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Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Digital Parliament

After the ICT Day, I went to review my notes and well, well, well, my optimistic self had a fresh look at what the whole day meant for Kenya’s National Assembly.

It hit me that Kenya’s Parliament is going digital with a new innovation to beat quorum hitches, vote-rigging, and the shouts of ‘aye’ and ‘no’ in House proceedings.

Though the change-over to the new chambers that have been refurbished to a tune of Sh1 billion is two months late, and going by the pace of things in the House it is likely to take longer, the vision of a digital Parliament is slowly taking shape.

This week, the contractors working on providing the electronic voting infrastructure were finalizing up the cabling of the House floor in readiness for the roll-out of a state-of-the-art multimedia system.
The system will help cut down on the mechanics of the oral process that has been practiced in Kenya’s Parliament since independence.

As a result, the House will be quieter and more organized; that’s if the MPs get the chance to understand the innovation that was unveiled last Thursday during the Information Technology Day of the august House.

The system has a microphone, a miniature speaker, buttons to signal the Speaker that you want to contribute to the debate, another button to signal a point of order, and three others to determine how people will vote. So, if you want to vote ‘yes’, ‘no’ or ‘abstain’, you can do that without leaving your seat.

SUPER SEATS

The seats too will be super-luxurious and comfortable if the designs I saw are anything to go by. As per the tender documents on Parliament’s website, the seats will all be covered in leather, except the bottom which will be covered in polypropylene (some kind of hard plastic). The backrest will have the clock tower embroidered into the leather to ensure that the seats are specifically used in Kenya’s National Assembly.

The beauty of the voting system is that you have time allocated to vote, say, three minutes after the question has been put. In that time, an MP can vote ‘yes’, change their mind and vote ‘no’, decide to ‘abstain’, then go back through the whole cycle again. When the clock is stopped, whatever vote the MP could have cast is what will count.

The question will not be read as is the case now. According to the Clerk of the National Assembly, Mr Patrick Gichohi, the question will be displayed in very large typeface on four giant screens in the House, so that MPs can read and cast their vote.

Now, for the MPs who just pop in Parliament to be marked ‘present’ so that they pocket the Sh5,000 sitting allowance, they’ll all be discovered, because their seats will always blink blank.
For an MP to access the debating chamber, he’ll need a smart card and a personal identification number. Mr Arnold Mudinyu, an IT expert, who took the lawmakers through the whole process, said that without the card, then the MP could as well stay at home.

“But you know, MPs leave their houses in a hurry. What if I forget the card?” posed Mr James Rege, the chairman of Parliament’s Energy and Communications Committee.
“We’ll have a master card to override, so that you just use your pin number to access the console,” Mr Mudinyu replied.

The card has a chip with information about the MP: his constituency, party, membership to committees, positions held in other committees and basically any other data that will define the MP, including a brief bio.

‘ME! ME! ME! MR SPEAKER SIR!’

“Will this (system) stop the behavior of MPs competing to stand up? You know, I find it (the competition among MPs to catch the Speaker’s eye) very childish,” Information and Communication Permanent Secretary, Dr Bitange Ndemo remarked.

Well, to answer him, Mr Mudinyu said the console has a button to alert the Speaker. If there’s a member on the floor, then the person who first presses his microphone will be queued as the first one and all subsequent requests will be listed on a first-come-first-served basis.

But then to quell the anxiety of punctilious Senior Deputy Clerk PC Owino Omollo about putting the President, Vice President as the Leader of Government Business or the Prime Minister on the queue with other MPs, the system has a mechanism to designate such MPs, together with committee chairmen as ‘VIPs’ so that if they are on the queue, they get priority.

SHUT UP, YOUR TIME IS UP!

Those who keep on shouting will never be heard in Parliament, because the Speaker will have all the powers to decide which microphone to switch on, and for how long, and which one to switch off and when.

“If your time is up, the system will automatically switch off the microphone,” Mr Mudinyu told his hosts.
The system can also be connected to a camera so that the camera will track the active microphone and show the Speaker. It can also be connected to an interpreter’s booth so that should a foreign dignitary pop up –the way Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel will be in town this week-- and see the need to address Parliament, MPs will only need to wear earphones and listen in.

If MPs think they can beat the system by coming with their friends’ cards plus PIN numbers, then that will not work. This is because, unless one is registered as being in Parliament, that is logged-in, then their cards will not be able to work, even if they’re sneaked into the House. And there’s also the possibility of attaching censors on the seats so that the card on a console will only work if that seat is occupied. So that one can’t come, log in and hand over the card to a colleague to vote.

No doubt, the system will cut down on the cost of paper –now that even the MPs will be expected to carry IPads and laptops to the House and access the parliamentary business without printing anything on paper. Currently, the House uses 700 reams of paper every week.

But MPs will need to be trained to accommodate the digital life. It will take time and Mr Gichohi knows this. That’s why he has his eyes focused on making a timetable and having one room at Continental House, where MPs’ offices are housed, to be used for this job.

It will be a tall order given that even though all MPs, all the 222 were invited for the Open Day only four showed up. The four are Mr Francis Nyammo (Tetu), Mr Nicolas Gumbo (Rarieda), Mr Maina Kamau (Kandara) and Mr Rege.

A LOOK INTO THE FUTURE

Come 2013, it’s going to be a silent, digital Parliament and not the noisy, disorganized, kindergarten-lookalike that made Gichugu MP Martha Karua dub the august House as the ‘greatest auction house in Africa’.

House Speaker Kenneth Marende will also no longer have to remember the names of MPs or keep tabs on who stood first to ‘catch his eye’ for them to be allowed to contribute to debate in the House. It will no longer be possible for MPs to shoot up and interrupt debate on ‘points of order’ –to signal a breach in procedure. All they’ll have to do is to press a button to alert the Speaker.

Similarly, the feeble attempt at fairness by the Speaker of saying that, “I’ll pick two from this side and another two from this other side and after that we have to bring this matter to a close”, will be no more.
But for now, as MPs continue using the Old Chambers, the noise –what they call loud consultations-- continues.

Kenya’s Parliament is being spruced up at a cost of Sh1 billion with a possible 15 per cent variation (Sh150 million) likely to be topped up to conclude the work as per the fancy designs. The 15 per cent is the maximum top up allowed under the law on public procurement.

According to the designs I have seen the new-look House will have 326 fixed seats arranged in a u-shaped manner, with 26 other seats next to the door. Then there will be more seats, movable ones, up to a total of 359.

Bids for the customized, fancy, dark-red leather-seats will be opened on Monday (July 11, 2011) at Parliament’s County Hall. The Parliamentary Service Commission had last Thursday invited international seat manufacturers to bid for the job of supplying 400 seats. The key criteria was that they should not only have the capacity to handle the job, but that they should have supplied furniture and seats to other Parliament’s in the world.

SENATORS

Currently, there are 222 MPs in Parliament and their number is set to rise to 349 in the next Parliament. Senators are not expected to sit in the National Assembly, but the Old Chambers –now in use by the 10th Parliament—will be converted into a senate before 2013. The senate will sit 68 senators.
The refurbishment of the Old Chamber, according to the estimates prepared by the Parliamentary Service Commission, will cost Sh805 million, with Sh22 million to be spent on the purchase of specialised plant, equipment and machinery’ for security.

Refurbishment of buildings in this financial year is projected to cost Sh1.5 billion, with the cost decreasing slightly in the next financial year to Sh1.04 billion. The Hansard is already online and so is the Order Paper (Parliament's timetable) and the Bills. It is upon MPs to learn how to use the website.

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