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

DemocracySpot’s Most Read Posts in 2014

Glasses for reading (1936) – Nationaal Archief

(I should have posted this on the 31st, but better late than never)

Below are some of the most read posts in 2014. While I’m at it, I’ll take the opportunity to explain the reduced number of posts in the last few months. Since mid-2014 I have been working with a small team of political and data scientists on a number of research questions at the intersection of technology and citizen engagement (I presented a few preliminary findings here). Following the period of field work, data collection and experiments, we have now started the drafting and peer-review stage of our research. This has been an extremely time-consuming process, which has taken up most of my weekends, when I generally write for this blog.

Still, one of my new year’s resolutions is precisely to better discipline myself to post more regularly. And I am hopeful that the publication of our upcoming research will make up for the recent reduction in posts. We will start to disseminate our results soon, so stay tuned.

In the meantime, here’s a selection of the five most read posts in 2014.

The Problem with Theory of Change

Technology and Citizen Engagement: Friend or Foe? 

A Brilliant Story of Participation, Technology and Development Outcomes

When Citizen Engagement Saves Lives (and what we can learn from it) 

Social Accountability: What Does the Evidence Really Say?

13 Citizen Engagement Stories from Around the World

Orçamento Participativo 2015/2016 é aberto na região Leste
The Journal of Field Actions, together with Civicus, has just published a special issue “Stories of Innovative Democracy at the Local Level: Enhancing Participation, Activism and Social Change Across the World.” When put together, the 13 articles provide a lively illustration of the wealth of democratic innovations taking place around the world.

Has Democratization Reduced Infant Mortality in Sub-Saharan Africa?

Evidence suggests it has. Excerpts from paper by Masayuki Kudamatsu:

Does democracy promote development? Despite a large number of empirical studies of this question, the evidence remains inconclusive since it is difficult to establish causality running from democracy to development: democracy is likely to be endogenous to socio-economic factors that also affect development (Lipset 1959). As democracy at the national level is clearly not randomly assigned across countries, the empirical challenge is to disentangle the effect of democracy from other confounding factors to the largest possible extent. This paper revisits this question in the context of human development in sub-Saharan Africa. Specifically, I investigate whether the democratization sweeping the region in the 1990s has reduced infant mortality.

(…)

My findings are as follows. After democratization in sub-Saharan Africa since 1990, infant mortality drops by 1.2 percentage points (12% of the sample mean). This result is robust to controlling for country-specific linear trends in the birth year of babies, country-specific birth-order dummies, country-specific quadratic trends in the mother’s age at birth, and country-level covariates such as per capita GDP, the incidence of wars, and the amount of foreign aid. Except for a couple of outlying cases, there is no such reduction in infant mortality in countries where the dictator holds multiparty elections and stays in power by winning them or where leadership change takes place in a nondemocratic way.

Kudamatsu, M. (2012). Has Democratization Reduced Infant Mortality in Sub-Saharan Africa? Evidence from Micro Data. Journal of the European Economic Association10(6), 1294-1317. [PDF] 

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Also read:

Does Democracy Improve the Quality of Life for its Citizens? 

Open Government and Democracy

Why ‘I-Paid-A-Bribe’ Worked in India but Failed in China

source: China Daily

Interesting paper by Yuen Yuen Ang, Political Scientist at the University of Michigan:

Authoritarian states restrain online activism not only through repression and censorship, but also by indirectly weakening the ability of netizens to self-govern and constructively engage the state. I demonstrate this argument by comparing I-Paid-A-Bribe (IPAB) — a crowd-sourcing platform that collects anonymous reports of petty bribery — in India and China. Whereas IPAB originated and has thrived in India, a copycat effort in China fizzled out within months. Contrary to those who attribute China’s failed outcome to repression, I find that even before authorities shut down IPAB, the sites were already plagued by internal organizational problems that were comparatively absent in India. The study tempers expectations about the revolutionary effects of new media in mobilizing contention and checking corruption in the absence of a strong civil society.

And a brief video with Yuen Yuen

Also read

I Paid a Bribe. So What? 

