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A member of the British Parliament sitting alone on the green benches of the House of Commons during social distancing in the pandemic.
Social distancing left Westminster’s House of Commons virtually empty at times. UK Parliament/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Pandemic parliaments: lessons learned from two years trying to run democracies living under COVID-19

Parliaments matter more than ever in times of crisis. They oversee emergency responses, evaluate and pass legislation, and approve funds to meet urgent public needs. They have a key role to play in maintaining transparent, effective government. And when they do all this well, they make it easier for people to trust their governments.

When a government has to take extreme measures, it helps to know that other parties in parliament will act to stop it from going any further than is absolutely necessary.

This was particularly in evidence over the past few years when governments have imposed lockdown measures that restricted basic human rights in the interests of curtailing the spread of COVID-19. Without parliamentary scrutiny, it would have been much harder to accept these restrictions without fearing an erosion of democratic principles.

But this role does also require parliaments to engage with the people they are supposed to represent. They must inform and educate citizens, communicating with them in order to identify their fears and uncertainties.

This engagement was all too often sidelined during the pandemic. Parliaments focused on more traditional functions, such as oversight and legislation – tasks which can be carried out without any public involvement.

Research across nearly 80 countries, based on interviews with parliamentary staffers and members of parliament, suggests parliaments were less able (or less willing) to consult citizens, or to facilitate their participation in politics during the pandemic.

One reason for this, as we learned from our research participants, was the logistical challenge of COVID-19 responses. Suddenly, members and staff were unable to meet citizens (or even each other) in person. There was also increased pressure on staff and members’ time and attention, as parliaments reconfigured their activities and priorities.

Listening to the people

Consulting citizens is important. Through committee hearings, surveys and polls, parliaments can make use of collective intelligence to inform their work.

But a lot of consultative and participatory activities must be conducted in person, so social distancing and the shift to working online took their toll. The pace of the pandemic also meant that parliaments had to act fast, making decisions about emergency responses within hours and days rather than weeks and months. This left parliaments with less time to consult a wide group of citizens when making calls about their lives.

In Fiji, for example, the parliament speaker’s debates bring together citizens and expert panellists to discuss national issues. Held in public venues, they help to open up and demystify the parliamentary process. In South Korea, non-governmental organisations often come in to give evidence to parliamentary committees on issues that are important to citizens. In the COVID-19 era, both activities – among countless others – were temporarily curtailed, leaving citizens with fewer opportunities to be consulted and to participate in the running of their countries.

Parliaments could have addressed this by inviting greater citizen input via social media or in writing. That might have enriched decision-making processes as well as enhancing the legitimacy of those decisions. This is especially relevant for questions of immediate concern to citizens, such as how long emergency powers should last.

It isn’t inevitable that engagement should be compromised in times of crisis. After all, parliaments all over the world have adapted significantly to the modern era. By the time the pandemic came around, many had already spent years communicating with citizens via TV and radio broadcasts, for example.

The outside of the New Zealand parliament building with national flags flying in front.
The New Zealand parliament’s Epidemic Response Committee live streamed meetings to keep citizens updated. Shutterstock

This has helped democratic parliaments to at least keep citizens informed about COVID-19 and parliamentary work, even if this falls short of engaging them. In Ireland, for example, virtual tours of parliament were set up, and television broadcasts of parliamentary business were maintained. In New Zealand, the national parliament set up an Epidemic Response Committee and live streamed its meetings so that citizens could access crucial information in real time. These parliaments took extra steps to continue to speak to citizens, even if they weren’t able to listen to them.

Democratic institutions and freedoms

Parliaments have demonstrated an ability to inform, educate and communicate to citizens during the COVID-19 crisis, but not (necessarily) capture their voices or facilitate their participation.

This matters, because capturing public voices is a basic requirement of representative democracy. Our modern political systems are premised upon the ability of institutions to speak on behalf of citizens. Their voices must be heard and listened to – and their priorities put into action.

In the COVID-19 era, democratic freedoms were threatened under the pretext of national emergencies. Parliaments play a crucial role here; they are spaces for debate, oversight and transparency. But in order to work effectively for citizens, parliaments must engage them.

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