Ilana Trombka — Setting up the world’s first digital senate

The Innovation Dividend explores how innovation in society and government are paying off. Over the coming weeks, we’ll be exploring how ‘policy frontliners’ are innovating in real time in the COVID-19 pandemic and asking which of these changes and “raw learnings” might become part of our new normal. You can see the backstory by Kal Joffres here, Podcast EP 1, Podcast EP2, Podcast EP3, Podcast EP4, Podcast EP5, Podcast EP6, and Podcast EP7

COVID-19 has prevented or delayed legislators from meeting in a number of countries at a time when they have been most urgently needed. Ilana Trombka, the Director General for the Federal Senate of the Brazilian Congress had the Senate ready to work digitally a mere 8 days after COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic. Brazil became the first country to legislate fully digitally.

To date, Brazil’s virtual Senate has passed over 30 pieces of legislation online, including a constitutional amendment. We hear from Ilana how the Senate was prepared to act so quickly, how the conduct of the Senate has been adapted for the digital medium, and what impact this has had on the legislative process. This interview was recorded on May 29, 2020.

Ilana Trombka: [00:00:00] On March 20th, we had here in the senate a hundred percent remote session in 196 years. Just before this podcast, I was in our digital plenary. and one of the senators were telling the others that he counted the number of pieces of law that were approved in the last 60 days. The number was 30 It’s a lot, you know, one each two days.

Milica Begovic: [00:00:37] Hi, and welcome to The Innovation Dividend, the podcast that explores how innovation in society and government are paying off. I am Millie Begovic.

Kal Joffres: [00:00:46] And I’m Kal Joffres. Over the past few weeks, we’ve been looking at how the COVID-19 pandemic is creating some interesting and unexpected sources of innovation around the world. Today we speak with Ilana Trombka, the Director General for the Federal Senate of the Brazilian Congress.

Milica Begovic: [00:01:01] Ilana led the effort to enable the Senate to legislate digitally a mere eight days after the World Health Organization declared COVID as a global pandemic. Brazil became the first country in the world to legislate digitally.

We hear about how the Senate was prepared to act so quickly, what had to change, and what is different for senators who are operating remotely, and what happens to the over 9,007 staff who are now also working remotely.

Kal Joffres: [00:01:28] Ilana, welcome to the podcast.

Ilana Trombka: [00:01:30] Thanks for listening to Brazilian cases of success in this terrible moment that our world is going through.

Milica Begovic: [00:01:40] How quickly did the parliament go fully online?

Ilana Trombka: [00:01:44] Our deliberate remote system took eight days. Eight days to start to work. It’s incredible. I can tell you for sure that it was a huge challenge for our office, and we had on 13th of March, the World Health Organization declared the outbreak of COVID-19 and on March 20th, we had here in the senate a hundred percent remote session in 196 years. A big challenge, a big change in our culture. In this day, the only (unintelligible) on the agenda was a legislative decree that recognizes the state of public calamity in Brazil, due to the global pandemic cost by the coronavirus.

[00:02:41] So it wasn’t posed to us that we need to vote because we had this huge crisis and Brazil needs this piece of law to start dealing with the crisis and we did it. We was, we were the first parliament in the world to use a hundred percent remote deliberative process.

[00:03:05] We have video conferencing too, that is provided by a third-party enterprise. The second part is a remote protocol to developed by our ICT team here in the Brazilian Senate. A third part is a remote secure voting too that was developed by a Brazilian enterprise hired by Senate in seven days calendar.

[00:03:33] And then our team set up operational guidelines on the how to do basis to integrate these three solutions altogether. And all together cost for us $44,000 dollars.

Milica Begovic: [00:03:52] How were you able to do that in eight days?

Ilana Trombka: [00:03:55] Okay, this is a history that starts in 2015. May 5, 2015, we had our, in administration area, we decided that we will be fully digital. Oh and this means you have no papers anymore. This 2015. In the beginning was quite hard because people were very used to use paper and to do all the processing papers and carry papers from one part to another.

[00:04:30] And then it changed. So when 2018, when we had in Brazil, the truckers strike, we realized that something can happen that do not allowed us to be here in the federal district or to vote in our plenary. We, so we need the solution for special moments. And as we were in that virtual culture, electronic culture, because of the decisions that we took in 2015, we start to build these tools, and we built it.

[00:05:09] We build it since then and was something that we were doing and waiting for someday to use or not because it’s very different to be in the plenary with your colleagues, all the senators together and have them separated each one in the year, their homes, and the time comes. And when it comes, we were ready to use it.

