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Parliaments and ICT: engaging with information society

AGORA moderator's picture

ICT at the core of Information Society

Sufficient, accurate and timely information lies at the hub of any society’s development. Information communication technologies (ICT) have made the transfer of information faster, easier, cheaper and more global than ever, transforming the landscape of sustainable economic, social and technical development, and global integration.  On a national level, the use of ICT traverses socio-economic and cultural life of the general population. Advanced democracies or democracies of a high quality are nowadays also known as “knowledge democracies”.

The achievement of an equitable information society and knowledge economy is possible through ICT. In today’s modern world, information technologies are seen as one key driver for improving the development prospects of countries. Playing an increasingly important role in finding local solutions to global problems, the improvement of education, the battle against climate change and even the progress on gender equality, properly deployed and available technologies will be critical to the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals.

 

ICT is the most powerful new tool we have for solving the world’s major challenges—ending poverty and hunger, ensuring universal access to basic services, and making the transition to a low-carbon economy. Past generations were empowered by steam engines, the telegraph, automobiles, aviation and mass communications. Ours benefits from the extraordinary surge of information brought by the Internet and the breakthroughs, immediacy and flexibility enabled by mobile broadband—the main focus of this report. Professor Jeffrey D. Sachs, ICT & SDGs report

ICT and parliaments:  World e-Parliament Conference 2016

Parliaments across the world have been making use of modern technology to better carry out their representation, law-making and oversight functions. Information technologies are now an essential tool parliaments use to become more open, accessible, accountable and effective. Trends such as the use of open source data or social media are a game-changer for the relationship between parliaments and the public. Rather than merely receiving broadcasted information and opinions from parliaments and MPs, citizens can now interact and engage with their representatives thanks to the presence of political parties and their members on various platforms and technologies.  Meanwhile, the direct access to policy documents and data informs the ongoing public debate. The use of ICT in parliaments is and will remain a fast-changing work in progress. And it is an exciting one, as new avenues for a more transparent and participatory democracy are continuously explored and realized. 

 

Parliaments need to be able to make good use of the information and communication technologies (ICT) tools that are shaping the world of work, modifying interpersonal communication and stimulating political mobilization. For parliament, ICT is a core enabler of greater openness, accessibility and accountability, as well as a key channel for communicating with citizens. World e-Parliament Report 2016

On 28-30 June, the Chamber of Deputies of Chile hosted the World e-Parliament Conference. During the event, the World e-Parliament Report 2016 was launched and its main findings were discussed by participating MPs, parliamentary staff, civil society representatives and ICT professionals from over 50 countries. Read more about the report in our earlier post on AGORA.

Along plenary and panel sessions, workshops and tech demos, the event featured hands-on parallel events. The Unconference provided a space for informal small-group discussions on topics of mutual interest such as XML document standards or parliamentarians´ use of social media. The Global Legislative Hackathon, facilitated by the HackerLab in the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies, brought a series of practical workshops looking at how parliaments can use digital tools to engage more actively with civil society and become more transparent.

The conference showcased the transformative effect of ICT in making parliaments more transparent and accessible, while pointing to a number of emerging trends, opportunities and challenges. First and foremost, it recognized the potential of ICT as a collection of tools for increasing openness of parliaments and engaging citizens through a more direct communication via a variety of channels. Making use of open data and virtual collaboration tools opens parliaments to citizens and creates a two-way channel to exchange ideas, opinions and suggestions. Well-designed engagement processes can help parliaments determine which data are most sought.

Open data, that is, data and content opened to the public for use, reuse, modification and sharing for any purpose, subject only to attribution, was identified as a game-changing trend. Ensuring good data quality, but also being able to connect and track the huge volume of published materials is a challenge, participants agreed. While often published in proprietary formats such as PDF documents, parliamentary data made available through XML-based formats are more open and accessible. Such formats can be linked to external data sets and allow for more efficient query processing.

Social media were identified as a powerful tool to publish key messages and create more direct social engagement at once. As people all over the world are using social media, parliaments follow. The Word e-Parliament Report finds that 56% of all parliaments are now active on various social media channels. Conference participants agreed that adopting the platforms that the public already uses, such as Facebook or Twitter, makes most sense. In addition, the Senate of Argentina pointed out that defining target audiences to better tailor communications is key, as is developing metrics to measure the success of such targeted strategies.

The unprecedented speed and society-wide scale of technological advances and uptake was identified as major challenge. It is practically impossible to reliably predict how technology will evolve within the space of the next few years. An ongoing process of strategic planning is, therefore, needed for parliaments to keep abreast o technological and societal change.

