Covid-19 has created an unprecedented challenge for parliaments and legislatures. Social distancing and restrictions on movement have forced parliaments to consider new methods of scrutiny, debate, and voting. The immediate challenge was simply to replicate existing procedures remotely, but the crisis has presented a unique window of opportunity to innovate.
As policymakers slowly transition back to “normal”, they should not easily dismiss the potential of this new relationship between democracy and technology. Parliamentarians should use what they’ve learned and the expertise of the democracy tech and deliberative democracy community to build greater trust in public institutions and open up traditional processes to wider deliberation, bringing people closer to the source of democratic power.
This note sets out some of the most interesting examples of crisis-led parliamentary innovation from around the world and combines it with some of the lessons we already know from democracy and deliberative tech to chart a way forward.
There are five core principles political leaders should embrace from this great experiment in digital parliamentary democracy:
Discover and adopt: The world’s parliaments and legislatures have been through the same challenge. This is an opportunity to learn and improve democratic engagement in the long-term.
Experiment with multiple tools: There is no one holistic approach to applying digital tools in any democracy. Some will work, others will fail – technology does not promise infallibility.
Embrace openness: Where things can be open, experiment with using this to encourage open dialogue and diversify ideas in the democratic and representative process.
Use multi-disciplinary approaches: Create diverse teams, with diverse skill sets. Build flexible tools that meet today’s needs of democracies, citizens and representatives.
The approaches globally to Covid-19 continuity have been varied depending on the geographical, political and social context, but they generally follow one of these scenarios:
Replicating everything using digital tools – Welsh Assembly, Crown dependencies (Jersey, Isle of Man), Brazil Using technology in every way possible to continue the current parliamentary agenda online.
Moving priority processes online, deprioritising the rest – France National Assembly, New Zealand, CanadaNo physical presence in parliaments and prioritising the most important elements of the current parliamentary agenda, usually Covid-19-related legislation, to adapt for online continuation.
Shifting what you can online while maintaining a minimal physical parliament – Denmark, Germany, UK Hybrid parliaments appear to be a popular choice for larger parliaments. This generally allows for the parliamentary agenda to continue with amendments to how certain procedures are conducted.
Reducing need for physical attendance and moving nothing online – Ireland, SwedenHouses can continue to sit in quorum (an agreed proportion of MPs representative of overall party representation), but certain parts of legislative agenda have been suspended for the time being.
The challenge for democratic institutions has been to replicate, with minimal loss, the core functions of democracy that have been disrupted due to Covid-19: accountability, representation and making legislation.
Accountability is maintained to some degree through the media and in the public debate online, but it is one part of a broader system of scrutiny that includes debates, committees and questions to the government. Scrutinising legislation remotely could be an issue depending on two main factors: how time-sensitive the legislation is, and how controversial the legislation proves to be. Countries have adapted their processes in different ways.
Online Sittings: Brazil, Canada, UK, Isle of Man, Welsh Assembly
Brazil managed to swiftly change its rules to allow fully virtual plenary sessions with more than 500 people connected, Canada is running twice-weekly virtual sittings for questions, and the UK is running hybrid virtual and physical sittings. The Isle of Man is the world’s oldest parliament and has transitioned its parliamentary sittings and votes to Microsoft Teams. This demonstrates that it could work for smaller parliaments (the Isle of Man has 35 members) or larger parliaments with reduced sitting sizes. The Welsh Assembly also met for its first digital sitting on 1 April, which went reasonably smoothly and there are plans to replicate this for most other parts of the political process.
Online Committees: UK, Norway, Germany, France
Committees have generally been digitised first because they are much simpler to convene remotely, and even parliaments that are for the most part working physically with reduced numbers are still running committees digitally.
The Norwegian Parliament allows committees to be conducted online through Microsoft Teams, but have also implemented physical measures, by reducing the number of MPs at plenary meetings and during voting to 87 from 169. Select committees have been running digitally in the UK and Germany. The National Assembly of France has also selectively adapted by reducing the number of its meetings and holding them remotely. Committee meetings are limited to hearings and debates on issues that are Covid-19 related.
Coronavirus Select Committees: New Zealand, Norway, Canada
Norway has created a Coronavirus Special Committee, which consists of the president of the Storting and one MP from each of the nine parliamentary party groups, however they do not meet remotely. Canada has followed suit and created a similar committee. On the other hand, New Zealand’s Epidemic Response Committee has been created with and chaired by the opposition leader, Simon Bridges, and an opposition majority in the committee membership to scrutinise the executive. This committee still meets remotely in the absence of parliament sitting.
