them decades ago.
In modernised wealthy countries parliaments are still predominantly reactionary. The time between ‘alarm bells’ and ‘corrective policy’, between ‘identifying’ the unacceptable and ‘doing’ something about it is often too long. These gaps have a significant impact – one that is often also gendered and/or racialised – on the quality of people’s lives.
What all parliaments share is the potential to leverage the need to go virtual into an opportunity to re-position its democratic standing.
Parliaments should not simply shift onto Zoom until a vaccine is created. Now is the time for parliaments to intentionally innovate their modus operandi to anticipate and proactively meet the representative needs of complex and differentiated citizenries, which now includes helping them through the impact of a global pandemic.
Even if the demand for parliaments to go virtual is profuse, we should strive only for innovation that enhances a parliament’s democratic status, or else risk its further erosion. This requires strategic thinking and strategic investment.
The Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD), the UK’s democracy support agency, is helping parliaments with this task – by focusing on the creation of virtual parliamentary frameworks and virtual parliamentary strategic planning processes, as well as sharing its approach and key learnings in real time. Parliaments across the world can learn from one another as they strive for intentional, not incidental, change which enhances democracy.
Only with this goal at the front and centre can the shift to a virtual parliament hope to contribute to a fit for purpose system of popular sovereignty.
This system must be flexible and include structures for representative and participatory engagement, using both online and offline platforms. It should be accessible and accountable to citizens, and able to command evidence, public accountability and action from governments.
For example, standing committees can increase their efficacy if they split into online supported sub-committees to cover specific objectives that allows MPs to record, track and participate in specified areas simultaneously. This type of ‘smart committee system’ should also make soliciting public participation and state accountability on concrete issues much easier.
Parliaments must work out not just how to go virtual but how to go beyond their traditional democratic offer while doing so. If they are unable to do this, parliaments risk the misguided mantra of ‘digital by default’ exposing weaknesses in democracy and the parliamentary model as we know it, with lasting effects for citizens in democracies across the world.
Dr Victoria Hasson is Senior Parliamentary Adviser at Westminster Foundation for Democracy. With a doctorate on parliamentary procedure and democracy from the University of Sheffield, Victoria has ten years of parliamentary experience and worked in the National Assembly of South Africa for four years. Twitter - @VictoriaHasson