The green benches in the United Kingdom’s House of Commons were mostly empty, just Prime Minister Boris Johnson and a few members of Parliament, sitting spread out.
Speaker Lindsay Hoyle, wearing black robes, still commanded the room. But when it was time for a member of Parliament to ask a question, Hoyle glanced upward at a television screen mounted on the wood-paneled walls of the chamber.
On that screen appeared a member of Parliament — maybe with headphones, maybe just a tad too close to the camera, maybe framed with carefully curated bookshelf — ready to speak.
This is the so-called “Zoom” Parliament, which the UK first convened on April 22, turning the centuries-old democratic process into something that can be done, at least partially, from home.
The coronavirus pandemic has upended normalcy, and that includes the day-to-day functions of government. The social distancing measures and stay-at-home orders required to manage the virus’s spread has forced some governments to abruptly adopt new technologies and ways of working that would have been unimaginable just a few months ago.
From Brazil to Canada to the European Union, legislatures and parliaments have adopted some form of virtual government, whether for hearings and other official business, or even for voting. Several US states have also shifted to doing legislative work remotely, from New Jersey to Kentucky. And with the coronavirus making travel risky, diplomacy has also gone online, with everyone from the United Nations to the leaders of the G-7 meeting via computer screen.
Not every country or legislature has followed suit, most notably the US Congress, although advocates and some lawmakers are pushing to change this now. Even the US Supreme Court, long resistant to change, began hearing oral arguments this week via conference call, and livestreamed the audio with just a few, er, glitches.
This rapid shift to remote governance has largely done what it’s supposed to do: keep parliaments working during a crisis. In the UK, there have been a few technical difficulties, but it’s mostly succeeding.
“I think it does really well,” Chi Onwurah, a Labour MP and shadow minister for digital, science, and technology, who advocated for this move, told me. “Obviously, sometimes the technology doesn’t work or the audio is not very good or the broadband goes down.
“But, by and large,” she said, “we have MPs across the country putting questions to government and making democracy visible again.”
Governments may be Zooming or Google Hanging right now out of necessity, but once they get used to doing things this way (and get the mute button figured out), some elements of remote governance could end up outlasting this crisis. It won’t be a replacement for the real thing, and it probably shouldn’t be. But legislatures could certainly adopt at least some of these tools more permanently to help make democracy more accessible and transparent.
The holding-government-officials-accountable type of transparency, that is. Not the politician-accidentally-appearing-at-a-virtual-city-council-meeting, dusting-their-bookshelves-in-their-undies kind.
But maybe expect both in our tele-government future.
Lawmakers around the world go remote
The United Kingdom’s “hybrid” Parliament has spent a few weeks in this mode, holding hearings and questions. About 50 members of Parliament are allowed to be present in the chamber, while another 120 can beam in from their computer screens. (Johnson, who had been hospitalized for the coronavirus, returned to the House of Commons on Wednesday for the first time since March.) Right now, Parliament is testing the technology it will need for remote voting, which could happen for the first time next week.
The UK’s experience shows how quickly one of the world’s oldest democracies adapted to these science-fiction-esque times. “The UK population is being asked to make huge changes to their behaviors,” Onwurah told me, “and the idea that Parliament should just go along with the same processes from the 17th century — the idea that we shouldn’t change as well to respect social distancing — is unacceptable.”
But the need to abide by social distancing guidelines accompanied a recognition that Parliament had very serious work to do to confront the pandemic, and that now more than ever the government needed to be held accountable. Both MPs and their constituents needed a platform to scrutinize the government’s response to Covid-19.
“We’re in the middle of a pandemic, where society cannot function,” Andy Williamson, senior researcher at the Center for Innovation in Parliament at the Inter-Parliamentary Union, told me. “But Parliament must still function.
“I think the reason we’ve had to innovate is we have to be able to have Parliament running, to keep passing laws, and to hold government to account,” Williamson added.
This same tension is playing out around the world as representative governments figure out how to conduct essential business while avoiding gathering in large groups and maintaining a comfortable 6 feet of distance between everyone.
On March 19, Brazil’s Senate took its first remote vote ever, approving a “state of calamity” declaration to address the country’s public health crisis. In that session, lawmakers dialed in remotely and voiced their vote, no masks needed.
