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Pacific parliaments in a time of pandemic

Innovation tracker | Issue 7 | 16 Dec 2020
Zoom

Proceedings of the Centre for Innovation in Parliament Pacific Hub Knowledge Sharing sessions webinars on 5 and 6 August. Photo: CIP.

The Pacific region is made up of thousands of islands spread across a vast ocean. In terms of ICT, this geographic disparity results in some unique challenges: high business and government transaction costs; irregular cargo and freight (compounded by COVID-19 border closures and reduced airlinks); and relatively recent connections to submarine communications cables, and domestic and international fibre optic cables.

In August 2020, the Pacific hub of the Centre for Innovation in Parliament convened two virtual knowledge‑sharing sessions in collaboration with the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Pacific region office, and the New Zealand programme Tai a Kiwa: Stronger Pacific Parliaments. We were delighted that Australia, the Cook Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, French Polynesia, Nauru, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Tonga, Samoa, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu registered for the discussions.[1] Special guest speaker Mohamed Hussain (ICT Director, People’s Majlis secretariat, Maldives) also joined us for both sessions and shared his experiences of virtual committee and plenary sessions. He noted MPs’ positive response and high participation.

Fortunately, much of the Pacific has remained free of COVID-19 cases. A number of smaller jurisdictions moved swiftly to implement states of emergency, border closures and quarantines to protect vulnerable communities with developing health infrastructures. This has heavily impacted tourism-reliant economies, and it is forecast that full recovery will take some years. Invariably, budgets to run parliaments are affected by the general financial climate, and there will be an ongoing need to work with partners such as UNDP (funded by Australia, Japan and New Zealand) and the IPU.

Summary of pandemic responses and issues in the region

The knowledge‑sharing sessions opened with the UNDP Pacific region office reflecting on its parliamentary assistance to Pacific region parliaments. It was recognized that the COVID-19 pandemic had had a tremendous effect on governance systems and structures, particularly on parliaments as institutions where people needed to gather and to meet to fulfil a constitutional mandate of legislation oversight and representation. The question was what could be done when they could not meet physically. We explored technical aspects, the adaptation of policies and procedures, and the variety of ICT‑based solutions needed for parliaments to continue to work, and to maintain openness, transparency and public trust. The importance of the network, sharing knowledge, and preparedness were central to our discussions. The IPU noted that, at the start of the pandemic, it had launched an information campaign. This had been useful to explore different contexts and levels of ICT capacity, as well as the engagement of leadership and their support for innovation.

The level and duration of lockdowns had varied greatly across the Pacific region, which had impacted the operations of parliaments in different ways. However, a number of common themes were raised during our hub sessions:

  • Business continuity planning (BCP). Many of us had developed, or were developing, BCP plans with natural disasters in mind (hurricanes, earthquakes) rather than a pandemic. We recognized that continual testing of our BCP plans based on different scenarios was important. Some parliaments noted that they had no business continuity, risk management, or disaster plans, or that these plans were in their infancy. We were reassured when partners offered to collaborate, so that we could share examples and learnings as we develop and implement plans.
  • Equipment and devices. Many responses relied on the quick deployment of devices and equipment (laptops and smart phones) to MPs and staff. The pandemic revealed vulnerabilities in the ICT supply chain, with an inability to access hardware, particularly from China. Some parliaments reported that, as corporate staff had not worked remotely before, there were emergency requests for hardware and repurposing of VPN‑capable equipment to enable a genuinely mobile workforce.
  • Security. A number of the software products available (such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Cisco WebEx, and add-ons like Polly) are off-the-shelf general‑purpose products, not designed specifically for the parliamentary environment. These naturally bring with them cybersecurity and integrity concerns. It was reported that training needed to encompass raising awareness about security, phishing and spear phishing, and human error. Some products had been blocked as they had been deemed to have insufficient security measures for parliamentary work, or were too vulnerable to exploitation.
  • Connectivity. Parliaments across the region reported connectivity and internet stability issues. A number of the Pacific parliaments also emphasized the importance of a power source back-up to provide critical services. Some noted the need to boost bandwidth to ensure that signal was well maintained and could support multiple concurrent operations in the parliamentary precinct. Managing staff and MPs’ connectivity in their homes or electorates could be fraught. Some parliaments had issued mobile modem USB sticks.
  • Procedural. Some people noted constitutional or procedural barriers to conducting plenary and committee meetings virtually. These barriers included the need to be present and vote in person, or not having a mechanism for e-voting or proxy voting. Furthermore, ICT platforms did not always lend themselves well to the usual conduct of parliament. Managing requests to speak, points of order, and the integrity of voting could be challenging.
  • Training. While it was reported that MPs and staff generally embraced the use of innovative ICT solutions during lockdowns, training was often provided in an ad hoc fashion or without the luxury of time. Some ICT staff themselves did not have professional training in the new software products and relied on self-directed learning and internal training.
  • Support. There was increased pressure on service desks and ICT staff, of which there are sometimes very few in Pacific parliaments. Some issues were simple to resolve, such as MPs locking themselves out with incorrect passwords. To reduce traffic to service desks it was suggested to move to passphrases (as they are easier to remember, do not expire, are equally robust, and are less likely to be compromised) and a single sign‑on wherever possible (such as Azure AD) to federate with third‑party tools.
  • Investment. Investment in ICT infrastructure, hardware and software procurement, and the capacity for sudden transition would be an ongoing challenge with austerity measures affecting parliamentary budgets. Parliaments were encouraged to think about moving away from local infrastructure (such as servers) and towards cloud‑based data storage.

Notwithstanding these varied challenges, there were many positive outcomes. Pacific parliamentarians reported how virtual tools had enabled them to engage with more fellow MPs, more communities in remote locations, and more international meetings and discussions. One example was from the Legislative Assembly of Tonga and the Parliament of Fiji, which both had the remote support of the UNDP Pacific Floating Budget Office initiative. This is a network of parliamentary researchers from different national parliaments in the Pacific and beyond. The network comes together to conduct research and produce quick analysis of national spending trends and revenue before budgets are debated and voted on.

Contributed by: Wendy Hart, New Zealand Parliament
Contact: wendy.hart@parliament.govt.nz

 

[1] There are 15 parliaments of sovereign nations or autonomous territories in the Pacific region. The smallest is the Parliament of the Federated States of Micronesia (14 members) and the largest is the Papua New Guinea legislature (111 members). More widely, there is also the Parliament of Australia (151 members, 76 senators), the Parliament of New Zealand (120 members), the Congress of New Caledonia (54 members), the Assembly of French Polynesia (57 members), the Territorial Assembly of Wallis and Futuna (20 seats), the Legislature of Guam (15 members), the Hawaii State Legislature (51 members, 25 senators), the Fono of American Samoa (21 members, 18 senators), and the Autonomous Region of Bougainville House of Representatives (41 members).