HOW CAN INFORMATION
THE WAY PARLIAMENT WORKS?
Science and Technology Division
23 November 2000
EXISTING INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY CAN BE USED
A. Helping Individual Parliamentarians
B. Communicating with Constituents
C. Enhancing the Legislative Process
EVOLVING INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY TOOLS
B. The Internet
D. Wireless Networks
PARLIAMENTARY APPLICATIONS OF EVOLVING INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY
A. Multimedia and Information
Technology in the Chambers and Committee Rooms
B. Other Potential Uses of the Internet by
Parliamentarians and Legislatures
C. Virtual Presence
FOR PARLIAMENTS TO RESOLVE
A. Costs and Renovating Existing Facilities
B. Changes to Procedures and Practices
C. Dealing with People
1: A REVIEW OF THE USE OF WEBSITES IN LEGISLATURES
2: AN UPDATE ON THE INTERNET
HOW CAN INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY
TRANSFORM THE WAY PARLIAMENT WORKS?
As one of the
driving forces transforming society world-wide, information technology
has been a key component in the trend towards globalization and the creation
of the information society. Information technology,
which includes communications technologies, has much to offer but many
of the potential long-term implications for society remain highly speculative.
like other institutions, have been increasingly making use of information
technology, in general at the same pace as mainstream society. Although
some view information technology as a source of problems, others realize
that it also offers many opportunities for parliaments to fulfil their
role more effectively and meet the increased expectations of the electorate.
Some of the benefits of information technology are prevented from being
realized, however, by reluctance on the part of institutions (and parliaments)
to make the necessary changes to traditional procedures and practices.
Indeed, in some cases, the negative impacts of such changes may outweigh
the benefits to be derived. How information technology can best
be used to transform how the Canadian Parliament works but without affecting
the heart of the institution is something that Parliamentarians
with the rapid evolution of information technology and the increasing
number of its possible applications is extremely difficult. Even
ten years ago, the capabilities of todays sophisticated office/business
technologies and their acceptance by society would not generally have
been considered likely. Even five years ago, the explosive increase
in the use of the Internet by hundreds of millions of people and countless
businesses and organizations could not have been forecast. In the
context of such rapid change, this paper will:
EVOLVING PUBLIC EXPECTATIONS
It has been
recognized for several years that the public now expects much more
in the way of increased access, transparency, accountability and efficiency
from all its institutions, including Parliament. Furthermore,
these expectations have been heightened by the increased availability
of, and access to, information technology. Typically, the public
expects a fully up-to-date website for each institution, which covers
its mandate, activities, history and organizational structure.
changing expectations, as they apply to parliaments and governments, include:
level of online (via the Internet) information: The public
expects an institutional website that is up-to-date, well designed
and easy to use. The site must have excellent search capabilities
because it must be easily accessible by the average citizen and even
by schoolchildren. (For more details on what was available on
parliamentary websites in 1998, see Appendix 1.) In the case
of Parliament, there is a demand for information on legislation, individual
Parliamentarians, Hansard and committee proceedings.
level of access to information related to parliamentary process:
Information on the activities in committees and chambers was initially
provided mainly in accounts of committee proceedings and copies of
Hansard available in hard copy (and later, via the Internet).
Today, the use of multimedia technology is becoming part of
consumers everyday life and it is not unreasonable to assume
that the public will soon expect full multimedia access to proceedings
in committees and chambers.
publics expectations for improved access to information technology
is particularly important in countries such as Canada, where a high proportion
of citizens use the Internet. According to an Ekos poll conducted
in January 2000, more than 60% of Canadians own a computer (up from 51%
in June 1999), and over 45% of Canadians are connected to the Internet.
Some have estimated that, at the current rate of growth, 80% of Canadians
will have access to the Internet by 2002. The Ekos poll also reported
that 61% of Canadians who look for government information use the Internet.(1) It can be assumed that similar results would be
obtained if a poll were done specifically for Parliament. Thus,
Canadians are becoming digitally wired, positioning the Internet
as the primary source of information. See Appendix 2 for an update
of the status of the Internet.
