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April 1998

The Challenge of Cyber-Parliaments and Statutory Virtual Assemblies

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Published in a different form under the title Challenge of Cyber-Parliaments (Agenda: News and views on sustainable development in Scotland, 1998, 3, pp 10-12)


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 bodies.

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 assembly
  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.
Privileging particular locations: 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 and jealousies.
Time constraints on agendas: 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.
Absenteeism: 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 get tired.
Speaking time: 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".
Constrained relations between representatives: 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 committees: 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".
Constrained relations 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.
Constrained relations 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.
Constrained 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", to "unsolicited".
Recording debates and language issues: 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 networks: 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 present. 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.

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 statutory assembly.

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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