Select Committee on Information First Report


Visit by the Committee to the Scottish Parliament on 24/25 April 2002

Note by the Clerk of the Committee

Meeting with Scottish Parliament officials

1. Lesley Beddie, Director of Communications Technologies, welcomed the Committee and introduced key staff from the Scottish Parliament's Communications Technologies Directorate (CTD). Unlike its Westminster counterpart, the Communications Technologies Directorate embraces not just the provision of IT hardware, services and network support but also the provision of information systems and broadcasting services.

2. MSPs are provided with a PC and laptop for their Edinburgh office, as well as an allowance to cover the cost of IT equipment for Members' staff. A remote access facility is provided - this is currently Citrix-based and has received mixed reviews. The time taken to dial in and to log in seems to be the main frustration. A move to VPN/Broadband connectivity is being studied.

3. No equipment is provided centrally for constituency offices under the existing contract: this will change in 2003.

4. CTD consulted with MSPs on what type of laptop and PDA should be provided. The PDAs are supplied through GCAT: they do not have a wireless connection and therefore need to be regularly synchronised with the local workstation. A questionnaire was sent to all MSPs concerning the replacement laptops. Responses were analysed and MSPs were offered a choice of laptops, varying from an ultralightweight machine to a large workhorse. Three types of PDA are recommended and validated for use on the Parliamentary network. These can be synchronised with a local workstation or using the MSP's laptop when dialled in to the Parliament. PDAs can be purchased by MSPs using Parliamentary allowances.

5. Case management software has been developed for MSPs but it has proved difficult to customise it to meet individual preferences. The specification for the case management met as many of the requirements as possible. Several MSPs are using the system as developed and others have requested modifications and customisations.

6. Equipment to be installed in the Holyrood building includes digital audio recording for the Official Report as a replacement for the current analogue tapes. The new system will allow the archiving and searching of the audio clips once they are indexed appropriately.

7. The Information Systems team are responsible for development of the Parliamentary website, Intranet redesign, records management and the accessibility of data for the Parliament. The website receives approx. 700,000 hits per month, mostly from central government, local government and the media. The "What's Happening" pages are the most popular.

8. Web page content management, a new project for the Web and intranet team, aims to devolve responsibility for document generation and publication to those originating the information, who will need suitable training. A project similar to the Parliamentary Information Management System (PIMS) is under way, with the aim of breaking down the storage of information in "silos" currently created by the various business teams across the Parliament. The initial approach is to increase Parliament-wide accessibility to individual data stores. This has been achieved for PQs and will be extended in the near future to Motions and MSPs' biographies.

9. The Customer Relations Management team serve as the main interface between Parliamentary users and the technical support staff. The Helpdesk is generally able to fix 80% of calls at the time of enquiry. The aim is to answer all calls within 3 rings. If problems cannot be solved immediately and are referred onwards, the Helpdesk maintains "ownership", stays in contact with the caller and contacts the caller within 15 minutes of the problem having been rectified, to see whether the caller is content.

10. Efforts are made to manage expectations and also to inform MSPs about the quality of different IT products on offer e.g. digital voice recorders and PDAs. To some extent the team have an "educative" function, making users aware of information services and of the limits of product capability. Users of new products are offered a training course or sometimes 30 minutes' onsite guidance - "handholding".

11. The Helpdesk currently offers limited support to constituency offices by way of "over the phone advice" on the use of remote access and on other matters, even though the Parliament does not currently supply IT equipment to constituency offices. It is intended that a support service contract for constituency offices should be in place for the next Parliament. IT equipment in constituency offices is bought using funds from from MSPs' allowances: it is Parliamentary equipment but is not supplied by the IT Department. The view of CTD is that the equipment is used by Members and their staff to perform essential Parliamentary work and that CTD has an obligation to support it.

12. There is no equivalent to the Information Committee: policy is generally ratified through informal contact with MSPs or, if there is a significant financial commitment, through the Scottish Parliament Corporate Body (consisting of the Presiding Officer, the Chief Executive and representatives of each of the parties).

13. There is an informal cross-party group of MSPs - the MSP IT User Group - which meets regularly with the Parliament's IS/IT staff.