Reduced Attendance: Ireland, Sweden, UK
Sweden is holding plenary and committee meetings as normal, but party leaders agreed that in the period from 16-30 March, the number of MPs required to vote is just 55 out of 349. In Ireland, one-third of deputies attend Dáil meetings. Members were also asked to maintain an appropriate distance in accordance with public-health advice. Parliamentary business has been restricted and generally relates to urgent Covid-19 business and Dáil Parliamentary Questions have been suspended.
In the UK, reduced physical sittings have ensured the legislative agenda continues to pass critical legislation for Brexit and the Finance Bill. There have also been debates on urgent issues amplified by the pandemic, such as the Domestic Abuse Bill.
Temporary Suspension of Non-Covid-19 Legislation: New Zealand, Canada
The House of Commons in Canada was adjourned until 25 May, with scope in the legislation to call back a physical parliament for specific votes, as is the case for its sitting on 13 May. New Zealand was similarly adjourned until 28 April, with the legislative agenda suspended until further notice.
Voting on Legislation
Voting is a key area of concern, as the convention in many parliaments is for voting to involve physical presence. However, the Welsh and Scottish parliaments already record members’ votes electronically and the US House of Representatives has used a card-based electronic system since the 1970s. While digital voting could be quite simple to implement, take-up has generally been slow or non-existent as countries have deferred to quorum voting or pairing instead. There are offline solutions to the dilemma, like delaying or delegating voting, however the more obvious solution is to record votes electronically, as has been used in the European Parliament. It could be asymmetric to allow members to participate in debates remotely but not then not allow them to vote on the outcome of said debate.
Voting App: UK
An interesting innovation from the UK is the development of a voting app, with the first remote vote on 12 May. Secured using two-factor authentication, it also piggybacks on MemberHub, a service with which MPs and staff are already familiar. This is crucial to generate widespread buy-in for such a radical departure from the traditional “division lobby” procedure. The platform on which the app was built, MemberHub, was developed in 2017 and is a digital dashboard currently used by parliamentarians to table questions. This platform is generally well-received around parliament.
Some MPs remain apprehensive about the permanence of these innovations, citing that human interaction is a critical part of the job. But just because these innovations may not be suitable for everybody, they may still be valuable for some people. Pragmatic innovations like this should not be underestimated. For example, proxy voting is being considered for MPs on maternity or paternity leave; as currently planned, however, it would not involve any online activity and would instead entail nominating someone to vote on the absent MP’s behalf. This may be the best solution for those MPs, but now that we have seen that remote voting is possible, providing it as a choice for specific circumstances like maternity or paternity leave, or family bereavement, should be considered.
E-voting: European Parliament
The European Parliament enforced remote voting in March. The results of the first ballots from 26 March, where 688 members voted out of a membership of 705, imply that the vast majority of MEPs navigated this process. To minimise barriers to access, the system works via e-mail, which is universally accessible in parliaments. While this does present some security concerns, these could be mitigated by publishing voting lists.
Quorum Voting: Germany, Ireland, Sweden, Australia
The German Bundestag, Irish Dail, the Swedish and Australian Parliaments are facilitating social distancing by reducing the number of members participating in proceedings. This is achieved by “pairing”, with members agreeing that pairs of members from opposing parties will not participate, or a “quorum”, a cross-party agreement that only a representative fraction of MPs will attend. However, smaller parties in larger parliaments can be cautious of quorums reducing their representation.
As the experience of the global lockdown has demonstrated, digitising parliaments does not undermine their sovereignty, even if conventions change. There is also evidence to suggest that the public are not disturbed by the digitisation of parliaments. There are many strengths to analogue politics, and it is understandable that some parliamentarians may be resistant to technological change, but physical presence no longer seems such a barrier to meaningful participation. This should be seen as an opportunity to innovate what wider democratic engagement looks like.
At a minimum, political representatives may find themselves with newfound skills, tools and experiences that enable them to extend democratic debate to a much wider audience. On a larger scale, experiments in digitisation offer insight into how a future and potentially radical reinvention of democracy might look, including a breaking down of existing power structures.
Technology continues to have a profound impact on democracy through social media, as traditional media sources no longer dominate the flow of government information. But technology can also be used strategically to complement the democratic process, enhance decision-making, provide radical transparency and promote civic education, to name a few benefits. Policymakers should take advantage of this momentum and use technology to extend the reach of dialogue and diversify ideas in the policymaking process.
