Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Latin American Congresses Could Become Irrelevant – Unless They Adapt

The pandemic is exposing how legislative powers in the region are outdated and poorly prepared for the 21st century.
Bolivar's statue outside Colombia's congress building in Bogotá.JUAN BARRETO/AFP via Getty Images
Reading Time: 3 minutes

When the legislative powers of Latin America came into being, between 1850 and 1920, the region’s 60 million inhabitants – less than 10% of today’s population – were lucky if they owned a horse and made it to middle age. Fast forward to the present and the one institution you might expect to have moved with the times – the cornerstone of democracy tasked with rising to citizens’ toughest, newest challenges – has barely modernized at all. Instead Latin American Congresses have clung doggedly to their old ways, resisting innovation at every turn. 

This is especially the case in three critical areas. The first relates to Congresses’ lack of readiness for citizens’ ever-changing demands. Representatives are not known for being proactive and open to addressing societies’ ills, which rarely fit neatly into broad thematic agendas. One answer to this problem would be to guarantee more public influence over congresses’ agendas and decision-making. Another would be to subject congressional output to rigorous evidence-based review. Among other benefits, a more robust lawmaking process would ensure regulations are clearly framed and articulated, preventing subsequent legal uncertainties.

Second, congresses suffer from outdated intelligence collection methods. On the whole, they tend to have only two main data sources: their own representatives and technical teams. Consequently, decisions are not underpinned by sound information and may lead to equal or more time being spent on minor bills as on crucial ones. Representatives also struggle to inspire public interest. But congresses could better capture data that is available to them through their societies, improving law-making decisions. Options include specialist teams of civil servants being charged with collecting and marshaling evidence relating to public policies. Another would be to leverage artificial intelligence in order to collate and compare experiences and perspectives that allow everyone, not just elected representatives, to contribute to the legislative process.

A third problem is transparency. Congresses’ take on transparency and participation is often limited to one-way communication as opposed to a meaningful back-and-forth with outside actors. This fuels a perception of congresses as impermeable and aloof, which undermines public trust and confidence. Meanwhile, weak policies and half-measures on transparency do little to help. On access to information, for instance, there are countless examples of requests for data, nominally guaranteed under law, being ignored or rejected. Some tools can be used to foster a more open and meaningful exchange between civil society and legislators.

Congresses should be central institutions in the world of public policy – chambers of vibrant, measured but also progress-oriented debate on the greatest challenges of our times. And to be sure, Latin American legislative chambers have sometimes risen to the challenge in recent years: from the debate on the legalization of abortion in Argentina in 2018 to the approval of the peace accords in Colombia in 2016, and education reform in Chile between 2015 and 2018.

But using a working model from the 1800s to produce 21st-century solutions is a recipe for inefficiency. Add to that a global pandemic commanding an unprecedented policy and regulatory response, and the case for congresses to embrace new ideas and approaches is strong. 

Since the start of the crisis, all but a minority of congresses in the region – among them those of Brazil, Chile and to a lesser extent Ecuador – have made a genuine attempt to continue operating as normal. But the overall failure has further exposed pre-existing deficiencies of congresses throughout Latin America.

Lawmaking 2.0

Latin American congresses must embrace technology to rethink their role. For instance, the use of collective intelligence for the drafting of laws – or “crowdlaw” – can open up the process to more experts and public participation. The use of artificial intelligence, blockchain technology and augmented reality can facilitate legislatures’ communication with the public and their overall efficiency. 

The Hacker Laboratory, an innovation lab within Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies, developed an artificial intelligence chatbot to facilitate interactions between lawmakers and citizens. We can also apply blockchain to allow for the secure use of citizens’ digital signatures for bills. Augmented reality in face-to-face sessions with parliamentarians would give citizens a higher quality, more close-up experience. 

Finally, as the pandemic has shown, Latin America’s congresses should already have institutionalized online deliberative processes. Online deliberation can take place for lower impact decisions, reserving face-to-face sessions for more strategic issues. This formula could increase transparency and citizen participation, while significantly cutting the logistical cost of shuttling lawmakers to and from their districts.

What could happen if congresses fail to advance on the above themes? They will likely be much weakened and would risk becoming marginal. More broadly, anachronistic legislatures will be incapable of leading on the most important debates of the 21st century.

Baron is the Global Executive Director of Directorio Legislativo. Ferri is the founder of the Hacker Laboratory of the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies.

Tags: Congress, law, Legislative Branch, Technology
Like what you've read? Subscribe to AQ for more.
Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Sign up for our free newsletter