As COVID-19 rampaged across the United States in early 2020, every state legislature needed to rethink how to conduct business.
With the Zoom boom and ever-increasing bandwidth, the internet became central to everything: testimony, debate—even voting. The infrastructure and tools were in large part already there, but it took a pandemic to prove them as concepts and spark a possible paradigm shift in legislative operations.
Pam Greenberg, who covers legislative technology issues for NCSL’s Center for Legislative Strengthening, says that for IT staffers at state legislatures the last year was akin to building an airplane after takeoff. “Legislative IT often has to mirror the in-person legislative process as closely as possible,” she says. “They’ve had to figure out how to make a secure meeting and a meeting that follows legislative procedures.”
Legislatures are not necessarily known for being on the leading edge of using technology. But this proves they are capable of meeting that need if it’s there. —Pam Greenberg, NCSL
In an August 2020 NCSL survey of legislative chief information officers, most respondents said that the pandemic was a “significant” or “very significant” challenge, with “developing new applications to support remote sessions, hearings or voting” their top priority.
All 50 states livestreamed legislative floor proceedings prior to the pandemic, but archiving and committee streaming have since expanded to the point of being nearly universal. “Through the pandemic, that number just increased,” Greenberg says.
The pandemic ultimately “spurred significant change in legislatures,” she adds. “Legislatures are not necessarily known for being on the leading edge of using technology. But this proves they are capable of meeting that need if it’s there.”
Just as they did at the beginning of the pandemic, many legislatures found ways to allow lawmakers or citizens to participate remotely in legislative proceedings. Some, like Vermont’s, met remotely in 2020 and ’21 with most or all legislators. Others took a hybrid approach, with some legislators and members of the public participating in person and others virtually. Still others have constitutional prohibitions or other reasons for meeting only in person. Regardless of approach, state legislatures relied on technology to persevere during the crisis.
Here’s a primer on two states that have been commended this year for their IT staffs’ efforts to keep legislative operations afloat during the pandemic.
Washington: Ready for the Future
Washington state was on the front end on the COVID-19 wave in early 2020. “We pretty much overnight had to pivot from a part-time work-from-home workforce to pretty much 100%” remote work, says Mike Rohrbach, IT director and CIO for the Washington Legislature.
Rohrbach led a staff of about 60 employees in Olympia who worked on the upgrade during the interim; the team had about nine months of runway to prepare for 2021. “We spent six months looking at scenarios, looking at tools,” he says.
Many tools and processes were in place but needed to be scaled; others needed to be built from the ground up to serve the Legislature’s needs. The IT staff implemented Zoom for floor proceedings and committee meetings, used Microsoft Teams for internal communications and upgraded VPN capacity and server infrastructure to handle the increased traffic.
Multifactor authentication, first implemented at the Legislature in 2019, helped confirm members’ identities, and induction protocols funneled members with video, audio and connectivity glitches to troubleshooting staffers before they joined a virtual floor session.
We started on time, we finished on time—and it was one of the most productive sessions in the history of the Legislature. —Brad Hendrickson, secretary of the Washington Senate
To allow for remote voting, the IT staff leveraged the Legislature’s existing web-based Floor Activity Report, or FAR. “There was already built-in authentication, so we leveraged that as the platform to vote remotely,” Rohrbach says. “We called it the vote from a FAR.”
For security reasons, he adds, both chambers “really insisted on seeing a member visually,” meaning Zoom was critical.
Rohrbach says remote public testimony is likely a permanent post-pandemic change, along with a general acceptance of a more remote legislative workforce. “The technology is very robust and reliable,” he says. “I think this whole thing (the pandemic) highlighted what’s possible.”
Secretary of the Senate Brad Hendrickson credits IT investment and years of preparation by Rohrbach’s LEG-TECH team for the smooth session, despite different approaches by the two chambers. The Washington House went fully remote, and the Senate selected a hybrid model.
“There was a lot of concern from our members how all of this might work, but I think all of our early investments and work on the planning paid off well, because it went much better than I had even hoped for,” Hendrickson says. “We didn’t miss a single day of session. We started on time, we finished on time—and it was one of the most productive sessions in the history of the Legislature.”