Melhor imagem do dia. Votação remota do estado de calamidade, no Senado. Mostra o uso inteligente da tecnologia para a democracia; mostra que o Congresso pode seguir trabalhando em temas centrais e que é possível produzir consensos em meio à crise pic.twitter.com/6IMfGUCzMG— Fernando Schüler (@fernandoschuler) March 20, 2020
Now senators can vote by phone app, taking a photo and entering a code to authenticate their ballot. All the results get registered in real time, and senators can also see how their colleagues are voting.
On Wednesday, Brazil’s Senate voted remotely again, approving an emergency transfer of resources to states to fight the coronavirus. It underscores a bizarre split in Brazil: Its Congress is using technology to try to govern aggressively during the pandemic. Its president, when asked last week about the country’s rising coronavirus death toll, replied, “So what? I’m sorry. What do you want me to do?”
Beth Simone Noveck, director of New York University’s Governance Lab, told me that Brazil, along with some other countries, is ahead of the curve on this because it’s considered remote voting before.
But legislatures don’t necessarily need fancy apps to make this work. “Other places are doing voting in a very simple way — you’re on a Zoom, they turn on the camera and you put up your hand and you say ‘aye’ or ‘nay,’” Noveck said.
Brazil isn’t the only Latin American country that has quickly adapted to the constraints of the pandemic. On Tuesday, Argentina’s legislature held its first remote session. The Chamber of Deputies was transformed, with panels installed around the chamber to broadcast the faces of the 220 members of Congress, all dialing in from home.
Chile amended its constitution to let its lawmakers temporarily exercise their duties remotely during mass quarantine or public health threats.
The European Parliament is still holding sessions, but is allowing any member who wants to go remote to do so by letting them email their votes. Spain had already allowed its lawmakers to vote remotely in special circumstances, like maternity leave, since 2012, but it has expanded that during the coronavirus.
Late last month, Canada’s Parliament had its first Zoom session to review the government’s handling of the coronavirus. Remote voting isn’t allowed, and some lawmakers will still be sitting at in-person sessions in Parliament once a week, but these remote meetings are supplementing that and giving lawmakers who can’t travel a chance to participate.
A taste of what we're in for tomorrow. https://t.co/IrdUYFzN9h— Rachel Aiello (@rachaiello) April 27, 2020
Sure, it wasn’t perfect. The health minister started speaking while on mute, leading the Speaker of the House of Commons Anthony Rota to remind the honorable minister to “please unclick your mute.” Even Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had some technical difficulties. And there was an awkward moment when someone — not on mute this time — laughed while another MP was giving a tribute to Canadians who’d lost their lives in the pandemic.
“It is kind of a reminder that they are human beings like the rest of us, doing the best in the circumstances of a pandemic,” Chris Nardi, the parliamentary reporter for Canada’s National Post, said of the first Zoom Parliament. “But thankfully, Canadian democracy still continues in these uncertain times.”
Global diplomacy has gone online, too
This week, the United States and the United Kingdom finally came to the table for bilateral trade talks. Figuratively, of course, since both parties are staying on their respective sides of the pond for now.
US and UK trade teams launched FTA negotiations yesterday - this is a tremendous first step in bringing jobs and prosperity to both of our great countries! https://t.co/ZT4Hs5D3Cc pic.twitter.com/6rZumKVMd3— Ambassador Johnson (@USAmbUK) May 6, 2020
The coronavirus, and the economic fallout, is dominating the world’s agenda. Even when other priorities like trade talks do manage to break through, the coronavirus is still reshaping and complicating how that all gets done.
And how all that is getting done is mostly via the internet. No more traveling delegations or those handshake photo ops in front of national flags. Shuttle diplomacy is basically dead right now. Traditional lock-’em-in-a-room-’til-they-work-it-out negotiations aren’t happening.
Ashok Mirpuri, Singapore’s ambassador to the US, told Politico: “The reason you send diplomats out to foreign capitals is to engage personally and share confidences and confidential assessments.”
But international relations goes on, even without the hobnobbing. Foreign ministers for the G-7 countries first met remotely in March, after the US canceled an in-person session in Pittsburgh. About a week later, so did the G-7’s heads of state, each beaming in from their respective capitals. (And Trudeau from his home office, apparently.)
G7 held online, unprecedented but unsurprisingly amid a pandemic pic.twitter.com/PnCoLAe9Wx— Alvin Lum (@alvinllum) March 16, 2020
The G-7 leaders talked again in April, when the United States was isolated over its threat to withdraw funding from the World Health Organization — though maybe Trump’s tantrums are easier to deal with on video chat.
