The Challenge of Cyber-Parliaments and Statutory Virtual Assemblies
- / -
Published in a different form under the title Challenge of Cyber-Parliaments
(Agenda: News and views on sustainable development in Scotland, 1998, 3,
The purpose of this note is to indicate a number of lines of investigation
relating to the opportunity of information technology to support the work
of statutory bodies. There is no lack of studies on electronic meetings,
groupware and electronic democracy -- since the explosive development of
the Internet (and especially with respect to it). However relatively little
has been explored in relation to the special constraints of statutory bodies,
the relationship to their respective secretariats and infrastructures,
and their possible "openness" to advocacy groups and citizens in general.
These statutory concerns are also distinct from the different "electronic democracy"
initiatives to establish democratic assemblies involving extensive citizen participation
-- which tend to be relatively unconcerned by the challenges of the relationship
to established processes of governance and debate in parliaments and their associated
In what follows, little attention will be paid to the technology or the software
since these have been developed to a point where it is their application to
statutory meetings that must first be considered. Adaptations and extensions
of the technology can later be explored within a broader framework.
||Constraints on effective
functioning of conventional statutory assemblies
||Opportunity of virtual
||A conventional physical parliament or assembly
building engenders a number of communication constraints through the processes
it entails. These include:
||It is clear that by their very nature electronic
exchanges can reframe many of the constraints noted above, especially in
the case of written exchanges. Whilst these opportunities are briefly summarized
in what immediately follows, the principal issue is how to marry the physical
and electronic approaches to democratic assembly. This is dealt with in
a subsequent section.
|Movement of representatives
to and from their constituencies:
||This movement ensures that when they are gathered
together they are absent from their constituencies. When they are in their
constituencies they cannot interact with one another effectively. Transportation
can be a major source of stress and expenditure, notably when in severe
conditions of weather or in the event of transportation crises. The need
for this movement penalizes those representatives in the most distant locations.
||Clearly such movement becomes unnecessary in
many cases. Representatives can work from their constituencies (in all weathers).
A wider range of qualified representatives may therefore be willing to work
in this capacity.
||As has been demonstrated in many cases, locating
a physical parliament in a particular city can be cause for major tensions
within a country. These are due to the recognition of the unfair advantages
which accrue to the host city and region. Some countries have even chosen
to build special capital cities to avoid this problem.
||Participants in an electronic assembly may well
be completely unaware of the exact physical location of the computer(s)
maintaining the communications. This obviously avoids regional tensions
|Time constraints on
||A major consideration in the working of an
assembly is the effective use of time. Bringing people together is itself
a challenge. Ensuring that a sequence of agenda items is processed over
a limited period of time is a major challenge. The immediate consequence
is the items are prioritized and low priority items gets postponed to some
later date -- often preventing immediate alleviation of some issue of concern
to a minority group. Much business which ought to be done is simply postponed.
||Because agendas are not tied to physical assembly
(and their resource "slots" and "windows"), they can be made much more flexible.
Sessions on a particular topic, notably in task forces, can be extended
over many days to allow for sporadic, considered contributions. Minority
business can be handled.
||A challenge for assemblies is to ensure that
representatives are present to establish a quorum or to maintain a (government)
majority in any vote. Representatives also need to be seen to be present
in order to maintain the image of appropriate attention to the Fbusiness"
of the assembly. Notably because of the previous points, representatives
readily de-prioritize their involvement in assemblies in the interest of
external business -- possibly back in their constituencies. They perceive
their time to be wasted by attendance at many sessions.
||This no longer becomes an issue. Representatives
can be "absent" without necessarily undermining their capacity to contribute
at times that suit them best -- and when they may function best. It should
not be forgotten that people do not all function optimally at the time of
day at which an agenda item can be discussed in a physical assembly. People
||The amount of time that any one representative
can intervene in a democratic conventional assembly is severely constrained
in direct relation to the number of participants and the time over which
they meet. The representative of a constituency has relatively little time
to make known the views of his/her constituency. This directly undermines
the spirit of the democratic process. Observers of the process, notably
citizens, then feel justified in the sense that they are poorly represented.