[00:05:41] We have our insight IT team. And they, they provide, they plan their jobs in the way to have some group that works in, does special projects. So this was one of the special projects that this group developed.

[00:06:08] But anyway, it was a big challenge because we had the, the basis to do it. But we need it, turn everything together in just a week. And for this to be possible, I can tell you that it took us a lot of a work, a lot of effort, but more than this, this culture of community that we are all in the same community — the senators, the employees, and that we all together need to find the solution was very important, you know, because people work so hard to do things very quickly.

[00:06:52] And then they were very proud, you know, I could see in their eyes, they are shining in this first session. We were so happy in that night, Milica. I will tell you, we, we went in the end of session, we went back our houses. And we decided to do a toast, a virtual toast for the new times that we were just realizing that we’re coming in our parliament.

Kal Joffres: [00:07:26] You invested in enabling the senate to work remotely when there wasn’t an immediate crisis. How was the reception to that?

Ilana Trombka: [00:07:32] You know, I don’t know how, how it is all over the word, but in Brazil, parliament have a lot, a lot, a lot of problems with media and everything that we do it here. If you buy something and other things, if you spend some money in innovation or buying some tools, everybody criticize us. But the, the board members, the members of the parliament, the chairman, they trust the employees.

[00:08:08] They trust the civil servant and they trust us and they, they were sure that was needed. And we need to be, be in front of the others. We could not stay behind. So they afford our ideas and they protect us. When we received some critic by the media or the newspaper, they understand that this is needed for our future.

Kal Joffres: [00:08:44] Could you give us a few examples of important decisions that parliament has made while working remotely?

Ilana Trombka: [00:08:50] First, I can tell you that on 13th of March, the Senate established the distribution of school meals the families of the students who had their classes suspended in public basic education schools due to COVID-19 pandemic. You need to realize that Brazil is a poor country. We have a lot of inequality and you’ll have some kids that go to the school to learn, but to eat too. So without school, they had nothing to eat at home.

On 31 of March, we approved the emergency aid that we call it here corona voucher. The Senate create an emergency aid of 600 (unintelligible) for loans counting informal workers to be granted during the pandemic for three months.

[00:09:48] On 22th of April, the Senate expanded the scope of the emergency aid and created the employment aid program, which authorizes the executive to pay part of the worker’s salary.

[00:10:03] In this same day, 31 of March, we had the tele-medicine project. The Senate authorized remote patient care through technological resources during the pandemic in Brazil.

[00:10:19] On 17th of April, we had the war budget. It’s an amendment, Number 106. The Senate voted to amend the constitution simplifying federal government spending to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, allowing faster process for purchases, construction and hire of temporary staff and service.

[00:10:45] Just before this podcast, I was in our digital plenary. I went there to talk to the chairman. And I listened to them when they were discussing. And one of the senators were telling the others that he counted the number of pieces of law that were approved in the last 60 days. The number was 30. It’s a lot, you know, one each two days.

Milica Begovic: [00:11:16] That’s fascinating. I wanted to follow up on one of those pieces of legislation that, that you voted in, which is about the corona vouchers. Could you tell us a little bit more about that program?

Ilana Trombka: [00:11:27] The corona voucher is that the government will pay for people that is unemployed and cannot afford or was fired during this period of crisis. They will pay something that it’s $150 per month during three months. But the thing is that we have, we’ll have more than three months here in Brazil. You know, their numbers of corona is getting higher and higher each day. So probably three months would not be enough. Probably we’ll need more, two more or three months.

Milica Begovic: [00:12:12] Employees in both formal and informal sector?

Ilana Trombka: [00:12:15] Yeah.

Milica Begovic: [00:12:16] Going fully digital for the parliament is more than just having a digital infrastructure and having the technology backing it up. I’m curious to know whether you have had to change certain procedures in order to enable, the parliamentarians to legislate remotely.

Ilana Trombka: [00:12:34] First of all, we understood that it was approval by our standing rules in the article. Number one, that when we had even like war, domestic (unintelligible), public calamity, or an occurrence that make it impossible to meet in, inside the building of national Congress. It’s, it was possible to do it elsewhere. So we have this first approval, general approval. And the board understood that the space should be virtual. Ensuring the communication between the parts remotely. And then, then it was the first step but in January we have, our rule say that the big discussion there, a big reflection about that, a project, a piece of law, is during the committees, inside the committees, and now we have no committees working.

