Windows of the House of Parliament - image by Esteban Chiner

Changing how Parliament works: a strategic digital review that catalysed change

The UK Parliament selected mySociety to conduct an extensive consultation exercise, with a focus on their digital offerings for all their stakeholders, internal and external.

Parliament: it is one of the UK’s most historic institutions. At the same time, it has perhaps the greatest need to embrace modern technologies.

This paradox is seen throughout its digital offerings to all levels of stakeholder. The parliamentary workforce must abide by centuries-old traditions, but find it useful to look them up on the intranet; visitors to Westminster, come to look at the historic architecture, but prefer to book tickets online.

The challenge

We were selected to conduct a thorough review of both houses’ online services, and to produce a set of recommendations for their future digital strategy.

In order to cover all bases, we would have to conduct a public consultation and an internal one, taking in every type of Parliament’s digital services’ users, from clerks to lobbyists, senior management to HR.

The process

The work fell into three parts: the internal review, the external review, and production of a final, written report.

During the internal review, we interviewed more than 90 members of staff, ensuring that we had a representative from every tier and department of Parliament. These one-to-one interviews were mostly conducted in person, though where necessary they were done by phone, and they were in-depth, typically taking upwards of an hour.

Interviewees were assured anonymity, in the hope of encouraging a frank discussion, and each person was asked the same set of open questions.

To us, this intensive method of working was worthwhile, as it was only after speaking for some time that we gained a full appreciation of each interviewee’s needs, frustrations and habitual usage of the organisation’s digital services. We were able to cover all areas of digital provisions, including strategy, communication and execution.

Following this, we also embarked on the public consultation, for which we built an online survey. This was promoted via Parliament’s various Twitter accounts, as well as through mySociety’s own social media.

Having collected a vast amount of qualitative data via these two exercises, we were also given access to analytics reports from Parliament’s websites, user testing data, and the results of Parliament’s own satisfaction surveys.

And so began an intensive period of data assessment, during which we pulled all our findings into a set of comprehensive, actionable recommendations.

The results

Our review threw up a large number of potential changes, both large and small. We could have delivered a substantial document, listing each and every one of these, but we decided instead to give just two main recommendations.

These were high-level changes, recommending fundamental alterations to the very structure of Parliament’s digital services provision. They recognised that the speed at which the world has changed had led to an imperfect set of solutions growing organically within Parliament, which needed to be addressed with a complete restructure.

The recommendations advised the consolidation of all ICT and online into one Digital Office, with the appointment of a new Head of Digital, and went on to define that structure and role. All other changes would unroll from this point.

We are glad to say that these recommendations have now been acted upon, with a Head of Digital being appointed in late 2014. This represents a substantial achievement, not just for us, but in the bringing together of the two houses of Parliament, which differed in their approach in many places, and both of which had to compromise in order to move forward.

Equally, here at mySociety, this project represents a welcome milestone in our development. Since our inception, we have been building digital tools that empower citizens and give easy access to government services — the kinds of tools that we would have liked to see Parliament providing themselves.

Now we are in a position to use our experience to bring about the kinds of changes we’ve always wanted to see — and that should be good for everyone.

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Image: Esteban Chiner (CC)