📌 This text is the result of the transcription of the panelist’s participation in Bússola Tech’s event
I’m Tracey Jessup and I’m Chief Digital and Information Officer here at the UK Parliament.
The UK Parliament, as you all know is bicameral, and it comprises the House of Commons and the House of Lords. In the Parliament Digital Service we provide services to both Houses and their members, such as support services, hardware and IT services, and also digital services.
Today I’m going to talk to you about some of the digital changes and innovations we have made here in the UK to the legislative process and more widely. So, starting with legislation, this is our newest innovation. On the 27th of February, 2021 we launched something called Legislation Hub. It replaces a very old and unreliable system we had which was called Bills Knowledge Base.
The Legislation Hub comprises several components and it will be the primary system to capture and edit legislation data across both Houses and also will provide APIs to access that data to the public and other groups. A few of the components of the system are a new internal administration application. We built this using the latest web technologies, which means it should be easy to maintain and improve as Parliament’s needs adjust. A series of APIs, to make that data available to our internal and external users, and an all new bills page on the parliament website: bills.parliament.uk.
Over 2.500 bills were migrated from our old Bills Knowledge Base over that weekend before the 27th of February and we successfully decommissioned that old base and the old bills pages on the parliament website. We’ve replaced all the existing functionality including the RSS feeds. Our deployment was automated using our software engineering’s automated deployment tools and the whole system runs on our new Azure cloud platform, which has advantages such as automatic scaling to adjust based on load being experienced.
This isn’t the end but the beginning of the story for digital improvements to legislation here at Westminster. We’re already planning with the procedural colleagues the next steps that we might make. These include closer integration with Lawmaker – the new system that has been being worked on in the UK for the drafts people to draft legislation, which will enable the system to display and capture additional bill and amendment data. As well as integrations with existing parliamentary systems, to better link and publish the data. So, really, this is just the first step, and please, do take a look, we’re very pleased with it.
We’ve also been, over the last few years, working on more wide digital transformation for members in both Houses. The start of that in the House of Commons was something called Member Hub. That is a secure internally developed system which enables members to table questions of the government. It also enables them to, securely and safely, delegate to their staff the permission to do that, either for a particular question slot or a type of questions, or all over. It permits discussion between our table office in the House of Commons and members about those questions if there are queries, and the system will notify members that they have something they need to pay attention to, or look at or discuss before that question can be tabled. Once the answers to those questions are published, they also get those through Member Hub. So, it is a one-stop shop for what you would want to do as a member.
When the pandemic hit, we used Member Hub as our codebase to make changes and to enable remote electronic voting, which was something requested by both Houses. So, we had a stable codebase, and a secure one as well, through Member Hub, and we decided to build on that as quickly as we could to develop the ability for members to vote remotely.
Up until that point, members had voted in person only, going through lobbies and giving their name to a Clerk and then the Teller. It wasn’t an electronic process, although the back-end of that process we had made electronic a few years ago, that is the tallying the adding up of the votes. Rather than when they give their name it is written down on a piece of paper, they had a tablet and it would be entered into it.
What we were doing was trying to change that front-end so that members could vote differently, but it could be clear that it was them that was doing it. The software engineering team worked really hard, and in a short period of time they did manage to make a secure system, which would notify you when votes were happening and would enable you to use your multi-factor authentication, so it was you to cast your vote wherever you were.
That worked really effectively in the early days of the pandemic in the House of Commons. As the pandemic continued to change and the requirements in the U.K. altered, we were asked by the leader to institute a new way of voting. One that reflected that more members were now going to be in Westminster, but that also took account of the need to meet in social distancing.
We worked with colleagues across the houses to institute voting by pass, which is not something that had been done in the UK before. That system is working well for the House of Commons today. In the House of Lords it was a slightly different story. House of Lords members had never before used digital ways of tabling or interacting with procedure, so we didn’t have a member equivalent of Peer Hub for House of Lords members. We had to build it from the ground up and we managed to do that in five weeks.
We took Member Hub, we took what we could from it, we changed it to take account of the different rules in the House of Lords and we built on top of it secure remote voting. This went very well, we had some of the highest votes in House of Lords history in the early days of remote voting in June, 2021. And Lords members, many of whom due to their age – the average age of a member of the House of Lords is 67 – are still operating remotely from Westminster, are still using electronic remote voting today. Peer Hub, the system that we built for them, we also have put other digital initiatives onto that system to make it more useful to members. It includes information for them now about the day’s proceedings, about speakers lists and we launched something called My Attendance, which lets House of Lords members know about their attendance been recorded across committees, the chamber, grand committee, all of their activities, so they can check it and it can be cross-checked in order to enable their allowances to be paid. Because in Britain, members of the House of Lords do not receive a salary, they receive a daily allowance based on participation. That is a new innovation that should make it easier and clearer and more transparent to everybody.
Finally, we are looking to the future: we do not know yet, as the pandemic changes in Britain, and we all hope that members will be able to return to Westminster, and staff, in much greater numbers. We do not know yet what politicians will want to keep of the innovations from the pandemic, but we do know that some aspects of what we have done have brought forward plans that were already in place. This relates to select committees, there was already a program of work being undertaken in the Houses of Parliament to refurbish and change our select committee rooms to enable remote participation to take place, perhaps of witnesses etc. That was operating at a rate of perhaps two committee rooms a year.
The pandemic meant that we have replaced technology and put in place seamless technology to enable that participation across an awful lot of rooms, and we are still doing that now. We fully expect that those things will be utilised by select committees to enable them to hear, effectively, from witnesses, perhaps who are abroad or can’t travel to Westminster, in a seamless way.
When a pandemic hit, we all had to take steps incredibly quickly and we worked with our broadcasting colleagues and with NEP Parliament’s broadcast partner to enable a broadcast quality set of proceedings, using remote and in-person participation. That was a very people-heavy activity, and over last summer we worked together to create what we call, the Automated Contribution Hubs. That is a much more efficient, but also more cyber-secure way of managing the various contributions and it doesnt need all having to be done by humans.
That work, again, will no doubt be of great use to Parliament whatever decisions it makes, even if it decides that it wants to have hybrid proceedings only as an emergency type procedure, we now have that ability there and it is baked into our plans. Whereas before, we did not have it at all. As you will see it has been a very busy year on the digital front in the U.K. and we have more to come with the iteration of Legislation Hub and the changes that we are going to make to Peer Hub and to Member Hub going forward.
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