Virtual Parliaments in Times of Coronavirus: Flattening the Authoritarian Curve?

Since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, legislative bodies around the world have struggled to function. Meanwhile, from Europe, all the way to Australia and Pakistan, calls to ensure that national legislatures continue to operate abound. In the UK, over 100 MPs signed an open letter asking for the creation of a digital parliament to “maintain democratic traditions in accordance with social distancing.” In the US, amidst media concerns of a “sidelined” Congress, dozens of House Democrats sent a letter to their leadership calling for a change in the rules to enable remote voting.

The disruption in legislative work caused by the pandemic has visibly impacted crisis response efforts. For instance, in Canada, the House of Commons delayed for weeks the vote on a critical wage bill, aimed at covering a percentage of employees’ wages so that employers can keep them on the payroll. The key point of contention? Liberals wanted to vote via virtual parliament, while Conservatives asked for in-person participation. 

The functioning of parliaments becomes all the more important as fears of executive overreach are revealed to be founded). Indeed, previous evidence suggests that a pandemic crisis is fertile ground for authoritarian drifts; and chronic abuses are unlikely to stop as the outbreak expands and a growing number of parliaments are unable to work.

Freedom of information for example – particularly relevant during such crises – is under assault. The Global Right to Information Rating shows that since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, countries on multiple continents have altered or lifted their “right to know” legislation. At the same time, a growing number of governments restrict journalistic coverage of the outbreak through threats and detentions.

In a context where traditional forms of collective action and resistance – such as social movements and protests – are constrained by physical distancing, parliaments should be the first line of defense in flattening the authoritarian curve. While innovative models of social activism are certainly emerging, they may not be sufficient to contain authoritarian drifts. To avoid rule of law giving way to rule by decree, parliaments must continue working, even if virtually. 

The Brazilian Virtual House of Representatives

On March 11th, the Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. Six days later, in one of the swiftest parliamentary responses, the Brazilian House of Representatives approved a normative resolution authorizing MPs to vote online and provided guidelines for the launch of a “virtual parliament”. 

The Office of the Clerk and the House’s digital services (Department for Information Technology and Innovation, DITEC) immediately got to work on the technical solutions required by this rule change. The mobile application Infoleg, originally developed to follow up on the work of the House of Representatives, was repurposed to enable MPs’ mobile phones, following authentication protocols, to function as remote devices for registering presence and casting votes. But Infoleg is more than an e-voting app: it integrates most of the information required by an MP to properly navigate parliamentary sessions, including the list of representatives that will discuss a bill, or the pending procedural motions involved in the deliberation of a matter. While MPs use an external videoconferencing system for their interventions during sittings, the critical systems for registering presence and votes are entirely developed and managed by the House’s internal digital services.

On March 25th, eight days after enacting the new Rules of Procedure, the House of Representatives conducted the first online voting in its history. By April 9th ten virtual sessions had been held, with 15 pieces of legislation, six urgency motions and one constitutional amendment passed. Average attendance for these ten virtual sessions was 98.6% (503 out of 513 representatives), far above the in-person average (87.1%). The constitutional amendment, it seems, was the first ever to be approved by a legislative body through online voting. It was also one of the fastest legislative responses to the financial challenges generated by the pandemic – especially important given the delicate fiscal situation of the country.

Explaining the rapid transition

There is no single explanation of why some parliaments are struggling to function, while others are being more reactive. Yet in the case of Brazil, three enabling factors are worth highlighting.

Political response

Strong digital capacity does not guarantee a smooth transition to a virtual modus operandi. Take for instance Estonia, which has one of the most technologically savvy governments in the world and where online voting for elections is old news: as noted by Andy Williamson, Senior Researcher for the Inter Parliamentary Union, existing regulation prohibits remote sitting of the Estonian parliament. In other words, along with digital capacity, the shift to a virtual parliament may in many cases require political leadership to eliminate analog obstacles. In the Brazilian case, this included swift action by the Speaker of the House, who expedited a normative resolution that was rapidly approved by MPs across the political spectrum. This process, however, must be understood in its broader political context. The current relationship between the national Executive and Legislative is notoriously conflictual. It is therefore possible that the rapid response was also a preemptive move by the House to avoid executive overreach and to maintain political relevance during the crisis. Parliaments in similar situations may want to take note. 

Administrative capacity

The importance of the administrative capacity of the Office of the Clerk (the Office) should not be understated. Amassing some of the most qualified civil servants in Brazil, it is the Office that makes political responses technically viable – examining constraints and opportunities and advising the House leadership on the most effective approaches. It should be noted that the adoption of the virtual parliament resolution was facilitated by existing legislation. Passed in October 2019 as a result of a shared vision between the House leadership and the Office of the Clerk, this legislation includes guidelines for a paperless legislative process. 

