How the NATO parliamentary assembly adapted to Covid-19

Reece Webb speaks with NATO Parliamentary Assembly deputy secretary general Henrik Bliddal to find out how Covid-19 has forced democratic institutions around the world to rethink meetings and debates.

Henrik Bliddal, political scientist and deputy secretary general at the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, joined the organisation in 2010 as a research assistant, progressing to director of the science and technology committee and up to deputy secretary general of the Parliamentary Assembly.Founded in 1955, the NATO Parliamentary Assembly is institutionally separate from NATO itself and does not have direct authority over the organisation. The Parliamentary Assembly provides a ‘specialised forum’ for members of parliament from member states of the Atlantic Alliance to discuss and influence decisions on NATO security in member parliaments and to build consensus in the Alliance. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has led to a technological surge in parliamentary assemblies and parliaments around the world, with the NATO Parliamentary Assembly providing a blueprint for parliaments and assemblies in the zeitgeist of social distancing and remote working.

Bliddal explained: “At the end of last year, we had started a modernisation project with consultants, having some tools already in hand such as Microsoft Teams. The licenses were already in place, but we were in the first stages of concept development of working online. We needed to move on this very fast and I am surprised that everything has been as smooth as it has, we haven’t lost the pace that we were working at before.

“On January 1 everything was looking fine, then by March,when the pandemic worsened globally, the situation had changed. From one day to another we had to reinvent how we do our meetings and adapt to a completely new situation."

The NATO Parliamentary Assembly had to act fast to adapt to the limitations brought about by the crisis, adopting Microsoft Teams for informal meetings and Kudo interpretation for larger meetings.

Bliddal clarified: “Internally,we had to go from one day to another with no real tradition of teleworking, to an institution-wide implementation of teleworking as there was no other way. We have five committees that meet multiple times a year at our spring and annual sessions. The meetings are very people-focused and personal and the Assembly only really comes to life when you meet in person.

“Before Covid-19, this is where the value was. We never really contemplated online meetings per se because of our focus on personal relationships, so we had to switch that overnight.When we started cancelling or postponing meetings both small and large from mid-March, it became clear that we couldn’t do the meetings that we had planned.”

"There are some things that we can do online that we didn’t think about beforehand such as quick-reaction meetings if something happens where members need to have a discussion. We don’t need to wait two months until the next meeting." - Henrik Bliddal, NATO PA

The pandemic led to the cancellation of the spring session in Kiev, which was due to attract up to 300 parliamentarians from NATO member states.

Despite the disruption to physical meetings, the Parliamentary Assembly is still able to conduct business effectively as Bliddal said: “We faced a lot of challenges around how we do business and fulfil our mandate by keeping up the discussion of topics. It took a little time to find our feet, but some of the meetings which were due to take place in Kiev are now taking place in a different way online.

“The standing committee (The internal governing body of the Assembly) was brought together virtually via Kudo’s interpretation platform. That worked brilliantly and it has been our biggest meeting in terms of real implications as there was voting involved. We didn’t initially think about voting but as time went by it became a useful feature as Kudo has a built-in voting system which has become more sophisticated. You can have a parliamentary style vote (yes,no, abstain) or free form voting which we have tested but not yet implemented.

“The whole interpretation part is important. We are a bilingual organisation so that was the key factor for searching for a platform 

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