How Parliaments are running their digital transformation?

Read the text from Catherine McCarthy and Thomas Eiffe text based on their participation in LegisTech Series

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📌 This text is the result of the transcription of the panelist’s participation in Bússola Tech’s event


My name is Catherine McCarthy, I’m an administrative officer on the digital transformation team in the Irish parliament, which is known as the Oireachtas. Thomas Eiffe is the junior clerk in the committee secretariat and also Sarah O’farrell was a member of our team and she is a clerk in the committee secretariat as well. We’re looking forward to sharing our research with you and we hope you find it useful and insightful.


The research project was divided into two phases and both of which have been completed. In 2020, as part of the digital transformation in the Oireachtas, a digital parliament research team was established to examine how other parliaments have carried out digital transformation and to see what lessons can be learned from the experiences in other countries.


The first phase of the research was an examination of parliamentary websites and a benchmarking. A ranking exercise was also carried out to measure the level of digital sophistication of parliaments across the world. 


The findings of phase one were presented to senior management in the Oireachtas, in may 2020, and a research paper was produced. That was published on the Oireachtas internal website in july, 2020. And then in october 2020, myself, Thomas Eiffe and Sarah O’farrell concluded phase two of the research project. This phase involved carrying out semi-structured interviews with staff, both in the Oireachtas and in external parliaments, and these semi-structured interviews focused on priority areas that were highlighted in phase one and mainly organisational structure and knowledge management. 


Just to highlight, at this stage that this was not the first attempt at digital transformation in the Oireachtas. Previous projects were planned presented to senior management but we were dropped or stalled due to a lack of ownership or lack of buy-in by staff and senior management. Our research highlighted that other parliaments had similar experiences with fail or stalled digital transformation projects. There were examples from the Hungarian parliament and also from the New Zealand parliament.


So, as part of our research we carried out five interviews with staff from within the Oireachtas across a number of different departments and 14 interviews, which covered 11 parliaments with staff from those external parliaments. 


The research paper also included a literature review which examined theories and trends in organisational structure and knowledge management, in particular in the public sector from the early 20th century to the present day. Under organisational structure we looked at the area of organisational theory and how this topic has changed over time moving from a barring view of organisation which was quite hierarchical with well-defined roles. Moving on to take into account other factors such as culture and external factors. We were particularly interested in trends in organisational structure in the public sector and the whole debate around the difference between organisational structure in the private sector versus the public sector.


We were surprised a little bit to note that there is a bit of a gap in the research regarding the application of organisational theory to parliaments. The literature tends to focus on the executive branches of government like government departments and agencies as opposed to the legislature, even though legislature being a key pillar of state. We did note that the Oireachtas stands out a little bit in this area because there has been some academic focus on the Oireachtas. A book has been published called “Houses of the Oireachtas” and there’s been several academic papers written so we hope that our research will go some way to filling this gap.


We looked at, in particular, at questions such as how knowledge can be defined, the difference between tacit and explicit knowledge, how tacit knowledge can be shared, how explicit knowledge can be shared and how tacit knowledge can be converted to explicit knowledge and vice-versa.


Parliaments have a high volume of tacit knowledge, especially in procedural units, and we were looking to see how can this asset be utilized by the organisation. We also looked at knowledge management systems and these are ways in which organisations can use the asset of knowledge held by staff, however, we did again notice a gap in the research. Although a lot of parliaments utilised knowledge management systems and utilised IT solutions, there was very little academic research done on the intersection between knowledge management systems and IT. 


The objectives of this phase of the research project are to provide an evidence base for digital transformation in the houses of the Oireachtas and to rank the performance of all the parliaments including the Oireachtas in the priority areas. We chose semi-structured interviews as the best method to collect the evidence for this research. This gave us the foundation of working with a set group of questions but also the flexibility of expanding on answers throughout the interviews.


