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A new way of working: single technical direction  

Posted by: and , Posted on: - Categories: Continuous iteration, Focus on core work,

PDS has made some great progress on with the publication of the MPs’ Guide to Procedure, the launch of the ‘Find a Statutory Instrument’ tool, improved search, and the introduction of a clean and modern style for branding and Members’ portraits.

We know the work hasn’t been easy. It’s involved a huge amount of effort to understand the user needs the new website must meet, as well as significant work on the underlying data that feeds into the website so that people - inside and outside of Parliament - can get the most out of it.

We need to do better

There has been positive feedback from lots of people about what’s been done so far. However, work has felt protracted and delivery has been hard to show. Our internal customers - including senior leaders and parliamentarians - are impatient for to be replaced by a new, modern website that meets user needs.

What's more, there hasn’t been an agreed technical approach that works across the new website and the other digital tools and applications that will need to interact with it in future. This will hold us back if we don’t address it now.

PDS was set up four years ago to achieve a step change in every aspect of digital technology in Parliament: from cyber security to infrastructure and platforms, to data, to website development, to design and social media. Four years in, we are bound to need to adjust our path.

As the Chief Information Officer and Managing Director of PDS, and the House of Commons Librarian and Managing Director of Research and Information, between the two of us we bring a helpful combination of perspectives.

As members of Parliament’s Digital Strategy Board (DSB) and the Information Authority, which sets standards for data, its collection, and reuse, we are well placed to influence the strategic decisions that Parliament makes in relation to digital development and data. Against the background above, we were clear that we needed to reset the digital delivery plan.

Here’s what we’ve done

PDS makes decisions about its own personnel, structure, and technologies, but all with a commitment to the strategic direction set by the DSB. In November 2018, PDS decided to recruit a Director of Software Engineering.

The role was created to set a technical direction for the department across our development work. In line with our recruitment guidelines, we advertised internally first. The competition was tough. In the end, Matt Stutely (who, at that time, was Head of Business Systems Development) was recruited to the post in late December 2018.

With the recruitment of this role comes an opportunity for PDS. It’s a chance to better focus its energy in a positive way and collaborate with the House of Commons and House of Lords to create a roadmap for the new website that genuinely takes the priorities of the Houses into account, at the same time being realistic about PDS’ ability to resource the development, iteration and maintenance of improved digital services.

What will change?

Matt’s focus is on unifying the backend and frontend technologies PDS uses, and creating a single tech stack. The aim is to improve efficiency and throughput and enable us to deliver the outcomes Parliament needs in the timeframes it expects. He’ll be blogging about how we are going to deliver the DSB’s short term priorities in more detail soon.

This change is pretty big for PDS. For the moment, it means:

  • merging two development teams with different areas of expertise into one joined-up software development function, making sure PDS has the right skills to build the right stuff with greater efficiency
  • bringing together new product teams to deliver the things PDS has already said it will achieve by April 2019
  • pausing work on the data service specifically for the website, which gives a chance for PDS to focus its efforts on agreed short term priorities, but also to evaluate the long-term direction

The DSB knows that it needs to provide stronger governance to challenging projects like the new website and will be working with PDS on this.

What’s staying the same?

What won’t change is Parliament’s commitment to open and linked data, and to innovation.

Our digital strategy commits us to open data, making sure the data we use and share is high quality, linkable, shareable, findable and integrated. This means:

  • existing operational services on the data platform will continue to be supported
  • data platform-related projects in progress will be reviewed and continued where not in conflict with plans to speed up website delivery
  • any conflicts arising will be reviewed and discussed to agree the best way forward

The DSB will also work with the Information Authority on evaluating the long-term approach on data.

Right now, PDS is working on improving committee pages so the core business of the Houses is more accessible. In the first half of 2019, it will also be:

  • adding better quality information to Members' pages so that the public can understand who represents their interests and how they can contact them
  • making it easier to book a visit to Parliament
  • making the valuable independent research briefings that are produced by the House of Commons Library, the House of Lords Library, and the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) more accessible

There have been some difficult conversations about the new technical approach and, of course, it is always hard to carry out change that affects people and their roles. For those directly affected we are underway with a formal consultation.

We have also been open to understanding different perspectives from wider teams who work with development colleagues. As PDS has done since the beginning, teams will work in an agile, collaborative way in multidisciplinary delivery teams with development, data, user research, content design, design, analytics and product all represented.

Our shared ambition

This level of change, with a significant impact upon teams and where there are strong and contested views about the way forward, is tough. But we - PDS, the DSB, and the teams we work alongside - have a shared goal to build a better website that works for everyone and provides value for Parliament (and taxpayers).

A single technical direction, along with better defined scope and governance for development, is part of the solution. There is more to be done on the long term strategy for data, too. But these first steps will help PDS to deliver early and often - making a responsive, searchable, sustainable website that’s the best place for parliamentary information.

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