My name is Tracey Jessup and I am the chief information officer and managing director of the parliamentary digital service at the UK Parliament. My team looks after both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, who are our two chambers in our Parliament. We have many customers inside parliament and of course our 65 million customers across the UK, the people who wish to know what is happening in parliament and its decisions.
Our high level operations structure is quite complex. We have a number of things that we are doing, such as the support for the chambers of both houses, the contactless technology, which enables payments, the ticketing, which enables people to visit and everything in between.
Our Covid-19 response model took on a number of different phases, most importantly was to react to the crisis and enable all the services of parliament to operate remotely.
This meant our initial steps were to increase the capability we had for remote logins, because we had never had more than 3,000 people remotely logging in at any one time previously and in the first week of the covid-19 pandemic we were getting up to 6,000 people remotely logging. That was a huge change.
We also sent out a huge amount of computer equipment to the home addresses of MPs, Peers and our own staff, not only laptops but also headsets, video cameras, screens and all sorts of things. Also, we sent them guidance on how to use those things, how to connect them to the internet and coaching on how to use skype for business, which we had first in place. Then we teach them how to use Microsoft Teams, which we rolled out as our in-house choice for video conferencing to all of our 10,500 users, and Zoom, which became our broadcasting choice.
We created in a few short weeks an ability to have a virtual and hybrid parliament and we have our broadcasting mixing station that we created with our broadcast colleagues and with any public relations broadcast partner. This enabled us to manage the hybrid parliament as we would a television broadcast, since the House of Commons is in the UK broadcast live on television. There is a parliament channel which broadcasts that on TV. These perspective mixes were very important in terms of managing the flows of information that we had around, such as who was going to speak, when, whether they were in the chamber or whether they were participating remotely. We managed to have a smooth experience for both the people participating but also the people watching.
We had to make a number of changes in the chamber of the House of Commons. In order to achieve that over Easter weekend, such as putting up screens, camera stations that let the speaker see what was happening and control the proceedings, none of which had been there before.
Parliament had never had any virtual capability prior to this time. We also had to help the House of Lords start their journey. We didn’t have the capacity to produce exactly the same managed solution for both chambers of parliament at the same time. The first solution we provided for them to have fully remote sittings, through the use of Microsoft Teams. Sessions were recorded and published initially and then they were live screened. This model was done for the first three weeks just to enable the time to create the same hybrid model for them in their chamber. What we didn’t have at that time scale was the way for people to vote remotely.
In fact, the UK Parliament had never had electronic voting before. It is an important facet to members that they go through the division lobbies and they give their name and they are marked off. We did have a back system that tallied the votes and that added up the votes. That part was already there for both houses, but we had to create a remote voting platform.
This platform enabled people to vote wherever they were by having authenticated their identity. Security was incredibly important and we worked closely with Britain’s National Cyber Security Centre in the way that we deployed this. It enabled the House Commons to have some important votes that they needed to have to the time frame that they wanted to have them. On the 12th of May, 2020 we had the first votes and 611 members participated, out of the total of 650. Our deputy speakers don’t cast their vote.
The House Of Lords had even less digitalised than the House of Commons as a platform for us to build on, but we were able to take the work that we’ve done quickly in the House of Commons and turn it into something that we call PeerHub, which is a collaboration space where members can see both houses, the agenda, the questions, and also they can vote. The voting system went live on monday the 15th of june, 2020.
Since then, the House of Commons, quite famously, has stopped using the entirely electronic voting system and we have reiterated and produced for them a system which lets them go through the lobbies but use their voting card on an electronic screen, so they do not have a person marking off that they have voted. The House of Lords used the remote voting system in the chamber. The peers can vote from anywhere in the UK and they planned to do that until christmas of 2020.
Furthermore, coaching was a key feature of the early part of our response to this pandemic. We proactively drew together a customer team, a team of colleagues from the digital service and also from other teams who were able to deal with certain queries. Besides that, we proactively called all members in both houses to see how they were getting on, whether they needed any help, if they needed coaching, if they needed equipment to be sent to them that they had not told us about. The key for us, in terms of those members of the House of Lords who had not used digital equipment or video conferencing before, which was quite a lot of people, was to spend a short amount of time with them taking them through it, one to one, in order that they could participate. In September 2020, there were over 160 members of the House of Lords participating remotely every day.
In terms of rule changes, it is important to note that those are temporary and need to be discussed and renewed twice on the floor of the House of Commons chamber between April and September 2020.
Committees have been operated remotely, and their eyes have been opened to the possibility of that. Also we have enabled a number of committee rooms as we move into a more hybrid model, potentially, in the UK, more people able to return to work. A number of the committee rooms have been fitted out with video conferencing, broadcast level video conferencing equipment that would enable some committee members to be in Westminster and perhaps some witnesses or other committee members to be somewhere else. That type of change potentially is accelerated by the Covid-19, but that was something that was in our plan to do, we already had one room that was laid out in that manner and we were planning to do another three rooms in 2020 and we ended up doing a lot of rooms in 2020.
It’s important to recognize that digital is not an end in itself, it’s there to enable the interchange and the work that members wish to have. Certainly in the UK a voting and the act of physically voting is a very long held and deep-seated tradition. We have to all be aware that it’s very easy as digital people to have a view on all sorts of things that could be different and we need to open the eyes to possibility but also understand what the need is.
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