Digital capacity

Finally, a key enabler of the rapid response by the Brazilian House was the existence of a highly qualified, in-house digital team (DITEC), with the mandate and resources to quickly redesign systems that were already developed , maintained and updated internally (e.g. Infoleg, remote voting for committees). The full implementation of the virtual parliament was by no means a small task, and involved DITEC’s core teams on user experience, cybersecurity, application development, legislative informatics, voting and attendance systems, plenary operation (e.g. video streaming), help desk, and emergency response.

It is worth noting that DITEC’s response builds on a tradition of excellence. The House of Representatives has for over a decade been a trailblazer in digital democracy, illustrated for instance by the 2009 launch of e-Democracia, a collaborative platform to engage citizens and civil society organisations in the lawmaking process. 

In short, digital transformation does not happen overnight, and the House’s timely response to pandemic-related challenges was in part due to in-house capacity built and honed over the years. (Full disclosure, I was an adviser to the e-Democracia program in its early days, when working on my research on digital parliaments).  

(MP connects to virtual session)

Potential effects of virtual parliaments

It is too early to assess the effects of the pandemic on democratic institutions. The same is true for the medium- and long-term effects of legislatures’ transitions to digital environments. But for the Brazilian case, we can hypothesize:

Effects on party politics

The virtualization of parliamentary procedures may lead to further strengthening of party leaders. First, given that MPs are no longer traveling to the capital, the number of in-person meetings, both formal and informal, is drastically reduced. This reinforces the coordination role of party leaders, already an important position in Brazil. Second, with sittings taking place virtually, for practical reasons the ‘floor time’ allocated to MPs is reduced, increasing the visibility of party leaders who also control the floor time allowed for their MPs.

The impact of this increased influence and visibility of party leaders is uncertain. On the one hand, in a multi-party system with 24 parties represented in the House, a strengthening of leaders’ coordination roles may facilitate the management of legislative politics and even enhance House efficiency. On the other hand, it may weaken the position of a considerable contingent of representatives who work somewhat independently, across party lines. This could be particularly problematic for newly elected MPs who benefited from the support of political renewal movements, whose allegiances to party lines are weaker. This effect could be offset, however, by the stronger online presence of these new, often younger MPs who are used to engaging remotely with their constituents.

Effects on media coverage and third party oversight

As in most countries, the media coverage of politics in Brazil is centered in the capital city, with most journalists, offices and support staff based in Brasília. A good part of that infrastructure depends on in-person and informal exchanges between journalists and their sources, through hallway conversations, over coffee, or at social events. Civil society organisations follow a similar pattern, focusing their advocacy and oversight activities where most MPs are found. With a transition to virtual operation, economies of scale in terms of geographic location and in-person interactions are lost.

A potential secondary effect is that the House becomes less subject to scrutiny from the press and organized groups. Some CSO leaders have indeed expressed such concerns over the shift. José Antonio Moroni, leader of a coalition of social movements for political reform lamented to a local media outlet: “[…]  before the MPs circulated in the corridors, and we managed, to a certain extent, to have a dialogue. Now, with this process, we get nothing.” But organisations are reacting quickly, as described by a member of the Education Workers’ Confederation: “We, for instance, already have a list of all the MPs, with e-mail, WhatsApp details, and now we are incentivizing our member organizations not only to maintain their communication with MPs, but actually to intensify the online pressure.”

More digital politics (and fake news) 

As the Brazilian parliament moves to an online environment and physical distancing measures continue to be implemented (with varying degrees of success), we should also expect that more political conversations will take place online. This is not necessarily good news, particularly given that some studies suggest that Brazil is particularly fertile ground for fake news. Add to this a combination of a growing polarization between the branches of government, and the infodemic generated by the current crisis, and you have all the ingredients for accelerating the fake news arms race in the country. As we argued in a recent report, a possible consequence of this arms race is a further and unhealthy shift of the focus of public debates: towards disputes over the authenticity of statements and evidence, reducing the time and energy left to discuss possible actions and solutions to problems. 

Whether these hypotheses are validated or not remains an empirical question. These effects become more probable the longer that parliament is obliged to work remotely – a function of the length of the crisis. 

So what?

For national legislatures like Brazil’s, the hypothetical adverse effects of a virtual parliament are dwarfed by the possibility of undermining the structure of checks and balances. In other words, these potential effects should be weighed against the possibility of a closed parliament. 

