Back in March, I was part of the House of Lords contingent at the Rapid Start event. The key theme there was ‘Unlocking democracy for all’ – and, in a small but significant way, our prototype for sprints #5 and #6 delivered that aim by making it as easy for anyone to follow statutory instruments (of which Parliament considers around 1,000 per year) as for bills (around 20 per year).
Statutory instruments (SIs) are also known as secondary, delegated or subordinate legislation. They are made by ministers under the provisions of an existing Act. Many Acts contain provisions for secondary legislation, and they are used for purposes as varied as proscribing new terrorist groups, creating detailed regulations too complex to be in the Act itself, and changing rates and charges (for instance court fees). Most secondary legislation is never considered by Parliament, but some are subject to Parliamentary veto (the negative procedure) or require Parliament's consent for them (the affirmative procedure). There are many variations on both procedures, and the language used is arcane even by Parliamentary standards – the veto motion is a 'prayer', for example.
The identification of the user need for SIs came not from the global website research, but from the relevant offices in the House of Commons and House of Lords. These offices are often asked for very basic information around SIs – for instance dates, type and committee membership. The information is already available online, but is spread around many pages which are essentially just electronic versions of the business papers of each House. This makes it hard to discover and follow – you would need specialist knowledge just to understand the current status of an SI. We therefore decided to build a prototype to enable anyone to follow the progress of an SI through Parliament.
The team started with a crash course in SI procedure, with presentations from staff of the Journal Office in the Commons and Legislation Office in the Lords. We also secured the valuable support of Katya Cassidy from the Commons for the duration of the SI work. Discovery interviews were conducted with civil servants and researchers who regularly work with SIs.
For this prototype we took an individual approach to sketching. Team members worked on their own ideas then came together to identify the best features and agree on a single design. Almost all the sketches included a timeline element, so this was prominent in our first (mobile) prototype:
We took this prototype out to guerrilla test with staff. Compared to the prototype for Members and Issues, it was interesting to see how users reacted differently to the prototype being presented on screen rather than on paper. Given the complexity of the Parliamentary language in this area, we decided to speak to the Digital Service’s Content Team to ensure the page was comprehensible. We used all of this feedback as we moved the static prototype into a responsive HTML page:
The team fully recognised that an SI page would be a fairly niche product, so allowed plenty of time to recruit of specialist users to conduct the next round of testing. We were fortunate to find lobbyists, campaigners and some of DECC's Parliament team to test with, and their feedback was immensely useful:
- We used red and green dots in the timeline to indicate proceedings in the House of Lords and House of Commons. While this system is widely known within Parliament, those outside (even those who work closely with us) found it confusing - for example, thinking it meant stop/go. And of course, speaking as one of the 2.7 million Britons with colour vision deficiency, it's not great from an accessibility perspective either!
- People liked the uncluttered timeline, but also wanted more information on the various stages (e.g. Delegated Legislation Committee) to be present on the page.
- It wasn't clear that once most affirmative SIs have completed the Parliamentary process they still need to be signed by the minister before coming into force.
We have addressed these issues in a further iteration of the prototype, and have left this project ready to be picked up again in the future.