[00:13:45] So we need to approve this act of directing committee number seven, that avoid face-to-face meeting of parliamentarians and deciding that the discussion and voting through the internet would then made possible by the remote deliberate system, this technological solution. And they decided that as we have no committees working, one of the members of the parliament will be responsible to analyze the project and give the opinion instead of the committee. They decided too that they can have just one, one project deliberated in each section. And these, these project that they decided to vote and to analyze should be something that is emergency that cannot wait for after the pandemic.

[00:14:48] Because you know, it’s different to be in a very technological room, talking to someone that’s very far from you, the senators, they like to be together and join them ideas together and reflecting together and then negotiation and making agreements. So for them, it’s quite hard to decide the things far from Brazil but we, we, we try to make the sessions as much as possible, similar to when they were here in Brasilia.

[00:15:29] So before the session will start, they have half an hour to talk to the other, not privately because they are altogether, but without the, the TV. So it’s before the session, before it starts, they, they spend some time discussing between them, the subjects that they will vote in the session.

[00:15:55] And another important things that the, the parliament is the place that the senators have the opportunity to do speech and to tell their opinion about any topic that is happening in the country or in their states. So we decided that in the same way that happened when they were here in person, two hours before the session starts the TV, we have a TV channel here in the Senate, the Senate TV we’ll show their speech, and each speech can have five minutes.

[00:16:37] So it’s not the same, it’s different, but we are trying to do, make more similar as much as possible.

Kal Joffres: [00:16:48] What else is different about remote deliberation?

Ilana Trombka: [00:16:51] First of all is the committee. We have no committees working right now. Second of all, the leaders have much more power because they are the ones that are discussing and negotiating with the chairman. Once a week, the leaders of the political parties have virtual meeting with the chairman and they decided what to vote or not.

[00:17:20] Third and most important, they are not together. So they cannot have these face to face negotiation that are very useful for them to have someone to approve their pieces of law that they’re proposing. And they, they will say yes to another thing that there are other senator wants to approve.

[00:17:47] So we have this three big differences: we, we have no committees. We are in a very centralized system right now, the chairman and the leaders of the political parties have much more power right now than when they are altogether in Brasilia.

Kal Joffres: [00:18:09] In the setup, the senators work from home but your team would still need to be in the bunker to support the system.

Ilana Trombka: [00:18:16] We have in the bunker, the chairman and the second senator that is the secretary of the session. So we have, since the beginning, the same two senators working here in Brazil, the chairman and the secretary. The, the Senator, that secretary is the chairman. They too are here in Brasilia. The two senators, we have 81 senators in Brazil.

[00:18:43] Two of them are here in Brazil. And the chairman in general lives in Brazil as we have the official house of the Senate in Brazil, and that we have a small group of five employees that is stayed inside our bunker to give the support for the chairman and the secretary, and to manage our system. I can tell you that here in Brazil, in the sand that we have 9,900 people working in the Senate.

[00:19:18] And nowadays we have just 150 here in person. Not altogether and not our way of them working the session, but we have the doctors in our health, in our health care department, we have the security and we have the people that works in the session.

Kal Joffres: [00:19:46] What’s preventing senators from holding smaller negotiations? Why not get onto a Zoom call with two or three other senators and make the negotiation that way?

Ilana Trombka: [00:19:57] I have one thing that I want to point. In the senate here in Brazil, the senators are a little bit old. So they have some difficulties with the virtual tools. They’re not used. Second, it’s not a kind of talking to two or three, you know, they, they negotiated altogether in the plenary and read and they try to make deals.

[00:20:29] And the third thing is that now we are voting things that are urgent and almost everything gets approval with a hundred percent because they are urgent, they are needed, and they are important for Brazil to try to fight against coronavirus. So we are not voting now, something that is very polemic.

[00:20:56] We are voting things that we have agreement because you know, it’s like this corona voucher, how can this people relieve without corona voucher? So who would you vote no? Nobody because it’s needed. So now we’re trying to vote pieces of laws that are, that we have agreement. It won’t be like this if we continue with a virtual process, but again, the committees are very important. We cannot stay in regular times without the committees, because in the committees we have this time for reflection, we have the public audience that we can call especially, can call the society to talk to the Senate and nowadays we do not have this opportunity. So this is, it’s a tool, it’s important in this moment, but in fact, if you want a more opening system, we need to have the committees again.

Milica Begovic: [00:22:08] You mentioned that the Senate has medical staff, as a part of, part of their employees, right. Do you provide certain types of support to the employees right now, along those lines. And how does that work?

