Parliament is going digital with a new innovation to beat quorum hitches, vote-rigging, and the shouts of “aye” and “nay” in House proceedings.
Though the change-over to the new chambers that have undergone a Sh1 billion refurbishment 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.
Last week, the contractors working on providing the electronic voting infrastructure were completing 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 time on the oral process that has been practised in Kenya’s Parliament since independence.
As a result, the House will be quieter and more organised if the MPs get to understand the innovation 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 vote.
So, if you want to vote ‘yes’, ‘no’ or ‘abstain’, you can do that without leaving your seat. The seats too will be more luxurious and comfortable if the designs seen by the Nation are anything to go by.
As per the tender documents on Parliament’s website, the seats will be covered in leather, except the bottom which will be covered in polypropylene (some kind of hard plastic).
The back-rest 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 will 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 type face on four giant screens in the House, so that MPs can read and cast their vote.
MPs who just pop in Parliament to be marked “present” so that they pocket the Sh5,000 sitting allowance, will be discovered, because their seats will 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 without the card, the MP could as well stay at home.
“But you know, MPs leave their houses in a hurry. What if I forget the card?” asked 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.
“Will this (system) stop the behaviour of MPs competing to stand up? You know, I find it (the competition to catch the Speaker’s eye) very childish,” Information and Communication permanent secretary 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.
Senior Deputy Clerk PC Owino Omollo said for the President, Vice-President as the Leader of Government Business or the Prime Minister, the system has a way to designate such MPs, together with committee chairmen as VIPs so that if they are on the queue, they get priority.
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.
“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 that 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 in and see the need to address Parliament, MPs only need to wear earphones and listen in.
If MPs think they can beat the system by coming with their friends’ cards plus PINs, 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 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. Currently 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, used for this job.
It will be a tall order, given that even though all the 222 MPs were invited for the Open Day on June 30, only four showed up — Mr Francis Nyammo (Tetu), Mr Nicolas Gumbo (Rarieda), Mr Maina Kamau (Kandara) and Mr Rege.
Come 2013, it’s going to be a silent, digital Parliament and not the noisy, disorganised, kindergarten look-alike that made Gichugu MP Martha Karua dub the august House “the greatest auction house in Africa”.
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.
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 do is press a button to alert the Speaker.
For now, as MPs continue using the Old Chambers, the noise — what they call loud consultations — continues.