Parliamentary Digital Service CIO on digitising democracy at the Houses of Parliament

6th August 2020 (Last Updated August 7th, 2020 07:40)

Tracey Jessup speaks to NS Tech about how parliament's technology was transformed in light of the coronavirus crisis.

Parliamentary Digital Service CIO on digitising democracy at the Houses of Parliament

Tracey Jessup speaks to NS Tech about how parliament’s technology was transformed in light of the coronavirus crisis.

Parliamentary Digital Service CIO Tracey Jessup is preparing the Houses of Parliament for the next stage of its digital transformation.

The managing director and CIO at the Parliamentary Digital Service (PDS) since September 2017, Jessup was speaking at NS Tech and sister title CBR’s CIO Town Hall Live event, where she discussed recent initiatives to digitise parliamentary procedure to enable members of parliament and peers in the House of Lords to continue to scrutinise government, debate and vote remotely during recent restrictions brought about by Covid-19.

And coming to the end of its first five-year strategy, Jessup described what PDS had achieved since its 2015 inception, as well as its future opportunities, having created significant levels of digital demand in recent months.

“We are a joint department of both Houses of Parliament, so I am employed by the House of Commons and the House of Lords,” said Jessup, who took over from founding CIO and managing director Rob Greig. “At the same time, we provide services across the whole of parliament to our 10,000 users and also to our users throughout the UK because we provide services to constituency offices from the Shetlands down to the tip of Cornwall.

“As a department, we were formed five years ago from what was the parliamentary ICT department and parliament’s web and internet service, which had been in the House of Commons Library.”

Jessup said that the PDS was formed to create one function responsible for the strategic direction of parliament’s digital offering, to change the way parliament connected with citizens, and to transform the delivery and management of parliament’s digital platforms. Essentially to help digitise democracy and the democratic process.

“Because I am employed by both the House of Common and the House of Lords, I am a member of both Houses’ management boards because both Houses are separate employers,” Jessup said. “So I provide a bit of a link between the two, and I work with colleagues in both Houses to ensure they are able to get the most that they can out of what the PDS does, and what we all do together.”

Digitising democracy

Jessup said that recent initiatives to enable MPs and peers in the House of Commons to perform their duties remotely had demonstrated the power of digital and created a large amount of demand at the institution.

“In March, when the whole Covid situation started, it became very apparent that parliament was going to have to very quickly respond, to change its operating model in order to be able to continue the process of democracy effectively – to continue to be able to scrutinise the government,” she said.

Jessup and her team at PDS enabled peers to hold sessions remotely over Microsoft Teams, provided the platforms for select committees to operate virtually, and when asked by the Speaker developed a ‘hybrid parliament’ – which required a number of changes to parliamentary rules around debate, and close collaboration with broadcast partners.

“And we worked on a system of remote voting to enable people to vote on issues, wherever they were, whether they were in Westminster or across the country,” she said.

Jessup said that her team’s engagement work had been critical to the success of the projects: from a user-research perspective and for helping embed the new hybrid-style of operating.

“It really demonstrates the power of what digital can do, and how it can help people and solve their problems,” she said. “And we have had amazing feedback from members in both houses; from those who love technology to those who perhaps don’t or have struggled in the past, but who really appreciated the lengths we have gone to get them up and running.

“We have had a big team of people who have been proactively ringing and coaching and giving help to people.”

Hybrid parliament

While the hybrid parliament has been seen as a success, Jessup said that it was still evolving as a concept and that there was a big focus on automation since the collaboration with broadcast colleagues to show remote and on-site contributions was still quite a manual process.

“In order to make it sustainable we have been working to automate that in a safe and secure way to make sure that it works in a much more flowing digital manner,” she said.

“So that is the focus that will enable parliament as time goes on to think about which of these innovations it wants to keep; what changes to its procedures it likes and which it doesn’t.”

Jessup added that coming to the end of its first chapter, she was keen to revisit the financial, capacity and capability model of the PDS to make sure that it was set up and supported to capitalise on the demand for digital that had been created in Westminster.

“Turning and looking at the wider digital picture in parliament, we have come to the end really this year of parliament’s first five-year digital strategy, and that included a number of foundational steps that have let us do what we have done in the last three months around moving to the cloud, around Office 365, around the introduction of laptops and different ways of working,” Jessup said.

