Last week was a great opportunity to catch up with old friends and hear about some of the challenges chambers have faced over the last few sessions. Figured I’d share some thoughts after spending time at ASLCS in Portland. – Bill MaGill
Meeting in person for legislative sessions has been the norm for legislatures since their beginnings. Paper and manual processes have been in place as the way to conduct business as well. The pandemic turned all of these processes on their head and required chambers to reevaluate their processes and electronic access. Meetings had to change to larger venues, remote sessions, and for some, outdoors. Challenges to conducting business were seen all around the country, and Clerks and Secretaries stepped up to the challenge. Processes were changed and added in order to keep legislators and staff safe and healthy. Limiting physical presence was required and was met with challenges and discontent. Public and lobbyists were not allowed to interact with legislators physically, which changed the road map for testimony and dissemination of information.
In committee processes, with the limitation of physical presence, documents that would previously have been distributed physically now had to be electronic. Face-to-face meetings were forced to go remote. In order to meet these challenges, many chambers embraced new technologies to distribute legislation, amendments and other documents. In addition, many chambers were challenged to be more open, and transparency to the public has increased. The public is getting more involved and can see how legislatures are conducting business in the virtual age. Challenges are going to be posed as many chambers will go back to doing business as they had before the pandemic with the challenges from the public and many legislators who will now want the remote involvement to continue.
Challenges to conducting business were seen all around the country, and Clerks and Secretaries stepped up to the challenge.
Going back to business as usual—namely, conducting sessions entirely in-person—may not be a reasonable expectation. The experience of the last 18+ months and the ability of chamber leaders to adapt in the most trying circumstances serve as proof that the “new normal” is probably something close to just “normal.” Legislators, lobbyists and the public will want to continue the level of access they’ve enjoyed from outside the physical building even once the doors are open again.
During this time, chambers also discovered that remote voting had to be available. Some were able to modify existing technologies and others had to update completely and acquire new systems. Procedures had to be adopted to assist members in voting and have their voice heard. Remote sessions added to these challenges as internet connections were not always reliable. Many chambers had to adopt new procedures surrounding voting such as longer times for votes to be open to a dedicated phone line in order to ensure that a vote was recorded and recorded correctly. Technologies have stepped up to include voting by tablets, smart phones and other electronic means.
We may never see legislative business return to the way it was before the pandemic struck and remote sessions introduced.
Legislatures have always met the challenges placed in front of them and this pandemic has been one of the largest challenges in recent history. We may never see legislative business return to the way it was before the pandemic struck and remote sessions introduced. The Pandora’s Box of remote access has been opened and is unlikely to be closed. Legislators may continue to request participating remotely and chambers will have to decide by their Rules under what circumstances they would allow for remote participation.
Technology will continue to play an integral part in supporting the future of legislative business, whatever that looks like.
Bill MaGill is the former Clerk of the Vermont House of Representatives with 18 years of experience in the Clerk’s office, where he played an important role in chamber administration, legislative policy and support, office management, and digital communications. Contact Bill at email@example.com
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