Twitter, YouTube, “WarTok” – it is now well known that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Selenskyj relies heavily on digital platforms in his daily work. What we don’t know, however, is: How do other elements of Ukraine’s political system currently function? How does the parliament work, for example? Visual testimonies from the everyday life of members of parliament can be found sporadically on various online platforms: Selfies from the destroyed constituency or the picture of a family separation when relatives need to leave the country. By contrast, not too much is known about how the routines of decision-making have changed practically – with good reasons: An account of the concrete actions of the state would play into the hands of the enemy and possibly reveal new targets for attack. Typically, the parliamentary arm of the political system loses importance in times of crisis and war. To be able to act quickly and rigidly, governments and heads of state usually receive expanded powers through the means of a state of emergency. Nevertheless, it is worth looking at the situation in Ukraine, where the connection to the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic is particularly evident – here, too, the digitalization of various processes was seen as an impetus for finding an exit route out of the crisis. As a result, the effects are gradually becoming visible in Ukraine, hinting at what parliamentary work without a physical center and as a digital assembly might look like. Even though such a scenario is rather unlikely, it supports the thesis that things in the political sphere only change „toward the digital“ when external shocks leave no other choice. The experience of crisis and war thus results in digital democratic innovations that also entail a change in parliamentary culture.
Digitalisation during the Covid-19-Pandemic
The past two years have clearly shown that digital parliamentary communication changes in times of crisis all over the world. The German example shows: Due to the increased pressure to make decisions, the legislative branch of governance initially took a back seat during the pandemic. In the early stages of Covid-19 responses, actors in the executive branch were responsible for decision-making, while the German Bundestag initially exercised cooperative restraint in this phase of „Coronacracy“ (Florack/Korte/Schwanholz) and later became more audible as a legislative voice. The pressure situation arisen during the crisis collided with the otherwise rather protracted, time-delayed routines of parliamentary work. But in Germany, acceleration and renewal of parliamentary procedures occurred only in a few cases, such as the agreement on an „emergency parliament“ formed in proportion to the majority ratios so that fewer deputies could produce fewer contacts and thus fewer contagions. However, such measures were short-lived; at the federal assembly in February 2022 – a prototypical superspreader event with participants from all over the country – only the spatial setting was changed to meet the requirements of the pandemic.
After the Crisis, There is War: Learning from the Pandemic
In Ukraine, the parliamentary response to the pandemic was somewhat different – in a contribution to a conference of the International Parliamentary Union, an approximately 6-minute video from July 2021 shows that the Committee for Digital Transformation of the Verkhovna Rada, the Ukrainian parliament, has laid the foundations for conducting committee meetings as video conferences in a legally secure manner since March 2020. In addition, a digital platform for document management was set up at that time, and a broad-based e-government portal with digital administrative services for citizens is operating under the label „The State and I“ (Diia) – the Estonian model of digital citizenship seems to have been the example here (for English press information on Diia see here). In the style of typical approaches to administrative modernization, Diia announces the acceleration of citizen-oriented services, which, however, is not limited to the mere „translation“ of familiar procedures, but encompasses a „reinvention“ of administrative action. Diia also explicitly aims to improve communication between ministries, but these aspects of internal government and parliamentary work clearly were not as important as the modernization of citizen-oriented services.
Compared to the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic and the incremental learning processes associated with it, the Russian assault on Ukraine is an incomparably more radical interference in the institutional structure. Within the semi-presidential system of Ukraine, typical routines have broken away without replacement within a few hours and days; the classic form of parliamentary assembly seems completely impossible even many weeks after the start of the war and will continue to be so for an uncertain period. Many representatives have reported on their personal fates, evacuated family members and remained in the country themselves in order to responsibly fulfill their mission. From an outside perspective, it is difficult to adequately describe the concrete form of parliamentary work, but even a glance at the digital presences of the Ukrainian parliament shows that the „Verkhovna Rada“ remains capable of acting even during the war and can provide information about current activities.
The website at www.rada.gov.ua is still online and is used as a news portal; protocol documents on current decisions and on the work of the parliamentary committees (comparable to the German Bundestagsausschüsse) are still available on the website. In addition, the Verkhovna Rada’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages also function as info channels for parliamentary work – for example, a report on the visit by german politicians Michael Roth (Social Democratic Party), Anton Hofreiter (Green Party), and Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann (Free Democratic Party) can be found there, as well as numerous saisonal greetings. The president of the parliament, Ruslan Stefanchuck (on Twitter: @r_stefanchuk), acts as a central figure of identification, although he is not quite as visible as President Selensky or Digital Minister Mykhailo Fedorov. Such digital signals from the parliament are always a sign of life – look, we’re still working! This is also a communicative riposte to the countless images of destroyed towns and villages, which shows that the Ukrainian state is still capable of speaking and acting beyond the top ranks of government, despite all attacks and assaults.
