The Kingdom of Bahrain’s National Assembly is bicameral. It is made up of a 40‑member Shura Council appointed by His Majesty King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, and a 40‑member Council of Representatives elected by the eligible people of Bahrain. The two Councils strive to accomplish legal integrity, achieve and implement a sound legal structure, and provide a fertile environment for the growth and development of the Kingdom.
Members of the Councils are entitled to easy access and use of the systems. The Councils must also ensure the systems are secure, implement two-factor authentication, introduce highly sophisticated levels of encryption for sensitive or confidential data, and when needed, limit access to authorized users only. The veracity and integrity of the systems should also be taken into consideration. This allows the processes and data to be auditable and transparent.
While taking account of all these factors, the Shura Council has adopted various tactics and strategies to overcome the challenges of the global pandemic. To ensure the security of its personnel while also fostering continuity and innovation, the Council has encouraged new methodologies by using modern, accurate and secure technology. On 12 April, the Shura Council held its first remote meeting using a combination of Zoom and Microsoft Teams. These were integrated with the Shura Council’s internal voting system so as to accurately count the number of votes when required.
The National Assembly of Bahrain has supported the Government in ensuring citizens’ safety during the COVID-19 pandemic by implementing the Government’s economic and financial package to address the pandemic's consequences. The Assembly approved a draft law ensuring the salaries of private‑sector employees were paid in April, May and June. It also adopted a number of proposals that it referred to the Government including: remote learning; enhanced e-government services; bonuses for staff and volunteers serving on the coronavirus front line; financial aid to micro-, small and medium‑sized companies; a provident fund with contributions from businessmen, national companies, banks and individuals; and remote work for working women.
The General Secretariat of the Shura Council adopted several precautionary measures to safeguard the well‑being of its staff and the smooth flow of work. It introduced: magnetic swipe-in attendance cards; daily sanitization of the premises; and awareness‑raising on the prevention, recognition and handling of the infection, by posting videos and conducting remote seminars with experts on the matter. The General Secretariat instructed the security guards at the gates of the Council to take the temperature of everyone entering the premises, and also introduced working from home and shift patterns to prevent overcrowding.
Given the current situation, the parliament was also faced with an ongoing stream of challenges.
The first challenge was adaptation. Adapting to changing circumstances has proven to be one of the most important issues that the parliament has faced and a major issue for many MPs. The new technology and platforms that have been implemented to cope with remote working, such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams, have brought some issues to light. Unlike personal meetings, a virtual meeting requires all MPs to have a strong internet connection.
Some older MPs who were not very familiar with the technology have had a hard time joining and participating in the meetings. This has often caused reliability issues, with some MPs disconnecting or having microphone issues. The reliability of technology is an important part of ensuring a suitable working environment. People need to be confident that the technology will work as intended and be accessible when needed.
To overcome this issue, technical support personnel have been working around the clock to provide additional services including: training MPs to navigate the applications being used; sending them instructions; helping them to set up their personal iPads and install the proper applications; resolving any issues that may arise when joining internal or external remote meetings; and making sure MPs receive the most recent documents on time. The support team has always been required to be available during plenary meetings to assist with any technology issues. Support has been provided via email, support request forms, phone calls or WhatsApp groups.
All committee meetings have been conducted remotely as well. The first committee to hold a fully remote meeting with a minister was the Legislative and Legal Affairs Committee headed by Her Excellency Dalal al‑Zayed MP, and attended by the Minister of Justice, Islamic Affairs and Waqf His Excellency Shaikh Khalid bin Ali Al Khalifa, along with all committee members and external visitors. The success of the meeting ensured that all future meetings of the Council’s committees can be safely conducted remotely.
The availability of systems for daily use is another issue the parliament has faced. Older systems were often accessed through local offices using a local area network. With the recent changes, networks have had to expand outside main offices and data has had to be available from MPs’ homes. The systems that MPs use every day need to be available and running on cloud servers. Currently, a team at the Information Technology Directorate has decided to harness the power of cloud computing and use Microsoft Office 365 licenses to their fullest extent. The Council started by using Microsoft SharePoint. It was able to shift one of its most valuable sources of information internally to the cloud by designing and setting up a local intranet portal that was available to all users via the cloud using SharePoint. This made it possible for the whole workforce to access, view and use a centralized information platform, including all precautionary information on progress with COVID-19 in both the Council and the Kingdom of Bahrain.
Another important system created in 2018 was the MP Digital Briefcase. The Council introduced it in its presentation to the 2018 World e-Parliament Conference in Geneva. The system was designed to house all important information that MPs need, such as weekly agendas, approved minutes of meetings, newspaper subscriptions and all committee meeting information. This has proven useful during the pandemic because it has kept MPs up to date with all the important documents that they use, slashed printing costs, reduced delivery expenses and protected the environment. In other words, the system has been able to support social distancing by providing a digital environment for MPs to receive the information they need when they need it.
Considering all recent challenges, it is fair to say that this experience has enabled the parliament to learn various lessons. The fact that people were not expecting a global pandemic has made it even more difficult to adapt to.
The first lesson revolves around preparedness. The parliament should always be prepared for such an event by creating and enforcing contingency plans. The move to cloud solutions has been critical for this type of situation as it has provided business continuity, reduced overall operating costs and provided high levels of security. Regular drills and training of MPs and employees are essential to ensure everyone knows their tasks and how to transition smoothly from ordinary to emergency settings.
Another lesson concerns digitization. The move to online work and remote meetings has been a huge step in terms of entering the digital era. With MPs now being forced to use technology more often, it has effectively become mandatory for members who previously had a reluctant attitude towards it. As a result, many MPs, especially those above the age of 50, have been able to learn a valuable new skill that would have been difficult to learn in the past.
The last lesson is about discipline and time management. The constant changing schedules required a flexibility that was difficult to maintain. The support team at the Information Technology Directorate in the Shura Council has relentlessly worked late into the night to ensure that MPs have everything they need and to make their digital transformation as smooth as possible. However, given that they have been working from home, and with ongoing changes in work management and workflow, MPs have also been able to gain more experience at work by being mandated with extra tasks.
As a recommendation to other parliaments, the development of a contingency plan is vital. The plan should outline technological solutions to any predicted or proposed issues. This includes formulating a remote working plan, such as transferring work to various cloud-based systems and making sure everyone knows how to access and participate in them according to their delegated permissions in the organization’s ecosystem. Regular training sessions for MPs would be vital to avoid any confusion. Technology support staff should also be trained to be better prepared for any transfers to remote working.
Overall, educating the team on various methods of online working and use of technology would be an indispensable task that all parliaments should consider. Any form of contingency training should be taken seriously and should be well focused. While it is likely that many parliaments will be permanently moving to online work, a personal and interactive environment is often more effective than a remote environment when discussing pressing issues.
The success story of the Information Technology Directorate would not have been possible without the preparedness and readiness of the Bahrain Shura Council as an organization. The transition was possible with a minimum of challenges because of years of efforts to build a proper technological foundation, as well as a decision to move to cloud computing and train the right people at the right time.
Prepared by: Hashim al‑Alawi, Head of Information Technology Department, Shura Council