Virtual insanity v. practical advance, by Peter Roffey
Thursday 31st October 2013, 5:00PM GMT.
STATES members have decided to allow themselves to ‘attend’ committee meetings remotely by video link or Skype.
What will be the pros and cons of this brave new age of tele-politics?
Is it a sensible use of modern technology, allowing busy members to be in two places at the same time? Or just a dereliction of their duty to turn up at these important meetings in person?
The first question is whether there’s a real problem with getting quorums at committee meetings now. I’m pretty sure the answer is no. But if it’s yes, then the next question is, why?
After all, being a States member is a pretty well-paid part-time job, so it’s a bit rich if deputies can’t prioritise what is normally just a handful of committee meetings each month. It smacks either of laziness or of putting private interests before their responsibility to their electorate.
On the other hand, does it really matter if they’re not physically in the room?
I think it does. While video conferencing in its various forms is better than no meeting at all, it’s no substitute for real debate around a committee table. Particularly when discussing complex and emotive issues such as school closures, welfare reforms or how best to run our health service.
It’s not just a question of missing body language or non-verbal communication. It’s more that real debate, where policies can be decided and refined, relies on interaction, cut and thrust, and occasional polite interruption.
All those things are far harder when one or more participants are disembodied faces on monitors.
Some might say, ‘don’t overreact, it will be the exception rather than the rule’. That’s naive. It may start that way, but once it becomes a valid option under the rules, it will soon become normal. How long before deputies who are high-flying business people feel free to go away on company trips and just Skype into committee meetings? Or perhaps retired deputies will consider there’s now no barrier to taking that two-month trip to visit family in Australia so long as they dial up Guernsey for the odd board meeting?
Of course, some deputies will object and say, ‘we make the effort to be there, so why can’t you?’, but such objections will cut no ice. Those wanting to Skype in will simply point to the rules and ask – ‘it’s clearly allowed, so what’s your beef?’. The principle will have been established and we’ll be on the slippery slope to more and more virtual attendance at committee meetings.
Is this inevitable?
Certainly it is, if the new rules simply say that committee members can either attend in person or remotely. Hopefully, though, it is not too late to insert strict conditions over when a committee member should be allowed to beam into meetings.
Very few would object to an Alderney member using a video link if he was stuck in the northern isle by fog. Logically, that concession would then have to apply to any Guernsey deputy who’d planned to be there but had been prevented by unavoidable travel disruption. However, I would personally draw the line at those who wilfully take on external engagements at the same time as their States commitments.
Whether the rules can be framed to allow such distinctions to be made, I have no idea. Nor whether States members would accept such a restrictive interpretation of the decision they’ve just taken to allow themselves to Skype. But if everyone is free to attend committee meetings remotely then, frankly, it’s a black day for local democracy.
Something else to be considered when framing the rules is the need for confidentiality.
If a States committee was considering my application for a housing licence, or funding for my cancer treatment, or an appeal against my child’s 11-plus results, I would want that done in total privacy. I would not be impressed if one or more committee members were in a hotel foyer – or even in their hotel room, with their spouse half-listening in the background.
It’s not technophobic to suggest that traditional ways of doing things are sometimes superior. It’s simply the case that round-table meetings are better at dealing with complex or emotive issues than a phone or video conference. They probably always will be because we’ve evolved to communicate in person.
I think the States will look back in 10 years and really regret their decision to allow remote participation.