Interviews began in june and finish up in september of 2020 and we interviewed not only english-speaking parliaments, but also Brazil, Hungary, Estonia and Sweden. Staff from plenary procedural and ICT units were focused on in these interviews as units most bound together by a linked digital transformation. The full details of all the interviews carried out literature review and analysis of the findings are set out in the second research paper.


As the interviews were carried out focusing on the two sections of knowledge management and organisational structure, that’s how we decided to divide the ranking system. The focus on both arose from the first phase of the research project. We compiled a list of 34 ranking factors which came about from undertaking the interviews. We use these to rank the parliament’s performances. Some examples of ranking factors from organisational structure are regular meetings for all staff and collaboration within and between units.


If we just take a look at the factors for knowledge management some examples are accessible knowledge databases and team days or workshops. It is a non-weighted system, scores of one were allocated where evidence was shown of a factor in an interview, zero for no evidence of a factor. There was also a list of 14 barriers to successful digital transformation compiled, a score of -1 was allotted where evidence of a barrier was highlighted. A top score of 34 was possible if a parliament had all factors present and no barriers.


It is important to note that in designating a factor as a barrier to success, we are not making a value judgment about it. These are factors that hinder digital transformation, but as not to say that they are things that can be or even should be changed. For example, a fear of reputational loss and aversion to risk are both part and parcel of procedural units where the outcome of work is highly public. Some barriers to success are in fact assets to an organisation such as the high volumes of tacit knowledge. Barriers to success must be worked around and taken into consideration and we found the parliaments that ranked highest were those that most effectively mitigate those prioristic success. 


We were doing our research looking from the point of view of the Oireachtas. The key question was where Ireland ranks against other parliaments. Overall out of the 12 parliaments, Sweden ranked first and Ireland 12th and this is the ranking for both organisational structure and knowledge management. The top six countries are very closely packed together, there’s very little difference between the countries. In the ranking for organisational structure, Sweden, Hungary and Canada all share the top ranking there with Ireland ranking 12th. In this ranking there’s a bit of a division between the bottom three countries so Ireland, Brazil and Northern Ireland and the remaining nine countries which have very little difference in between them.


The factories that pushed the top five countries up the rankings were the ranking factors such as buy-in of senior management and the existing of a  paperless culture, the establishment of an ongoing review process and the application of project management methodologies. These top five countries also scored fewer barriers to success than the middle and bottom ranking countries. In the ranking for knowledge management, Australia is ranked first, Ireland is second and along with Wales, Northern Ireland is last. 


The ranking for organisation structure shows there’s a bit of a divide between the countries. There is a division between the bottom seven and Northern Ireland, Ireland, Wales, New Zealand, Hungary, Brazil and Estonia and the top five Sweden, Canada, Scotland, the European Parliament and Australia. The countries that ranked in the top five were allotted scores for things such as searchable knowledge databases and designated staff to maintain knowledge databases, work families or understudy systems in place and staff mobility and rotation. In the ranking, under organisational structure, Ireland achieved a score for a number of the ranking factors, so things like regular meetings for all staff, regular meetings for staff of certain grades, we found a lot of evidence for very high level of collegiality and informal communication, which was seen as one of the essential factors in digital transformation. Co-location and open plan seating, although in COVID-19 times this factor is somewhat mute. And bottom-up staff buy-in remote capability and the use of digital transformation to add value and transform organisational structure, the application of project management methodologies and a well-developed internal communications.


In the findings for knowledge management, the Oireachtas scored for quite a number of the the ranking factors clear rule descriptions. There was evidence of documentation of tasks, processes and procedures, there was the existence of accessible knowledge databases shadowing and on-the-job training subject matter experts. There was quite a bit of evidence for staff working groups and steering committees for staff mobility and rotation. There was also quite a high level of management and soft skills training and high availability of staff training in general.


What pushes Ireland down the ranking is the presence of the barriers to success. These are factors that can hinder digital transformation, but can’t necessarily be changed, they’re just part and parcel of working closely to the political arena. However, parliaments that have been placed high in the rankings have managed to come up with strategies to work around these barriers.