(It is somewhat pathetic to see representatives in the British House of
Parliament repeatedly leaping to their feet at the end of any speech to
indicate their desire to speak in what amounts to a competition for the
attention of the Speaker.)
||Artificial constraints on the period in which
a representative can present the case of his/her constituency are lifted.
Representatives may well be advised to intervene briefly in an electronic
exchange, referring to more extensive presentations to which those interested
can immediately have electronic access. There is no pressure to "read" such
lengthy material "into the record".
||Because of the nature of the physical space
in which an assembly meets, it is often virtually impossible for particular
representatives to exchange views on a matter under discussion without leaving
the room. They may exchange notes in a manner reminiscent of children in
class. The dynamics of the assembly are therefore constrained and may have
to be interrupted so that factions can consult and reformulate their positions.
Delays are therefore built into the work of the assembly.
||The nature of the medium allows full flexibility
of exchange between representatives in parallel with "plenary" exchanges.
Such parallel exchanges may be bilateral or extended to factions. Electronic
exchange avoids some of the challenges of face-to-face interaction between
people of different backgrounds, ages, cultures and genders.
|Manipulation of dynamics:
||The previous factors engender a variety of manipulative
responses by assembly leaders that may guarantee a measure of efficiency
but may also be seen as undermining due democratic process. Representatives
may trade speaking time and (covert) support. Strong factions may block
interventions by weaker minorities. Skills are developed in manipulation
of the agenda. Whilst these may be labelled as essential to the "rough and
tumble" of parliamentary life, they inspire little confidence in the process
as seen by outsiders.
||Opportunities for "manipulation", associated
with parliamentary skills and experience, are not eliminated in an electronic
environment. But the blatant manipulation of time, speakers and agendas
in a physical environment are removed.
|Constraints on statutory
||Specialized committees, commissions and task
forces provide arenas in which much parliamentary work gets done. These
are also a major drain on the time of a representative -- especially when
they are "duty posts". The scheduling of such sessions can be a nightmare
in order to avoid unfortunate clashes, especially when room space is a problem.
Regrettable compromises have to be made that detract from the effectiveness
of work in one or more such bodies.
|| Because of the parallelism that is possible,
the work of such bodies may be extended over a longer period to ensure participation
by a wider range of representatives. The quality and quantity of work of
such bodies should therefore improve. More such bodies can be created, some
of which may be characterized by a much lower rhythm of work on minority
issues otherwise considered to be of "low priority".
to supporting infrastructure:
||The design of assembly buildings, and the physical
distance from the offices of advisers and support staff, make communications
spasmodic at best -- and often limited to matters of urgency. Representatives
may only have access to totally inadequate, or inappropriate office space.
Again some are privileged over others, because of seniority, further undermining
the principle of equality in democratic process.
||Relations with advisors and staff can be integrated
much more smoothly, at the convenience of all parties.
to advocacy groups:
||Decision-making assemblies are the focus
of many advocacy groups and lobbyists. The privileged acquire degrees of
access unavailable to the majority -- again raising issues of the application
of democratic principle. If the advocacy groups are of distant regional
origin their presence may have to take the form of occasional (unseemly)
demonstrations, in order for them to be heard or "recognized".
||The views of a far wider network of advocacy
groups can be considered more flexibly. There is less pressure on lobbyists
to gain face-to-face access. Representatives are free to give appropriate
attention to an argument without having to spend extensive time in unnecessary
background meetings and public relations.
to constituencies and wider publics:
||There are increasing calls for the transparency
of democratic processes. However, efforts to provide television coverage
are easily converted into shows in which camera movement is carefully constrained
to prevent recognition of the level of absenteeism or (unseemly) behaviour
by (dormant) representatives. It can be an inappropriate use of a television
channel. Reporting can be superficial and tokenistic, as in "fireside chats".
