New Frontiers in Committees – Using Videoconferencing Technology

Article 7 / 14 , Vol 43 No 3 (Autumn)

New Frontiers in Committees – Using Videoconferencing Technology

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, many workplaces shut down. Some parliamentary committees didn’t or couldn’t. With physical distancing measures in place, some committees opted to use videoconferencing platforms to help continue operations. In this roundtable discussion, parliamentarians and committee clerks explain how the system has worked, where there have been issues that needed to be addressed, and what this technology may mean for the future of their work.

Participants: Richard Gotfried, MLA, Laura Mae Lindo, MPP, Valerie Quioc Lim, Shannon Philips, MLA, Aaron Roth

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, many workplaces shut down. Some parliamentary committees didn’t or couldn’t. With physical distancing measures in place, some committees opted to use videoconferencing platforms to help continue operations. In this roundtable discussion, parliamentarians and committee clerks explain how the system has worked, where there have been issues that needed to be addressed, and what this technology may mean for the future of their work.

CPR: Had you ever used a virtual video conferencing platform prior to using it for proceedings/committee work prior to the special measures for COVID-19? If so, how frequently?

Shannon Philips: You mean in the ‘before times’? (Laughs)

Richard Gotfried: I guess it’s BC – Before COVID-19. (Laughs)

SP: I’d have to defer to Aaron, but I don’t recall using it before for committee work. I remember bringing up the idea of using videoconferencing and being told that staff were investigating how it could work. We had used the telephone option before, but coming from our cabinet situation, we had often used videoconferencing in the last few years for some of our meetings. But we knew we’d have to figure out the Hansard pieces of using it and how to make it public. It’s one thing to use it for a meeting and quite another to use it for legislative proceedings.

Aaron Roth: Committees at the Assembly had previously had situations where arrangements were made for a presenter to appear by videoconference, but it was nothing quite like this. Members had never videoconferenced into meetings before. The telephone conference option had been around for a while, though. I think it was in the 80s or 90s when the Legislative Assembly Act started permitting telephone conference options for committees if there was unanimous consent. A number of committees had definitely made use of the teleconference option, but this has been the first time videoconferencing has been used.

RG: Aaron, we had the capability to use it prior to this, right? It was more a case of not having pulled the trigger to use it. We had used it for one off presentations, but this was the first time we used it for voting for public accounts.

AR: All the committees, at the start of a session, decided whether to use the teleconference option. This was the first time videoconferencing was an option that had to be authorized as well.

Valerie Quioc Lim: In Ontario, witnesses were previously permitted to appear by teleconference or videoconference, while MPPs were required to participate in person. This was the first time Members could participate in committees remotely.

The House passed a motion on May 12, 2020, that allowed committees to use electronic means of communication when meeting according to the following guidelines: the electronic means of communication is approved by the Speaker; the meeting is held in the Legislative Building and the Chair/Acting Chair and Clerk must be present physically; other Members participating remotely whose identity and location within Ontario has been verified by the Chair, are deemed present and included in quorum; and the Chair shall ensure that the Standing Orders and committee practices are observed to the greatest extent possible, making adjustments when necessary to facilitate physical distancing and electronic participation of Members and staff.

Laura Mae Lindo: I’ve had to use video conferencing and other interesting technologies like this prior to being elected. I used to teach technology integration as a part of teacher training. When post-secondary institutions started to promote more online courses, I used similar platforms to teach those courses. Some of them were blended, some were not. So, I had a little bit of experience, but not with proceedings. I think what was difficult was that you have different expectations for proceedings at work than in a classroom. But at least it gave me a background to draw from. I think it might have scared some of the other folks.

CPR: Can you describe how your first use of the technology for parliamentary purposes went? Were there any technical problems? Was it difficult to use for discussion purposes?

LL: It was challenging at first. You don’t realize how accustomed you are to where you’re seated, who you can see, who you can’t see. And also the way that you engage with people that you, to be honest, are engaging in pretty awkward ways. When somebody comes to depute at a hearing it’s already a pretty awkward experience, but now to throw them into this online world where sometimes they were only able to call in – not everyone was able to do the video. That piece made it interesting for us to find our footing in the finance committee, which has been running throughout this whole time. But we’ve gotten better at it. The explanations at the beginning are shorter, the transitions are getting better. And it wasn’t all bad. For example, I’m out in Kitchener-Waterloo. A lot of people out here can’t drive into Toronto to speak to the committee for seven minutes, especially if they’re working. Now, suddenly, the opportunity is there to be able to fully participate. It’s worth the awkwardness to be able to open up these opportunities to more people.

SP: It was actually pretty seamless from my perspective. I didn’t find it difficult at all. And even during the crazy times of March and April, there were always still members in the room. It was a combination of an in-person meeting and videoconferencing. I think for every meeting there has been a mix of people in the room, on the phone and on-screen, including the support staff at the Assembly. Given all of those dynamics, it’s all gone very smoothly. We’ve only ever had one hiccup on the tech end that lasted for about 20 minutes. Over the course of time we’ve figured out how to handle points of order, how to be a bit more preemptive and orderly with the speaker lists, and just generally more organized with time.

