MPs hold the Government to account in many ways. One way is standing up and speaking in an oral questions session. This is where MPs ask ministers questions in the chamber related to Government departments.
Oral questions are really popular and a lot of MPs want to ask questions in these sessions. The Table Office support MPs by helping them phrase their questions correctly. If too many questions are submitted, the Table Office run a lottery (also called a ‘shuffle’) to select which questions get asked. If the Table Office needs clarification on the wording or purpose of a question, the question is 'carded'. It’s then put on hold until the MP can clarify.
MPs can submit questions to the Table Office electronically but the current system has many issues. One of the projects that PDS is currently working on is to improve this submission system. We developed a new interface for submitting questions, giving MPs feedback about their questions from the table office (known as ‘carding’), which helps them prepare after the shuffle has happened.
Running user research with MPs
Our first step was to find out how MP offices currently work. How do they prepare and submit questions, how do they deal with ‘carded’ questions and what do they do after the shuffle? To answer these questions, we wanted to speak to MPs and their staff about their current processes.
MPs are very busy and it can be hard to get time with them. Luckily we had the support of the Table Office. It recruited MPs with a variety of experience with submitting (‘tabling’) questions. We met them to ask about their process for tabling questions.
Things we learned
Conversations with the Table Office
The first thing that most MPs told us was how helpful the Table Office were. The rules for wording a question are complicated. MPs rely on feedback from Table Office staff to phrase their questions correctly and work out the appropriate wording. They then need to reference their conversation with the Table Office in their submitted question, which they were unable to do on the existing system.
The role of MP’s staff
We also learned about the support that MPs get from their own staff when editing and submitting questions. Oral questions are often suggested by an MP’s party, who are interested in either supporting or challenging the Government.
MP’s staff will help by selecting relevant questions for them then ask for their MP’s approval. Staff often submit the questions on their MP’s behalf. The existing method doesn’t support this which leads to bottlenecks as staff need their MP to log in to the system or to submit questions in person. This also creates confusion about who’s responsible for each question.
A third thing we learned was how the ‘carding’ process worked. Currently MPs get an email which tells them that one of their submitted questions has an issue. They then contact the Table Office. The email, however, doesn’t include details of which question has the problem or what the problem is. MPs submit a large number of questions so this leads to multiple phone calls with the Table Office before identifying the question and the issue.
Again, if the new system identified the question and gave guidance on the issue, this would reduce the time that dealing with carded questions took for both MPs and the Table Office.
After the shuffle
Another interesting area was what happens when an oral question is successful in the shuffle. The current system doesn’t alert MPs. They have to read through a lengthy document each day to see if their questions have been picked. This has the potential for human error.
Some MPs told us they sometimes learned at a late stage that their question was successful which reduced their ability to prepare. This is another issue that a new system could help address.
The user research team analysed the data from interviews with MPs (and their staff). We shared the findings with the business applications team who build software within Parliament. They then converted these to user stories and came up with creative ways of meeting the requirements which they used to build a working prototype.
Our plan over the next few weeks is to take this prototype to MPs and their staff and watch them using it. We can then get feedback on how the system works and uncover any usability issues with the system before it gets rolled out to all MPs.
Please email us or leave a comment if you want to know more about our research.