It’s been the nature of my work since I started in Parliament that I’ve been exposed to some pretty niche areas of Parliamentary process. It’s also been my privilege to work on products that allow totally new forms of digital engagement with Parliament.
The first service I worked on allowed the public to submit their petitions against a hybrid bill online for the first time. And now the statutory instruments service lets the public see the journey of a statutory instrument through Parliament. Another first.
Statutory instruments are documents drafted by a government department to make changes to the law. The documents should outline the purpose of the statutory instrument and why the change is necessary.
Some of the challenges we faced
Since starting work on statutory instruments in February, it hasn’t been an easy road. We were asked to build a statutory instruments tracker because of the EU Withdrawal Bill which could generate 800 to 1,000 extra statutory instruments for Parliament. As a result, this Bill could trigger unusual levels of interest in statutory instruments. While it was clear to us why Parliament was interested in this product, we wanted to understand the user need for it.
Getting to grips with procedure
Before we even got to the technical and design challenges of the service, we had to deal with the immediate challenge of our lack of Parliamentary knowledge. Luckily, we work with very engaged (and very patient!) people who speedily answered our endless questions about procedure. We also used the domain modelling work done by Michael Smethurst, in the data and search team, to fill in some of the gaps.
The problem for us was the scarcity of available data on statutory instruments, the complexity of the procedure, and the parliamentary language around it.
Also, we had just under five months to get our first iteration out to the public.
Understanding data and domain modelling
One of the big challenges the team faced was understanding the role data and domain modelling would play in the process of creating these pages. This was a new way of working for many of us and it meant that some of our initial designs had to be changed and adapted to fit what data was available and the way it was coming out of the data service.
We also had to moderate our expectations around which user needs we would be able to meet with our first iteration. Since then, I’ve been working with the delivery manager for data and search to understand the way their team works and the impact of their work.
We, as a team, are building up our understanding about how our work intersects with the domain modelling. We’re also going to make sure we’re more involved in this process from the beginning as we start work on Committees pages.
Another challenge was two teams working in parallel: data and search and the beta website team. It wasn’t until well into our alpha phase that we started to find out some of the ways our data and procedure would shape the product we put on the website. This meant we had to change some aspects of our design to fit with the data and some things had to be put out of scope for our first iteration.
We also had to work the data to fit our designs, like flattening a graph to make it work as a timeline. With a longer timeframe to create the first iteration of the service, we would have been in a better position to respond to issues like this in our designs.
Despite this, we were able to work together by pulling in expertise and skills from across Parliament, and we managed something really exciting in getting the statutory instruments service live. This is the first time the whole statutory instrument procedure has been made available in one place by Parliament.
Who’s interested in statutory instruments?
We established early on that interest in and awareness of statutory instruments is low, and the best way to reach the public is via journalists, lobbyists, and other informed users. So we focused on their needs first.
We identified a lot of user needs, some of which we’ve started to meet. For example, users need to find the Joint Committee on statutory instruments (JCSI) reports, Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee (SLSC) reports, Hansard transcripts of debates, coming into force dates, and when the objection (praying) period ends for negative statutory instruments.
We’ll keep monitoring analytics and feedback to check that our service is actually meeting those needs and how we can improve what we’ve done.
There were also a lot of needs we haven’t yet been able to meet so we won’t stop here. Needs like how to find relevant statutory instruments on a specific topic or controversial ones, by department, or whether a committee has raised concerns about a statutory instrument. So we’re looking at what we can do with our data to slice lists of statutory instruments in different ways.
As you can see, we’re a long way from done on this service. However we've already made a really big step with this product in how Parliament will handle both primary and secondary legislation on the website.