“We have got a lot of success there. There have also been things that we haven’t been able to do in that period, and that we want to be able to do going forward because where we are today, digital is everywhere, parliament has no doubt that digital is integral to what it is doing. And we have created a large amount of demand for that.

“In order to be able to meet and service that demand, we need to completely relook really at the way digital operates in parliament, ensuring its financial model, its capability and capacity model is in line with modern digital practice.”

Data, restoration and renewal

With the Houses of Parliament Restoration & Renewal body recently set up to oversee the regeneration and repair of the Palace of Westminster, Jessup said that there was a unique opportunity for the PDS to embed a more data-centric approach into parliament’s operations, and ensure that digital is integrated into parliamentary procedure and practices.

“We need to ensure that we are making the most of our data; parliament has a huge amount of data and a very rich heritage of data,” Jessup said.

“But it isn’t very good at having it in a way that is connected or really gives insight or is usable.

“And going forward into a big restoration and renewal programme, that is going to become more and more important. Exploiting the value of our data – and digital being complementary to and not detracting from the traditions and culture working practices of parliament – that is the next programme of work that I am leading in a transformation programme.”

Jessup cited machine learning and the internet of things as two of the emerging technologies that presented significant opportunities to the Houses of Parliament during this phase.

“Restoration & Renewal is a huge building programme, and a big challenge from that perspective,” she said. “There is huge potential in terms of the internet of things. But buildings these days are digital; they are living buildings, and digital techniques will also be hugely important to the way in which that restoration is undertaken.

“It really should be and it needs to be a seamless coming together of our construction and digital colleagues in order to ensure that we are making the most of this one – it is a once in a generation opportunity, to not only restore but also enhance the facilities that the palace can offer.

“I also think machine learning has real potential to make an impact in parliament,” Jessup said. “If you consider the number of people and places in which we are recording things – we are recording what people are saying or recording their decisions.

“The potential impact of an intelligent machine learning tool, and the way that could disrupt and potentially release some of that resource to do high value work, I think that is interesting and quite exciting, and it is something my colleagues who are CIOs in parliaments across the world are certainly thinking about.”

Recruitment and diversity

The PDS has had more success than many organisations in terms of its gender diversity, better representing the skills and talent in the sector. Jessup said that the PDS has worked very hard to ensure it has inclusive recruitment processes, and in its early days worked with an organisation called Equal Approach to look at all aspects of its recruitment, including where, how and with what language it was advertising jobs.

Indeed, in spring 2020 the PDS reported a 2019 mean gender pay gap of 0.7% and a median pay gap of 0%.

Jessup said that the organisation also chose to report its ethnicity pay gap for the first time in 2020, showing a mean pay gap of 14.9% and the median pay gap of 10.2%.

Upon publishing its figures in April 2020, Jessup said: “As part of parliament, our aim is to be representative of the society we serve, and we are committed to ensuring a diverse, inclusive and welcoming team. I am pleased to see that the actions we have taken over the last three years have resulted in year on year improvement, and we now have a very small gender pay gap.

“But we cannot be complacent, and our ethnicity pay gap figures show that we need to do more to tackle the inequality experienced by BAME colleagues in PDS. The data shows where we need to take action and better understand how people can be disadvantaged in more than one way.

“We commit to working together with the House of Commons and House of Lords to understand and address this more complex picture of inequality. So, while there is much to celebrate there is also a lot more to do.”

Jessup added at the CIO Town Hall Live that sourcing tech, digital and IT skills was a challenge for all CIOs – particularly those working in the public sector – but that non-profit organisations could still compete by offering career development, meaningful work and a strong organisational culture.

“It is definitely a challenge to compete out there on the market, and in common with all public sector CIOs, if somebody wants to earn the most money, they are not going to come and work for our team,” she said.

“But we do offer a number of things that we believe make us a great place to work, and somewhere where you will get really good experience and a chance to grow. And as part of parliament we certainly want to build an inclusive culture, and we want to encourage positive inclusive and respectful behaviour from our colleagues.”

Erskine May

Jessup added that something she was most proud of was developing the online, freely available edition of Erskine May – described on the parliament website as ‘the Bible of parliamentary procedure’, which controls the rules around how Parliament operates.

Previously only available in print for hundreds of pounds, PDS worked with the publishers to produce an online version, which she described as “a huge milestone” – and also something incredibly popular, particularly during Brexit, for people wanting to understand the idiosyncrasies of parliamentary procedure.

A shorter version of this article originally appeared on 14 July.