||As with advocacy groups, the opportunities for
the flexible "opening" (or closing) of statutory meetings to outsiders are
much increased. It is easy to allow for large numbers of "observers" who
may be permitted to read interventions immediately after they are submitted
(or with varying degrees of delay). Such observers may then be free to comment
electronically to their representatives. Some advocacy groups or authorized
bodies may even submit comments that, after consideration, may be accepted
into the record. Many levels of "incorporation into the record" may be used
-- by grading comments on varying degrees from "authorized", through "valuable",
|Recording debates and
||The cost of recording debates can be exorbitant,
especially where more than one language can legitimately be used if representatives
are to truly be seen to reflect the views and culture of their constituencies.
Compromises are therefore made. Debates go unrecorded. Valid perspectives
are lost. Minority cultures feel alienated.
||Debate is necessarily recorded, given the nature
of the process. This record lends itself more readily to translation into
other languages -- at a significantly lower cost than simultaneous translation.
|Integration into external
||Increasingly statutory bodies find themselves
integrated into a network of bodies with related concerns, whether in other
countries or with supranational preoccupations. Some representatives may
be required to attend such bodies in person in some capacity. As a further
call upon their time, the compromises made may reduce the effectiveness
of all such bodies. Such physical presence provides little guarantee of
effective follow-up or of appropriate reporting back to those not physically
|| Increasingly statutory bodies with distinct
responsibilities, whether in other countries or at the supranational level,
will be able to integrate their information to some degree. This should
lead to smoother functioning and greater involvement of bodies from different
levels at lower costs.
Reservations requiring new investigation and procedures
It is important to beware of the kind of enthusiasms for electronic communication
that obscures consideration of some very real issues that it would be totally
inappropriate to ignore. These all call for investigation, and even continuous
monitoring, if experimental or hybrid implementation is envisaged.
- Legal challenge: Electronic voting in parliaments raised legal issues,
as did the transfer of corporate financial accounting from "books" to electronic
media. Little attention has been given to the legal issues of electronic voting
in statutory bodies meeting "virtually". The electronic environment also allows
for more complex weighted voting methods, requiring computer assistance, whose
legal basis needs clarification.
- Security challenge: Electronic technology opens many opportunities
for surveillance, espionage and malicious intervention (hackers, viruses,
etc.). These are already being confronted in relation to commercial transactions.
The use of encryption raises a number of issues. Some of these issues are
already being confronted in the case of cellular phones by representatives.
- Overload: Increasingly people are exposed to excessive quantities
of electronic messages -- the electronic equivalent of junk mail. Those with
some experience are already adopting a range of techniques to deal with this.
Representatives are already a prime target for postal communications. New
techniques would be required to deal with the electronic variant ("spamming",
etc.) if simplistic closure is not to create further obstacles to democratic
processes and lack of transparency.
- Expectations: The ability of constituency members to message directly
their representative will raise expectations concerning the quality of any
response. Clearly the electronic environment offers the possibility of "personalizing"
responses to a relatively high degree, not only by name but in relation to
the substantive issues raised. Both the incoming message and the response
can be forwarded on to relevant parts of a bureaucracy, possibly automatically
(with the assistance of "intelligent agents"). People and groups can be automatically
placed on specialized mailing lists or allocated to listservers for continuing
discussion. The distinction between feasible, cynical, token responses and
genuine, resource-intensive responses to feedback needs to be explored.
- "Consultation": Just as the representative can receive communications
from constituents, she/he will be able to "consult" with constituents by electronic
means. Whether this involves use of website forms or direct messaging to constituents,
the overload challenge for those so consulted needs to be carefully thought
through. Such procedures could easily be perceived as excessive (as is sometimes
the case with referenda in Switzerland) or become deliberately abusive as
a vengeful response to demands for "more consultation".