Even before the crisis, there had been some promising experiments across the world that used technology to widen dialogue and participation:
Online crowdsourcing was used in Finland in 2011 to help redraft the constitution following the recession. Citizens were invited to comment on the drafts of the constitution online, and this process allowed the government to be tipped off on the issue of consumer genomics tests, which would have otherwise been missed.
Decide Madrid is a digital democracy platform where thousands of ideas can be collected and sorted by a randomly selected citizen assembly, who filter through the online proposals and decide which ones to turn into policies.
A similar platform was developed for the Citizens’ Assembly on abortion in Ireland, which used both online and offline mechanisms. The assembly, which met physically, was tasked with filtering and responding to online submissions, which eventually culminated in the landmark referendum legalising abortion.
President Barack Obama started the Open Government Initiative in 2013, which used citizen ideation to better improve public services. The General Services Administration website, for example, asked 1,000 participants to engage in discussions to improve the usability of the website.
vTaiwan was designed in 2014 as part of a civil-society movement called g0v. It is a neutral platform to engage experts and relevant members of the public in large scale deliberation. The platform facilitates constructive conversation and consensus building between diverse opinion groups. vTaiwan has helped resolve a disagreement between civil-society activists on internet alcohol sales and the ratification of several items on ridesharing regulations.
During the current Covid-19 crisis, the Climate Assembly in the UK has adapted to running entirely online.
There are also several interesting startups in this sector that governments could use and learn from. The Democratic Society provides engagement products like questionnaire apps which are facilitating decision-making across Europe. Pol.is hosts a platform that allows better participation from members of the wider public and uses AI to analyse and produce reports on the findings. mySociety built an open-source tool that creates transcripts and publishes them as searchable data. Citizens.is is an online participatory social network that helps crowdsource ideas for municipal governments.
Lessons From Deliberative Democracy
Deliberative democracy is based on the idea of authentic discussion between citizens to enable informed decision-making, using a representative sample of individuals from the population. It differs from participatory or direct democracy, which is more about breadth. Deliberative democracy involves a smaller, representative group considering certain issues in depth. A key characteristic is thinking critically with a range of perspectives and evidence – the deliberations should be both informed and informative. Deliberative approaches seek to provide informed, meaningful outputs by drawing on collective intelligence.
Digital deliberative democracy can produce an accessible and accountable audit trail to legislation, in a way that cannot be seen in relatively opaque parliamentary processes that are, for the most part, only understood by those who work within it.
Where initiatives have worked the best is where they’ve been run by a multi-disciplinary committee of individuals, including psychologists, subject-matter experts, and policy and technology experts. However, the effectiveness of deliberative democracy can hinge on whether:
It is local, regional or central government running the process
It is issue- or principle-based
It is producing ideas or seeking opinions on pre-existing legislation
Taiwan has used vTaiwan to ensure radical transparency to the policymaking process, to allow citizens to see what has informed certain decisions at every part of the process. This can be considered a major benefit, but not every country has the capacity to align their pre-existing legislative process with a much more publicly open, collaborative forum of legislative scrutinisers.
The UK government’s Innovations in Democracy project was a promising start to what could be a move towards more deliberative democracy in the UK. The Westminster Foundation for Democracy is dedicated to supporting democracy around the world and a part of that is sharing models of a more participatory decision-making process.
Building Effective Digital Government
Technology opens many doors, but it cannot be injected into the policymaking process without matching government capacity to deal with these newfound opportunities. Effective digital democracy means effective digital government.
Open innovation – the flow of innovation and knowledge from external collaborators – can allow for mass collective gathering of expertise in a way that was not possible in the offline world. But open innovation could also produce 30,000 ideas, completely overwhelming the government’s capacity to consider them sufficiently. Implementation and consideration at scale must be possible.
Deliberative mechanisms need to be designed carefully to avoid an avalanche of conflicting ideas that may not be implementable. But governments also need to be agile enough to participate and respond in a way that makes the deliberation process a meaningful contribution to policymaking.
There is a danger that this could undermine the entire process if citizen recommendations end up being ignored without clear justification. Expectations should be clearly set before, during and after the process as to how public input may or may not end up affecting legislation.
The Technology and Public Policy team at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change has written extensively on transforming government for the 21st century, which involves many of the same principles of democratic innovation and can work in complement with more deliberative systems.
Covid-19 has highlighted exactly how impactful government decisions can be on daily life and – irrespective of partisan opinions – has drawn citizens closer to the agency of government. Clearly building new digital democracy systems does not automatically lead to good government or leadership, but breaking down existing power structures through digital technology is an important part of building a well-functioning, information-age state. Governments should take advantage of this momentum in both public attitudes and technological capabilities to transform decision-making for the better.