The pandemic hasn’t put a halt to the world’s other crises, either. It’s just made them even more complicated, and more deadly. There’s a refugee crisis in Syria, a war in Yemen, and now the threat of famine worldwide, just to name a few.
The United Nations headquarters in New York has emptied out, its diplomats scattered around the world. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres still comes into the office, although his spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric told me Guterres is mostly communicating and conferencing remotely.
But remote statecraft has its challenges. The UN Security Council had a remote meeting in April that sounded a lot like your company’s Zoom meetings might, only somehow even funnier: “The US has technical problems and Tunisia can’t hear very well.”
Estonia assumed the presidency of the UN Security Council in May, so maybe it’s lucky that a country that also happens to be a leader in technology is in charge right now.
Liisa Toots, a spokesperson for Estonia’s Permanent Mission to the UN, told me that the Security Council’s first virtual meetings were a bit rocky, but in the last few weeks the Council has returned to its normal pace of work, though she said more could be done to make the council’s efforts more transparent and efficient.
“Diplomacy as we know it has been put on pause and all communication is taking place online,” Toots told me. “In-person interaction is usually a key aspect in diplomacy, but we have to adapt.”
Why some places haven’t moved online (cough, cough: US Congress)
Remote government has its glitches, but it also isn’t as simple as logging on to FaceTime or downloading Zoom.
Many places can’t just seamlessly transition to remote work because, well, rules. Parliaments and legislatures often have protocols or laws dictating how many people have to be physically present to conduct business, and that can make remote work a bit tricky unless the rules are tweaked — which sometimes requires legislative action in and of itself.
“This is making law, so you’ve got to make sure it’s all aboveboard and can’t be challenged later,” Williamson, at the Inter-Parliamentary Union, told me.
And then there is the technology, which exists but has to be adapted for legislative work. Some parliaments were further ahead and more invested in technology; others, not so much. But getting every lawmaker trained, finding the right tools that work for each legislature, and addressing security concerns all take time and effort.
The security issue is a challenge. Video platforms have faced criticism for their lax security, including popular apps like Zoom. Governments that use Zoom are not using the same app as regular consumers, and places relying on it to do remote hearings, such as Canada, have indicated that it meets security needs. In the UK, the National Cyber Security Centre has advised that Zoom only be used for public business, which Parliament is. (Of course, Zoom isn’t the only platform, and some countries have chosen to use other options such as Microsoft Teams, Cisco Webex, and Google.) But these remote meetings do become a bit more complicated when they discuss sensitive or classified information.
Sometimes, though it’s the politicians themselves who make the security flubs. For instance, Prime Minister Boris Johnson posted a photo of his “first ever digital Cabinet” on Twitter in late March.
The image showed Johnson’s ministers each in their own little video boxes. Oh, and it also showed the Zoom meeting ID, for the entire internet to see. (Zoom has since removed this ID from the toolbar to prevent this type of accidental overshare, according to ZDNet.)
For all these reasons, lots of places are still meeting in person, though with adjustments, including imposed distancing, limits on the number of staff allowed to be present, and, in some cases, mandatory mask-wearing.
In Switzerland, members are convening in a convention center instead of their parliament, to make sure everyone can stay 6 feet away from each other. Germany changed its rules so that it requires fewer legislators to form a quorum.
And then there’s the US Congress, which hasn’t officially gone to full video hearings, though some senators joined their colleagues via video for hearings this week. But lawmakers in the House and the Senate haven’t yet budged on the question of remote voting.
Both the House and the Senate were expected to come back into session this week, on May 4, but the congressional physician warned that would be unwise. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell decided to reconvene anyway on May 4, with social distancing measures in place. The House is still not back.
But Congress can’t really do anything fully remote — can’t hold official hearings, and definitely can’t vote — unless it changes the rules.
The House has considered proxy voting as a temporary measure during the pandemic, which would allow other Congress members to vote on behalf of those who can’t be present, though that still requires at least some members to be physically present. House members are now trying to seek bipartisan agreement on a plan that would involve remote hearings and voting, much like what’s happening in places like the United Kingdom.
Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) has been among the House members pushing for remote voting, and he and other members of Congress have been testing videoconferencing to see how the technology might work.
