Parliaments in crisis mode (Part 3) – What do we learn from the Covid 19 crisis?
Parliaments are important institutions, especially in times of crisis, and the fulfilment of their functions is central to the control of the government and the legitimisation of legislation. It is now necessary to take the necessary steps at various levels to ensure needs-based solutions for a resilient council operation on the basis of the crisis experiences. “Crisis is the hour of the executive” This sentence was often quoted by members of parliament. It is open whether this was due to a certain resignation in the face of the government’s superior power or whether it spoke of a relief that other bodies were taking over responsibility. What is certain is that the phrase – at least in the first phase of the pandemic – was completely misinterpreted, namely as a justification for virtually completely ceasing the operation of parliaments and leaving the field to the government and administration. However, it also became clear that parliaments are not responsible for crisis management, but should rather contribute to the scrutiny and democratic underpinning and of state action.
Problems to be tackled
With a few weeks’ distance, some problems can be identified with regard to the Covid 19 crisis management and initial conclusions can be drawn for the future:
- In many cases, parliaments and commissions did not know how they should react in the crisis situation, what their core tasks are in the crisis and in what form they can and must perform them. In the aftermath, these core tasks need to be discussed and clarified in greater depth, which includes the elaboration of crisis scenarios and parliamentary activities triggered by them.
- The cancellation or the postponement of parliamentary sessions in terms of time and place have primarily revealed serious deficits in terms of infrastructure and organisation at all levels (cities, cantons, federal government). The costly relocation to gymnasiums or exhibition halls, organised at short notice in many places, is certainly not a promising answer to the challenges that arise. Instead, new forms of decision-making without physical meetings must be found for crisis situations and the digital possibilities must be developed, made available and used according to needs.
- The legal basis for virtual meetings and electronic decisions is lacking. The status of a temporary emergency operation should be created, which serves to ensure the core legislative functions and defines appropriate measures, instruments and digital tools for this purpose. For such an emergency operation, it is necessary to define the quality of the digital services and to prioritise any necessary quality sacrifices.
- Even with legal foundations, the functioning of parliaments stands and falls with the sufficient availability of digital services in the required quality . This should be ensured, for which budgets must be made available and tasks and responsibilities clearly assigned.
- In particular, faster virtual decision-making procedures that are more strongly based on parliamentary commissions and the enabling of virtual decision-making should be regulated by law. Some of the lockdown experiences show that commission work can be ensured digitally and that good experiences have been made with virtual meetings. But here, too, empirical values need to be gathered beyond the individual case.
- Many videoconferencing systems in use only partially meet the high demands on confidentiality. Therefore, the further development of the technical videoconferencing infrastructure and the provision of uniform applications for crisis situations is urgently needed.
- It also became clear that the degree of digitalisation of an organisation has a direct impact on its agility and responsiveness. Thus, companies that were already strongly digitally on the move had significantly better cards in crisis management. In parliamentary operations – at least as far as commission and plenary sessions are concerned – there has been far too little investment in digital tools in recent years. If the parliaments had had suitable technical possibilities at their disposal during the lockdown months and if these had also been widely used, one could probably draw a more positive conclusion today about the function fulfilment of the parliaments in the first three months of the crisis. The responsible bodies should follow suit as soon as possible and invest in systems that fully meet the requirements of parliamentary operations and the actual needs of parliamentarians.
- In part, the crisis management of parliaments also suffered from the fact that parliamentarians not only lacked the necessary equipment, but also the required“digital skills“. New digital tools must therefore be used as much as possible and appropriate in the normal operation of parliament, so that members of parliaments and parliamentary administrations have the necessary application skills when they are needed in emergency situations.
During the crisis, it became obvious that our parliaments – like many other public institutions – have so far been geared towards fair-weather operations. The necessary infrastructure was lacking and in many places also the awareness of the importance of the democratic control and legitimisation function that parliaments have to fulfil especially in crisis situations. In order to better master the next crisis, reforms should be tackled at various levels along the lines outlined above. For this to be successful, the experiences of those directly affected (i.e. parliamentarians and the parliamentary administration) should be collected and evaluated as a first step and as quickly as possible. The insights gained from this could then be used for the development and use of suitable tools as well as for the development of the necessary skills. The goal is to have resilient parliamentary operations that can adequately perform their core functions in any situation on the basis of tools that have been developed and used in accordance with needs.
Thanks for their support go to Dr. Alessia Neuroni, Dr. Thomas Gees and Dr. Reinhard Riedl.
Series of articles
The related parts Parliaments in Crisis Mode (1) – Variable Experience with Great Learning Potential and Parliaments in Crisis Mode (2) – Old Wine in New Bottles? have already been published.