We recently blogged about a new online service to petition against a hybrid bill. In this post, we’re talking about how we created the behind the scenes systems to allow the petitions to be processed and sent to government departments.
Doing more online
Over the past couple of years, we’ve created a number of systems to manage various parts of the work of committees, including submissions of written evidence. These systems have started to become dated, not only in terms of technology but they also need to meet our digital strategy aspiration of being business enabling.
The committee office wants to be able to do a lot more electronically so we decided that this was a great time to start building a more comprehensive system. It would also help Parliament meet its longer term goals around public engagement and improving internal processes.
Securing submissions from the public
As the public are sending data to Parliament electronically, we need to protect our systems from cyber attacks and make sure we meet data protection regulations.
We built a tool that pushes all submissions through multiple virus scanning software before they’re downloaded by the committee team to process. This means we know that malicious content can’t cause any problems for us.
Members of our team met with the Information Rights and Information Security (IRIS) service as we wanted to understand the rules around storing and managing personal data we need to capture. This means that anyone submitting to the service can do so with the confidence we’re complying with all relevant legislation.
To make sure the person knows the petition has been submitted, we automatically email them after we virus scan and download a petition. The email includes a reference number and information about what’ll happen next.
Managing the workflow
Once the committee team receives a submission, they need to process it according to parliamentary procedure.
Our developers and systems analyst worked with relevant staff in the committee offices (from both Houses) to understand the rules around payment and publication of petitions. Parliament has a lot of rules around how things work and these rules are a lot more "bendy" than one may assume!
So we modelled and tested these rules in our new application, and iterated them to match the process changes Parliament made. We also needed to make the system as user friendly as possible.
This was a challenge, especially when we had to consider how we fit this piece of work into the wider, fully comprehensive committee management system we want to build. However the committee team can now do everything they need to in order to manage payments, check for duplication, and review the appropriateness of submissions.
Publishing to the wider world
The final step was publishing accepted petitions.
Once accepted, it’s important that petitions are sent to the relevant government department as soon as possible so they can be considered. The new online service is for petitions against phase 1 of HS2 so objections we receive at the moment go to the Department for Transport (DfT).
As this process isn’t new, there was a preferred format for sending information to the DfT. We had to map our nice new model onto something a little more traditional - good old Excel. The committee team can now simply press a button and the latest petitions are automatically put into a spreadsheet and emailed to the DfT.
We also needed to publish these petitions to the public on the parliamentary website. Luckily, we have extensive experience in putting parliamentary content on the web, as we built Hansard Online and Lords Business Paper.
Following the same patterns, we built the Committee Business webpages (see high speed rail petition) in just a few days. And so the petition journey after its submission online was complete.
As mentioned already, our plan is to extend the petitions system to manage the workflow of all committees in both Houses. We can extend what we’ve done around petitions to allow for submission of evidence, but there’s a lot of work to do to manage committee memberships, inquiries, events and activities.
However, when complete, this will mean our website will be able to offer a much richer view of such a critical part of the UK Parliament.
Read more about the work we're doing to improve parliament.uk.