Open Government and Democracy

The Effects of Participatory Budgeting on Infant Mortality in Brazil

picture by Blog do Mílton Jung on Flickr

Adding pieces of evidence to the ROI of citizen participation. Highlights are mine:

Participatory budgeting, via which the common citizen is given the ability to interact with the elected politicians in the drafting of the local budget, became a popular political reform in Brazilian municipalities in the 1990s and attracted widespread attention across the world. This paper investigates whether the use of participatory budgeting in Brazilian municipalities in the period 1991-2004 has affected the pattern of municipal expenditures and had any measurable impact on living conditions. I show that the municipalities that made use of this participatory mechanism favoured an allocation of public expenditures that closely matched the ìpopular preferences and channeled a larger fraction of their total budget to key investments in sanitation and health services. I also found that this change in the composition of municipal expenditures is associated with a pronounced reduction in the infant mortality rates for municipalities which adopted participatory budgeting. This suggests that promoting a more direct interaction between service users and elected officials in budgetary design and implementation can affect both how local resources are spent and associated living standard outcomes.

You can read the full paper here [PDF].

Update:  The paper has been published in the World Development Journal. You can read the final version here [PDF].

Podcasts – Democracy and Resistance

Podcasts of the “Democracy and Resistance” conference, held last June, are available here. A good start in my opinion are the podcasts of Jane Mansbridge and Yves Sintomer .

Below, the list of podcasts. (Hat tip ABC Democracy)

Introduction: Regina Kreide
podcast

Democracy in Crisis?

Hartmut Rosa: The Politics of Speed and the Loss of Resonance: How Social Acceleration Causes Democratic Alienation

Hauke Brunkhorst: Crisis of Democracy in Europe

Jodi Dean: Occupy Wall Street: Claiming Division

Costas Douzinas: Athens Revolting: Disobedience and Resistance in the Crisis

Forms of Resistance

Chris Thornhill: Revolutionary Constituent Power and the Transnational Constitutional Order

Rada Ivekovic: Sovereignty, Resistance, Citizenship and Subjectivation in a New Context

Robin Celikates: Civil Disobedience and the Question of Violence

Banu Bargu: Biopolitics and Human Shields

Gertrud Koch: Mass and/as Medium

Juliane Rebentisch: Theatrocracy: The Scene of Democratic Sovereignty

Democracy Revisited

Andreas Niederberger: Participation Reconsidered: Constellational Citizenship and the Plurality of Means and Forms of Democratic Participation

Andreas Kalyvas: Radical Democracy and Constituent Power

Yves Sintomer: Citizen Participation – A Response to the Global Crisis?

Oliver Marchart: Democratic Protest and Its Discontents

Jane Mansbridge: Resisting Resistance

Has Democratization Reduced Infant Mortality in Sub-Saharan Africa?

picture by Teseum on flickr.

Masayuki Kudamatsu (2006)

Does democracy help babies survive in sub-Saharan Africa? By using retrospective fertility surveys conducted in 28 African countries, I compare the survival of infants born to the same mother before and after democratization to identify the effect of democracy. In measuring democracy, I adopt a theoretically motivated definition of democracy: universal suffrage and contested elections for executive office. I find that infant mortality falls by 1.8 percentage points, 18 percent of the sample mean, after democratization. The size of the reduction is larger for babies born to mothers from disadvantaged groups. I also find that the replacement of a chief executive by democratization is the driving force behind these results. Additional evidence suggests that improvements in public health service delivery, not an increase in affluence, are the key mechanism in which democratization has reduced infant mortality.

Download [PDF] here. 

Pippa Norris – Making Democratic Governance Work

Here’s something new by Pippa Norris. Definitely worth reading

“Making Democratic Governance Work : How Regimes Shape Prosperity, Welfare, and Peace”