RG: It was interesting to consider some of the options available. For example, the ‘chat’ function that was available was very useful, but not for things like points of order. Ironically, when you’re getting just one person’s face on the screen who is speaking, it is a better visual experience for the public compared to what it’s like in the room. Where we did run into some problems was that some people are not comfortable with the technology. They went back to the telephone option, but as a result, they weren’t able to get the functionality of the chat available on the videoconference platform. I think if there is anything to be learned from this it’s to have some sort of tutorial so that the less technologically proficient MLAs can get onto it without feeling awkward about it when participating in a meeting. They just reverted back to the telephone and lost the ability to use the extra features.

CPR: Have MPPs/witnesses had any issues with disruptions while they were using these platforms (ie. family members/pets disrupting them)? Have there been any questionable choices for backgrounds or props/displays that would not have been possible during in-person meetings?

SP: During COVID times, if you’re at home, a Member won’t have staff with them to show them how not to have their face on screen when they’re not talking. So, there have been a few of those limitations.

VL: We provided MPPs and witnesses with guidelines on how to participate remotely. These two-page documents give information on how to get the floor to speak, how to use the chat function, how to access interpretation and a reminder that they could be on camera at any time. We also hold a pre-meeting with Committee Members 15 minutes before each committee meeting, where the Chair goes over the participation guidelines and confirms each Member’s attendance. Witnesses also first join a Zoom meeting with one of our staff to confirm attendance before they are given the link to the main committee meeting.

LL: There have been some issues for Members who don’t have good Internet access or bandwidth where they live. A lot of them have been advocating for broadband and improvements in that area. They would sometimes get booted out of the system. If they’re calling from home, you’re actually seeing which areas have access to high-quality Internet, and which don’t. And we’re seeing this from Members. Sometimes if they can go to their offices it’s a little better. I’m thinking, for instance, of (Nickelbelt MPP) France Gélinas (in Northern Ontario). She called in one time from her house and one time from her office and at one of those locations the Internet signal and bandwidth weren’t strong enough to keep her in the meeting. The same thing happened to Sudbury MPP Jamie West. There’s a whole equity component to this. Some people think technology is a great equalizer, but it’s not necessarily.

We’ve had a situation where people have had to send notes to the clerks saying they’ve been kicked out of a videoconference and they can’t participate, so it has been raised. Usually, they are able to get someone else to jump in to ask their questions. But in terms of a larger discussion about it… I don’t know if this would be fair to say, but it feels like there has not been enough time to have it yet. It’s interesting that in the finance and economic recovery hearings, we’re talking about moving to a more digital world and the need to invest in such a shift, so it is happening in our committee in a different context. But we haven’t had the opportunity to really reflect on our own situation yet. And there is a lot to talk about. For instance, the virtual meetings are giving people who may have never expected to be able to speak to the government the ability to appear. But we can’t provide that to them if, at the end of the day, we’re not willing to invest in it.

We also don’t know if this will be something we continue. Part of that discussion will be about this technology allowing more people to participate, while acknowledging that if we want this to happen we will have to invest in infrastructure so that people will have access to it.

To go back to the first part of the question, in terms of things that should or should be in view when you’re having a committee meeting, I think one of the things that’s interesting is that some of us have no option but to call in from an office because it’s a matter of where you have Internet access. So some people do have their names and banners behind them. It’s not been a full discussion among Members yet because I think there’s been an allowance that we’re all just trying to do the work. It just may not be possible for us to take care of the other things.

The other thing that’s happened to so many of us is kids (Laughs). They do run in. I know I’ve had little people’s fingers appear during calls, which is probably inappropriate for a hearing, but it happens sometimes when I’m home. It doesn’t happen from an office, but it depends on when the call is happening. Those kinds of things can make participating in a call a little more challenging.

AR: We’ve just asked people to remember that this is being broadcast. I know other jurisdictions have had some interesting visuals appear, but there’s been nothing major here to my knowledge.

SP: The women in our caucus have no objection telling the men how they look on camera, and I know we asked (Edmonton-McClung MLA) Lorne (Dach) to change his configuration because we were looking straight up his nose (Laughs). And when I’m home with my kids, the night before a meeting I put the fear of God into them that they are not to be running around while I’m chairing a meeting. So we get them organized so they’re doing something while I’m chairing the meeting.

CPR: Has poor Internet service and lack of bandwidth been an issue in Alberta?

SP: We have pretty good Internet access for most of our MLAs; it’s not the same level of remoteness that you might find in some places in Northern Ontario, for instance. There are lots of places in Alberta where you do not have the greatest connectivity, but if you’re in the towns you do, and most of our Members from rural or northern areas are based in these towns.

RG: Even if someone did have problems with connectivity issues, you could remove the video option from video conferencing and just show a photo and still have access to all the other options, like chat.

CPR: How have witnesses responded to using this technology?

AR: Where we’ve had people video conferencing in we’ve tried to do a test a day or two before to make sure everything is working properly. There were one or two cases where we couldn’t get it to work due to hardware issues.

CPR: Now that this technology has been used, do you believe it will become ‘the new normal’ even once public health issues such as COVID-19 no longer require this kind of physical distancing?

