Going virtual

This blog is the second 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. Here, he considers the future and applicability of virtual parliaments.  

You can find the first part to this blog here

Virtual Parliament musings  

Many will be familiar with the idea of a virtual Parliament and I am hoping a good proportion of those reading this blog will have been part of one.  But not everyone.  After Covid-19 is behind us or even just contained we can expect Parliaments to quickly return to their past ways of working. Being physically together will still seem the best way to develop networks, discuss ideas, hold debates and votes, and to build consensus on issues.   However, our recent and current experiences of conducting business virtually is likely to have a lasting legacy.  Virtual committees with witnesses giving evidence at distance for reasons of cost and convenience is likely to be seen as more acceptable than it was before the pandemic.  Requests to include Members who are unable to travel to participate in parliamentary proceedings will be more difficult to dismiss or refuse in the future, especially if for reasons of ill health, caring responsibilities, travel disruption or when there are urgent and short notice recalls of Parliament.   

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.   

This blog will invite others that have worked on remote access and virtual parliaments particularly during the current pandemic to add to a shared body of knowledge, with what can best be described as a checklist of information to help others adopt or develop remote working in support of virtual Parliamentary working.  

It did not need Covid-19 to bring this subject onto the agenda.  The technical and digital trends across the world had already made more and more online working inevitable. Covid-19 has served to increase the pace of this trend and the crisis has served to help us challenge and remove some of the perceived barriers to this type of working.  Rather like how the financial crisis a decade or so ago did. The pandemic has also helped to open our eyes to future possibilities, to improve collaborative working, communication and citizen engagement.  

Thoughts on virtual Parliament from an IT Directors perspective  

How might we measure the effectiveness of a virtual parliament?  

In simple terms we might consider a virtual parliament a failure if in the short term it was unable to perform its core essential functions and in the longer term if it was unable to fulfill its constitutional duties as before. We would consider it a success if nothing inhibited Parliament from fulfilling its constitutional role, and assuming it achieves this, it helped to identify and make the most of the opportunities that new technology and digital ways of working offer. In short it improves the work of Parliament.  

A possible approach to becoming virtual  

Define the ‘As Is’ and ‘To Be’ ways of working.  

In the ‘As Is’ model, there will be the recent past business as usual operating arrangements and the present and evolving arrangements in response to Covid-19.  

In the ‘To Be’ model there will be the new arrangements to respond to Covid-19 and the longer-term virtual parliament vision – i.e., the end state that a Parliament wishes to achieve.  

It might help to present thoughts and data on the As Is and To Be ways of working in a due diligence and future state type matrix:  

AS IS – Pre Covid-19 Business as usual  
Internal: Existing equipment, systems, licensing, infrastructure, user profiles (competence/location/numbers), change management, training and support capacity and capability, financial limits. 
External: National infrastructure (mobile, internet, WiFi, electricity). 
Geopolitical: Cloud computing, collaboration, engagement beyond Parliamentary users.  
TO BE – Mature Covid-19 response  
As per AS IS, intermediate model with likely emphasis on keeping things simple in the first instance with robust authentication/identification and agreed voting arrangements. 
Integration with existing broadcasting channels i.e. social media and TV.  
AS IS – Intermediate/changing response to Covid-19  
Likely to focus on most visible aspects of Parliament. 
Committees and Plenary sessions through Video Conference–based multiuser engagement with electronic document distribution.  
TO BE – Long term vision  
Leverages technical opportunities (for newer parliaments and developing economies so they can step over legacy technology). 
Builds on the knowledge and experience of other Parliaments and the learning from Covid-19. 
Reflects citizens requirements for engagement and ensures inclusion. 
Parliamentary processes are more efficient. It ceases to be called a virtual parliament but is just Parliament.  

The technology related questions I would ask to develop my understanding and thoughts for a Virtual Parliament are given below. This is where I invite the Parliamentary community to add, challenge or modify them. I am hoping this part of the blog can become a collaborative document. Please share other material, not answers to the questions but rather what further questions should be asked, information collected, and matters considered?  

  1. What devices do Parliamentarians have? Centrally provided/own devices? What’s their condition? 
  2. What devices do the staff have? 
  3. What comms systems do they have now? I.e., operating system, email, video conference, document sharing, collaboration, streaming services… And who is the provider? Who supports them (inhouse/third party)? 
  4. Status of underlying infrastructure – bandwidth, firewall capacity, licensing (number of users, what’s included), security certificates? 
  5. How scalable and robust are the current services? 
  6. What is Wi-Fi penetration in the country? Wikipedia often has quite a lot of information on the state of telecoms, mobile and Wi-Fi coverage and penetration in a country – is this up to date for your country? 
  7. What is mobile signal coverage (3g, 4g, 5g) in the country like? 
  8. What is the new technology and procedural training capacity and capability of the Parliament? Service/Support desk? In–person support? How is it coping with Covid-19 impact and social distancing considerations? 
  9. How digital is the Parliament now? Processes? Equivalent of electronic Parliamentary Questions (PQs)/Early Day Motions (EDMs)? 
  10. Resistance to technology? Attitudes to cloud hosting? 
  11. Do they or is there a requirement to broadcast proceedings? Is there existing use or a requirement to use social media or a Parliamentary channel? Can the video conferencing be integrated with existing broadcasting channels? 
  12. Capability of officials to chair and lead a major change to the way people work? 
  13. Typical and expected number of users (total and concurrent)? 
  14. What existing arrangements are there for Identity management/authentication (computer [2 factor?] and physical access [photo ID])? 
  15. Online voting or not? Would there be resistance to it? 
  16. Requirements and options for audio/video/online chat/real time or near real time questions and answers + statements? Equivalent of PQs ad EDMs, etc. 
  17. Current and required supporting documentation distribution. E.g., equivalent of the ‘order paper’, reports, records of past proceedings. 
  18. Security requirements? Are all meetings a matter of public record? Perhaps a better question is what meetings are not a matter of public record? This will help to determine levels of encryption and access control needed. 
    Are there geopolitical considerations/sensitivities to data hosting and processing? E.g., UK Parliament needed reassurance about cloud hosted data being stored in the EU and subject to EU Law/protection before adopting cloud computing. 
  19. What technology is commonly used within the general population and business sector of your country? Microsoft? Google? Mac? 
  20. Is there a requirement to support constituency work (casework)? What currently happens with citizen and member engagement. Are staff located on or off the parliamentary estate, if off are they normally in constituency offices? 
  21. Commonly used systems in the UK at present. Teams Live, Webex, Zoom, Google Hangouts/Meet, Skype… In the Local Government market Public has gained some traction. 
  22. Citizen and Member familiarity with Facetime/ WhatsApp/ TikTok/ Instagram/ Facebook/ LinkedIn/ Twitter/ YouTube etc.  These could be good vehicles for dissemination of information. 
  23. Financial limitations of the Parliament.  Could they invest in new technology if needed?