The temporary transition to an online environment should also be regarded as an opportunity to explore options for a more open parliament going forward. For example, virtual citizen panels, consisting of randomly selected citizens representing a microcosm of the population, could be convened online to advise on divisive issues including crisis response measures (after all, if parliament can function in a decentralized manner, why not consider the same for a more participatory model of politics?) Such an effort – which would, again, require a political decision by the House leadership – would put the parliament at the forefront of democratic innovations. 

In this respect, from a digital democracy perspective, the Brazilian case is one more example of the prospects and limitations of technology for achieving democratic aspirations. The fact that the House adopted a virtual model is critical at this moment. Yet it does not render the legislative any more transparent, representative or participatory than before. Without reforms, digital practices will always mirror their analog origins, whether good and bad. International organizations, donors and tech enthusiasts should not therefore delude themselves: establishing virtual parliaments will do nothing for national legislatures that suffer from pre-existing conditions or that are already on life support. As some recent events attest, national parliaments themselves can be accomplices in the crossing of democratic lines during the coronavirus response.

From a more technical perspective, democracy scholars and practitioners (myself included), have long been aware of the importance of face-to-face interactions for democratic processes. The limitations of existing solutions for digital replication of these interactions was no secret. What few of us expected, however, was how fast democratic praxis would have to transition to a virtual space in order to maintain basic functioning. This applies not only to legislative procedures but also to democratic innovations such as participatory budgeting and citizens assemblies. Unless one believes this pandemic is a one-off with short-term consequences only, the current context reveals the need to invest time and resources in reducing, at least partially, the dependency of democratic processes on face-to-face interaction. If the question of how to best achieve online participation and deliberation at scale was once a niche area, this is no longer the case. 

On a more futuristic note: could virtual parliaments be an additional source of resilience in the case of unilateral action by any given executive? Consider the case of Estonia’s Digital Embassies program. Based on cloud technology and off-site servers based in Luxembourg, the program aims to ensure the functioning of critical government functions regardless of Estonia’s territorial integrity. Historically, parliaments have been shut down through coercion of parliamentarians and the closure of legislatives’ physical spaces. But what happens if a parliament can work virtually, with MPs geographically dispersed within and outside their territory? Again, it is an empirical question that – one hopes – won’t need to be answered anytime soon.  

Finally, and back to the Brazilian case: as previously mentioned, several countries have altered or lifted their “right to know” legislation during the crisis. The Brazilian President recently enacted a provisional measure temporarily suspending deadlines for answering certain information requests from the public. The Speaker of the House has already announced his intention to reverse the measure in parliament. While the final result is hard to anticipate, one thing is certain: the next battle for the right to information in Brazil will take place online.

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Further reading:

GovLab – CrowdLaw Communiqué: Continuity of Legislatures 

OECD – How can digital tools support deliberation?

Hansard Society – How are parliaments responding to the coronavirus pandemic?

The Inter-Parliamentary Union – Parliaments in a time of pandemic

The Democratic Lottery*

With a newly elected President and the most fragmented Parliament in its history, Brazilian politics are likely headed for gridlock. Lottery could well be the solution.

Tiago Peixoto and Guilherme Lessa

expressobrazil

For many Brazilians who recently cast their ballots to elect a new President, the choice was between the unacceptable and the scandalous. Mr. Bolsonaro, the winning candidate, received 39.3% of votes, while abstentions, null and blank votes accounted for 28.5%. A record 7.4% of votes were null, the largest percentage since Brazil’s transition to democracy in the late 1980’s. Considering that voting is compulsory in Brazil, these figures signal a deep and persistent disbelief in democracy as a means to improve the life of the average citizen. When asked about her preferred candidate at the polling station, it would not be unthinkable for a voter to respond “I’d rather randomly pick any Brazilian to run the country.”

The idea may seem absurd, or a symptom of the ideological schizophrenia that now ravages Brazil, where the two contenders for the highest office were diametrically opposed and their supporters’ main argument was “the other is worse.” Research conducted in the United States indicates that the electorate’s mistrust of their representatives is far from being a Brazilian idiosyncrasy: 43% of American voters state they would trust a group of people randomly selected through a lottery more than they trust elected members of the Executive or Legislative.

Many political scientists view this as a symptom of a global crisis of representation, a growing distance between representatives and the represented, both part of a machine mediated by parties that are disconnected from everyday life and often involved in corruption scandals. While political parties are suffering decreasing membership, political campaigns are increasingly dependent on large donations and mass media campaigns – all of which can be done without the engagement of everyday citizens. The disconnect between citizens and their representatives has driven the international success of candidates who claim to be political outsiders (even if they are not) and private sector meritocrats.