However, the perennial problem of insufficient funding and resources determines the extent to which parliaments can acquire, finance and manage technological innovation. The conference pointed to large gaps emerging between parliaments that use open document standard such as XML and those that do not. The participants stressed the need for a more effective transfer of knowledge and technology between parliaments: sharing concepts, software and solutions. Moreover, it was recognised that in countries on the lower end of the development ladder, where the technology base is low or dated, offline tools should complement the digital ones, especially in the area of communication.

Perhaps the most important conclusion of the event was that, with time, parliaments will inevitably integrate digital platforms into their design and performance of key functions, rather than merely digitalising procedures. In many countries, this is already happening, with the crowdsourcing of legislation being one example. In Brazil, law-making is becoming a more dynamic, two-way process thanks to Wikilegis’ tool which allows people to comment on and suggest changes to draft laws. In Argentina and Germany, the Buenos Aires Net Party and the German Party frustrated with the lack of transparency and gridlock of the government, have sought to involve citizens more directly in the voting on legislation by creating their own web-based direct democracy platforms. The Buenos Aires Net Party has launched its own software, "DemocracyOS", while the German Pirate Party has used online chat rooms and discussions on collaborative document-sharing software “PiratePads”, an open-source software much like Google Docs, bringing together users with members from Pirate Parties across Europe. While, at the end of the day, it is the MPs who decide on the new laws, members of the public are granted new ways of contributing ideas and feedback to the law-making process and debates.

Trends and experiences to date show an immense potential of ICT for parliaments, their members and staff to interact and exchange ideas with the public and gain legitimacy in the eyes of citizens. For individual MPs and political parties, online platforms are additionally becoming a way of building a positive personal brand during campaigns and elections.

There are a number of related developments worth noting which go beyond the scope of the conference:

  • The use of self-service platforms by parliaments: self service platforms are a user-friendly tool which can be used, among others, for collecting signatures on petitions, initiating referenda and even casting votes in a referendum. In Iceland, for example, the parliament has allowed for holding referendums electronically with the use of an electronic electoral register.
  • ICT and campaigning: political and election campaigns build up steam much more quickly as websites and social media platforms are being used to coordinate meetings, demonstrations and other actions. Communicating effectively across online platforms is becoming a prerequisite for electoral success in modern societies. 
  • ICT and parliamentary elections: web-based platforms have also turned the landscape of parliamentary elections upside down, not only in terms of campaigning but increasingly also crowdfunding by political parties and candidates. The media, electorate and civil society use such platforms to inform and educate the public on key issues, report on the election, conduct polls and for electoral observation.
  • New forms of public discussion: live-tweeting by MPs during committee, plenary and electoral debates seems to have become a new form of public discussion. Commentators sometimes pose the question whether reaching out to the public in such a way does not compromise the MPs’ ability to participate in the meeting effectively. Moreover, in a number of controversial cases, MPs used public communication channels such as Twitter during “closed doors” hearings held outside the presence of the public and media. There is a concern that this may effectively defeat the purpose of such hearings, which is usually to allow members to discuss sensitive political issues without outside listeners and provide better opportunities for reaching compromise agreements.
  • Cyber-security issues: using the most recent and impactful case out of a host of examples, Hillary Clinton’s campaign has accused Russian hackers of meddling in the 2016 presidential election by remotely compromising confidential documents. The Democratic National Committee (DNC)'s emails were leaked without authorisation, allegedly to provoke disagreement in the party and benefit the Republican Candidate Donald Trump. While presenting infinite opportunities, open data and cloud storage solutions pose serious data protection and security issues for the parliamentary network, political parties and individual MPs. As pointed out in the World e-Parliament report, although many parliaments worldwide have considered cyber-security issues and put good management practices in place to address them, over a half are yet to do so. 
  • New Technology for Accountability Lab launching soon

    The National Democratic Institute (NDI) and Stanford's Center for Development, Democracy and the Rule of Law will soon launch a free bilingual online course, the Technology for Accountability Lab, in English and Arabic. This action-oriented course is intended to facilitate learning and collaboration between two audiences: civic activists who have an interest in using technology in their work and technologists who are interested in using their skills to build a more democratic and less corrupt world. Through joint discussion boards, it will also connect English-speaking participants with their Arabic-speaking peers.

    The course launches on August 9, 2016. At that time, 22 videos on 7 accountability topics will become available immediately in both languages.

    You can sign up for the course here

This is a blog post by Agata Walczak, Parliamentary Development Officer at UNDP