14. The Parliament's Information Centre (SPICe), which is part of the Research and Information Group, does not attempt to replicate the House of Commons Library: there is no large stock and no loan collection. The emphasis is on electronic storage and delivery of information. A research service is provided both to meet individual inquiries and to serve Committees, none of which have their own research staff.

15. The Information Centre receives automatically 20 paper copies of everything published by the Scottish Executive; once stocks are exhausted, further copies can be supplied. Not all Executive documents are available electronically, and some are available only in unfamiliar (and unsupported) formats. Some ascribe this to Civil Service resistance to openness.

16. The Research and Information Group is responsible for informing the public about the work of the Parliament. This function entails management of the Visitor Centre on George IV Bridge, the publication of leaflets on the work of the Parliament, and liaison with schools. The Library has links with designated "Partner Libraries" in each constituency: these act as focal points for information about the Parliament and its documentation.

17. On-line discussion forums are handled by the Communications Directorate rather than by the Research and Information Group. The Parliament has allocated a budget specifically for the development of civic participation by the committees. The Research and Information Group's Participation Services Team (which includes all the services mentioned in the previous item) advises and assists with this.

18. The main challenges facing the Information Centre are the quality of IT links between the Parliament and constituency offices and the lack of a comprehensive in-house parliamentary information database.

Meeting with George Reid MSP

19. Mr Reid started by saying that there are advantages in starting a Parliament from scratch, without the inherited baggage of hundreds of years of practice and procedure.

20. This had allowed the Scottish Parliament to experiment with new forms of electronic governance and participation. However, Members were in "suck it and see" mode. The key ICT questions were: what works; what assists an MSP to be more effective; and what helps the Parliament to engage with the citizen?

21. Mr Reid said while openness is a basic principle of the Parliament, it can have a downside. Palestinian activists had obtained a list of MSPs' e-mail addresses and had sent them pictures of headless babies. A recent webcast had shown a Member who is a lawyer apparently examining the contents of his nose, giving rise to some ribald comment in the press about the "long arm of the law".

22. Nonetheless, Mr Reid believed strongly that openness and participation were fundamental to the establishment of links between the people and the Scottish Parliament. Citizens were not subjects and had a right to be heard. He believed that the results of experiments in participation to date had been overwhelmingly positive.

23. The establishment of fora for online discussions raised a number of new issues, for instance: should a discussion on sex education have links to the website of an organisation that offers emergency contraception to children? Should the Parliament provide e-mail correspondents with information on Members interested in specific topics or background documentation (even if this is simply giving them the appropriate page references for the Official Report or Committee Reports)?

24. Mr Reid said that civic fora were also part of the learning process about the Parliament. The Chamber, chaired by a presiding officer, had therefore featured a number of debates (most of them video-recorded) with representatives from the gipsy community, disabled people, ethnic minorities, the business community and schoolchildren (who had taken their own Health Bill through all parliamentary stages). There were examples of such participation having influenced parliamentary proposals.

25. Discussion fora are hosted on the website, linked to Members Business debates of public interest. The response is variable but in one case (chronic pain) had led to over 100,000 hits.

26. Care is needed to ensure that expectations, once raised, are met. Mr Reid said his e-mail inbox had on one recent occasion received over 200 messages in a single day — the result of having replied to a discussion forum message about sub-post offices, which had then been copied to other mailing lists. The whole correspondence had grown, uncontrollably, "like Topsy".

27. Video-conferencing had not been as widely used as Parliamentary staff had anticipated. There had been useful hook-ups with Galicia, New Zealand, and EU representatives. In some cases, the extraction of information had been like "drawing teeth", because of language difficulties.

28. Video-conferencing remains a cost-effective alternative to face-to-face taking of evidence. In the case of meetings with representatives in Brussels, however, it appeared that Members usually preferred personal interviews.

29. Mr Reid stressed that the use new forms of ICT should be driven, not by technology, but by "what works in practice". Where ICT was proved to be cost effective and of practical advantage to Members, it should be adopted.

30. Looking ahead over the next 5 years, Mr Reid said that the Holyrood Building would have new equipment as "future-proofed" as possible.

31. This had led to an interesting debate in the Scottish Parliament about whether Members, as in the Welsh Assembly, should have PC terminals in the Chamber. The presiding officers in the Scottish Parliament were opposed to this, believing that the essential purpose of a plenary session was to listen, intervene, and engage in debate. Where information was requested by e-mail, that was best done via a PC in a neighbouring room.

