The usual caveat – I work for the Government Digital Service but everything here is my personal opinion only.

The UK Parliament Digital Democracy Commission published its report Open Up in January 2015 following a year of consultation and deliberation. I have written a number of times about the process and my reflections on the report. At the time Parliamentary Speaker, Mr John Bercow, suggested that the Commission meet again one year from publication to track progress of its recommendations. I attended that meeting on Monday morning at Portcullis House.

Overall it appears that Parliament has started to make significant strides in some areas to develop more modern ways of working. However, it continues to be potentially limited by an over-strong adherence to ‘tradition’ and back lack of digital capability in the both Members and staff. That said, I was mostly impressed by what I heard with one exception – the areas in Parliament involved in this work continue to be unnecessarily poor in the communication of the good work they are doing. If they improve this I believe it will encourage good feedback and lead to further partners seeking to help.

There is much transformational work still to do at Parliament but with a new Director General for the House of Commons, the same for Services within Parliament and the new senior management of the Parliamentary Digital Service there is lots of opportunity for change.

I will go through each of the ten areas highlighted by the Commission today below but for those who do not wish to read the full extend of the details I am also including the following section on my personal recommendations.

  • Senior members of departments within Parliament that are responsible for implementation of sections of the DDC should be given objectives to ensure that their staff blog about the work that is taking place in regard to that at least once a month. As is often the case the current situation is an example of “good people, doing good things, that no-one knows about”.
  • Members of staff within departments in Parliament should be trusted to communicate with the general public via blogging and other social media with as little oversight as possible (e.g. possibly head of department but not routed through any ‘comms teams’).
  • Parliament should publish an departmental / team organisational chart on its website to allow those outside of the institution to further understand its structure.
  • Departments in Parliament should be strongly encouraged to publish delivery roadmaps and proposed spending of the work they are going. This should be especially encouraged if this involves outsourced spending on IT services (e.g. the costings for the ‘lobby voting system’).
  • PDS should be encouraged to share IT architectural proposals and digital prototypes with colleagues in other areas of government for feedback.
  • PDS should consider whether it would like to take advantage of the GDS Service Standard assessment process to provide some “friendly feedback” on the prototypes of their new services.
  • PDS should continue to work with the GDS Common Technology Services (CTS) workstream on areas such as the stated issues related to wifi reception.
  • The “combined comms team strategy” for Parliament should be published as soon as possible.
  • Parliament should work to gain certification for its open data.
  • Members of staff should be strongly encouraged to participate in communities of practice related to their role. These include, but are not limited to, communities structured around the revitalisation of the cross-government IT profession (such as user researchers and content creators). This should be encouraged in all departments, not just PDS.
  • As part of joining communities of practice members of staff should be encouraged to attend meetings and workshops outside of Parliament and join in with colleagues in online forums such as the cross-government Slack.
  • There was some mention of user needs and user research at today’s session. It would be highly encouraging if the amalgamated set of currently identified user needs and an ongoing overview of performed user research was posted on the Parliament website or regularly blogged about.
  • Mr Speaker stated that he wishes to “digitalise his community visit work” – by which I take it to mean he wishes to blog about his work. Hopefully this will encourage other senior role holders in Parliament to do the same.
  • The Commission should organise a regular, perhaps bi-monthly, session where the topics covered today, and others related to the DDC, can be discussed in a many-to-many less formal environment.

The specific areas covered today were as follows.

Ensuring the everyone understands what happens in Parliament

A combined strategy for the various communications teams in Parliament has been developed. This contains a five year plan with a focus on a different audience every year. Improvements have been made in delivering real-time information such as tweeting divisions. Efforts have continued to introduce “plain english” into as many publications as possible. The comms channel called “Your Parliament” continues to be improved. Publishing to YouTube has increased. Working with users in pre-existing communities (e.g. Mumsnet) is starting to take place. Parliament and the National Archive won a BETT aware for Parliament in the Making. An evaluation framework for content and usage analytics is in development with academia.

Content

The Journal of the House (the formal legal House of Commons minutes) are now continuously updated in a set of rolling minutes (although it’s not easy to find). Further work is taking place on introducing plain english and, where necessary, links to a glossary or house procedure explanations. I strongly suggest those working in this area join the cross-government content community.
Digital voting
There was much discussion of using digital tools to improve lobby-based voting. It seemed a fractional increase in efficiency over current methods. “Tradition” seemed strongly in force here as well as the “opportunity to speak to the minister” which, to me, seemed only to highlight more systemic issues. The costing for the proposed digital voting system seemed very high. There was minimal discussion about the concept of non-present voting which doesn’t look likely any time soon.
There was no coverage of the wider topic of electronic voting in general elections but this may be because, as Mr Speaker put it, “that isn’t entirely within our purview” (see the Electoral Commission et al).
This section of the proceedings also included statements from the attending staff from PDS. They discussed the new digital strategy and their work to increase the digital capability of staff and Members. I was encouraged by their use of language such as “agile”, “user needs” and “prototyping”.
I would be particularly interested in seeing regular blogging from this team.
Petitions committee
So far 7M signatures on 2K petitions. On some days the system sends out nearly 1M update emails to citizens. Work has been done on animations and infographics explaining the new petitions system. There have been a number of Westminster Hall debates triggered by petitions. Investigation is taking place into how well the system works and if it encourages participation from sections of the populous who do not usually interact with Parliament.
Open data
The good work on open data from Parliament continues. This now includes a daily feed of the updated Hansard. In time it will be interesting to have discussions as to how much of this should be made available as GDS-style Public Registers.
The Open Government Partnership
Parliament continues to work with and sponsor the OGP. The drafting of the 3rd UK National Action plan continues apace with government, Parliament, Member, NGO and public participation.
Cyber chamber
There have been 11 “digital debates” since June 2015, each run with a partnering organisation. They have run for one hour each time and taken place on Twitter. Two of these have made the top 10 UK trending topics on that platform. The success of this has meant that they have recently been moved to run via the main House of Commons feed.
The main limiting factor has been finding MPs to sponsor the debates and partners capable of working with Parliament – both at the very short 1-3 days notice required. This sounds like an organising process issue.
There has been discussion of attempting to coordinate groups of MPs to take part at the same time. Briefing packs are sent to MPs – it would be interesting to see these published (as with so many things it could be part of a decision of default to publishing as standard).
It would be interesting to see investigation of other potential platforms such as Reddit (e.g. an AMA) or Google (Hangout on Air). A particular interesting challenge would be using something like Loomio to investigate collaborative decision making.
Parliament audio and video
These have now been combined into one team. The team can oversee the production of 75 hours of live video on a particularly busy day in up to 19 parallel streams. Introduction of “clip marking” (sounds great, hard to find). The creation of unique identifiers for specific people speaking at specific times (hopefully soon to be integrated into Hansard). Soon to look into video becoming downloadable (yay!) – but no said about what license that would be under. There is also a plan to digitise the Parliamentary archive going back to 1985.
Creating and publishing Parliamentary business papers
A “order paper portal” is being created. This will be the “canonical source of truth” which again makes it sound very like a GDS-style Register.
The long term intention is to let citizens register their interests and receive notifications if bills or other instruments are to be discussed that they would be interested in. Given that I was in a team that built a rough-and-ready prototype based on this idea for the National Hack the Government Day in 2012 I would be very interested in thoughts about how this would work in practice – especially the associated user research.
Conclusion
I was disappointed in not hearing anything about improvements in consultations (publishing submissions (with permission), facilitating conversation between Members / submitters and submitters with each other) but other than that I was impressed by the many iterative steps in the right direction.
I for one am looking forward to seeing more of the same.
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