Representative democracy has always suffered from an inherent contradiction: electoral processes do not generate representative results. Think of the teacher who asks her students who wants to be the class representative. Only one or two students raise their hand. To be a representative does not require broad knowledge of the reality of the represented but, rather, an extroverted and sociable personality which, ultimately, lends itself to the role to be played. In the case of elections, the availability of time and money for campaigning, as well as support from the party machinery, are also predicting factors in who gets to run and, most importantly, who gets to win.

The bias generated by electoral processes can take several forms, but is particularly visible in terms of gender, race and income. For instance, despite high turnover in the Brazilian Legislative, the numbers remain disheartening. While half of the population is female, their participation in the House of Representatives stands at a meager 15%. Similarly, 75% of House members identify as white, compared to 44% of the Brazilian population. The mismatch is not unique to Brazil. As reported by Nicholas Carnes in his recent book The Cash Ceiling, in the United States, while millionaires represent only three percent of the American population, they are a majority in Congress. While working-class people make up half of US citizens, they only account for two percent of members of Congress.

The denial of politics as a symptom of this disconnect demonstrates the extent to which inclusiveness in politics matters, bringing about some worrisome consequences. Heroic exceptions aside, the election of new representatives generally fails to alter the propensity of the electoral machine to reproduce its own logic. The Brazilian electoral system, like that of other modern democracies, continues to produce legislative bodies that fail to represent the diversity of their electorate. Changing politicians does not necessarily imply changing politics.

Fixing this imbalance between the electorate and the elected is a complex matter with which many scholars of democracy have grappled. An increasingly popular proposal among political scientists is the use of lottery as a complementary means to select Legislative representatives. Proponents of this approach describe several advantages, of which three are worth highlighting. First, a body of representatives selected by lottery would be more representative of the population as a whole, resulting in agendas and policies that are more closely aligned with societal concerns. Second, the influence of money in campaigning – a constant source of scandal and corruption – would be eliminated. Finally, and in line with well-established research in the field of decision-making, a more diverse legislative body would be collectively smarter, generating decisions that could maximize the public good.

But how would this work in practice?

“Let’s hold a lottery!”, says the spokesperson for today’s miracle solution. Lottery, after all, does have its precedents in democracy’s formative history. For over a century in classical Athens, randomly selected citizens were responsible for important advances in legislation and public policy. Similarly, at its height, the Republic of Florence used lottery to allocate some of the most important positions in the Executive, Legislative and Judiciary. Today, several countries use juries composed of randomly selected citizens as a means to ensure impartiality and efficacy within the Judiciary.    

Globally, we see hundreds of inspiring experiences in which randomly selected citizens deliberate on issues of public interest: in Ireland and Mongolia to guide constitutional reforms; in Canada to inform changes in electoral legislation; in Australia to develop public budgets; and in the United States to support citizens’ legislative initiatives.

Naturally, such a complex and somewhat unexpected proposal brings about a challenging question: how can it be implemented in a way that results in a more representative Legislative? Changing the rules of the game, as we all know, is not a trivial task. Political reform, even if thoroughly thought through, still depends on the approval of those who benefit the most from the status quo.   

The proponents of lottery selection rarely advocate for the direct substitution of members of parliament by randomly selected citizens. Pragmatically, they usually call for the implementation of intermediary strategies, such as the use of citizens’ panels as complementary decision-making processes.

So why not try it?

It is an established fact that Mr. Bolsonaro will be faced with one of the most fragmented congresses in Brazilian history. While his initial popularity may allow the president-elect to pass reforms in the first few months of his mandate, decision paralysis and political gridlock seem inevitable in years to come.What risk, then, would a panel of randomly selected citizens with a voice and a vote in congressional committees dealing with specific policies such as environment and education pose? Like a jury, such a panel would dedicate its time to understanding the facts relating to the subject at hand, listen to different positions, formulate amendments and potentially cast votes on the most divisive issues. It would represent a microcosm of Brazilian public opinion in an environment that is informed, egalitarian and civilized. Although unlikely, such a reform could be the first step towards strengthening the (increasingly weak) link between representatives and the represented.

*Article translated and adapted from original, published in Revista E, ed. 2400, October 2018.

New Book on Open Parliaments

Brazilian House of Representatives

Cristiano Faria’s book on Open Parliaments has finally been translated from its original Portuguese to English. There are many reasons to read Cristiano’s piece, one of them being the scarcity of literature dealing with the usage of ICT by the legislative branch. I was honoured to be invited to write the preface to this book, in which I list a few other reasons why I think this book is very worthwhile reading. I have reproduced the preface below, with the addition of some hyperlinks.