Case in point: A full 33% of bills advanced to Democratic Governor Jay Inslee’s desk. The norm over the last 35 years is about 20%, Hendrickson says.
“The fact that we had to do this remotely didn’t prevent members from passing bold legislation,” agrees House Chief Clerk Bernard Dean, although he notes there was the occasional glitch.
“We had a hot mic or two,” he says with a laugh.
Other drawbacks stemmed from what is lost when business is remote. “The ability of members to have side conversations was somewhat limited,” Dean says. “Lobbyists simply couldn’t catch members in the hallways to have quick conversations. It was also difficult for new members who were just elected to feel fully integrated into the institution when all of their participation was remote. But all in all, we were able to continue to operate and do the people’s business.”
And the Legislature is ready for the future, Hendrickson says.
“We know that there could be another pandemic, of course, and we’re susceptible, particularly in Western Washington, to earthquake risks,” he says. “We now know that we wouldn’t have to stop operations. We could just continue to operate on a remote basis during those times.”
North Dakota: Maintaining Accessibility and Transparency
Because the North Dakota Legislative Assembly meets for 80 days in odd-numbered years, Kyle Forster, IT manager for the state’s Legislative Council, had about a year to prepare for the pandemic-altered session.
Forster, who served as chair of NCSL’s National Association of Legislative Information Technology in 2017, led a staff of four employees who partnered with other developers employed by the state. The target was a “blended system” that balanced in-person and remote procedures using Microsoft Teams for chat and collaboration, Zoom for public testimony and Sliq Media Technologies to stream floor sessions.
While floor sessions had been streamed and archived online since 2014, the pandemic made that standard for committees as well. “We had to change gears and do some equipment switch-outs to support remote meetings,” Forster says.
“The first day of session was very challenging,” he recalls. “My biggest fear was all our clerks were going to quit on the first day.”
The first day of session was very challenging. My biggest fear was all our clerks were going to quit on the first day. —Kyle Forster, IT manager for the North Dakota Legislative Council
That didn’t happen. More than 2,000 people testified via Zoom during the session, voting was successfully ported to an app that was backed by voice vote, and everything largely went off without a hitch. “It all went real well,” Forster says. “We had a lot of positive feedback.”
He predicted that online testimony is here to stay, and the use of streaming will only increase. “We streamed about 3.2 million minutes,” he says, noting that the archive playback of the session was close to 2 million minutes as of early May 2021. “The volume of the use we were seeing, we were just blown away.”
Forster credits his team for its hard work. “We had one employee that put in at least three or four months of overtime,” he says. “The rest of us put in a couple months of overtime.”
John Bjornson, director of the North Dakota Legislative Council, credits Forster and his staff for the smooth session. “They performed miracles in getting us ready in such a short time,” he says. “It was an amazing step forward for us. We were really surprised by the number of viewers online.”
Feedback was uniformly positive both inside and outside the Capitol, Bjornson says. “It was a totally new experience that opened a lot of eyes—and opened some doors that we hadn’t even thought of a year before.”
The only drawback was the challenge of handling remote testimony for bills with high public interest. “There needs to be some method of managing that testimony,” Bjornson says. “They (committee chairs, clerks and interns) were able to adapt pretty well.”
Bjornson says numerous technology vendors also deserve recognition for a seamless session, including Sliq Media Technologies, and notes the federal CARES Act provided most of the funding for the necessary upgrades. “I don’t know if we would have been able to do it otherwise,” he says.
Other users gave the tech high marks as well. “Accessibility and transparency were hallmarks of the legislative session,” says Levi Andrist, an attorney with the GA Group in Bismarck, North Dakota, and president of the North Dakota Lobbyists Association. “In a couple of months, they stood up a fully functioning virtual legislature.”
Andrist calls the video archive “an incredibly useful tool” for the state. “We find ourselves watching that every day,” he says.
Remote testimony is “another tool in the tool chest” for future sessions, he adds. “While North Dakota is still a place where people like to get together in person and shake each other’s hands, I think it’s definitely around to stay.”
Eric Peterson is a Denver-based freelancer.
This story was first published in the Summer 2021 edition of State Legislatures magazine.