This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders – from around the world and all parts of society – address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. It aims to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge. Opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.
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Over the past six months, the colossal impact of COVID-19 has forced 20% of the global population into lockdowns and isolation, with essential institutions and services of societies such as national parliaments and governments attempting to adapt and operate as close to normal as they can. As crises tend to, this pandemic and its effects, too, have provided the necessary reminders not to take the global health system lightly, and to consider not just the benefits but also the unavoidable risks that we have to mitigate if we want to live in this interconnected and truly global society. The crisis has also given a major push towards innovation and digitalisation, with people all across the globe overcoming physical distancing by facilitating a coming together of minds, the process of creation and making a difference. While not quite as poetic – but still incredibly important – state institutions have had to adapt and change rapidly, too.
Read the OECD’s analysis on Strategic foresight for the COVID-19 crisis and beyond: Using futures thinking to design better public policies
Even in normal times, state bureaucratic institutions are resistant to new technologies disrupting their usual way of doing things. However, the COVID-19 pandemic required them not only to continue and intensify their work but also to “practice what they preach” when it comes to social distancing. Latvia took a digital approach and embraced a digital democratic revolution to keep the state functioning, so the focus could always remain on the top priority – the health and well-being of Latvia’s people.
As the legislative body of Latvia, during a crisis it is especially important that the Saeima remains functional and fully able to fulfil its duties. However, on 21 March the parliament’s ability to fully commit to its duties was challenged after an MP announced he had tested positive for the novel coronavirus, thus indicating that a number of MPs and ministers could have potentially been infected, too. In order to carry on the necessary work such as approving crisis-focused legislation, since 2 April the plenary sittings have been taking place remotely, via video conference, with MPs joining from eight separate parliamentary premises to ensure social distancing. The process, while still technically allowing the parliament to fulfil its duties and remain fully operational, was slow, inefficient and not up to the standards of a fairly digitalised country; thus, the COVID-19 crisis catapulted the search for digital solutions to the very top of policymakers’ agenda.
Crises are not only force majeures in that they can even be desirable to a point – because they mean growth, they mean taking a new step forward – but you have to be agile in your response. Latvia can be considered to be exceptionally agile in developing solutions to challenges presented by the COVID-19 virus. The Parliament of Latvia is one of the first parliaments in the world that is ready to work and, in fact, continues its work completely remotely during the state of emergency.
The Saeima Parliament in Latvia called upon a Latvian IT start-up to design a virtual parliamentary system for its 100 MPs: the Latvian “e-system” allows MPs to use an app to recreate the parliamentary system on a computer screen. Because of this new e-Parliament tool, parliamentary sittings can now be held remotely, with deputies also staying outside parliamentary premises. At the same time, the work of the Parliament will still be open to the public and, as before, everyone interested will be able to follow the proceedings of the remote sitting live on the Parliament website and on the Parliament’s social media accounts. The e-Parliament tool was developed in an emergency mode in just a few weeks, in response to the restrictions on assembly caused by the COVID-19 crisis and the need to switch to remote work, as well as the call from the heads of state constitutional bodies to use parliamentary work.
This is a small example of taking a complicated and unwelcome situation and turning it first into chance, and then into an example of the country’s agility and technological innovation. While institutions, at times for good reason, are resistant to change, parliaments and governments have to constantly work to keep up with their societies. They have to keep innovating where necessary, adapt when needed and, most importantly, remain a stable and reliable constant that cannot and is not trampled by the most predictable feature of life: crisis or, rather, change.