Review of Management and Services: Report to the House of Commons Commission Part 8




8.1    It is a measure of the speed of IT developments in the House that the subject received only passing references in the Ibbs Report, and then primarily in the context of accounting systems. It is now a major area of expenditure, subject to continuing technical change, handled through complex Departmental arrangements, and — as the survey shows — a source of considerable dissatisfaction among Members.

8.2    Information technology has three distinct elements:

  • technical infrastructure is the management of technology that delivers services to the desktop. It includes:
    • computer hardware such as servers and desk top machines
    • telecommunications and networks; the technology of telecommunications and computing continues to converge
    • software to make the infrastructure work (for instance to control the network), and common software such as word processing and spread sheets
    • maintenance of hardware and software
    • a helpdesk to answer users’ queries
    • training
    • maintenance of standards
  • business systems are computer programs and associated management processes that include:
    • accounting systems
    • human resource management systems
    • the wide range of operational systems developed over the years by individual Departments of the House
  • information systems deliver information electronically over the network that would previously have been available only in printed form. POLIS is an example

8.3    IT definitions are often loose but, in the House, information technology is taken to mean technical infrastructure; other elements come under the heading of information systems.

The current situation

8.4    The present approach to accounting and the fragmentation of IT throughout the federal structure means that it is difficult to estimate the annual IT cost to the House. Capital and current expenditure on computers in 1998–99 was £8.2 million. Current expenditure on communications was £5.2 million, and information expenditure was £14.7 million, both of which have substantial IT elements. These figures do not include staff costs, nor Members’ own IT expenditure funded from the Office Costs Allowance.

8.5    The JLA survey showed that IT is an area of concern to Members. There was a high level of dissatisfaction with access to the Internet and Intranet: 30% (cabled) and 40% (modem access). Levels of dissatisfaction with reliability were only slightly lower. Improvement to the PDVN was the priority for change mentioned most frequently by Members. Of those (38%, or 118 Members) who responded to the question: “if you had to nominate one aspect of the services provided by the House of Commons administration as a priority for action in terms of improving or adding to the services available to you, what would it be?”, most (27%) mentioned IT as a priority for improvement.

8.6    The quality of IT service has a direct and increasing influence on the ability of the House administration to perform effectively. But without good co-ordinated central planning it is very difficult to control costs and provide a reliable service. Concerns about the future direction and management of IT led in 1996 to the appointment of a Director of Communications and the establishment of the Parliamentary Communications Directorate within the Serjeant’s Department. Significant improvements in the quality of IT delivery followed.

8.7    A strategy study carried out in 1996 recognised the importance of common ways of accessing information, and laid the foundations for introducing the Parliamentary Intranet. In May 1997 work began on an IT convergence strategy seeking to reduce the diversity of system components, and so to cut costs and increase the reliability of the network. There were delays in reaching agreement between the federal Departments, but the strategy is now being implemented. In 1998 NCC Services Ltd reviewed staffing and organisation of IT in the House. The review found it difficult to deal with issues of organisation, given the constraints of the federal structure, but made constructive detailed recommendations on staffing.

8.8    It seems that this year it emerged that significant upgrading was necessary. This is now under way, with the aim of improving the performance and resilience of the network.

Costs and benefits

8.9    It is notoriously difficult to measure the actual costs of information technology, and to forecast future costs. The measurement of costs is a problem because systems pervade an organisation and costs do not arise in easily identifiable places. Changes can have indirect effects. For example, if an organisation reduces IT training costs, costs such as management time to resolve problems will increase. Neglect of induction training may reduce one area of cost, but helpdesk costs may escalate as a result. It is important to recognise that the capital cost of computers is one of the least significant costs in the total. The House’s cash–based accounting system is not particularly helpful in measuring actual costs; the move to resource accounting will provide more useful information for management purposes.

8.10    Planning future expenditure is also fraught with difficulty. It must take into account:

  • current and proposed systems
  • how much the systems will be used and what for
  • how reliable the systems need to be

Forecasting the costs of new systems development is simple compared with the task of forecasting traffic on the network, and the related task of planning upgrades to achieve adequate performance. Over time, performance may deteriorate, giving slow response times, or the network may become unreliable.

8.11    Forecasting the costs of IT can be improved by:

  • clear policy guidelines for the management of different elements of IT within the organisation
  • strict adherence to standards
  • reduction of different varieties of machines to the absolute minimum
  • reduction of varieties of desktop software

Standards were introduced in 1997 as part of the convergence programme, but the federal structure still makes the effective management of the IT infrastructure difficult.

Organisation of IT in the House

8.12    The organisation of IT reflects the federal structure of the House. Each Department is responsible for its own IT, but PCD runs a large proportion of the IT infrastructure, the Parliamentary Data and Video Network (PDVN). There is a considerable reluctance on the part of Departments to rely on PCD, based on a perception of poor service in the past. The current management arrangements are complex:

8.13    The Parliamentary Communications Directorate is responsible for supporting the PDVN for both the House of Commons and the House of Lords. It is guided by four committees:

  • the Information Systems Steering Group (ISSG) is a committee of officials from all House of Commons Departments. It advises on strategy, and is chaired by the Director of Finance and Administration
  • the Information Technology Strategy Group (ITSG), the House of Lords equivalent
  • the Information Technology Strategy Board (ITSB), which co-ordinates the ISSG and the ITSG
  • the Information Committee, the select committee of Commons Members, which is at present playing a constructive role in reflecting Members’ views and commenting on planning and strategic issues

Ad hoc working groups steer projects such as convergence.

