The Congress of the Federated States of Micronesia holding its first virtual session. (Photo: FSM Congress)


The Congress of the Federated States of Micronesia held its first virtual session, which ran for  10 days between  13 – 22 April, and allowed the FSM Congress to approve a multimillion COVID-19 finance package. The FSM Congress changed its rules of procedure to allow for a remote session and adopted appropriate technological tools. By doing so, it has set good parliamentary practices, while efficiently and effectively responding to the emergency. Their experience of the virtual session, which is the first in the Pacific region, can guide Pacific parliaments in Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and beyond. 

Introduction

Human rights become more relevant when they are most in danger, the German-American philosopher, Hannah Arendt, had said. In a similar vein, the relevance of parliaments’ increases during a crisis. The more severe the crisis, the more significant the role Parliament should play to legislate and oversee all governmental actions.

Extraordinary situations such as the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic require efficient and effective measures, many of which deviate from ordinary policymaking. Such extraordinary measures include the proclamation of emergencies, limitations on freedom of movements and rights to privacy, all departing from the normal.

The current COVID-19 pandemic is not only a health crisis, it also impacts  deeply  on development and national economies, hence requiring simultaneous fast-track actions on all fronts. To address the situation, all branches of the State, the Executive, the Legislature, and the Judiciary, also need to cooperate rapidly to develop and deploy a quick response, while maintaining the balance and separation of powers. Such a rapid mode of delivery is often prone to errors and imbalances that could lead to instability and distrust among citizens and governments.

Similarly, extraordinary measures, such as emergency proclamations and limitations to freedoms, risk sliding into non-democratic practices, as the past and current experiences show. Parliaments, through their oversight powers, can oversee government actions to ensure their compliance with constitutional requirements, human rights, and democratic standards and good practices.

Concurrently, COVID-19 response may require new laws or amendments to address situations not covered by an existing legal framework. Therefore, parliaments have to enact legislation to provide a legal framework that can help resolve emerging problems. Parliaments may also need to create new institutional mechanisms to oversee new situations. The formation of a parliamentary “Epidemic Response Committee” by the New Zealand Parliament to monitor government actions is a good example. Likewise, Pakistan’s federal Parliament has also formed a bi-partisan COVID-19 response committee with membership from both houses of its national bicameral legislature.

But the COVID-19 related travel restrictions and lockdowns do not make a legislature’s job easy. While most governments have defined Parliament as part of essential services allowing them to operate despite the measures, physical distancing requirements are preventing parliaments from meeting as they would typically do.

More resourceful parliaments such as the United Kingdom (UK), Germany, and New Zealand were quick to adopt technology and adjust their rules for remote meetings (and, where needed, physical sessions). But parliaments in Small Island Developing States (SIDS) in the Pacific face multiple problems in adapting to the situation. First, their jurisdictions are often dispersed geographically and spread over large oceanic areas, which makes travel difficult even in normal situations. Second, they often do not have adequate financial, material and human resources to respond and adapt to fast-changing situations. Third, exposure to technological solutions is often limited, and the existing infrastructures rarely support modern video and teleconference connection.

The Congress of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) was faced with precisely the above challenges when its national government and the State governments imposed countrywide travel bans. Consequently, most of its Senators were unable to travel to Pohnpei, the national capital and seat of Congress, to participate in its sessions. But the sessions were inevitable, as the Congress was required to discuss and approve a COVID-19 stimulus package sent by the President of the national government.

Despite the challenges, the FSM Congress successfully organized its first remote session by bringing together its senators from across the islands using technological tools.

“It was a great challenge for us to organize a session when Senators could not travel to Pohnpei. We had never faced such a situation in the last 40 years, since the country’s independence. The pressure on us was huge, as Congress had to meet the expectations of the people”, stated the  Speaker of the FSM Congress, the Honourable Wesley W. Simina,. “We had to deliver our mandate as an independent institution, and there was no way for us to shy away from our core responsibilities in these challenging times”, he added.

Thankfully, the FSM Congress had already put in place a plan to move towards an electronic legislature (“e-parliament”) in 2018. With support provided by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), it had assessed its information technology infrastructure and developed a plan to automate its business to be done through digital means, progressively. The implementation of the plan was slow, due to other priorities often taking precedent. So, the COVID-19 crisis presented an opportunity for Congress to use parts of the plan and introduce possibilities for organizing a virtual session.  

Despite having an e-parliament plan in place, adopting technology wasn’t an easy feat

Despite having the plan in place, it was not without challenges for the FSM Congress to organize virtual sessions. Good practices suggest that any introduction of information communication technology (ICT) tools should start with effective and proper planning followed by pilot testing, before full-scale deployment of technology. But as the FSM Congress had to swiftly convene a session to discuss and approve the COVID-19 finance package, it didn’t have the sophisticated tools at its disposal. Additionally, as a small legislature (14 members) of a small island state, the FSM Congress does not have access to plethoric human resources, and the necessary skills to assist with these tasks were lacking.

How did it overcome the challenges? The Senators and Congress’ Secretariat officials alike showed flexibility by rising to the occasion and developing appropriate solutions. They explored different options and reached out to external experts.

“We are lucky to have partnered with UNDP for the last few years. Through our collaboration with UNDP, we have received and made significant institutional improvements. We started with the resources (leadership and staff expertise) available within our institution and reached out to UNDP to help us with appropriate solutions. Their team provided useful advice on adopting suitable technology and looking at related issues such as addressing our procedures. We followed their advice on necessary frameworks, procedure and technological tools and hope to [further] improve upon them ourselves with their advice" said Chief Clerk of the FSM Congress, Ms Liwiana Ramon.

