The toll of the COVID-19 pandemic on individual workers across all sectors is matched within the institutions of our democracies.
Parliaments often have over 1000 elected representatives. In addition, they are supported by double and sometimes triple that number of staff. COVID adaptations were as rapid and as extensive in parliaments as they were in other large organisations.
Parliaments the world over underwent rapid changes to keep working, quickly making arrangements so they could carry out their duties in ways that comply with COVID safety measures as well as standards of democratic legitimacy. Like all other organisations, parliaments are still learning, adapting, and switching between in-person and virtual processes to deliver democracy.
Working with representative bodies across the globe has given WFD insights into the personal impact of the COVID pendulum, as it swung between requisite institutional adjustments and the private households and performances of parliamentarians.
MPs switched from raising their representative voice (meaning, all of our voices) to online and virtual platforms. MPs were asked to work from home, interact with constituents virtually, debate virtually, attend committees virtually, and speak to the government and media through laptop screens.
This shift to virtual parliamentarianism was not necessarily smooth or straightforward and we are still calibrating its impact on democracy.
As the pendulum swung it knocked over routines of work and life in equal measure. MPs spent days and nights on their phones and behind laptops, facing unprecedented need to interact with and get answers for citizens, all the while managing caring and parental responsibilities. Not every parliamentarian had the personal infrastructure, support, digital know-how, or the resources to do this effectively.
Like workers in other sectors, many welcomed the time freed up by not needing to travel, while noting the distinct challenges to performing well as a virtual MP. For some, a hard-hitting parliamentary question seems to soften, and an emotional speech seems to hollow, when delivered through a screen.
Inevitably, clear distinctions also emerged between men’s and women’s experience in parliaments. For example, men dominated in-person participation in hybrid systems, having greater access to caring support than women MPs, and the challenge of being perceived as having vocal gravitas was experienced by female MPs as much through a screen as standing in the chamber.
Yet, many welcomed the greater ease of access to participate in proceedings that new virtual portals secured, and some testified to being able to read more reports, move more motions, questions and statements as a result. However, we also witnessed the impact of this digital shift on some of the most revered and trusted older MPs who suddenly felt unable to help their constituents as they had done previously.
Irrespective of the pandemic, the question of whether and how to innovate parliamentary practice to enable greater remote access was emerging and, in some countries, getting loud. In Canada, for example, representatives of far-away constituencies had become more vocal in calling for innovations to improve their parliamentary performance and overall wellbeing by enabling them to participate remotely.
The digital pivots in parliamentary procedure that the pandemic spurred has made it ever clearer that democratic representation is a practice. It matters what MPs do, and it really matters how they do it.
The legitimacy of parliamentary outcomes depends entirely on parliaments establishing not just procedures but a culture that supports the equal and inclusive participation of every parliamentarian – the litmus test of democratic legitimacy. That is why WFD supports parliaments as they work out rules of procedure. Recently in the Bangsamoro, for example, WFD is working with the transitional parliament to determine the rules and principles to guide parliamentary practice once it has held its first democratic elections.
Centuries of political tussle to determine how to achieve this in physical form has brought mixed results, so it is not surprising that even the oldest parliaments are still figuring out how to achieve it virtually. Moreover, until now parliaments have largely lacked the impetus to trial and improve virtual parliamentarianism, so we lack experiential evidence.
Ultimately, what matters is the extent to which a parliamentarian succeeds making the views of the people they represent central to state processes. Parliamentarians stand apart because of their elected powers to do this. For this reason, we pay attention to how they represent our interests in political debates and how well they succeed in getting these views actioned by the state.
We pay very little attention to what it takes to deliver this on a personal level. Yet, while some citizens and parliamentarians alike would prefer us to keep it this way, our insights into parliamentarianism during the pandemic have shown us that:
- MPs are able to perform better when they have the conditions to work well.
- Changing the conditions of their work presents an opportunity to overcome long standing, and often hidden, challenges to effective parliamentarianism.
- Emerging practices and experiences of virtual and hybrid parliamentarianism presents an opportunity to reimagine democracy from the bottom up.
For more insights into being an MP watch out for our forthcoming research on what it takes to be a leader for inclusive change.
In shifting focus to the individual side of the democracy sector we see that parliamentarians are unquestionably human. And this being human is worth paying attention to as a fan of democracy.
Dr Victoria Hasson is WFD’s Senior Parliamentary Adviser