AREAS WHERE EXISTING INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY CAN BE USED
legislatures and Parliamentarians have been adopting information technology
at the same pace as mainstream society. They have been making full
use of the latest in business/office computer systems and software, new
sources of digital information, and the wide assortment of telecommunications
tools. This section describes existing information technology that
could be used to assist Parliament and Parliamentarians further in meeting
the publics demands; many of these applications may, in fact, already
be in use in some legislatures.
A. Helping Individual
and legislatures are now using mainstream business applications such as
office software suites for word processing, spreadsheets, and personal
information management, as well as for e-mail and accounting and record
management systems. These applications allow both institutions and
individual Parliamentarians to manage their activities better, communicate
more easily amongst themselves and with constituents, and fully exploit
the limited financial and human resources at their disposal. Through
their connection to the legislatures local area network (LAN), Parliamentarians
can use these tools to arrange interviews and meetings and to manage their
personal schedules. When the LANs are connected to the Internet,
as is the case in many legislatures, e-mails can be sent and meetings
arranged on a global basis. In addition, legislatures routinely
use intranets (localized versions of the Internet available only to users
within an organization) to make administrative or specialized reference
material available to Parliamentarians and their staff.
Some of the
obvious applications of the Internet for Parliamentarians include:
which allow Parliamentarians with more than one office (i.e., a riding
office and one in the legislature), to be fully integrated electronically;
and their staff are also using the Internet as an invaluable research
tool. It can provide access to a wide range of useful information
from government sources (both foreign and Canadian, federal, provincial
and municipal), academia, electronic journals and magazines, private industry,
and numerous special interest and discussion groups. Unfortunately,
sorting the wheat from the chaff on the Internet can be difficult
and time-consuming. The websites of special interest groups frequently
provide one-sided or biased information, while data from even the best
sources may be incomplete or inaccurate. Such information should
not be blindly accepted as accurate simply because it has come from the
Internet; it should be viewed with at least the same degree of scepticism
as material from other sources. Indeed, professionals using the
Internet warn that, without the necessary informed analysis, the vast
amount of information it makes available can actually hinder decision-making,
rather than help it. The Internet can also provide Parliamentarians
with reliable information from commercial online databases covering a
wide range of subjects; however, access can be expensive and it takes
skill to formulate the questions that will yield the most productive searches.
In the past
decade, the telecommunications world has greatly matured. We have
seen the advent of new communications technologies such as the pager,
the fax (facsimile) and the ubiquitous cell phone, as well as a host of
new communication services such as call forward, conference calls and
voice mail. Using this technology, Parliamentarians can be permanently
connected and able to communicate at any time from virtually anywhere.
There are numerous
examples of other communications technologies that can assist individual
Parliamentarians. Hardware/software packages for low-cost videoconferencing
which add a small television camera, additional hardware and specialized
software to a personal computer function over a wide range of modes
of communication. Videoconferencing with several participants can
be arranged locally where there is a high-speed network, or over high-speed
Internet connections. Personal digital assistants (PDAs) are mobile
communication systems giving users full access from almost any location
to a wide range of information services such as e-mail, their own network
resources, telephone calls, videocalls (using small video cameras), and
the Internet. Some PDAs that are frequently used with digital cellular
telephone systems and portable computers also react to voice input by
using voice recognition technologies.
For the past
few years, many legislatures have been using the Internet, mainly via
institutional websites, to provide information to their constituents.
The public in numerous countries, including Canada, now has direct access
through the Internet to legislation, parliamentary proceedings, and the
minutes of committee meetings, all transmitted from the parliamentary
websites. The information is normally up-to-date, although this
varies greatly among legislatures; in Canada, Hansard (the record
of debates in the chambers) is available within 24 hours. Many individual
Parliamentarians and political parties have their own websites through
which they make information available to the public and receive comments.
Some features that could be incorporated through available technology
to make these sites more comprehensive and user friendly are detailed
in Appendix 1.
the Legislative Process
process itself can also be enhanced using information technology. Some
legislatures use the Internet to obtain public input through usenet discussion
groups on the issues being studied by parliamentary committees.
The Internet can be used to make electronic material more readily available
or to post comments; in some cases, real-time discussions can take place.
Individual committee websites can also be used to attract public participation.
committees increasingly use videoconferencing to reduce the amount of
travel for themselves and witnesses. While the quality of videoconferencing
technology has been rapidly improving, the costs have dropped dramatically.
