For the past couple of weeks, and despite its centuries-old history of democratic proceedings, the UK's Parliament has been on par with most businesses and organizations small and big across the world – doing as much work from home as possible.
The institution might constitute the heart of political life in the country, but that hasn't exempted the Palace of Westminster from following the social-distancing rules imposed by the current global health crisis. And to make sure that the UK government keeps being held accountable by members of Parliament, both the House of Commons and the House of Lords have started quizzing ministers via video-conferencing.
While the Commons have gone for Zoom, the Lords have stuck with Teams for the time being. But Parliament is at the very start of its digital transformation, and things are still rough around the edges. Just like experts around the world have advised CIOs to make sure their employees know how to behave in the virtual workplace, so has Parliament issued guidance for members to keep challenging the government and protecting democracy – all from the comfort of their homes.
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It starts with the basics: the House of Commons' official advice to MPs participating via Zoom explains that attendees should choose a quiet location, avoid busy backgrounds, and frame themselves as if for a passport photo. Members are reminded not to hold sensitive conversations while on the call, even when they are on mute.
In further guidance published recently, it was specified that Parliament's in-house broadcasting team would be responsible for unmuting any MP participating remotely; and parliamentarians were instructed to make sure that they join the conference "in good time before question time starts".
Similarly, a spokesperson from the House of Lords informed ZDNet that members had been given guidance on the use of Teams, which included advice on how to prepare for sessions, such as testing sound and video, or how to join proceedings and via which devices. Members can only be admitted to virtual sitting via a Microsoft Teams link sent to their parliamentary email account.
On-screen functions such as mute or unmute, and camera on or off, were also explained, as well as who members would be visible to, and how to blur their background. Members were talked through how to unmute when they are due to speak and how to exit the meeting at the end of a session.
All of this guidance will likely be welcomed by the Lords, who had a first go at live broadcasting their Teams rendering of their parliamentary business. Technically speaking, the sitting went rather well – but parliamentarians could have done with a bit more virtual etiquette. From questionable backgrounds to failures to find the unmute button (or, for that matter, finding it at inappropriate times), the Lords are still gathering some learning points.
In fact, the broadcast had to be taken down because it included audio of some of the participants' personal mobile phone numbers, and the live-streaming of the House of Lords' proceedings was temporarily paused. Since then, however, the public broadcast of the Lords' questions has resumed.
In the defense of the Lords, it can't be easy to translate to the virtual world some proceedings that, for the past centuries, have taken place in a physical chamber in the Palace of Westminster, complete with a plethora of long-held traditions and rites. What to make, for example, of the rule that men should seek permission to speak with a hat on when they are in the House in normal circumstances? Or that sittings of the House are to start with all members bowing to the Cloth of Estate behind the throne, as well as to the mace, which represents royal authority?
In addition to technical guidance, therefore, Parliament – via the Lords' Procedure Committee – has also issued some new rules on how to conduct the House of Lords' virtual sittings. For starters, forget about the mace: proceedings will be chaired by the Lord Speaker and start with prayers. The Committee also deemed preferable to advise members that they are permitted to speak from a seated position – against House rules, which say that members must speak standing.
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Members who are normally required to wear a robe, like bishops, are exempt from the traditional gear, and rather required to observe "normal standards of dress". But the rules were only relaxed to a certain degree. Members are still expected to employ the same courtesies as when speaking in the House; "My Noble Friend", "The Honorable Lady", and, for the more high-end participants, "The Most Reverend Primate", will therefore still constitute normal Lords chat, even if on Teams. The Committee stressed that speakers should refer to others in the third person, rather than as "you".
Another House rule that has survived the switch to video conferencing is that speeches should be shorter rather than longer, because "long speeches can create boredom and tend to kill debate". A tip which is certainly not limited to Parliament.
For the sake of clarity, the Committee had to tweak debate rules slightly. In the House, members are normally allowed to interrupt each other, whether for clarification or to draw attention to breaches of order; but it's easy to see why unsupervised interventions during a Teams meeting could lead to complete chaos. The Committee has, therefore, clarified that members may not intervene on other speakers.
The new rules, of course, will without doubt tame down debates, and it is unlikely that the public will witness the tension of real-life parliamentary opposition again anytime soon. Add to this that parliamentarians are, more often than not, at the very start of the video-conferencing learning curve, and you can be sure that there will be plenty of opportunities over the next few weeks for cringy mishaps and awkward glitches.
One could argue that Parliament has never better reflected the dilemmas affecting society at large, and any manager will relate to the lags, freezes and other technical glitches that have now become a part of debates, oral questions and other ministerial statements. Parliament is working its way, using the tools at its disposal, to ensure its democratic business continuity. That's a tricky situation – but one that many of us can empathize with.