ICT & Parliaments: What does innovation look like in 2021?

This blog was written by GPG’s MENA Manager Nayla Zein. She reports on a conversation organised by GPG between international Information and Communication Technology (ICT) experts on the topic of remote and virtual technologies in Parliament before and after Covid-19. 

As part of GPG’s project in partnership with the Council of Representatives of the Kingdom of Bahrain, we brought together international experts to explain how the latest technology innovations are affecting Parliaments, with a special focus on circumstances imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic. Technical experts and senior politicians were able to share their work and experience, offering expertise on ICT services offered to MPs, E-law making and digital community engagement. Here are their insights:

Technology in Parliament, a learning curve and an essential tool: comments from Rt Hon Caroline Flintformer UK Minister and MP

The pandemic has turbo charged the way we use ICT in all walks of life now and for the future. When I was an MP there was little support for replacing walking through the voting lobbies and saying aye or nay with electronic voting.

But like other Parliaments, in the past year, MPs have had to vote electronically and most take part in debates online from home. That still means dress codes apply. As one MP found when the Deputy Speaker Dame Eleanor Lang suggested he got changed before she invited him to speak. It will be interesting to see what will continue as lockdowns ease.

As a UK Member of Parliament from 1997 to 2019 I bridged a period between fax and Facebook. I even had a pager. As a Minister and Opposition Secretary of State I experienced the development of e-government and a digital parliament. Like many politicians I am not an ICT expert, but the digital transformation enabled me to do my job better, build contact with my constituents and make it easier for them to see what I was doing.

From finding out who the MPs are via a website, we now have applications like “Commons Votes” which show the votes of individual MPs and political parties 20 minutes after the result is announced in the Chamber. Other apps provide daily business schedules, briefings on laws and debates and real time information on what is happening in both Houses of Parliament. Tablets can be used in committees and as an aid to speaking in the chamber.

Managing the need to modernise whilst maintaining some of the traditions most loved about our Parliaments is important. In the UK we have found establishing an MP/Secretariat Liaison Committee and a joint committee where you have more than one representative body has helped to make the transition.

To deliver a unified digital system, and as is the case in some other Parliaments as well, UK MPs and their staff are given parliamentary email addresses, exclusive access to people and information within a secure intranet, equipment, and software backed up by an IT support team for when technology goes wrong, or advice is needed.

MPs decide how to use their ICT tools but must pay for any party-political activities like websites which include party information and interactive campaigns, surveys, and polls.

I use Twitter but most of my 83,800 followers were not my constituents. But you can use these platforms to drive people to your website or Facebook page where you can better identify constituents and get contact details for future text/email communications. I funded my monthly e-newsletter and thousands of constituents received it from one Parliament to the next. Small photographs with a short headline, a few lines of text or a survey which they could click on to find out more on my website or Facebook page. I incorporated voting buttons into the email to poll my subscribers on different issues and benefit from their input as well. Another useful activity is through local Facebook groups where you can access thousands of people in a town or a few hundred in a small community organisation. It is an easy and effective way for MPs to post information, support and be seen.

My Don Valley constituency had 72,000 electors, seven districts, 30 villages and towns and I used a casework software system to manage the many problems and issues raised with me. Parliament pays for the software but allows MPs to choose which system from external providers.  With response times and reminders built in, I and my staff could track progress and identify where the matter was of concern to more than one constituent and a bigger systemic problem in a local organisation or with legislation. I raised case studies with Ministers and in Parliament and directly consulted and brought together those on my casework database who shared an interest in a policy area Government was planning to legislate on. Other databases included headteachers, faith groups, parish and town councils, businesses, community organisations who I would send targeted emails and invitations to events.

ICT helped me do my work, but hardly reduced the workload. Here are three lessons I have learnt.

Not all emails should expect the same response. Lobbying and campaign groups auto generate hundreds of standard emails from constituents to MPs not expecting an answer. Save their email details but provide a fuller reply for constituents who email directly using their own words.

Twitter or Instagram are not a good place to organise meetings and deal with individual concerns. WhatsApp groups are great for a time limited project or providing coordination with a small number of people but do not get trapped in a never-ending conversation hard to keep up with. New tools will evolve but fundamentally for politicians the use of ICT is to add value to how you manage, communicate your work, and build relationships.

The online surgeries for individual concerns and forums for communities and groups which grew during the pandemic will continue but these do not replace the face-to-face contact you have with people and the places they live and work in.

That is something we have all learnt from lockdown.

UK E-law making project: the LAWMAKER application

The UK is committed to having a digital strategy: people can access legislation online and in parliaments, while personal devices and iPads are used to engage in the parliamentary process.

As part of digital transformation efforts, Lawmaker is the application being developed within the Legislative, Drafting, Amending and Publishing program (LDAPP). It is an interinstitutional partnership[1] to deliver new tools covering the full legislative lifecycle from drafting through the parliamentary process to handing over the enacted version for publication.

LDAPP’s key goals are to a) treat legislation as data, b) deliver a shared service c) adopt open standards d) build browser-based tools. LDAPP uses international standards because they are more valuable for the future, including to achieve services to parliamentarians, publishing staff, clerks…

A public beta version of the application is available since 2019: real users access it while some features are still not available. Scottish users started drafting legislation using the software, some of which have been enacted as Scotland has a unicameral parliament which makes the process less complex. Since then, we have incrementally expanded the reach of the software to draft bills, amendments in the UK and Scotland, and it is now being used by lawyers as well. By the end of 2021, the software will be fully functional.

Trial and error, building prototype and engaging with the potential users is essential in order to succeed. As different interests intersect, the feedback of the users is very important to take into account as the program is being designed to balance different user groups such as government and parliament, to adapt the tool to both parliament staff and parliamentarians, or to involving the public. Balancing all those needs is a challenge but is important.