What used to cost $250/hour some years ago can now cost as little as $25/hour.
This trend towards the higher quality, easier use and lower cost of information
technology will likely continue.
technology might also be used for electronic voting in the parliamentary
chambers or to provide access to the Internet from within the chambers
and committee rooms.
information landscape is changing quickly as new technologies and applications
become available. Attempts to look even five years into the future
can create false expectations, because things rarely proceed as planned.
Some of the key new technologies that could be ready for use in legislatures
within the next five-year period are multimedia, the Internet, biometrics,
and wireless networks.
The term multimedia
embraces everything from electronic commerce to virtual reality environments
and Digital Versatile Disk (DVD) productions, and from traditional audio-visual
presentations to multi-screen video walls, interactive training programs,
telephony, video conferencing and teleconferencing. Modern multimedia
data are created by the digitization of text, sound, images, video and
other content into a common digitized format, which can be easily stored
and manipulated by computers and transmitted over LANs and over the Internet.
Multimedia technology is quickly leaving the realm of specialized applications
and is being more commonly used. Its applications are set to explode
in the coming years, partly as a result of increased bandwidth (the capacity
to transmit/carry digital information) of the Internet and the expanding
processing capabilities of low-cost computers.
continues to evolve quickly with new applications appearing regularly.
(A brief overview of the Internets current status is provided in
Appendix 2.) In the next few years, the Internet will be the medium
of choice for dissemination of information, access to entertainment material,
and business transactions. Its increased carrying capacity has made
available a much wider range of digital material, including audio and
video streaming a technique whereby data (video, audio and multimedia)
can be transferred and processed as a continuous stream. Information
is increasingly likely to become available in multimedia format, as the
number of Internet users with high-speed connections continues to grow.
Internet TV and radio will become increasingly common, due in part to
the low cost of entry-level hardware and software. Not only will
each individual computer have an Internet address, but appliances and
devices connected to the Internet will permit communications and control
to be done online.
use an individuals unique physical characteristics to grant or deny
access to computer resources. Some examples of biometrics security
devices are scanners that read fingerprints, cameras that recognize faces,
and software that responds to voices. These systems offer a practical
answer to serious security challenges and go a crucial step beyond traditional
passwords or security-access cards. Biometrics systems can ensure
that the individual trying to log on to a system is actually the authorized
person and not just someone who has found a key card in a desk or a password
pasted under the computer keyboard. This extra security is important
for applications such as Extranets, remote-access devices, and VPNs (virtual
private networks providing access to private or sensitive data behind
corporate firewalls). Use of biometrics also means that users do
not have to remember passwords or keep track of security-access cards.
Such use is expected to increase rapidly because of the relative low cost,
ease of use, and reliability.
are another form of information technology whose usefulness is quickly
expanding. A wireless LAN is a flexible data communications
system that is an extension or alternative to the more common wired
LAN. Using radio frequency technology, wireless LANs transmit and
receive data over the air, thereby combining data connectivity with user
mobility. With wireless LANs, users can have access to shared information
without the need to be plugged in, and network managers can set up or
augment networks without installing or moving wires. Wireless LANs
offer greater productivity and convenience than do traditional wired networks
and can provide users with access to real-time information anywhere in
an organization. By connecting the LAN to the Internet, the user
has full access to the information and services available on the LAN,
the Internet and online services.
POSSIBLE PARLIAMENTARY APPLICATIONS OF EVOLVING INFORMATION
technology currently available, or that will be available within five
years, offers many potential benefits for Parliamentarians and legislatures.
These benefits come at a price, however. Some of the potential applications
are described below.
Multimedia and Information Technology in the Chambers and Committee Rooms
information technologywithinthe chambers and parliamentary committee rooms
would enable Parliamentarians to use a much wider range of information
sources and communication tools while performing their duties. Through
installation of security biometrics in conjunction with a legislature-wide
wireless network, Parliamentarians could take advantage of all their modern
tools anywhere within the legislature.
Full use of
multimedia technology would facilitate videoconferencing and multimedia
presentations by committee witnesses. It would ultimately benefit
Canadian citizens by giving them full access to all parliamentary proceedings
and information via the Internet.