SP: There are some substantive issues about how we act and act toward others when on a videoconference versus when you’re physically present in a meeting space. I think it’s great that we are all learning about these issues together in terms of interaction, decision-making, and everything else. But I think the videoconference option will continue and be used especially by MLAs with riding outside of the capital area. Richard lives three hours from Edmonton. I live five hours away. Time and expense for us alone in terms of getting to the capital, being stuck in traffic, when we could otherwise be working. And then there are the health and safety aspects. Richard’s colleague (Calgary-Greenway MLA) Manmeet Bhuller passed away in 2016 on Highway 2. I won’t speak for Richard, because I know he was close friends with Manmeet, but when that happened it affected me greatly too. I spend a lot of time on highways as a part of my job. It made me think of all the times I’ve been going up and down Highway 2 in a snowstorm, and for what? For a brief meeting? I think if we learn how to use these tools for the betterment of our jobs it will give us the ability to work more. We can focus on what’s important: not driving 1,000 kilometres for committee meeting, but reading materials for the meeting. It makes us safer, it makes us less tired, it makes us more ‘present’ in these meetings. But there are ways we have to learn to interact with each other in the meetings in order to be effective. Now, with COVID, we’ve almost been given a gift, because we’re all learning that together.

RG: I agree with you Shannon. How many times were we driving to Edmonton for a three-hour meeting in the middle of a snowstorm asking ourselves: “Should I turn around?” and “Is this safe?” And to your point on Manmeet, he called us and said “I’ll be there by 3 o’clock.” He had a presentation to make. We said, “don’t worry about it.” But he insisted he needed to come up to do it.

And you’re right, it’s a great way to leverage more time in our constituencies and spend time saved meeting with people there. I mean it’s bad enough to do a same-day turnaround for me for a meeting in Edmonton, but Shannon, for you it’s a killer. I think people are getting more conversant with technology. I hope it’s the wave of the future. But we do need to take those people who are a little bit more awkward with it and help them to get more comfortable.

One of the things I wanted to mention was that Aaron helped us set up a text option outside of the system so we could do the ‘behind-the-scenes’ work involved in committee proceedings and not have to use the chat line. It gave us a backchannel to do some of the organization so that we didn’t have to bombard the rest of the group.

LL: I think it’s a great idea to leverage some of the digital connections we can make. It’s not just because of COVID-19. The system we’re talking about, as I said earlier, is an awkward way to participate. When you walk into a Queen’s Park committee room and see this U-shape group of people in suits and ties staring at you during the two minutes you have to make a point – it’s awkward. But if you can be in your studio when you’re calling in to talk about the arts or your office when you’re calling in to talk about business, there’s a level of comfort for you to start engaging and make better use of your time.

The other thing about committee meetings using this technology is whether people were given extra time if there was a technical problem. I don’t know whether this is the case because things are so tightly scheduled that you have other people coming in right afterwards. You should not be penalized if there are technical issues due to the bandwidth in your area. Nor should you be penalized if we, the Members, are delayed. I remember there was one meeting where the sound wasn’t working properly for everyone and everything was delayed for 30 minutes.

All this is to say that people coming to talk to the government should have a level of comfort. If this platform can help people start from a place of comfort, then it’s worth a discussion and investment. And I do believe we should have a broader discussion about the pros and cons of doing this.

CPR: Is there any angle that I’ve missed or something you’d like to add to this discussion that we haven’t touched on yet?

RG: We discovered that numerous ministries were using various platforms and they were used to different features and ways of doing things when we started, so that was one thing we needed to look into. I now have five different videoconferencing apps. And, sometimes people didn’t have the app loaded onto their computer and were used to using the phone version, or vice versa and that took a bit of time to get used to.

Also, I wanted to say that I think this technology opens up possibilities for future discussion on voting remotely that could be helpful in allowing us to stay in our constituencies more often or ensure that we have quorum to vote on items.

SP: There are often many benefits to being in the same room and that should remain the foundation of our work as parliamentarians. Having said that, video conferencing opens up possibilities that we’ve never had before, and I think it’s a good thing because it allows us to potentially balance our jobs with our other responsibilities in ways we could not more.

The other thing to add is that I think video conferencing is easier in places like Alberta because we haven’t had to do the simultaneous translation they’ve had to do in other places. That is a challenge we’ve luckily avoided. And also, I think in general, we started from a better place because the Legislative Assembly Office infrastructure and staffing complement that we inherited was really good.

LL: Not so much to add, but I think it’s important to emphasize the equity issue in this discussion. Who is having difficulty going digital and where are they having difficulty in going digital. If Members are having issues trying to figure out how to get a good signal, and we’re in a place of privilege, then what’s happening for others? I don’t want us to move into a position where we pretend we’ve created more engagement with the public – we need to go in with our eyes open and with clarity that unless certain investments happen, this may not work. For example, when the pandemic hit many community centres, libraries and malls shut down. These are often some of the only spots in a community where some people can get Internet access. We can’t put the cart before the horse and think that by putting these meetings online we create greater access when access may be very limited for some people.