“In light of the extraordinary circumstances we are facing, I strongly believe the House must change its rules so that committees can conduct oversight hearings and markup legislation, and the House can hold votes remotely, so that we are not endangering public health,” Hoyer told Vox in a statement.
“I am leading a bipartisan Virtual Congress Task Force in hopes that we can reach a bipartisan agreement to change the rules to allow remote committee work and remote votes,” Hoyer continued. “We are seeing legislatures around the world and across our country working remotely, as well as the Supreme Court. There is no reason we cannot find a way to do so as well.”
There might also be some bipartisan movement in the Senate, where lawmakers like Rob Portman (R-PA) and Dick Durbin (D-IL) have pushed temporarily allowing remote voting.
This would allow Congress to do its job while limiting the risk of members returning to Washington from all over the country and potentially spreading the virus. Experts and lawmakers, past and present, told me that it’s not a problem of technology, or security, but rather the will to tweak the rules and abandon tradition.
“A legitimate reason is — ah, I can’t think of one,” said Brian Baird, a former US representative for Washington state, who, along with the Association of Former Members of Congress, is working on these issues and who helped lead a mock hearing to show how Congress could do the same.
“If you listen to the concerns that have been raised, most of them are rooted in desire to not change traditions,” Baird told me. “But the situation has changed, and so we must change to adapt to that. So it’s lovely to say, ‘Oh, we don’t want to do things differently than they’ve always been done.’ Fine. But we also don’t want a virus that kills our constituents, or members of Congress themselves and our staff.”
It’s also just good practice to have a plan in place in case another pandemic, or a terrorist attack or some other catastrophe, prevents Congress from getting to Washington and dealing with the emergency.
“It is a mistake not to make plans to do this,” NYU’s Noveck said. “And it’s definitely a mistake now to kind of assume, ‘Oh, this thing will be over in a few weeks, and we can just go back to doing things the way we’ve always done them.’”
Will voting remotely change government? Maybe a little.
How remote parliaments or legislatures will change the processes and atmosphere of lawmaking is a trickier question. The back-and-forth of debate is largely eliminated on Zoom. “It loses some of the atmosphere, and it loses the spontaneity,” Onwurah, the Labour MP, said of the new Zoom Parliament.
If you’ve ever watched the British Parliament in session, you know that MPs boo and jeer, or cheer, depending on who’s talking. In the Zoom Parliament, that spectacle is mostly erased, and what’s left is just the bare bones of government. Question, answer, question, answer.
So something lost, but maybe, something also gained: It may be much harder to grandstand or score political points in a remote hearing. Lecturing a witness is sure to look a lot stranger when it’s only one person, up close on a video screen.
And, of course, the drama of Parliament or high-profile hearings is just a sliver of government. Most of the time, the hard work gets done behind the scenes, among committee staff, or at low-key hearings that get little attention. And, in those instances, remote hearings might work just as well.
“Nobody wants to get rid of face-to-face deliberation or face-to-face convening a meeting, and the collegiality that comes from knowing your colleagues in person,” Noveck said. “So it’s just a matter, really, of creating new rules for a new era.”
Maybe parts of Zoom government are here to stay
Nobody knows when normalcy will return to government, or what normal will look like a month, six months, or two years from now. Even advocates of remote government see it as an emergency tool — a way to keep government working when things aren’t normal at all. Which is also the time we need an operational government the most.
“What we’ve seen is forced innovation,” Williamson told me. “Psychologically, it’s really interesting. We’ve made people be innovative — ‘You will damn well do it’ — amongst a group of people who are inherently conservative and risk-averse.”
“The big question for me is, what next?” he added. “What do we learn from this, and what do we do with it?”
Allowing more flexibility when it comes to remote work might allow lawmakers to spend more time with their constituents, cutting down some of the time they spend traveling back and forth to seats of government. Once lawmakers get used to remote hearings, they can use them to call witnesses all over the country and the world — not just the ones who can make it to Washington. Experts said there are also opportunities for more participation.
Rather than having to rely on people who can fly to Washington to testify for a hearing, they could call on experts from all corners of the country or the world, or bring in more non-expert voices to testify — or ask their own questions of lawmakers.
The emergency measures put in place to help representative governments continue to do their work during the pandemic could end up making them more transparent and accessible in the long term. Which is kind of the point of democracy.
Just please, unmute.