The FSM Congress Secretariat accordingly selected digital solutions, including agenda building and teleconferencing software. Its teams then went ahead and conducted a mock session, to test the technology and allow Senators and staff to familiarize themselves with the new system. In doing so, the institution still followed good practices on technology deployment, despite the limited time available.  

‘The luck favours the prepared’, tackling the procedural limitations

Procedural limitations also posed challenges for the FSM Congress. In a legislature, sessions must be conducted as per pre-defined internal rules of procedure. Asking a question during a session, moving a motion, submitting and a debating a bill, and all other legislative processes are defined by such internal rules. Therefore, any changes to the modes of convening sessions, for instance, when meetings are conducted virtually, should be first described in Congress’s rules. But, despite the centuries of legislative history, the occurrence of remote parliament sessions is rare, if not absent. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, many parliaments around the globe had to quickly adapt their rules to the new ways of working, providing precedence for changing parliamentary traditions.

“This was a testing moment for me, as the Legislative Counsel, who advises Congress on legislative and procedural matters. Luckily, we had already launched the review of our Rule of Procedure in 2019 and had studied a variety of good international practices of democratic parliaments. Our partners from UNDP were already accompanying us then. This background work allowed us to move faster and quickly adapt our rules”, said Mr Lam Dang. “UNDP provided further advice on the procedural matters by sharing latest developments, especially in response to COVID-19 in the other parliaments”, he added.

Accordingly, Congress changed its Congress Rules of Procedure, specifically Section 3 of Rule 1 to “explicitly provide for the ability to have a remote session via teleconference or online.”  The change was mandated because existing rules required Congress to meet in Pohnpei State or in one of the other states.” The rule was amended to read that “… in extraordinary circumstances which prevent members of ‘CFSM’ [Congress of FSM] from meeting in the same locale, the ‘CFSM’ may meet remotely via teleconference or online with members in different locations.”

By amending its rules to allow for remote sessions, the FSM Congress set a good practice.

Some other parliaments could not cope with the changes required and either suspended their rules or disbanded parliamentary sessions, which was counterproductive to democratic governance processes. While many legislatures allow suspension of procedures, such a window is often abused to by-pass parliamentary scrutiny in the name of urgency. It is, by far, more respectful of the institutional balances to amend procedures and adapt them to changing situations. The COVID-19 pandemic could well be a one-off crisis; however, it may not be the only time Congress will have to meet remotely. First, health crisis and epidemics may return in the future. Second, FSM is prone to cyclones and other natural and human hazards, which might impede the Senators’ ability to meet physically in one location. The Congress has therefore set up a long-term plan by amending its rule to allow for remote sessions, rather than falling into the trap of short-term solution.  

Results – How was the experience? What were the results?

“We overcame the challenges and successfully organized the session approving important COVID-19 budget amounting to over USD 2million. Hence, we enabled the government to implement necessary measures directly and together with partners such as the World Health Organisation”, said the Vice Speaker of the Congress, the Honourable Esmond B. Moses.

The session lasted a week and a half and was broadcasted on Congress’s YouTube Channel. The live broadcast enabled citizen to view the session online since they could not experience the session within Congress premises, as they would normally do, due to government’s social distancing requirements.

The Congress Floor Leader, the Honourable Florencio Singkoro Harper, was excited about being able to join the session remotely. “It was a great experience, the first time our institution used technology in a ground-breaking manner”, he said. “I was in Guam at the time of the session and participated from the FSM Consulate along with my colleague Senator Paliknoa K. Welly. This remote session shows that we can even participate in Congress’s work even when travelling – an important consideration for future work”, he added.

Ways forward: How can Congress use this experience in the short and long term? And what can other parliaments learn from the FSM Congress?

The first virtual session was a significant milestone and have increased Congress’s confidence to organize further remote sessions in the future. “We have to hold our regular session in May 2020, and we don’t see the situation improving before that”, said the Vice Speaker. “Therefore, virtual sessions will be useful for us in the immediate future”, Hon. Moses added. At the same time, Congress’s IT team are using the feedback from the virtual sessions to improve its e-parliament plans and accordingly reform Congress’s IT infrastructure to support further innovation. “We are happy that we achieved a big success despite all the limitations. We are now using the experience of the first session to further improve virtual session for future. It has alo increased our confidence to fully implement our e-parliaemnt plan and automate the business of the house”, said Information Technology System Administrator at FSM Congress, Mr Daystone Roby.

The setup will also help Congress in another crucial area. The FSM consists of different geographically dispersedstates, making it difficult for senators and Congress to connect with citizens regularly. “The tools that we have used for virtual sessions will also help us in organizing consultations with citizens in remote parts of the country”, said the Senator from Kosrae, Honourable Aren B. Palik.

The FSM Congress is among the few parliaments around the world which have arranged virtual sessions. The practice could now be put forward as a good practice, where the FSM Congress can share its experience, especially with other small legislatures in the Pacific and other SIDS countries. While it is hoped that pandemics of such intensity will not take place soon, the experience of the FSM Congress will still be relevant for other SIDS, often confronted with emergencies such as cyclones, disasters and flash floods. “With this successful experience, we stand ready to share our experiences with our sister legislatures in the Pacific”, said the Legislative Counsel.

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