32. There was a real concern given the "deluge" of e-mail, which threatened to swamp staff. Constituency Members could if they chose respond only to e-mails from constituents and filter out others; but List Members did not have this option.

33. The Scottish Parliament was active in promoting its proceedings: the local press was alerted when an issue of particular local relevance was debated; JPEG files were automatically despatched to the local press and contact was made with bodies in the voluntary and civic sectors.

34. As for the future of e-democracy, Mr Reid said that there was a need for Members and staff to review what had been done in Parliament over the past three years and probably "to do less better".

Meeting with Alan Smart, Head of Broadcasting

35. The Scottish Parliament itself provided pictures to broadcasters; stills from moving images could be supplied at small cost to anyone who asked as JPEG files. This service was valued by backbenchers. Every Committee meeting outside Edinburgh was televised.

36. It was worth noting that there were fewer restrictions on rules of coverage of proceedings in the Scottish Parliament than in Westminster. For instance, the public gallery could be shown as could reaction around the Chamber. Broadcasters were trusted to use their discretion in use of footage.

37. The webcasting service was really a substitute for a dedicated TV channel; but it was claimed to be one of the best examples of its kind, if not the best. The Scottish Parliament was the sole copyright holder of the images. Overall, the cost of the service (excluding staff costs) was below £200,000.

38. The Education, Culture and Sport Committee had launched a consultation on the purposes of education; contributions would be treated as formal evidence. The task of moderating and collating evidence was normally outsourced but would be undertaken for this inquiry by the Committee Clerks. Care needed to be taken as the Scottish Parliament was liable, as a publisher, for defamation. There were, however, hardly any obscene or cranky contributions.

39. The total cost of setting up a discussion forum would include Scottish Parliament staff time, the cost of the contract with the webcast provider and the cost of the contract with Community People, who moderated most of the discussions.

40. The most successful example had been a forum which had attracted 170 comments posted over four weeks.

Discussion with Nora Radcliffe MSP, Elaine Thomson MSP, Jamie Stone MSP and David Mundell MSP

41. MSPs had initially encouraged communication by e-mail, imagining that quick and brief replies would suffice; but some e-mails ran to 20 pages and many were no different in substance from paper mail. MSPs managed, just, often using extra staff. It was suggested that more office staff could be needed. The Scottish Parliament provided standard-format e-mail addresses for MSPs.

42. MSPs and staff were in the main aware of new technology and were willing to use it. Some needed training, but attendance at courses was sometimes poor.

43. Looking ahead, one important issue was the connection between constituency offices and Edinburgh. If necessary, the Parliament should perhaps be prescriptive about the means by which the link was made. Another issue of concern was the handling of e-mail and filtering software.

44. One MSP said that she had spoken in the debate in the chamber earlier that day, and that all the information which she had used for her speech had been gathered electronically. Holyrood would offer new opportunities, but it was not expected that MSPs would have workstations in the Chamber: there were objections in high places.

45. One MSP said that she would welcome facilities to allow a half-hour surgery each day with her. Webcam was the preferred medium as eye contact was useful. Another suggestion was a network of video booths, where constituents could make recordings and send them to their constituency MSPs.

46. MSPs were positive about interactive fora (such as petitions and web-based discussions) but were not yet entirely clear how best to use them. As a clear indicator of opinion, they were valuable, but they were facilities for debate rather than plebiscites. One MSP compared them to victim statements, which gave an opportunity for views to be aired. The danger of raising and then dashing expectations was acknowledged.

47. Also, MSPs needed to bear in mind who was accessing discussion sites. If a Committee set up a web-based discussion, it was the job of that Committee to interpret the feedback sensibly.

48. The flow of information between the Parliament and the Executive needed to be opened up - the Civil Service was resistant to the idea of MSPs e-mailing Ministers directly.

49. The links between the Parliament and schools were already strong. Many schoolchildren attended proceedings in the Chamber and it was becoming increasingly common for schools to play back webcasts of proceedings to classes.

The Committee then attended Question Time in the Chamber and visited the new Parliamentary Building site at Holyrood. The presentation at Holyrood dwelt on the design and genesis of the building rather than technological aspects.

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Prepared 15 July 2002