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Welcome to the Clerk side

John at the PDS Away Day
John (second from left) at the PDS Away Day

There’s a special force that makes things happen in Parliament. Secret nods, ancient incantations, mysterious figures in dark gowns.

This is procedure. Without it, nothing in the House of Commons would be ‘parliamentary’. It turns talk into debate, questions into scrutiny, and ideas into law.

This mixture of rules, convention, and traditions are set out in the Standing Orders of the House of Commons and the ‘Parliamentary bible’, Erskine May.

When writing it, Thomas Erskine May wanted to create something that would be an exhaustive source of reference for MPs, as well as helping them do their jobs in the Commons. It now runs to over 1,000 pages so it can be pretty daunting to find what you’re looking for, even for experienced MPs.

We recently blogged about creating a new guide to procedure for MPs. I've been part of the team working on this from a content perspective so here’s what we’ve been doing.

A parliamentary A-Z

We set up a team to work on the guide to procedure and our aim was to deliver a practical guide for MPs to carry out their duties in the Commons.

We also hoped it would answer questions they have about how the Commons works. Like a parliamentary version of an A-Z combined with a sat nav. So it could explain what a super affirmative procedure is but also how to table an urgent question step by step.

Clerks are the first port of call

In our discovery period, we interviewed MPs’ staff who said that when they were unsure what something was, or how to do something in Parliament, their first port of call was a Clerk.

These, occasionally gowned but no longer wigged, procedural experts are one of Parliament’s greatest resources. They’re often in the eye of the parliamentary whirlwind, quietly making sure things run as they should.

For many MPs and their staff, hearing the measured and authoritative voice of a Clerk gives them the reassurance they need to perform one of the most high profile and nerve wracking jobs in the country.

Meeting Clerk and content expectations

Balancing clarity and authority as top user needs is tricky but this is what we wanted to capture in our guide. If users can’t understand what we’re saying, we’ve failed. And if they can’t use what we’re saying, we’ve failed.

So, thinking like an MP, I asked a Clerk. We were lucky enough to have senior Clerk, Joanna Dodd, embedded in the team.

She commissioned her colleagues to write the content for the guide but crucially, we went through all the content together in a ‘pair editing’ exercise. As a content designer, I asked regularly ‘what does this mean’, and ‘what are we trying to say’. Joanna, as a Clerk, was able to respond by drawing on her wealth of procedural knowledge.

There was a feeling that the expectations of Clerks and content designers might not always align. Together though, we had a total commitment to clarity. This meant working together to rewrite or restructure sections, until we were both satisfied each user need was met.

Being able to work like this relied on a substantial amount of trust between the content team and the Clerks.

Clerks’ reputations are built on their advice to MPs, not just in recent years, but stretching back many hundreds of years. So they needed to know that we weren’t going to do anything that would jeopardise their integrity. Equally, we needed to know that when we made suggestions to meet user needs, they would be considered.

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Having clearly defined user needs gave us the space we needed to edit in this way. Any troublesome passages could be checked against whether they were meeting these needs.

There was no feeling of us and them, no empire or rebellion. Together we were thinking of the user, trying to use procedure as a force for good.

Read more about the work of the content team

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