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Report of the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy
Published: 26 Jan 2015

12 Developing skills in Parliament

To meet the challenge of making its work more open, accessible and relevant to the people it serves, Parliament will need to build its digital skills.

12.1 Building an excellent digital service

We note the steps that Parliament has taken in recent years to develop its digital services. In 2013 it asked mySociety to conduct a strategic review of its online services.[1] The review recommended that Parliament should combine its web and ICT functions into one digital service, and appoint a new Head of Digital to lead it.[2] We commend Parliament’s swift acceptance of these recommendations and the work that it has done to prepare for a new digital service, most notably by appointing a new Head of Digital.[3]

When the Head of Digital, Rob Greig, starts in March 2015, he will need to create a digital strategy to enable Parliament to deliver excellent digital services for the public, MPs and parliamentary staff. We hope it will cover at least some of our recommendations. He will then need to build the skills base required to deliver that strategy. MySociety outlined some of the key skills needed:

“[Parliament] does not have access to enough appropriately skilled computer programmers to meet the online service needs of Members, the public or staff…Without an increase in the number of computer programmers and designers working full time on Parliament’s online services, it is inevitable that the current [web]site will slip ever further behind what modern users consider to be normal.”[4]

We note that market rates are high for some of these skills. This makes recruitment more challenging because the salaries demanded by people with the right skills may fall outside the range that is usually paid to permanent parliamentary staff. This has often tended to result in the use of contractors at even higher cost. However, getting people with the right skills in sufficient numbers is a challenge that must be met if Parliament is to build the vital digital services it needs. We understand that some progress has been made towards recruiting a higher proportion of permanent developers. We also understand that a review of specialist pay scales is under way and urge that this be given a high priority.

33. By the end of 2015, Parliament should have in place a strategy to ensure that it has the skills it needs to meet the target of being digital and interactive by 2020. The strategy must ensure that the Head of Digital has sufficient means to recruit and retain staff with the specialist digital skills that Parliament needs.

12.2 Building skills to produce good content

Digital is no longer an additional channel: it is the primary means of communication, and all parliamentary outputs should be designed with this in mind. Documents should be designed for online consumption, and all online content should be suitable for mobile devices. This is not just about design and layout, although these are undoubtedly important. It is also about language and format. As we have already recommended, parliamentary communications should include more bite-sized content, infographics and video.[5]

Parliament has already made a start in this area. For example, the Education Service has created short videos, interactive resources and games for young people.[6] However, if it is to build on this progress, managers across Parliament will need to ensure that their staff have the right skills to produce content that people can access in the way that they want. If Parliament is to create more video content, it will need more audio-visual skills. Now that documents are published primarily online, the staff who write those documents should be trained on how to write for the web.

12.3 Professional communication

As we have already outlined, if Parliament is to encourage greater public involvement in its work, it is important that people have a good experience of engaging with Parliament.[7] This includes ensuring that people know what to expect and that they receive feedback on the impact of their contribution. Communicating with and engaging the public on behalf of a large institution such as Parliament is therefore a key skill for the digital interactive Parliament we wish to see by 2020. Social media and other online channels are becoming increasingly important as Parliament seeks to become more interactive.

Many of the people we spoke to did not know what opportunities there were to get involved in the work of Parliament.[8] Some suggested that Parliament should do more to raise awareness and reach out to people.[9] We agree: parliamentary staff need to become more effective at identifying the potential audience and making them aware of the opportunities to engage.

As the Democratic Society pointed out, people cannot engage in discussions they are unaware of, no matter how good the digital platforms for comment are. It suggested that opportunities to contribute to the law-making process and committee inquiries should be promoted more widely, and outlined how Parliament could use different channels to do this:

“Publicizing through social media as well as the conventional press and through basic advertising strategies should become standard practice.”[10]

Of course, connecting with people is not just about asking people to send their views to Parliament: it is also about tuning into the conversations that people are having in online spaces. One message that resonated strongly with us is that Parliament has to get better at listening to people.[11] Parliament already has some good practice learning in this area, but it needs to do more.[12]

Access to advice and support in planning and implementing digital engagement opportunities will be key to making them effective and ensuring a positive experience for citizens. As outlined by Involve, this will be partly about managing expectations and partly about ensuring that sufficient resources are in place:

“As in all good engagement practice, be careful to set realistic expectations in advance for how much influence citizens are likely to have in the process, and set up plans (and budgets) ahead of time for closing the feedback loop. Embed a culture of continual learning, and be positive from the outset that making changes as you go along is an indicator of quality.”[13]

Parliament’s skills need to fit the new digital world and enable it to adapt accordingly. Gone are the days when the skills needed for effective online communications and creating digital content could be delegated to a small core of specialist staff. This needs to be reflected in its strategy for developing its staff.

12.4 Building an appetite for risk

Finally, we highlight the need for Parliament to develop an appetite for risk-taking and innovation, which is an essential component of doing digital well. Currently, it can seem overly cautious about trying new ways of doing things, but digital excellence requires a willingness to experiment. This means accepting that not all projects will succeed, but some failure is an inevitable part of innovation. An incremental approach is more likely to succeed than putting all digital development efforts into one grand scheme. We note an increased appetite in many parts of the House to take calculated risks—for example, by using social media to increase engagement and by ceasing publication of some of its content in paper formats—and we hope to see this approach expand.

[1] MySociety, Parliament's Online Services: A Strategic Review containing Strengths, Weaknesses and Recommendations, March 2014

[2] MySociety, Parliament's Online Services: A Strategic Review containing Strengths, Weaknesses and Recommendations, March 2014

[3]Computer Weekly News, Rob Greig appointed director of Parliamentary Digital Service 17 December 2014

[4] MySociety, Parliament's Online Services: A Strategic Review containing Strengths, Weaknesses and Recommendations, March 2014

[5] See recommendation 2 in section 2, Improving public understanding about politics and Parliament

[6] Parliament’s Education Service website; See also Business, Innovation and Skills Committee video summary of its report on adult literacy

[7] See section 8 on Ensuring that the public have a good experience of engaging with Parliament

[8] Discussion at the British Youth Council Convention in Birmingham, 11 October 2014; NIACE Leicester roundtable 4 September 2014; NIACE roundtable London, 10 September 2014; Marketing roundtable 2 July 2014

[9] Marketing roundtable 2 July 2014; Digi058 [Democratic Society]

[10] Digi058 [Democratic Society]

[11] Dr Andy Williamson, spoken contribution on representation, 17 June 2014, Q23; Digital Democracy events in Cardiff and Gov Camp Cymru, 26-27 September 2014 

[12] Digi028 [Lucy Denton, Digital Outreach Team]

[13] Digi003 [Involve]