8.14     Members are responsible for their own computer facilities, funded through the Office Costs Allowance. Members need to conform to some basic IT standards if an effective service is to be provided. The cost of attaching and supporting a Member or a Member’s staffer on the system is difficult to estimate, but is significant: a third of the total network engineering effort is dedicated to Members’ and Peers’ support. Commercial experience suggests that the capital cost of a PC is only 30% of the total cost on an annualised basis; the House authorities’ estimate for the SSRB was £3,500 p.a. per Member. This cost is not charged back to Members, but, for the House of Commons, is borne on the Administration Vote (with works elements on the Works Services Vote). There is an additional multiplier effect on these Votes if increases in the OCA affect IT provision for Members and their staff.

8.15    The Information Committee has considered the implications of the recommendation by the Review Body on Senior Salaries that there should be central provision of IT equipment and support for Members and their staff, together with the Government’s response. Sources for purchase of compliant computers have been identified. It is likely, however, that the support of Members’ computers will continue to give rise to difficulties. Most problems stem from the organisation of individual systems, and it is not possible to insulate the network from the effects.

8.16    The Clerk’s Department manages the core services of the House. The Department has achieved some success in applying computer systems to the activities of the House, for example in handling Bill text and amendments and networking among select committee staffs. The application of computers might yield some further significant benefits by mechanising the flow of paper within the Department.

8.17    The Department of the Serjeant at Arms has in the last year set up its own IT Department (separate from PCD), and is responsible for IT security (the subject of an Internal Audit Review in 1996). In a corporate structure this second department would have been unnecessary.

8.18    The Library has considerable IT expertise and demonstrates some independence, developing its own systems. There is no Service Level Agreement between PCD and the Library, although the need is recognised and there have been attempts to establish one. This should be pursued. The Library is a centre of expertise in the field of information management, and is responsible for the POLIS system.

8.19    Over the next few years the Library’s work in developing information systems may help to contain the escalating costs of information services for Members. A consequence of our recommendations is that the Library would pass responsibility for infrastructure to PCD, but the Library would retain and build on its vital skills in developing information systems, and make them available House–wide.

8.20    The Department of Finance and Administration operates the majority of accounting, payroll and human resources systems.

8.21    The Official Report has a dedicated network operating to standards different from those of the PDVN. The reasons for the independent approach are historic, and the system works well. Clearly, if there were a need to change, a central solution should be considered, and we understand that some thought is already being given to this.

8.22    The Refreshment Department is beginning to make extensive use of information technology, and has introduced business–critical systems for such activities as point of sale and stock ordering, in line with commercial best practice. The critical nature of these systems means they have to be appropriately supported.

8.23    The House of Lords is provided with a service from the PDVN under a Service Level Agreement.

The way forward

8.24    Changes are needed in the following areas:

  • a move to a corporate structure and approach, as outlined elsewhere in this Report. Unless there is a common approach it will be difficult to get best value for money and maintain agreed standards of performance. Progress has been painfully slow under the federal structure, but a corporate structure will not by itself achieve improvements. It must be accompanied by a change in behaviour so that Departments co–operate, agree a course of action, and stick to the agreement
  • central control of infrastructure and standards. It is difficult to see how the system can be operated with adequate reliability and resilience under the present arrangements. Departments seem to operate under the misapprehension that by controlling parts of the infrastructure they are protecting the quality of service that they deliver. They are in fact contributing to the fragility of the system, and to higher costs. There must therefore be a central authority for infrastructure and standards, and this must clearly be the PCD. The Directorate should also be able to help and support Departments that need to develop particular applications for their own business
  • service level agreements. Two–way service level agreements should be negotiated between Departments and the PCD. We think that this would build confidence in PCD’s ability to deliver what Departments need. However, as we noted in paragraph 6.6, SLAs are only one element in developing confidence and service standards. IT SLAs should be formulated on the basis we described: simple, as quantitative as possible, and with mechanisms for review
  • effective measurement of costs, benefits and performance. IT will remain a major area of House expenditure. The accurate identification of costs will be essential to keep it under control. Benefits need to be measured in order to guide investment and other strategic decisions, and performance measures will need to be developed and reported
  • strategic planning. The PCD has made substantial progress in developing a technical strategy for the PDVN. However, although the ISSG has attempted to link the business aspects of IT to the strategy for the development of House services, this has been difficult given the level of strategic planning for the latter
  • innovation and application. The speed of technological innovation means that the House needs to monitor the implications for its own infrastructure and business process. Only then will the potential of IT to improve service and reduce costs be fully realised
  • outsourcing. The PCD should take advantage of opportunities for outsourcing when business cases demonstrate likely benefits; but outsourcing would not be practical under the current arrangements

8.25    These recommendations will need to be taken forward in close consultation with the House of Lords authorities. In the short term, we expect that details of the relationship of the PCD to other parts of the Serjeant’s Department will be covered by the review we have recommended with PWD as its starting point (see paragraph 7.27)

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Prepared 26 July 1999