B. Other Potential Uses
of the Internet by Parliamentarians and Legislatures
and legislatures are already using the Internet in some ways, many more
uses are technically feasible. As described above, the Internet
could be used to provide real-time multimedia access to the proceedings
of committees and chambers. Committee testimony could be received
from remote locations or even direct from constituents homes.
Desktop videophones operating over high-speed Internet connections would
allow virtual conferences with Parliamentarians in different legislatures,
at all levels of government and in various countries.
could also be used as a vehicle to promote citizen engagement. For
example, sites could be set up with specialized software to facilitate
discussions between Parliamentarians and a wide range of stakeholders
(including constituents, academics and special interest groups) on any
number of policy issues. The Internet could be used to conduct national
plebiscites or referendums. As well, the greater convenience of
Internet voting could potentially increase voter turnout and make it easier
for citizens with restricted mobility to exercise their franchise.
However, measures would have to be instituted to ensure that the segment
of the population not connected to the Internet was not excluded from
the democratic process.
One of the challenges
of a geographically immense country such as Canada is that there is sometimes
a tendency for the more distant regions to develop a sense of alienation
from the political centre. Effective use of information technology
may help to dispel a sense of alienation by allowing citizens to participate
more effectively in the democratic process, no matter where they reside.
C. Virtual Presence
to the Internet, using biometrics in a fully multimedia environment, could
make possible a number of virtual presence applications.
Allowing Parliamentarians to vote from outside the legislature and to
participate from a distance in its proceedings is now technically feasible,
and implementation has been discussed in several legislatures. This
could be a real advantage for Parliamentarians, who are often forced by
other duties to be absent from the legislature or from a committee meeting.
In a vast country
such as Canada, the rigours of travel place a high burden on the personal
lives of Parliamentarians, particularly those who represent distant or
remote parts of the country. Virtual presence could potentially
alleviate this burden by reducing the frequency of travel and could also
allow Parliamentarians to use long hours of travel more productively.
ISSUES FOR PARLIAMENTS TO RESOLVE
it is not so much the technology itself which matters for the outcomes
of these projects, but rather the thoughts and ideas on democracy,
which were originally laid down in the projects by their initiators.(2)
This new technology
offers many advantages, but it comes with a high price tag. Additional
financial costs will be incurred for the technology and the supporting
infrastructure and, in many cases, for more specialized support personnel.
More importantly, if this technology is to be fully utilized, changes
would have to be made to some traditional procedures and practices.
As well, some advantages of face to face contact could be
lost. The use of virtual presence in the chambers and
committee rooms could raise serious concerns.
A. Costs and Renovating
Much of the
new technology could be incorporated into existing facilities at relatively
modest cost, particularly if wireless networks were used to reduce the
impact on existing facilities. However, the normal design of many
committee rooms is not well suited to high-quality multimedia recording
and, depending on the importance placed by Parliamentarians on the visual
impact of the proceedings, committee rooms might need to be redesigned
that results from the extensive use of information technology is the cost
of security. The use of electronic technology in commercial transactions
has revealed many opportunities for surveillance, espionage and malicious
intervention (hackers, viruses, etc.). The use of encryption also
raises a number of issues.
B. Changes to Procedures
The use of much
of the new technology would necessitate changes to many existing procedures
and practices within legislatures. Some of these changes might well
be unacceptable. Virtual presence technology raises a number of
questions such as:
chambers and committees have been televising their proceedings for many
years. Future multimedia presentations of parliamentary proceedings
via the Internet, both in real time and in recorded form, would not fundamentally
alter this situation. The full use of multimedia to record and broadcast
proceedings in chambers and committee rooms, however, prompts questions:
To date, little
attention has been given to the legal implications of electronic voting
in statutory bodies that are meeting virtually. The
electronic environment would also permit more complex weighted voting
methods, whose legal basis would need clarification.
Also of concern
is the potential effect of use of information technology on human relations.
