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