May 14, 2020
Screenshot of the first ‘virtual’ PAC meeting held on March 30, 2020.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed how legislatures operate. Starting in mid-March 2020, provincial legislatures across Canada suddenly found themselves supporting physical distancing. Many began looking for ways to continue functioning virtually.
The Select Standing Committee on Public Accounts of the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia was quick to move to a virtual environment, holding its first meeting using videoconference technology on March 30.
Why did the Committee act quickly?
B.C.’s quick move to this new way of holding meetings was driven by the need to maintain the work schedule of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC). The PAC recognized that oversight and accountability must still take place even in these challenging times. The legislature’s culture brought an expectation that work must continue. With the legislative assembly adjourned, PAC chair Shirley Bond stated that committee work was an important way that legislative business could continue. “We have to keep the business of the legislature working,” she said.
What lessons can we take from the B.C. experience?
Preparation was critical to the success of moving PAC meetings to a virtual environment. The work of the PAC Clerk, Hansard, and IT staff played a significant role in ensuring that the transition was as seamless as possible. These groups identified three things that helped in the transition.
1. Ensure the technology platform is accessible, familiar, and user-friendly for members.
The Legislative Assembly’s administration looked at the teleconferencing options available and ultimately decided to use Zoom’s enhanced professional version as a cost-effective, familiar, and quick solution. Committee members were already beginning to use this platform for virtual caucus and constituency meetings.
2. Test the technology and conduct trial runs.
Legislature staff worked with IT support to ensure the technology would function effectively and reliably. They worked to address any potential security concerns, including the need for confidentiality when meetings are held in camera.
Trial meetings to test this new technology and process were held, first with committee staff, and then with others, including the Chair Shirley Bond, Deputy Chair Mitzi Dean, the Clerk, and researchers. These tests provided added confidence that the technology would function properly. It also helped participants identify potential issues that members may run into when participating in meetings. From this information, staff developed a tip sheet for members to refer to when participating in meetings.
3. Establish clear protocols for the conduct of meetings.
The Committee’s Chair, Deputy Chair, and Clerk met beforehand to go over how meetings will be conducted in this new virtual environment. Whether in person or online, PAC meetings operate most effectively when there are clear protocols in place on things such as speaking order, questioning of witnesses, and dealing with motions. Being able to juggle members’ speaking with chat and screen sharing makes the meeting proceed well. As many of us are finding out in these current circumstances, it can be more challenging to navigate meetings procedurally when you are not in the same room with other participants. Establishing clear protocols and staff support in advance for all members can help to alleviate this.
While the B.C. PAC’s early holding of virtual meetings showed that this transition can happen fairly quickly, it is important to recognize that it will be an ongoing learning process. PAC Chair Shirley Bond also noted during that first March 30 meeting: “We’ll get used to this as we go along, because this probably won’t be the only time we use Zoom technology to meet.”
This statement perfectly encapsulates why this transition is important, and why PACs should not hesitate to take steps forward even with some uncertainty as to how it will work out.
If one thing stands out from the B.C. experience, it is that preparation and planning are critical to successfully making this transition and there will be challenges along the way. Elected members come with varying backgrounds and levels of experience, and jurisdictions have different physical and technical infrastructure needs. Some members may want more support than others in making this transition.
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