How Parliamentarians deal with each other, witnesses and their constituents
could all be affected, or even perhaps damaged.(3)
media enthusiasts advocate the merits of virtual communication but
many people prefer face-to-face encounters, for a variety of subtle
reasons. How this affects the effectiveness of statutory bodies
remains to be explored. The importance of meeting a warm
body rather than receiving a virtual image may rank differently
depending on culture, background or personality type. How can
Parliamentarians distinguish between occasions when face-to-face interaction
is essential for democratic due process and occasions when such personal
intervention may even distort the situation?
the new technology permits a representative to receive communications
from constituents, she/he will be able to use it to consult
with constituents. Whether this involved use of website forms
or direct messaging, it might lead to overload among constituents,
who might begin to perceive such procedures as excessive or manipulative,
and not truly responsive.
of constituents to communicate directly with their representative
will raise expectations about the quality of the response. Clearly,
the technology can personalize responses to a relatively
high degree, tailoring them to match individual messages. Moreover,
constituents can be linked automatically to a relevant government
office, enrolled on specialized mailing lists, or allocated to listservers
dealing with their special areas of concern. The challenge is
to ensure that the technical smoothness and efficiency of the process
is matched by the high quality of the information disseminated.
and Parliamentarians have not thus far been at the leading edge in their
use of information technology, they have kept with the mainstream.
The rapid evolution of this technology and its growing use by society
will likely exert pressure on legislatures and Parliamentarians to exploit
its possibilities. In this way, citizens might have better access
to and increased participation in their legislatures, and
democracy could be brought closer to the people. Parliamentarians could
enjoy greater freedom, and the legislative process could be enhanced.
The technology could also: provide useful information for those reviewing
legislation or working on parliamentary committees; and facilitate communication
among Parliamentarians and various stakeholders.
On the other
hand, some of these gains might exact too high a price in terms of the
modifications they would require to existing parliamentary practices and
procedures. Moreover, it should be clear that the additional information
and enhanced communication made possible by the new technology will not
alter the actual decision-making process in a parliamentary environment.
A 2000 public opinion poll showed that cynicism among Canadians about
their political system is high and rising.(4)
Although information technology has the potential to genuinely improve
the transparency and responsiveness of the parliamentary system, if not
used wisely it risks the possibility of even greater cynicism. Parliamentarians
will need to weigh the potential benefits of information technology against
its potential drawbacks before deciding which of its aspects to embrace.
REVIEW OF THE USE OF WEBSITES IN LEGISLATURES
Of the various
information technologies used by legislatures, the public is perhaps most
aware of the legislatures website. A major study of the use
of websites in legislatures was undertaken for the Scottish Office, on
behalf of the Consultative Steering Group on the Scottish Parliament,
during the summer of 1998. This report, entitled Telematics
and the Scottish Parliament: Transferable Democratic Innovations,
was completed in September 1998 and is available at http://www.scotland.gov.uk/government/devolution/tdi-00.asp.
The Report was prepared in recognition of the operating principles established
for the new Scottish parliament, in particular the principle that the
new parliament should be accountable, accessible, open and responsive.
This appendix highlights the main findings of the Scottish report.
WEBSITES TO ENLARGE DEMOCRATIC ENGAGEMENT
The report explored
five analytical categories:
ABOUT PARLIAMENT AND GOVERNMENT
of general, educational information represents the largest
single component of most websites. Some sites provide fact sheets
that can be downloaded. Most sites have information about how
to visit parliament. The New Zealand site provides an online
booking facility for schools wishing to visit parliament.
provide historical material about parliament, with some sites offering
tours of the parliament building itself.
ABOUT PEOPLE IN PARLIAMENT AND GOVERNMENT
contain some personal and other details about Members of Parliament.
Examples include the curricula vitae of Members, their diary engagements,
their voting records, and a recording of their pecuniary and other personal
of services to citizens is not a strong feature of parliamentary websites.
Parliamentary and government publications can be ordered on some sites.
A few sites provide details of student placement or job opportunities
in Parliament as well as listing parliamentary vacancies.
FOR ACTIVE CITIZENSHIP
authors looked for evidence of the extent to which parliamentary websites
encouraged public participation in policy formation and feedback.
They noted the provision of timetables for current parliamentary debates,
opportunities for citizen involvement, and the development of discussion
forums. Some sites identify current issues and invite citizen views
on these. Ease and extent of access to public policy and legislative
documents were also assessed and the presence of any form of voting facility
The main findings
were as follows:
main findings in this area were:
UPDATE ON THE INTERNET
is a major network made up of smaller networks that agree to communicate
using a common set of standards. In the past few years, the Internet
has become synonymous with the information highway, on which the number
of users and the range of information and services available are increasing
at an unprecedented rate. The fact that the traffic (or volume of
information/data) on the Internet is said to double every 100 days, has
resulted in major upgrades to all elements of the Internet. In some
cases, this increased traffic has resulted in congestion for all users
and prevented the very high transfer required for research applications.