- Context: The electronic environment offers a much wider range of
possibilities for presenting the activities of government in new and more
comprehensible ways. Conventionally both issues, and the policies to deal
with them, are separated and difficult to set within any meaningful context.
This leads to a crisis management ("fire-fighting") mentality in response
to supposedly unrelated issues. The many experiments underway to configure
wide ranges of messages and documents so that they can be more effectively
"navigated" should benefit the operations of assemblies and the credibility
of those operations in the eyes of their constituencies -- if the latter have
access to such visualizations of the preoccupations and initiatives of government.
People, and their representatives, can be offered a variety of tools reflecting
different degrees of sophistication and ongoing experimentation on information
- Dynamics: A clearer understanding is required of the skills which
make a parliamentary assembly work. When is "manipulation" a necessary characteristic
of governance that depends on the ability to handle time, agenda and speakers
"creatively" using the very constraints of a face-to-face setting? When does
this become dysfunctional in terms of due democratic process?
- Face-to-face: Electronic media enthusiasts, and those developing
the technology, readily plead for complete substitution of face-to-face encounters.
It is important to recognize that many value face-to-face encounters for a
variety of subtle reasons. How these reasons relate to the effectiveness of
statutory bodies remains to be explored. Clearly some of these will be spurious,
especially if a person derives advantage from rhetorical skills and demeanor
over others who may be challenged in a variety of ways. Other reasons will
touch validly on the importance of encountering a "warm body" behind detached
arguments. Such arguments may appeal differently to people of different cultures,
backgrounds or personality types. The question is how to distinguish between
occasions when face-to-face is advantageous for democratic due process and
those in which it is highly manipulative of that process to the advantage
of some. There are analogous arguments for and against electronic communication.
Some seek a compromise in video-conferencing -- despite the fact that this
requires simultaneity, thus undermining a significant number of advantages
- Symbolic factors: Clearly there sensitive symbolic issues associated
with the "pomp and ceremony" of a physical face-to-face assembly. But again,
just at what point do valid arguments in support of this obscure the manner
in which it undermines possibilities for more democratic process?
Hybrid assemblies: compromising between face-to-face and virtual assemblies
Clearly the way forward needs to take the form of some kind of compromise
between the extremes of "face-to-face only" and "virtual only" forms of
The nature of this hybrid needs to be determined by trial and error.
Some face-to-face sessions can certainly be shifted to virtual encounters.
Guidelines and rules may be developed to assist in this. There should clearly
be no excuse of "not-enough-time" to handle certain issues important to
minorities -- when these can be debated electronically if representatives
have time from issues that need to be debated face-to-face. Some virtual
encounters may need to take face-to-face form at particular points in their
work. The characteristics of these switch-over points need to be discovered.
Spurious excuses for restricting public access need to be carefully
explored when virtual opportunities abound. On the other hand technological
innovation will almost certainly be required to counteract the opportunities
for abuse that will be created.
It will be important to avoid any form of dysfunctional separation between
face-to-face and virtual encounters. The boundaries should be kept flexible.
Those unfamiliar with one or other should have access to assistance --
of which there is a lot of experience in electronic communications.
A pattern of alternation between one or other form could be explored.
Perhaps one-in-three in virtual form initially. There is also the possibility
of holding face-to-face and electronic debates simultaneously, with one
feeding into the other. In complex modern societies, there is a lot to
be said for the notion that the virtual form is permanently "in session"
rather than the present pattern of extensive vacations to enable representatives
to deal with constituency business. This after all reflects the pattern
of activity of the financial markets on which the economic survival of
many countries depends.
A variable hybrid form allows all parties to learn of the advantages
and constraints of the alternatives. It provides for the possibility of
moving from "primarily face-to-face" to "primarily virtual", as and when
this proves appropriate. But for this variability to be possible, provisions
for it must be made right from the start.
Clearly those faced with the opportunity of such explorations will have considerable
advantage over societies encumbered by entrenched patterns of face-to-face communications
that are frequently demonstrated to be dysfunctional.
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