It’s important, as well, to point out that we had to bear in mind a few other factors when we were carrying out these rankings. Firstly, there’s always a level of difficulty in comparing parliaments, the structure of parliament, varies, the age makeup of staff, size and availability of resources, all vary and they all play apart. For example if you take parliament such as Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales these are young and devolved parliaments with a different structure and a different age markup of staff and whereas if you look at the larger countries such as Hungary, Sweden, Australia, Brazil, the European Parliament these are many times bigger than Ireland, and they have more resources, both in terms of money and people and at their disposal.


If we look into the barriers to success in more detail we can see how staff attempt to come up with strategies to overcome these barriers. Let’s take some of these barriers to success as an example. Resistance to change, the biggest challenge we saw in rolling out digital transformation is staff attitudes and mindset to new processes and programs. This shows the importance of change management when rolling out digital transformation and ensuring staff are comfortable with both the content of change and the process of change. Staff buy-in both bottom-up and top-down from senior management are seen as a key to successful implementation of digital transformation.


Risk averse culture or fail reputation loss, there is a lot of fear and nervousness around changing digitising processes and systems with the Chamber. This is an aspect of dealing with the political sphere and having highly visible outputs that must be taken into account in digital transformation. For example, staff must be very comfortable with any new systems and processes in the Chamber and they should not go live until they have been thoroughly tested and staff are trained and comfortable. Interestingly the COVID-19 pandemic has overwritten some of this fear in many parliaments and new systems such as e-voting have been rolled out to react to this crisis. 


Considering high administrative workload, the biggest benefit of transformation seen in parliament is that it allows staff to focus on value-added tasks and reduces admin workload. For example, a unit in the European Parliament that used to be responsible for printing has pivoted to focus on digital publishing and data. When the old tasks were rendered obsolete by digital processes this unit found a way to offer new value added services to the citizen. This process of reassigning staff and adding value also helps builds staff buy-in as staff see that they need not fear being made redundant when their admin workload is reduced by digital transformation.


If we take high volumes of tacit knowledge, all the parliaments that we interviewed demonstrated a very quite a high volume of tacit knowledge and a quite a collegiate atmosphere within teams was seen as being very important to effectively share and use this knowledge asset. People can share information by asking those around them and or through informal contact so such as coffee breaks and chats in the corridor. In a COVID-19 world we found that this was replicated to some extent and by using applications such as MS Teams, which allows people to communicate informally by just jumping on calls and sending instant messages. Furthermore, almost all the parliaments demonstrated a reliance on a few highly experienced staff, particularly in the plenary and procedural units. The level of reliance varied across parliaments in order to mitigate against this parliament. 


Looking at documenting, the challenge of capturing and documenting accumulated knowledge in people’s heads was an issue that was raised in each interview with the staff that we talked to. Canada and Scotland stood out as having particularly good strategies for this. Canada had quite a sophisticated knowledge management system and they used MS notes that all staff had access to and all staff went in and they updated as they went with procedural changes, decisions or interesting lessons that they had learned and that fed into the overall knowledge management system which was accessible and searchable. In Scotland, they had a wikinotes system so all staff had wikinotes that they added to and these were cross-referenced and searchable and available to all staff. 


The ranking factors barriers to success and the scores allotted came from the research data. The transcripts of the interviews were reviewed by the research team several times and scores allotted to each parliament were reviewed and discussed extensively by the team.


This research is a snapshot in time the parliaments that we’re in interviewed will continue to progress and develop they won’t stand still. Our findings are qualitative and they do give a detailed picture of performance in relation to digital transformation and they are very much based on our interpretation of the information that was gathered in the interviews. 


The areas of achievement and improvement are clearly set out and it gives the Oireachtas and indeed other parliaments the opportunity to learn from the experiences that we’ve laid out in in the report. Also, further work is needed particularly in the Oireachtas this in on those priority areas in order for us to keep pace with the the level of development that’s occurring in other parliaments and also to advance our own digital transformation strategy.

[header image source: unsplash] 

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