PDS is working hard to help MPs and their constituency offices cope with the disruption and changes brought about by the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. Our head of local engagement reveals how his team is coping with its biggest ever challenge...
I run the PDS Local Engagement team. Set up in 2018, its purpose is to help people working in MPs’ constituency offices across the UK make the most from digital tools and services. Our aim is not only to introduce digital change, but to help Members of Parliament and their staff consider how it could improve the way they work.
I’ve previously blogged about our team’s focus on building relationships, understanding how these offices operated, and how platforms like Office 365 and Skype for Business could help them.
Spring forward two years to the Covid-19 crisis, and our work has never been more critical. Suddenly, MPs and their offices had to work remotely and found themselves more dependent than ever on digital technology.
This is how we helped them and what we learned.
Our first priority was to reach out to the office of every MP, in order to help them adjust to this new way of working. It was a big step change for our team. We normally see 25 to 40 offices a month and by the end of March alone we’d spoken to 300 of them.
What has helped has been the time we’ve taken to build relationships and establish trust with many of the 650 constituency offices. It has helped smooth the way when things often looked overwhelming and what was needed was reassurance and a friendly voice.
Like the constituencies they represent, every Member’s office is different, and we helped answer a lot of questions in those first few days around getting equipment set up to work from home, and access to services like email, voicemail, telephony, and more.
Members and their staff were telling us of the unprecedented volumes of casework they were receiving. Many said how grateful they were to us for help in being able to access the hundreds of emails a day from constituents in their inboxes, or the voicemail messages in their offices.
Some staff were just grateful to have somebody to talk to about the challenges they were facing, trying to work when they had drastic and difficult changes to their own circumstances.
Growing skills, support that fits
Early on in this crisis, the Digital Service made changes to its existing services and rolled out new ones to enable members and their staff to carry on working. We had to work hard to ensure that we didn’t just give users technology, but also provide ways and means for people to become skilled users of that technology.
This takes many different forms and formats. Everyone has a different level of comfort with the digital world. Some are content to be given the minimum, to self-discover and self-serve. We gave them a call, pointed them in the right direction and left them to it.
Others prefer a more hands-on introduction and to have somebody to ask questions to as they go. Others just needed a bit of a confidence boost to get started, along with reassurance that we were at the end of the phone if it went wrong.
There were two things we discovered were really important in trying to help our users with these new tools and services.
The first was making sure we understood how members and their staff work and what they are trying to achieve. We need this knowledge to make sure the technology is relevant.
For instance, we could emphasise how MPs and their staff are able to use video conferencing tools to carry out remote constituency surgeries. Training and coaching aren’t as effective when they are generic. When you know what your users are trying to do with a tool, this helps you to show its value.
The second is having empathy. The pace of digital change faced by our users can be daunting. Learning a new skill works best when you feel safe to try it. We often stress that our coaching and training sessions are “safe spaces” for any and all questions to be asked.
Helping people to adjust in their own time
Taking a patient, non-technical, and empathetic approach has been vital in helping users to adjust, especially when some we’ve been speaking to are working remotely for the first time. One user told us that the only support they had was from their pet dog, who was none the wiser about how Skype worked!
On this last point, whilst we publish lots of guidance, factsheets and resources, we find that a friendly human at the end of the phone often gets the best response, especially when circumstances are challenging.
What this crisis has brought into clear focus is that the service we offer is a lifeline to constituency workers, people with a really important job to do. Providing safe and excellent digital services for a modern Parliament does not end at the gates of Westminster. The Digital Service has a key role to play in high streets and town centres across the country as well.