Examine Issues Posed by Holding Local Assemblies’ Deliberations Online

As part of measures against the novel coronavirus pandemic, an increasing number of local governments are allowing assembly members to attend committee deliberations online. It is important to examine the challenges involved to explore a desirable way to make use of such participation.

In December, a member of the Osaka prefectural assembly who was found to have had close contact with an infected patient took part in committee deliberations using a computer from his home. The member was shown asking questions on screens set up in the committee room.

This was said to be the first time a member of a prefectural assembly took part in deliberations via the internet.

At the end of April, when a state of emergency was put in place for the entire nation, the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry issued a notice to local governments, saying their assemblies can hold committee meetings online if they revise ordinances and rules for these meetings. The Osaka prefectural assembly revised an ordinance the following month.

Holding meetings online can be an effective means of maintaining the functions of local assemblies during an emergency. This approach can reduce travel time and transportation costs for their members, thus making it easier for company employees and those who take care of children or elderly family members to take part. It has therefore been pointed out that this online approach can help local governments tackle the issue of how to solve the shortage of people who aspire to become assembly members.

However, the principle is that local assembly members should gather in assembly halls to hold deliberations face-to-face. The ministry has presented its interpretation of what “attendance” at a plenary session by members of a local assembly means, saying they should actually be present at an assembly hall.

The Diet does not allow lawmakers to take part in deliberations via the internet, including those on committees.

The National Association of Chairpersons of Prefectural Assemblies has called for the central government to allow local assemblies to hold plenary sessions online. However, considering the fact that plenary sessions serve as an opportunity for local assemblies to make final decisions, they cannot be handled in the same way as committee meetings.

If online participation is allowed too hastily, it could affect not only the way local assemblies are governed, such as requiring a majority of members who are physically present to win a vote, but also political bargaining between ruling and opposition parties. It is necessary to carefully discuss this issue.

Even for committee meetings, if a large number of members take part online, they are unlikely to proceed smoothly because of disruptions in internet traffic and other factors.

It has been pointed out that it is important to examine how to use the internet for local assemblies from various angles, including whether to allow members to take part in voting.

To start holding committee meetings online, the municipal assembly of Toride, Ibaraki Prefecture, has compiled a manual detailing points such as how to use a videoconferencing system and how to proceed with discussions.

It is important for assembly members who are not comfortable using digital devices to learn how to operate them, as well as to secure a sufficient communication environment.

If public hearings, which are aimed at exchanging opinions with experts and residents, go online, it is expected that more people can take part and discussions are likely to be stimulated.

Which parts of a local assembly should go online to become more efficient? It is hoped that local governments will establish the necessary rules depending on their individual situations.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Jan. 7, 2021.