In response, new specialized high-capacity Internet routes are being built
in Canada and the United States, as well as in the EU. The Internet currently
has world-wide coverage, with 56,218,000 host computers in July 1999.*
Although the actual number is difficult to determine with any accuracy,
some estimate that there are 450 million users world-wide.
available free on the Internet consists of government documents, works
with expired copyrights, works in the public domain, and material that
the authors are making available on an experimental basis. The Internet
makes it possible to use e-mail, conduct online conversations, access
databases, retrieve files, and participate in a variety of discussions
all over the world. The most used service remains e-mail, for which
every user on Internet has a unique identification. The second most
common service is for world-wide websites; there were over 9,560,866 sites
in December 1999.**
part of the Internet is the sophisticated software intelligence that enables
users to navigate pathways to a whole universe of information. Information
portals are websites or services that offer a broad array of features
such as e-mail, forums, search engines, and online shopping malls.
The first web portals were online services, such as AOL (America On-Line),
providing access to the Web, but most of these traditional search engines
have transformed themselves into web portals in order to attract and keep
a larger audience.
increased carrying capacity has made available a much wider range of digital
material, including audio and video streaming. This is a technique
whereby data (video, audio and multimedia) can be transferred and processed
as a steady and continuous stream. Streaming technologies are becoming
increasingly important because most users still do not have fast enough
access to download large multimedia files quickly. Streaming enables
the client browser to start displaying the data before the entire file
has been transmitted. For streaming to work, the client side receiving
the information must be able to collect it and send it as a steady stream
to the application that is processing it and converting it to sound or
pictures. If the data are received more quickly than required, the
client needs to save the excess data in a buffer; on the other hand, if
the data do not come quickly enough, their presentation will not be smooth.
A number of competing streaming technologies are emerging and de facto
standards should emerge. Internet radio and Internet TV are two
examples of this technology, which can also be used to broadcast events
on the Internet in real-time.
development is voice recognition on web (VOXML), which is currently being
used for information on weather and stocks. It uses a very simple
vocabulary and can cope with a wide range of voices and accents.
With VOXML, users can voice-enable any web page for the visually impaired.
This is part of a continuing trend towards a wider range of methods of
inputting and displaying information both on the Internet and for information
technology in general.
As the Internet
has grown, so has the interest from commercial concerns. Electronic
mail and electronic cash for purchases on the Internet are common and
online shopping is assisted through product specs, icons and photos.
Although initially much of the commercial use of the Internet was aimed
at consumers, this has changed over the past few years. Major growth
is now in the area of business-to-business Internet transactions and this
e-commerce is expected to quickly grow in importance. It is estimated
that by 2003 the value of Internet commerce will range from $1.8 trillion
to $3.2 trillion, with 90% of this being business-to-business transactions.
are also increasingly using the Internet to conduct their business transactions.
The Canadian government, along with several others (including the U.S.,
U.K., Australia and Singapore), have e-government as a goal.
The Canadian target date is the end of 2004, and major changes are already
taking place in the Canadian government to meet this target date.
The Canadian online initiative aims to provide better service to
and build stronger relationships with Canadians and to serve as
a catalyst for electronic commerce.
PowerPoint presentation given by Linda Lizotte-MacPherson entitled Government
On-Line Program Review, CIO for the Government of Canada, 16 April
F.C. Arterton, Can Technology Protect Democracy? Washington, D.C.:
Roosevelt Centre for American Policy Studies and Sage.
Parts of this section were taken from The Challenge of Cyber Parliament
and Statutory Virtual Assemblies, by Anthony Judge, Union of International
Associations, April 1998 (http://www.uia.org/uiadocs/cyberass.htm).
Fisher, Making the House Matter: the Apparent Irrelevance of Parliament
Has Led to Calls for Fewer MPs Real Reform of the Institution Should
Make Backbenchers Both Relevant and Useful, The Ottawa Sun,
30 July 2000.
* Hobbes Internet Timeline
v3.0 by Robert H. Zakon, Internet address: http://www.isoc.org/guest/zakon/Internet/History/HIT.html