Cisco consulted legislatures domestic and abroad to design a videoconferencing tool that would help them weather the pandemic, and beyond that, allow representatives to vote remotely while traveling.
The shift to remote work due to COVID-19 was easier for some workplaces than others, and it’s been a unique challenge for legislatures. In some cases required to conduct votes in person — and in many cases comprised of older folks more vulnerable to the virus — legislatures have had to make do with masks and new policies. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 23 states adopted provisions in 2020 to allow for remote voting or meetings, and eight more made other operational changes to adapt. Seeing the potential for a software solution, the technology conglomerate Cisco has announced a new videoconferencing product specifically designed for legislators to work in fully or partially virtual sessions.
Due in November, Webex Legislate is a new iteration of a decades-old brand of videoconferencing software. WebEx, as it used to be spelled, was founded in 1995 as its own company until Cisco acquired it in 2007. Cisco Head of Growth and Strategy Jean Rosauer said Webex traditionally serves large enterprises or government agencies, and most legislatures would not have used it because they have rules about convening and voting in person.
“In March, COVID changed all that, and they needed a way to keep all the legislators safe while able to conduct hearings and run government business, so they started using our Webex product. But we felt like we could take that even further,” she said. “There are so many activities that are unique to a legislature that we can build in and have this immersive experience for them.”
Co-developed by Davra and Cisco’s Country Digital Acceleration program, which works with government leaders to solve societal problems, Webex Legislate does several things that typical videoconferencing software does not. It has moderator permissions and other features specifically designed to handle voting and debate; it has closed captioning and a window for an interpreter for multi-lingual audiences; it uses visual and verbal verification and lobby admission to verify the identity of voting members; it comes with an agenda column for voting and an information panel with statistics by party and voter; and it records votes in a chain of custody that can become the official record of those proceedings. It also supports a hybrid setup with some legislators on the floor and others tuning in from home, because it has specific functions for muting, hand-raising, timers and other things that can be customized according to the legislature’s specific policies.
Rosauer said Cisco worked with legislatures at several levels of government, in the U.S. and abroad, to develop Webex Legislate for local, state, federal or international customers.
“A lot of legislators are not, nor should they be, super tech-savvy, so all of this is done in a very simple, obvious way so they can focus on what’s being said, not on the buttons,” she said.
Rosauer said she does not foresee legislatures giving up the floor altogether, but there’s no doubt the status quo has changed. Besides hearing from customers that productivity in many cases has increased with remote work, she said governments are just beginning to understand the potential for cost and time savings. Legislators doing town halls or working with constituents, for example, can still do that without missing a vote, or spending time and taxpayer money flying back and forth.
“Big picture, what our customers are telling us is, they realize now that they can get so much done without meeting in person. A lot of them are looking at real estate costs … but virtually everyone says there will be some in-office presence,” she said. “Webex Legislate is designed to get through COVID, but the reason it’s fairly comprehensive is because we see it as the future of work for legislators.”
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