Ilana Trombka: [00:22:23] We have a very, very small hospital inside the Senate. We do support and now we have a Committee of Crisis that the medical center, give us the guidelines to, to take decisions. Now I can, I can tell you that we have three, cell phone lines that we call Corona Zappy. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the doctors stay from 7:00 AM to 7:00 PM.

[00:23:02] This free, this free number for the employees to get questions answered by these doctors in the Senate regarding contagious by the new coronavirus. We always, we have virtual, psychological care offered by a group of psychologists from the Senate’s occupation health service to help all the employees who need a psychological assistance due to the social isolation, because we have the social isolation, we have the coronavirus.

[00:23:35] People was very afraid here in Brazil because they are afraid of getting new and you know, the situation that actually is getting very hard and we have to a vaccination campaign against the influenza virus offered free of charge to senate employees. This is a traditional vaccination, is justified, justified because it has been proven to reduce the amount of severity of influenza-like respiratory conditions, factors that facilitate diagnostic other than COVID-19 and now we are just deciding, a new, the new rules that may be, we will test part of our employees every two weeks to guarantee that they are, they’re not (unintelligible) their health.

Milica Begovic: [00:24:35] You mentioned that the parliament has had a volunteer task force set up way before the pandemic. I’m curious to know if you have seen the, the, the task force come up with new ways of supporting the community throughout the crisis.

Ilana Trombka: [00:24:50] Very important for us because you know, in this moment of crisis, the psychological health is very important and people need to feel part of a community. On the other hand, they want to help the poor people, the community that lives in the streets. Now it’s coming the winter here in Brasilia.

[00:25:15] So the weather is getting, it’s getting cold, and so throughout the pandemic, the, the name is Liga Dubane. That is Good Real League have been constantly coming up with initiatives to help underprivileged communities through the past year. This is a group that was created 2015 and in January, we have four dates that work so much. It’s Eastern Christmas in October because we help women that have, breast cancer and this, and the fourth one is when it comes the winter that we provide clothes for people that lives in the streets.

[00:26:09] And one of the first actions taken by this, our group during the pandemic has been the deliver of basic baskets, blankets, hygienic, and cleaning kits to the old people’s home, orphanages, and homeless shelters.

[00:26:28] The most successful action was one that was involving the Goodwill League was the creation of voucher that can be bought by the employees effectively pre-ordering a service to be enjoyed in the future to be given to car washers, barbers, manicurists, shoe shines, and hairdressers entitled them one basic food baskets.

[00:26:56] I usually give them a house cleaning kit per one voucher. This way employees can support the self-employed workers at the Senate during the crisis we are currently in. This is important because these people were here in our building, providing services that we needed — cleaning our cars, helping us, and they, they do not work in here.

[00:27:25] They are not employees so they have no salary. Once that we had almost nobody working here in our building, they stay from day to night without a way to have salary and to provide food, then the provide the things that they need to their families. So we decided to help them, all of these initiatives make a lot of sense for us because we feel like a community when we act together.

[00:28:00] And in fact, we miss the opportunity to be together. We are so used to each other. I work in the Senate for the last 22 years of my life, and I miss my colleagues. And if I can do something together with them, for the good of the community, the big community, these make our, this feeling of belonging, much more strong.

Milica Begovic: [00:28:27] Looking at post-COVID, what are some aspects of the way that you are working right now in the context of emergency that you would like to keep?

Ilana Trombka: [00:28:37] First of all the telework, we need to reanalyze how to use the telework because it’s working quite well. So maybe we can offer this kind of remote work for more departments that we had before. Second of all, it’s this virtual communication that is coming to prove that we can learn a lot. We can change a lot in virtual communication.

[00:29:11] I have, I have no numbers right now, but I can tell you that for sure never the parliaments talk so much to each other. You follow (unintelligible) for other countries than in this moment. So we had the tools before, the virtual tools, the communication programs to talk to each other, but we have no culture to use them.

[00:29:40] And now we proved that we can do it and it’s not like to be in personal, but it’s as good as to be in personal and it’s cheaper. It’s a very great way to exchange experience and to learn from each other. These two realities are very strong in my opinion, and these will be different after the pandemic.

Milica Begovic: [00:30:08] Ilana, thank you very much for your time, and this conversation.

Ilana Trombka: [00:30:13] Thank you, and it was a pleasure.

Kal Joffres: [00:30:17] That was Ilana Trombka, the Director General for the Federal Senate of the Brazilian Congress.

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