Revolution in Parliament: BYOD and cloud reaches the corridors of power

By Graeme Burton
26 Mar 2014 View Comments
Joan Miller Director of Paliamentary ICT

Nothing illustrates the impact bring your own device (BYOD) has had than the way in which the concept first infiltrated and then influenced the policy behind the IT systems at the Houses of Parliament.

“Our users are very mobile people,” says Joan Miller, director of Parliamentary ICT (PICT). But back in 2009, she adds, Members of Parliament (MPs) and Lords wanting a mobile solution had a very limited choice: they could either have a BlackBerry or, as an alternative, a particularly clumsy model of smartphone. “What was clear was that people were choosing their own devices instead,” she says.

Further reading

PICT does more than provide IT and associated services to the 650 MPs and 763 members of the House of Lords – it supports the activity of some 7,000 employees in Parliament, including MPs’ staff, and the various activities that take place in the Houses.

“We provide equipment, networks and applications,” says Miller.

And all of these activities are changing all the time.

Back in 2009, though, Miller and her team needed to come up with a new “five-year plan” for PICT that would develop Parliament’s IT through to the general election in 2015 – when another five-year plan will be put to the Parliamentary Internet, Communications and Technology Forum, the committee of Members of both Houses of Parliament, who ultimately approve the strategy.

“One of the very big demands from Members prior to the last election was to be able to choose their own devices. So we went into the 2010 election having planned an offering that enabled us to safely present emails on most mobile devices,” says Miller.

However, almost as soon as Members started to return, the launch of the Apple iPad – which became widely available in the UK in June 2010 – mixed everything up.

“We had tried before the very heavy [pre-iPad] tablet devices, but they were clumsy and quite difficult to use,” says Miller. The iPad, in contrast, “seemed like the perfect device for our Members because they do carry a lot of papers around every day.”

Indeed, Miller describes the main activity of the Houses of Parliament as publishing, with the main “output” comprising documents, whether in the form of reports, proposals, white papers, green papers, or proposed or approved legislation.

These not only need to be in the right hands at the right time, but also published – online, on paper and even, in the case of legislation today, on vellum, the hard-wearing material made from goatskin (from British and Norwegian goats, to be precise) that ought to last 500 years or more.

In committees, it is not unusual for Members to carry stacks of paper several inches high and, post-election, Miller wanted to see whether it might be better for these papers to be produced and delivered on iPads rather than printed.

“We went to the Administration Committee in the House of Commons and the Information Committee in the House of Lords. We said: ‘We’ve given you this new strategy. We think the next step is these tablets. Would you like to try them in a paperless committee?’

“Both chairs said ‘yes’ and adopted a pilot project. It took several weeks to really understand what kind of papers they might need on the iPad and then to produce them and introduce them to the members of the committees,” says Miller.

MPs and Lords are a hugely mixed bag. There are some who wholeheartedly embrace technology, while others are more conservative. Indeed, a handful could almost be described as techno-phobes.

“They gave it a really good go, and they had paperless committees after about three months. Then, they ran those paperless committees for another nine months,” says Miller. At the end of that period, when she attended an Administration Committee meeting, there was just one member with a six-inch high pile of papers – and that was because he was new to the Committee and had not got an iPad yet.

“People were able to absorb quite a lot of information just by using electronic documents instead of paper documents, and were able to debate from the information from within the electronic documents,” says Miller.

Providing Parliamentary documents via iPad, though, has had knock-on effects. Members, for example, have taken their iPads back to their constituencies and started to work on them, instead of taking their laptops. Laptops, meanwhile, have become more desk-bound, perhaps displacing desktop PCs.

What this means is that the next “five-year plan” that Miller will present to Members and Lords, will be much less prescriptive. Whereas now they can select five items of computing with which to equip their Parliamentary offices, the aim after the next election is to shift to a flat-rate cash allowance from which Members will be able to select whatever they think they need.

PICT, in consequence, will do less hand-holding and more advising. It will also help Members use any hardware, within reason, as it moves more and more services to the cloud.

Cloud bound

This is a shift that also started back in 2010, but which is set to continue for the foreseeable future.

“Cloud is attractive because of its availability, sustainability in different locations and because it is cheaper. So we put in place a four-year plan in 2010, which was to move our services into the cloud so that they would be more available, beginning with email and office software because that is our major offering to Members,” says Miller.

For Parliament, the issue of shifting email and office software to Microsoft Office 365 back in 2010, when it first became available in beta, was very much about security and “sovereignty” of data.

“We went through a whole year of feasibility studies. There were a load of checkpoints that we looked at: What happens to the data in the cloud? Who owns it? What happens if we want to take our data out of the cloud again? Is it secure? Have we got data ‘sovereignty’ over where it sits? Is it integrate-able with other cloud services? Is it flexible and will it save money?” says Miller.

All these questions – both internally and from Members and Lords whose agreement is required for any IT strategy to go forward – needed to be answered. That process took about a year, and a further year has been spent planning the actual migration to make sure it goes smoothly.

Not surprisingly, the Edward Snowden disclosures revealing widespread surveillance and eavesdropping by the US National Security Agency and the UK’s GCHQ on organisations around the world, including friendly nations, has drawn questions from Members. However, the data in Parliament’s Office 365 implementation will only sit on servers based in Europe, she says.

It is not just the cost and flexibility that is attractive, but also the range of office services that is broader than the office software that PICT currently provides. While the migration is currently taking place, after May 2015 it will become the default for email, storage, file-sharing, and hosted apps for Lords, MPs and staff, as well as providing the usual Microsoft Office software suite.

The mobile revolution in Parliament has also necessitated network upgrades, partly to accommodate Office 365, but also as Members and staff increasingly tune into Parliamentary television over their computers and, hence, the Parliamentary network, rather than via the screens in every office.

The shift to Office 365 followed the use of cloud services to handle minor, non-sensitive applications, such as room booking, partly in order to experiment with the whole concept before adoption.

“We used the government G-Cloud because by going through G-Cloud there’s a certain amount of pre-preparation and scrutiny of those services to ensure that we know they have some level of security, but we also have our own procurement processes,” says Miller.

iPads and austerity

These changes have also come at the same time that PICT has been subject to the same austerity measures as everyone else. As such, the shift to iPads for committee work, for example, has had to be self-financing, with savings at each stage paying for the next stage of the project. In total, the project will have saved £5.9m by May 2015, says Miller, which has helped to fund the various other initiatives.

Savings haven’t solely been made in paper and printing. “We have made efficiency savings because we have renegotiated contracts. We have bought services more cheaply because we have used G-Cloud frameworks. We have looked at our own services and become more efficient by reorganising what we do,” says Miller.

Furthermore, some IT hardware costs have also fallen, while staff numbers have been trimmed.
The next five-year plan is now being considered by Miller and her team, which involves looking ahead to the IT trends for the rest of the decade.

Following on from the digitisation of information in the iPad initiative, Miller is considering the implications of electronic information more broadly, not just for Members and Lords, but the general public, widening their access to Parliamentary information.

Miller is also considering the implications of big data and the impact that the automation that can bring will have on Parliamentary IT and the way in which PICT services are delivered – a shift from the personalisation of IT to the “impersonalisation” of IT.

One of the initiatives that is currently in-hand, and which will continue, is the creation of a data warehouse of Parliamentary “business” data. “It’s what we call internally ‘data.parliament’... we are in the throes of creating an external platform that will enable anyone who can use the internet to access our data, search it, re-purpose it and do whatever they like with it,” says Miller.

That would certainly be a revolutionary shift for Parliament, but one that could start as early as next year.

@GraemeBurton

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