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Towards the end of the 18th Century, not long after the French Revolution, engineer Claude Chappe invented the optical telegraph. Also known as the Napoleonic Telegraph, this technological innovation enabled the transmission of messages over great distances at unprecedented speeds for its time. This novelty did not go unnoticed by the intellectuals of the period: the possibility of establishing a telegraph network that could connect individuals at high speed and lowered costs was seen as a unique opportunity for direct democracy to flourish.

The difficulties associated with direct democracy, so eloquently expressed by Rousseau just a few years earlier, no longer seemed relevant: simply opening the code used by the telegraph operators would suffice for a whirlpool of ideas to flow between citizens and government, bringing a new era of participatory decision-making. Events, however, took a different turn, and as time went by the enthusiasm for a democratic renewal faded away.

In the course of the centuries that followed, similar stories abounded. The emergence of each new ICT gave rise to a period of enthusiasm surrounding a renewal in politics and government, only to be followed by bitter disillusionment. While the causes of these historical experiences are multiple, it is safe to say that the failure of these technologies to deliver their much-heralded potential is underscored by a lack of understanding of the role of political institutions. These institutions are, inexorably, sources of obstacles and challenges that go beyond the reach of technological solutions.

Indeed, one could argue that despite the historical evidence, even today a certain amount of ingenuity permeates the majority of academic works in the domain of electronic democracy and open government, overestimating technological innovation and neglecting the role of institutions, actors, and their respective strategies.

Not falling prey to the techno-determinist temptation but rather carrying out an analysis grounded in institutions, organizational processes and actors’ strategies, is one of the many strengths of Cristiano Faria’s work. His experience as a civil servant in the Brazilian House of Representatives and his academic rigour bring together qualities that are rarely combined in the literature about the public sector. The result is a work that offers an unusual vision, taking into account a wide range of factors involved in processes of technological enactment and institutional innovation.

While underpinning the book as a whole, this encompassing perspective is most prominent in Chapters 4 and 5, in the case studies on the experiences from Brazil (e-Democracy) and Chile (Virtual Senator). Motivating factors, constraints, and institutional and organizational arrangements are brought to light. The reader encounters elements and processes that often go unperceived by even the most attentive observers and experienced academics.

For instance, while analysing the Brazilian case, Cristiano underscores the essential role played by legislative consultants in channelling citizens’ input into the formal decision-making processes of the House of Representatives. Only an individual who is viscerally familiar with the functioning of the public institutions in question is capable of such an insight – one of many throughout the book.

Even for this reason alone, this work is of inestimable value to the Brazilian and international literature in the fields of electronic democracy and open government. Numerous other characteristics, however, further add to its worth for researchers, politicians, civil servants and ordinary citizens with an interest in these subjects.

The object of study is relevant in itself. There is a disproportionate shortage of literature about the role of technologies with regard to the legislative branch. An incomplete understanding of how public institutions operate and interact among themselves has led an increasing number of academics and observers to focus their attention on the executive branch. Furthermore, in the limited literature that is available about the use of technologies by the legislative, the majority of studies are disappointingly superficial or excessively descriptive.

Cristiano’s text, although rich in detail, never loses sight of the major theoretical and normative perspectives that inform the state of the art in the electronic democracy debate. The literature that guides this piece is impeccable. This is a text that brings the reader into contact with the main theories and arguments relating to issues of transparency, participation, actors’ strategies, and processes of institutional and technological innovation.

Lastly, by presenting cases ranging from New Zealand to the Catalan Parliaments, this book has the inestimable worth of being a historical record, immune to temporal and technological changes. Cristiano Faria captures the state of the art in electronic democracy experiences in the legislative at the beginning of the 21st century. To ensure that the destiny of these experiences differs from that of the Napoleonic Telegraph, a realistic and perspicacious reflection is necessary, to which this book makes its contribution.

Trust and Political Information: Attitudinal Change in Participants in the Youth Parliament in Brazil

 

This article analyses the impact of socializing experiences on the political attitudes of youngsters. More specifically, our goal is to evaluate the impact of the Youth Parliament program on youngsters’ confidence levels in the Minas Gerais State Assembly (MGSA). The analysis focuses on the cognitive foundations of attitudes and results show a substantial increase in confidence levels in MGSA, an increase associated with the acquisition of information on the institution. It is asserted that the increase in confidence in MGSA represents and attitudinal “gain”. The study design involves quasi-experimental research on a non-random sample. We conducted two rounds of interviews in 2008, prior and subsequent to the program, with 335 participants (167 in the treatment group; and 168 in the control group).

By Mario Fuks, Gabriel Avila Casalecchi, Brazilian Political Science Review, Vol 6, No 1 (2012)