Making a virtual parliament work
From navigating digital meetings to the challenge of keeping up morale in the virtual sphere, many of us have experienced the ups and downs of working from home in the past month. As Parliament is about to come up against the same issues, I’ve drawn on what we’ve learned over the past month to offer some key tips.
As we remain in lockdown, the government has been granted emergency powers and is making decisions more rapidly than normal. This makes parliamentary scrutiny more important than ever – to ensure that, although our country is in lockdown, our democracy isn’t.
Under the new rules, about 50 MPs will still be physically in the House of Commons (under strict social distancing rules), while up to 120 MPs at any one time are able to take part in proceedings virtually. A number of screens will be placed around the Chamber to allow those physically present to see their ‘virtual’ colleagues.
To ensure equal treatment for all Members, the operating model drawn up by the House Service requires those joining by Zoom not to display or draw attention to objects to illustrate their contributions.
To ease into this hybrid reality, here are my 3 tips for MPs:
Thankfully, Leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg seems to have a realistic expectations of what this hybrid experience might be like. Writing in the Telegraph he said, “Ministers will freeze, members will launch forth into fine perorations only to be muted or snatched away altogether by an unreliable internet connection.” If you’re terribly unlucky, you might even have a colleague turn into a potato for an entire meeting.
Of course, it’s not just frozen screens you need to prepare for. The working from home repertoire includes children barging in mid-conversation – as our CEO Kevin is grappling with – as well as ‘low’ days that are an inevitable part of the global pandemic reality. MPs and those of us listening into debates will have to patient, kind and compassionate as we all get used to a new form of scrutiny.
MPs are under a huge amount of strain. We can expect that they, like all of us, will have days when they struggle. At Save the Children we have designated wellbeing advisers and the opportunity to have counselling sessions gratis.
In addition, we’re encouraged to continue our normal office habits virtually – including sharing funny tweets and anything to do with puppies in a group chat. Some teams have gone further. One has set up a film club to complement its established podcast club. Others have organised quizzes or even tried to replicate the atmosphere of the office’s local pub. Boosting morale in a time of Covid-19 is no easy task, but we know that we are all in this together.
There is concern that virtual sittings will disenfranchise backbench MPs. Some have suggested that casually catching up with a minister in the voting lobbies is of great importance for backbenchers to advance their causes.
One solutions to no longer bumping into colleagues in the kitchen is virtual Coffee & Conversation. Staff are paired at random with a different colleague each month to have a virtual coffee together. It’s a great way to find out about areas outside your regular scope of work, to get to know the higher-ups you might not normally chat to, and to make new pals.
Maybe MPs can have their own Commons Coffee & Conversations?
A new reality
We wish MPs good luck as they settle into this new semi-virtual reality – and continue their ever-important role of keeping our democracy going while we fulfil ours by staying at home.