IN a meeting on the President’s Initiative for Cyber Efficient Parliament on Wednesday, President Arif Alvi expressed his desire to see parliamentary operations completely digitised by January 2023. In the first phase of this initiative, the minister for information technology and telecommunication has said, agendas of sessions of both houses of parliament and their committees, motions, proceedings, etc would be presented through a computerised system. Though there are not enough details at present to scrutinise the plan in depth, and there are likely to be implementation challenges (such as cybersecurity, data protection and technology literacy among parliamentarians) the drive to automate operations is in general a welcome move towards modernising and streamlining parliamentary procedures and records management.

Moreover, besides making the work of parliament more efficient, this effort can lay the groundwork for increasing transparency and public participation with their elected representatives. A fully digitised information management system can provide interesting opportunities to expand and improve the way that open data is made available to citizens. An accessible, searchable public dashboard that is updated in real time, for example, and which eventually includes digitised archives of past sessions of the National Assembly and Senate and members’ voting records, can prove to be a much greater resource for journalists, researchers and the general voting public than government websites in their current state. Several studies have found that a key barrier in greater citizen engagement is knowledge of how parliament works. Used strategically, technology can bridge the gap between constituents and parliamentarians, enhancing decision-making and promoting civic education. Both governmental and non-governmental initiatives (such as the UK’s TheyWorkForYou) have shown promising results in this regard. But an increasing reliance on technology can also widen inequalities between online and offline populations unless also supplemented with a holistic strategy to improve digital literacy and internet access. There is plenty of potential in digitising parliament, provided that the key aims of building transparency, trust and participation remain in the foreground.

Published in Dawn, April 25th, 2021

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