It takes a lot of work to encourage users to see the value of treating legislation as data, but the move from print to digital is a big and important step for the future.

A five-stage approach to the pandemic

Many will be familiar with the idea of a virtual Parliament and probably a good proportion of those reading this compilation will have been part of one. After Covid-19 is contained we can expect Parliaments to quickly return to their past ways of working. Being physically together will seem the best way to develop networks, discuss ideas, hold debates and votes, and to build consensus on issues.   However, our new experiences of conducting business virtually will have a lasting legacy. Virtual committees with witnesses giving evidence online for reasons of cost and convenience will be considered 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.

We did not need Covid-19 to bring this subject onto the agenda. The technical and digital trends across the world had already made more online working inevitable. Covid-19 has increased 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. The pandemic has also helped to open our eyes to future possibilities, to improve collaborative working, communication and citizen engagement.

The UK Parliament’s response to the pandemic was prompt and systematic.

They adopted a five stage approach. The first 4 stages were iterative and ensured continuous improvement was maintained.  The stages are summarised below:

  • Respond – reacting to the crisis and adapting services to operate remotely

This included: Remote access capacity and resilience, emergency loan kit, supply chain management, user guidance, member ‘outreach’, digital coaching, policy amendments, DSE (display screen equipment)

  • Embed – rapidly evolving services to enable customers to operate effectively.

This included: Virtual support sessions, Skype for Business mobile (including members of staff) for external calling, Bring Your Own Device (BYOD), Virtual committee rooms, Zoom for Members of Parliament.

  • Enhance – Deploying new services, optimising the effectiveness of remote working

This included: Microsoft teams, virtual committees, hybrid chamber, virtual parliament, remote voting, UK Parliament Now, MS Teams external calling

  • Anticipate – scenario planning for short-medium term and preparing response

This included: Portfolio re-planning, Covid-19 lifecycle scanning, contingency plans evolution, response playbooks

  • Normal – preparing of the ‘new normal’ and services required post Covid-19

This includes: Assessing if the Covid-19 response persists, future funding impact, Covid-19 response cost, lesson learned.

The UK Parliament ICT services to its Members 

In April 2000, MPs 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 were 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. At each of the following 4 general elections improvements to the service and equipment were introduced.

A look into the Estonian experience

Estonia first introduced digital legislative tools for the Estonian government in the year 2000. Before that, all proposals had to travel the following path on paper and using cars: 1) initial proposal by given ministry to the Prime Minister’s office; 2) proposals collected and copied in PM’s office and sent by car to all ministries as a large pile of different proposals; 3) the piles received in all ministries and distributed to relevant departments for review and comments; 4) The whole process repeated in reverse order.

Whereas this process typically took 2-4 weeks each time, after introducing the electronic version of government information system , it all became available to all relevant parties instantly, thus saving 2-3 weeks of time in the decision making process. With this tool, every minister could look at any document, mark their positions and objections in a centralised manner. Shortly, a rule was adopted by the government that all the documents can/should only be passed electronically between ministries and other government institutions.

After approximately five years, it became a norm to also send all legislative proposals to the Parliament only electronically which saved us a considerable amount of time and technical work. The law process in Estonia is started by the government and reviewed by the parliament.

Currently all legislative proposals, amendments and other documents are considered to be “digital first” in all phases, throughout the processes, in government and parliament. This means that there can of course be printouts for reading and personal remarks, but any document’s ‘”original” version is always digital. This also applies to the original version of all passed legislation – instead of publishing these as series of books (how it used to be), now all legislation is officially published at the state portal.

During the Covid-19 outbreak, the Estonian parliament gathered for the first time electronically and the relevant tools consisting of video communication channel and distant voting buttons were built. If this format is used after the pandemic remains to be seen, but it is not very likely as physical meetings and discussions are still preferred for routine parliamentary work.

During the pandemic, the MPs seats cannot be fully occupied: there is a hybrid system with some MPs coming in and others joining electronically from offices, or from home. In Estonia, the precondition for using all these systems (as any other service for that matter) is the secure digital identification. The government voting system can be entered with the digital ID that all Estonian including politicians have. This is possible only because we have a safe and secure way to identify each person and enter the system: the digital ID that every Estonian has was made mandatory in 2005. (for more about the digital ID, see annex)

Observations on the impact of technological advances on the UK Parliament:

By the 2015 UK election, Members were able to order from a range of centrally funded, supplied and supported equipment and broadband services via an online catalogue. Restrictions on user choice over the equipment they could connect to the network were eased due to improved technical security. This allowed Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) to be promoted. Office productivity software was moving to the cloud making remote access to rich sources of data and parliamentary applications much easier to use and manage. Members also received a tablet computer that did not count against their central allowance since it was House policy to move away from printing Committee papers and reports as part of its Digital First strategy. The business case had been made to issue tablets to Members to achieve printing, staffing and environmental savings. Members are provided with network accounts for their staff and their staff have their own @parliament.uk email address. Secure remote access allows members and their staff to work from anywhere. All users of the network are required to comply with an Acceptable Use Policy (AUP). The AUP is intended to help protect the network and individuals.

Everyone has different abilities when it comes to technology. When developing new IT services, appropriate support needs to be available to help those that need it. Experienced users should not feel held back.

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. We should remind ourselves that the IT definition of security also includes the availability of systems in its broadest sense. 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 has become a key dependency too. 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.

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. 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.

One final note 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 always key.

[1] Between: The House of Commons and the House of Lords (UK Parliament)
Office of the Parliamentary Counsel (UK)
Scottish Government Parliamentary Counsel Office
The Scottish Parliament
The National Archives