Bringing Parliament to the People: Bhutan’s Virtual Zomdu Initiative
This blog is part of a series on how open government can help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The series came out of a collaboration between the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Bangkok Regional Hub and the Open Government Partnership (OGP) to find practical examples of how open government is helping countries achieve the SDGs in the Asia-Pacific region. For more details on the competition, the blog series, and how open government can help achieve the SDGs, please see our introductory blog post.
Bhutan is on the verge of celebrating a decade of democracy, but democratic culture has yet to find firm footing. Communication between citizen and parliamentarians is limited by distance, rugged terrain, weather and expensive ICT services. Parliamentarians may take up to two weeks to travel to the remote areas of their constituencies, due to the mountainous terrain and limited road access.
Local community groups expressed that it was difficult to have their voice heard at the national level. Parliamentarians expressed frustration that they are mainly faced with personal and individual requests, and have no mechanism to receive feedback from the voters during parliamentary sessions.
The lack of active contact and communication pose limitations for both inclusive representation and consultation by parliamentarians, as well as the ability of citizens to hold their representatives accountable.
Since May 2014, UNDP Bhutan has led innovative thinking with the Parliament of Bhutan to find a way of connecting parliamentarians and their constituents via videoconference. This is called Virtual Zomdu (“Zomdu” = a meeting of residents of villages or communities). The sessions are open to everyone in the constituency, regardless of literacy, gender, social status, access to the internet, or knowledge of the phone number of their MP). The videoconferencing facilities provide for real-time face to face interactions and discussions between MPs and their constituents on new bills, national issues and community based issues.
Virtual Zomdu will provide a platform for Parliaments to hold community meetings, public hearings and committee meetings from any part of the country. The project will contribute directly to SDG 16.6 and 16.7, which call for development of effective, accountable, and inclusive institutions. It provides for real-time discussion, with women and vulnerable groups represented. Constituents can learn about the work of their parliamentarian, and hold them accountable for their promises. Parliamentarians can explain about their work at the Parliament including within committees, their committee work, and can find out about current concerns in their constituencies to better represent them in decision-making. National Assembly parliamentarian Kezang D. Wangmo, from Dokar Sharpa, believes that visiting her constituents twice a year is “not enough to fulfill people’s expectations.” Now, such communication gaps “are better addressed through the UNDP-supported Virtual Zomdu platform.”
The Virtual Zomdu programme was officially launched at the National Assembly and the National Council of Bhutan in 2015. The videoconferencing facilities have been installed in 47 Community Centres around the country. Community consultations have been conducted in Samtse, Trashiyangtse, Bumthang and Dagana. During the consultations, more than 260 community members from 4 Gewogs (groups of villages) were reached and informed. All 13 community members who took part in the prototyping during summer 2014 were “extremely satisfied” with the sessions that they took part in, and believed that the sessions would positively benefit their community. It has resulted in increased engagement from villagers, as well as enhanced accountability and transparency of the government. During the pilot phase, 20 Dzongkhag (district) IT officers, 47 control center operators and 7 regional IT officers were trained on management and maintenance of videoconferencing technology. During the pilot phase, roughly 25 MPs organized video conferences with their constituencies.
In a video produced by UNDP Bhutan, several local leaders and citizens in rural areas of Bhutan expressed satisfaction with the program. The speaker of the National Assembly, Jigme Zangpo, said that “within no time, their doubts are clarified… anything which is beyond my capacity and capability can be [written] down and put up to relevant agencies for speedy action.” Tashichhoeling MP Ritu Raj Chhetri says that Virtual Zomdu enables MPs to look into issues, “on a case by case basis” for effective and targeted interventions on issues that people at the grassroots level face.
A former People’s Representative, Dorji Tshewang, spoke of the initiative’s importance to rural areas. “Even if our MPs live in Thimphu [the capital], through this, people living in places like Dungmin [a rural village] are able to discuss their problems and important issues with them.” Pema Dechen, from Nobugang community in Samtse, says that Virtual Zomdu has been “hugely beneficial for people from lower income groups as they need not spend money to travel to meet their representatives.”
A project team, led by the National Assembly of Bhutan, in partnership with the Gross National Happiness Commission, National Council of Bhutan, Department of Local Governance, Department of Information Technology and Telecom, Bhutan Development Bank, and the Global Innovation Fund through UNDP Bhutan, is implementing the project. At the community level, the Community Information Centre, Geog Administration Office and District Administration Office support the coordination and management of Virtual Zomdu.
Several civil society organizations (Bhutan Centre for Media and Democracy and RENEW) have expressed an interest in using the videoconferencing facility for their advocacy programmes. This will reduce their travel costs and increase coverage of their programme.
The Virtual Zomdu (VZ) facilities are open to all members of the constituencies, facilitated by community leaders at the local level and parliament secretariat. The meetings will be held at Community Information Centres (CICs). CICs have been established in 131 locations across Bhutan. Currently, 47 of these community centres have installed video conferencing equipment. The project builds on a huge infrastructure investment of the Bhutanese government through the e-Governance Project, connecting the community centers to a fibre optic network strong enough for HD videoconferencing.
The platform will ensure all groups in Bhutan’s communities will be equally and fairly represented, and provide them with equal opportunities for participation through broad-based, institutionalized mechanisms and space for political dialogue. It also means that parliaments have the capacity to engage all citizens without discrimination. A leader within the opposition, Dr. Pema Gyamtsho, expressed confidence that Virtual Zomdu provides opportunities for children and youth to have their say and their issues discussed by the parliament. Videoconferencing provides real-time, face to face interactions and discussions between MPs and their constituents on laws and issues at local and national levels.
With a higher illiteracy rate amongst women, and women representing on 6% of Parliament, the risk of neglecting women in public discourse is particularly high. Having a video conferencing facility closer to the community level will empower women and girls to participate in democratic discourse and makes their voices heard.
The potential further use of the technology can of course be much wider. Parliamentary committees can hold consultations with people from across the country using videoconferencing technology. In addition, the videoconferencing facilities in parliament could also be utilized to connect with MPs that are visiting their constituencies, meaning that committee work would not stand in the way of constituency interaction.
One of the main strengths will be the flexibility of the platform. The platform could be used for other purposes such as remote health, electoral advocacy and sharing agricultural and disaster management messages.