This book focuses on three core questions. Is democratic governance good for economic prosperity? Has this type of regime accelerated progress toward achieving the Millennium Development Goals, social welfare, and human development? Does it generate a peace-dividend and reduce conflict at home? Despite the importance of understanding these questions and the vast research literature generated, remarkably little consensus has emerged about any of these issues. Within the international community, democracy and governance are widely advocated as intrinsically desirable and important goals. Nevertheless, alternative schools of thought continue to dispute their consequences – and thus the most effective strategy for achieving a range of critical developmental objectives. Some believe that human development is largely determined by structural conditions in each society, such as geographic location, natural resources, and the reservoir of human capital, so that regimes have minimal impact. Others advocate promoting democracy to insure that leaders are responsive to social needs and accountable to citizens for achieving better schools, clinics, and wages. Yet others counter that governance capacity is essential for delivering basic public services, and state-building is essential in post-conflict reconstruction prior to holding elections. This book advances the argument that both liberal democracy and state capacity need to be strengthened in parallel to ensure effective development, within the constraints posed by structural conditions. Liberal democracy allows citizens to express their demands, to hold public officials to account, and to rid themselves of incompetent, corrupt, or ineffective leaders. Yet rising public demands that cannot be met by the state are a recipe for frustration, generating disillusionment with incumbent officeholders, or, if discontent spreads to becomes more diffuse, with the way that the regime works, or even ultimately with the promise of liberal democracy ideals. Thus governance capacity is also predicted to play a vital role in advancing human security, so that states have the capacity to respond effectively to citizen’s demands. The argument is demonstrated using systematic evidence gathered from countries worldwide during recent decades and selected cases illustrating the effects of regime change on development.

You can order the book here. 

Democracy, Redistribution and Equality

Via ABCDemocracy I came across this great article in the Brazilian Political Science Review by Adam Przeworski, one of the most important political scientists in the field of democracy and political economy. Here is the abstract of Przeworski’s paper Democracy, Redistribution and Equality: 

The article argues that economic inequality inevitably generates political inequality, which in turn reproduces economic inequality. Basic concepts are introduced first along with strong caveats concerning the quality of the cross- national data on income distributions; historical patterns of income inequality are summarized next, and with these preliminaries, a distinction is made between redistribution of consumption at a particular time and equalization of income earning capacities over time. Following this economic considerations, the article discussion moves to political factors that may block redistributions.

And for those working in the field of open government, money and politics; here are some interesting thoughts:

The impact of money on politics cannot be reduced to “corruption.” True, corruption scandals abound: suitcases filled in cash are found in the prime minister’s office, government contracts are awarded to firms co-owned by government ministers, public officials exit politics to cushy jobs in private companies they favored, insider trades are rampant, political parties are found to have bank accounts in Switzerland, local governments operate systematic bribe schedules on contractors, the list goes on and on. Moreover, such scandals are by no means limited to less developed countries or to young democracies: these examples are drawn from Germany, Spain, France, Italy, United States, and Belgium. But reducing the political role of money to instances of “corruption” is deeply misleading. Conceptualized as “corruption,” the influence of money becomes something anomalous, out-of-ordinary. We are told that when special interests bribe legislators or bureaucrats, democracy is corrupted. And then nothing needs to be said when special interests make legal political contributions. In order to exist and to participate in elections, political parties need money. Because election results matter for the private interests, they understandably seek to befriend parties and influence results of elections. The logic of political competition is inexorable. That the same acts are legal in some countries and illegal in other systems – some U.S. political financing practices would constitute corruption in several democracies – is in the end of secondary importance. The influence of money on politics is a structural feature of democracy in economically unequal societies.

(…)

The relation between money and politics can be to some extent mitigated so that the impact of economic inequality on political inequality varies across countries. Various regulatory schemes have been proposed and various are in use but we have no systematic knowledge of their effects. Perhaps instead of legal regulation, more effective are mechanisms by which poor people can pool their resources in order to counterbalance the influence of the rich. Unions provided this mechanism in the past and still do in some countries: income inequality is lower in countries which continue to have encompassing unions (Scheve and Stasavage 2009)22 Non-governmental organizations now play some of this role and, as the 2008 Obama campaign has shown, perhaps the internet will provide an alternative mechanism. But perfect political equality is impossible in economically unequal societies. Something is wrong when a plurality of citizens in a democracy answer the question about which institutions have most power in their country with “banks.23 Perhaps the most plausible explanation of the persistence of inequality is the feedback from political to economic inequality. High economic inequality generates high political inequality, disproportionate political influence of the rich perpetuates the inequality.

Definitely worth reading.