Image by UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor using Creative Commons Licence 2.0
Flashback to March and I was managing a set of projects to help bring better technology to Parliament’s Archives. Then, as we all know, the world changed. I was asked if I would manage the development of remote voting in the House of Lords, following on from a similar piece of work in the House of Commons.
Unlike the House of Commons, which uses software called MemberHub for some procedural and business activities, with the House of Lords we were starting from zero. We had no platform or software in place.
Starting from scratch
This wasn’t going to be just taking the work that had been completed for the House of Commons and ‘painting it red’. This was much more challenging. Oh, and it needed to go live in five weeks.
I have to give my enormous thanks to the PDS Software Engineering team. Coming off the back of a huge amount of work to bring remote voting to the Commons, they had to face the whole process again for us.
The team worked fast to create a new platform – PeerHub. It brings together all sorts of information from various sources into one simple interface. Not only can peers vote in divisions, but they can look at the day’s debates, see who will be speaking, and perhaps most importantly for those missing the Palace of Westminster, hear the familiar sound of those division bells.
Sharing an eye for detail
You might think that bringing together colleagues from Software Engineering with those in the House of Lords administration would have been a challenge, but in reality the two teams work really well together.
One team is group of people who love getting into the nitty gritty technicalities of software development, and the other are well-versed in the intricacies of how a centuries old organisation passes legislation. There were a lot of similarities under the surface.
Time for tests
As with the House of Commons, we tested first with small groups of colleagues before opening it up to a few hundred. Important questions were asked in these mock divisions – and we found out that our colleagues acting as Peers for the day felt that Marmite is loved, darts should be an Olympic sport, but salt and vinegar is not the best crisp flavour.
Of course, it was the testing of the infrastructure that mattered most. Thankfully all went well, so we went live with PeerHub and started signing up members.
Getting ready to make history
By the end of things across all our engagement we’d spent over 150 hours on the phone with members, ran three drop-ins on Microsoft Teams, and allowed members to take part in no less than five test divisions, the last of which only a few hours before the first real one.
And so, at about 4pm on Monday 15 June 2020, our developers finished developing, our callers stopped calling, and it was time for the first real votes. At 4.45pm it happened, we’d helped make history and brought remote voting to the House of Lords.
After such long hours, lengthy meetings, rushes to fix bugs and frantic phone calls, in the end I’m very happy to say the launch was a real success.
We’ve had amazing feedback from members, from those who love to use every new bit of technology we provide, to those who’ve struggled in the past with technology but have appreciated the lengths we’ve gone to get them up and running.
We couldn’t have pulled this off without the hard work of our colleagues in the Digital Service and the House of Lords, but also those in the House of Commons who worked alongside us.
We look forward to working with all of you again – maybe after a brief break!