Closer apart?

This blog is the first of two written on the theme of digital technologies and the pandemic by our Associate Matthew Taylor, who was Director of Operations and Member Services at the UK Parliament for many years. He was also Head of ICT and a board member before he took up the role of Director of Resources within the Digital service until his retirement in 2016. In this piece, he examines the role played by new technologies and telecommunications in the functioning of Parliaments.  

Working together remotely. It might sound like an oxymoron but, for many, working from home and on the move was the new normal long before Covid-19. For Parliamentarians this is particularly the case.   

In this blog, I will briefly run through the development of remote access and flexible working using information and communications technology (ICT) at the UK Parliament and the impact I witnessed that it had on working practises and the work of parliament – some good and some, perhaps, less so. In a second blog, I will reflect on how work on remote access provided the foundations for how virtual Parliaments were made possible during the current pandemic.  

My name is Matthew Taylor. I worked at the UK Houses Parliament for over 16 years and led various IT functions during that time.  Part of my role was to improve the ICT that was offered to Members and their staff and to the Authorities of the House of Commons and House of Lords. An area of focus for continual development and improved delivery was the technical infrastructure, personal equipment and support needed for home, constituency and flexible working.   

Despite the first vaccines being approved and now being administered to citizens, we can expect to live with Covid-19 uncertainty for some time to come. The need to work flexibly as we respond to the ebb and flow of surges and spikes in infections regrettably looks likely to be a feature of all our daily lives. As time passes the new ways of working will become more and more established and the norm. We will grow used to them, want them and expect them. Returning to the old ways of working will be difficult and not desired by many.  

For many, working from home, in a satellite office, or on the move has been part of their normal way of working long before the current Covid-19 pandemic. Covid-19 has turbo charged the trend for more flexible working. Processes have been fine-tuned, technology adjusted and behaviour modified in response to this need. Just look at citizens’ use of video conferencing and how mainstream it has become, how easy it is to use and how comfortable people are now with it. Who had used Zoom or even heard of it twelve months ago?   

For Parliaments and Parliamentarians they are used to working within and between Parliament buildings, constituency offices, their homes, and whilst on the move elsewhere. Many are familiar with using technology to stay connected when doing so. During the pandemic when there was no or very little physical access to Parliamentary buildings these new ways of working were brought centre stage and tested to their limits. Even now Parliaments are introducing new restrictions on access due to new spikes in Covid-19 infections. Each time this occurs we are reminded of our dependency on technology and how it allows parliamentarians to remain engaged and able to continue with their work. As our dependency becomes ever greater our requirements and expectations of technology have become more demanding. Unified communications, video and voice, collaboration on documents and ubiquitous and increasingly burdensome social media are now a feature of most people’s day. Engaging with colleagues and citizens with technology is no longer optional.   

Looking back to when I first started at the UK Parliament in April 2000 I recall how Members and their staff used dial up telephone modems on their own equipment. The quality of the equipment varied considerably and the operating systems and applications they used unmanaged. The support overhead was high and the extent of the central IT staff’s responsibility to keep Members’ own equipment working and connected to a limited number of central systems often ambiguous. Providing a quality service was therefore difficult. In 2001, in recognition of how essential IT had become to Members it was decided to provide Members and their staff with centrally funded and managed equipment in their parliamentary, home and constituency offices. Their own equipment would no longer be allowed to connect. Progressive technical developments saw the introduction of managed broadband services and Virtual Private Networks (VPN), WiFi, handheld devices (smartphones) and tablet computers. Over the course of 4 general elections improvements to the service and equipment were introduced at each one. By the 2015 UK election Members were able to order from a range of centrally funded, provided and supported equipment and broadband services via an online catalogue. Then their office productivity software was moving to the cloud making remote access to rich sources of data and parliamentary applications so much easier and more reliable. Since I left Parliament there have been 2 further elections with more innovations made at each.  

My observations on the impact of these changes  

Everyone has different abilities when it comes to technology. Some are advanced users and others far less so. When developing new IT services, appropriate support needs to be available to help those that need it. Experienced users should not feel held back and be allowed to make the most of the technology provided to them.   

The ability of the team around a Member may determine the value they will derive from it. Members with staff are likely to make best use of the technology and have staff with the skills and time to exploit its value for them. Members without staff can derive a lot of personal productivity benefits from technology but often do not have the time to invest to realise this.  

Technical competence is growing. As a general rule the new intake at elections is more familiar with technology than the last. IT is becoming more homogeneous and intuitive. Systems and applications are less different to one another than used to be the case and self-discovery has become the way most people learn how to use new technology and applications.  

Easier and more immediate access by citizens to Members has increased expectations of accountability, influence and of timely replies to questions and enquiries. This may have contributed to the shift from Parliamentary duties focused on scrutiny of the executive and legislation to casework for citizens and engagement on local issues. Making the most of the functionality and features within applications can help to manage this increased workload, for those who know how to use it.  

Investment in technology will keep growing. Efficiency gains and improved citizen engagement will provide the business case for more investment. Whilst technology driven savings exist – e.g. migration to the cloud, process automation, personalised one to many communications – the attraction of being able to do more will lead to more technical dependence and the need for more investment. Digital developments with technical teams working hand in glove with procedural and research staff, and service users means that the distinction between technologists and business process owners has become blurred and immaterial for many. For those that have not reached that point yet, it is only a matter of time before they do.  

Increased technology dependence has risks, in particular security – viruses, malware, hacking and allegations of state sponsored attacks. The IT definition of security also includes the availability of systems in its broadest sense. System reliability is an obvious concern and system dependency on secure power supplies and staff to manage them is also an important consideration. The reliability and availability of third-party broadband and mobile phone coverage is also important. Remote locations in rural areas have obvious challenges but even today poor broadband and mobile phone signals are experienced in urban areas. This is often due to the obsolete infrastructure upon which new services are being built. In developing countries, there is a real opportunity to step over these legacy technologies and embrace new more reliable and faster systems. I recall how the Estonian Parliament was able to do this and I advised the Sierra Leone Parliament not to emulate what we had done but to embrace newer technologies and avoid those we were trying to escape.  

Expectations of ‘always on’ technology can be a burden. 24/7 support might be easily procured from a third party but is more difficult to deliver if for bespoke or specialist applications associated with the work of the Parliament.  

24/7 system availability is of course wonderful but it can lead to feelings of always being at work and never being unavailable. There can be a human cost to this. I have certainly witnessed this over the years. Both for Members and their staff and the staff who support the systems. The blurring of work and private lives can give rise to issues around the acceptable use of publicly funded equipment and services particularly if this strays into political as opposed to parliamentary activity.  

My final observation is that whilst user technical knowledge is improving, it is generally a few steps behind the capability of the technology on offer, but in contrast user expectations of technology are generally ahead of what it can actually do. This dynamic can lead to frustration and needs to be managed. Communication and collaboration is key. 

You can find the second part to this blog here