The Digital Transformation of the UK Parliament: A Response to the Covid-19 Pandemic

About UK Parliament

Strategic Partners

Written on September, 2020

  1. Introduction

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on businesses, organizations, and governments around the world. The UK Parliament was not spared from these challenges, which led to a rapid digital transformation to maintain essential functions during the crisis. This essay will examine how the Parliamentary Digital Service (PDS) effectively adapted to these unprecedented circumstances, enabling remote work, virtual sessions, and digital voting for the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

  1. Initial Response to the Covid-19 Crisis

As the pandemic unfolded, the PDS faced the daunting task of preparing the UK Parliament for remote operations on a massive scale. Parliament had never before experienced such a high volume of remote logins, with the number of users surging from 3,000 to 6,000 within the first week of the pandemic. This rapid increase necessitated a swift expansion of remote login capabilities, a challenge that the PDS met head-on.


To facilitate remote work, the PDS distributed a vast array of computer equipment to the home addresses of MPs, Peers, and their staff members. This equipment included not only laptops, but also headsets, video cameras, screens, and other essential items. In addition to providing the necessary hardware, the PDS offered guidance on setting up and using these devices, ensuring that parliamentary members and staff could continue to work effectively from home.


III. The Virtual and Hybrid Parliament


Recognizing the need for seamless communication and collaboration during the pandemic, the PDS implemented video conferencing tools such as Skype for Business, Microsoft Teams, and Zoom. These platforms enabled MPs, Peers, and staff members to participate in parliamentary sessions and meetings remotely.


In order to create a virtual and hybrid parliament model, the PDS developed a broadcasting mixing station in collaboration with broadcast colleagues and public relations broadcast partners. This new system allowed the House of Commons to be managed like a television broadcast, ensuring a smooth experience for both participants and viewers. The virtual and hybrid model was instrumental in allowing the UK Parliament to continue functioning during the pandemic while keeping its members and staff safe.

  1. Adapting the House of Commons and House of Lords Chambers

In response to the pandemic, significant changes were made to both the House of Commons and House of Lords chambers. Screens and camera stations were installed, allowing the speaker to control proceedings and see remote participants. This adaptation allowed members to participate effectively, regardless of whether they were physically present in the chamber or attending remotely.


The PDS also assisted the House of Lords in implementing a fully remote sitting model using Microsoft Teams. This initial solution provided the necessary time to create a hybrid model similar to the one used in the House of Commons. The hybrid model allowed for greater flexibility, accommodating both in-person and remote participation in parliamentary sessions.

  1. Remote and Electronic Voting

Prior to the pandemic, the UK Parliament had never utilized electronic voting. However, due to the crisis, the PDS created a remote voting platform in collaboration with Britain’s National Cyber Security Centre. This system allowed MPs and Peers to vote securely from any location within the UK, ensuring that vital decisions could still be made despite the challenging circumstances.


The House of Lords also implemented a digital platform called PeerHub, which facilitated voting and provided access to information for both houses. PeerHub allowed members to view agendas, questions, and other relevant information, streamlining the decision-making process and ensuring that members were well-informed.

  1. Coaching and Support for Members

As part of the digital transformation, the PDS established a customer support team to assist members with their technological needs. This team proactively contacted members of both houses to offer help, coaching, and additional equipment as needed. Personalized coaching sessions were particularly important for members who had not used digital equipment or video conferencing before. By providing one-on-one guidance, the PDS ensured that all members, regardless of their technical expertise, could participate effectively in parliamentary sessions.


VII. Temporary Rule Changes and Committee Operations


It is crucial to note that the rule changes implemented during this time were temporary and needed to be discussed and renewed twice on the floor of the House of Commons chamber. This allowed for necessary adaptations to parliamentary operations while ensuring that any long-term changes would be carefully considered and debated by members.


During the pandemic, committees operated remotely, demonstrating the potential for more flexible working arrangements in the future. The PDS facilitated this shift by fitting several committee rooms with broadcast-level video conferencing equipment. This enabled hybrid committee meetings, with some members attending in person at Westminster, while others participated remotely. The Covid-19 crisis accelerated the implementation of this hybrid model, which was already part of the PDS’s long-term plan to modernize committee operations.


VIII. Balancing Tradition and Digital Innovation


While digital transformation has allowed the UK Parliament to adapt to the Covid-19 pandemic, it is important to recognize that digital technology is not an end in itself. The act of physically voting, for example, is a long-held tradition in the UK. Thus, it is essential to strike a balance between embracing digital innovation and respecting traditional practices.


As the pandemic subsided, the House of Commons stopped using the entirely electronic voting system, opting for a system that allowed members to go through the traditional voting lobbies while using their voting cards on an electronic screen. This adaptation preserved the traditional voting process while incorporating elements of digital technology.

  1. Conclusion

The UK Parliament’s digital transformation during the Covid-19 pandemic serves as a testament to the adaptability and resilience of the institution. The swift response by the PDS ensured the continuity of parliamentary functions while prioritizing the safety of its members and staff. As the world continues to grapple with the ongoing challenges posed by the pandemic, the UK Parliament’s digital transformation can serve as an example of how technology can be harnessed to ensure the effective functioning of vital democratic institutions. The experience also highlights the importance of balancing digital innovation with respect for long-standing traditions, ensuring that the UK Parliament remains a robust and relevant institution in the modern era.

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