How to run the world remotely

Jen Kirby at Vox: “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….

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….(More)”.