War in the Government District: No Space for the res publica
Politically, culturally, and historically, parliaments can be conceived as something like the „center“ of the political system, where the delegates meet to represent the population in its entirety and diversity. Many parliaments try to express this meaning through their architectural style, be it through the seating arrangement in the plenary hall, its specific shape or the materials used, which are supposed to express dignity and transparency. Parliaments form a structural fixture in government districts around the world, they are the pivotal place where public affairs are negotiated and formulated. The Russian assault on Ukraine has made it abundantly clear that this place no longer exists in Kiev. At least it is no longer available to the representatives, and the parliament is forced to reinvent itself as a „placeless actor“. It is not very surprising that this reinvention is taking place in the digital space (though not in Zuckerberg’s metaverse), but this relocation also means a lot politically, and symbolically. A parliament is not only the workplace of elected representatives, but also a visible point of identification for the electorate. In wartime, this function is lost – the public gathering of representatives is simply not possible, and accordingly the images of debate, dispute, negotiation, and decision are missing. (Nevertheless, there are regular physical meetings of the delegates, but they have to hide in secret places – that is a stark contrast to the concept of „res publica“ as a visible, open-to-the-public process).
But what will take the place of parliament as a workspace for members of parliament if communication, exchange and decision-making are shifted to digital channels? First, one may assume that messenger services will play an even more important role – at least in their own (party-affiliated) working environment this will maintain basal communication. But group communication is not limited to the faction level – internal party wings, the various committees or cross-party circles are also likely to use this tool. This is not unusual and is common practice in other political systems. But what does it mean when it is not an addition to familiar routines but the only remaining means of communication? Since the pandemic, text-based messenger communication has been supplemented by video conferencing – not only in Ukraine. Yet, the basic problem of lacking physical interaction remains. Further, very practical questions arise from speculation about possible courses of communication: who assumes the „admin“ role in such digital groups? Typically, it would be the job of the parliamentary presidium or the respective committee chairs. But is the technical know-how available in the relevant places? In any case, the IT expertise of the parliament and the parliamentary groups is required – but how do such service units respond to such a major challenge? We do not want to imagine a similar situation for the German Bundestag administration…
In this way, the security dimension becomes immediately clear: Which platform is used for the communication of members of parliament and when is „digital sovereignty“ guaranteed here? Which platform can guarantee confidentiality of communication? Is a „safe harbor“ for digital parliamentary communication at all realistic? While the Diia concept for digital administrative modernization hints at such autonomy, it is far from clear how intra-parliamentary communication works. The fact that the Verkhovna Rada’s external communication relies heavily on international platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Tiktok is understandable because of their reach, accessibility and robustness – but what about the sensitive forms of internal communication? And here, too, traditional principles of parliamentary work must not be neglected: What happens to the (digital) minutes of meetings? How will the archiving of parliamentary communications be implemented? Of course, solutions for this are conceivable, but how can something like this be implemented securely and confidently? The Starlink episode at the beginning of the war remained relatively underexposed in this regard: at the request of Digital Minister Fedorov, Elon Musk provided terminals to secure a satellite-based Internet operation in Ukraine (who paid for the equipment is another question). But what happens to the data sent and received via the terminals?
There would be many more small-scale questions about what a digital parliamentary practice would have to look like (for example, about access requirements and rules, security measures such as biometric procedures, or accreditation for specific voting processes). Interesting as they are, they cannot be addressed within the limits of this blog post. Instead, I would like to conclude with a rather abstract consideration. The everyday work of the Verkhovna Rada has so far known both synchronous and asynchronous routines. The preparation of decisions is mostly decentralized and every delegate decide on his/her own, when to write, comment, revise or reject a draft. But the legislative process also has formats such as discussions in committees or the reading of bills in plenary sessions, which are carried out simultaneously by many members of parliament. And for this, Parliament is now unavailable as a physically structuring element for assembly and dialogue. To compensate for this loss, digital alternatives have developed for both types of parliamentary work, especially in the COVID19-pandemic. The reading of important working documents is organized via suitable platforms for document exchange and collaborative annotation and tends to take place on a time-delayed basis. The discussion of contentious issues and the negotiation of compromises (within parties and factions as well as „across the aisle“) seems to have found its place more in synchronous procedures such as videoconferencing. Finding a balance between these two fundamental modes of work is the first challenge facing an organization like the Verkhovna Rada, which has been deprived of an analog working environment. Here, political science faces the next open questions: How well can political decisions be prepared and made when face-to-face exchange takes place only digitally? Where are the digital venues for informal discussion of contentious issues? How well does legislative development work in the amendment mode of word processing? Do mobile devices allow for sufficiently intensive engagement with longer drafts and justifications? The devil also is in the digital detail.
Outlining the New: Approaches to Digital Parliamentary Research
The investigation and analysis of the current situation in Ukraine is a challenge for scholars from various disciplines. In terms of research practice, this is anything but trivial; the language barrier already sets narrow limits for a reception of the openly visible external communication of the parliament (but automated translation services really do help). Scraping data from social networks, for example, is also of limited value if the majority of parliamentary communication only circulates internally. Thus, an informed view of internal processes and routines becomes even more difficult – usually, expert interviews offer insights into everyday organizational life, but at present it is unrealistic, and questionable in terms of research ethics, to make use of such instruments.
And yet, the examination of concrete parliamentary practice in Ukraine under siege is necessary for political, legal and administrative science. Here, the contours of a new parliamentary culture are emerging, and there are indications of a – for many unexpected – resilience of the Ukrainian state. It is also possible that intensified observation will create new opportunities for cooperation and support – and, in the future, prospects for learning and initiating digital democratic innovations.
The author would like to thank the entire team of the research program „Digital Democratic Innovations“ for their valuable comments, criticisms, and suggestions.