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Knowledge Management in the Scottish Parliament - Clean slates and open doors


A Campbell McCracken is a writer and independent consultant based in Fife


Leslie Beddie


Janet Seaton

On September 11th 1997 the Scottish people voted overwhelmingly in favour of Scotland having its own Parliament after a break of almost 300 years. The setting up of a parliament is such a rare occasion that this would be the first one to be established within living experience. "We were starting with a clean slate," said Lesley Beddie, Director of Communications at the Parliament. "So we were able to define how we wanted the Parliament to work".

From the outset the aim was to have an efficient, modern, accessible parliament. "Since everyone is new to the situation," said Beddie, "There are no internal barriers. There is a tremendous good will to make this a model parliament, adopting best practices. One of the key areas where we are focusing our attention is information management."

The blueprint for how the Parliament would work was drawn up by the Consultative Steering Group (CSG), a group made up from representatives of all four major Scottish political parties and of a wide range of civic groups and interests. The CSG also set up and took advice from various expert panels in specialist areas, such as Procedures and Standing Orders, Code of Conduct, and Information and Communications Technologies (ICT).

Several key recommendations from the ICT Expert Panel would affect the way in which information and knowledge would be managed and made available within the Parliament and to the Scottish people. These included the recommendation that the Parliament should use IT to promote efficiency through modern ways of working and to make information about the Parliament and its work available to everyone.

Website

One of the areas covered by the panel was how the Parliament would achieve its objective of openness and accessibility. It recommended the use of a website as one means of reaching the Scottish public. The actual site, designed and maintained by Delphic Interactive from Glasgow, went live on election day, 6th May 1999 and it is the main medium for the Parliament for widespread communication to the outside world.

Delphic designed the site to deliver information on all aspects of the Parliament in a cohesive and user- friendly manner. Users of the site will be able to learn how the Parliament works, check up on the progress of a particular Bill through the Parliament, read about that day's Parliamentary Questions, or email their MSP. There are also plans to introduce some level of multilingual capability into the website and automatic translation tools are being evaluated. Among the first non-English languages to appear on the site will probably be Hindu and, of course, Gaelic.

Other tools being evaluated for use in the Parliament include speech to text tools to assist the reporting of the day's proceedings in the chamber and committee meetings. "There are inherent difficulties with this approach," said Beddie. "The state of the art tools would not be able to cope with the speech patterns of all the Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) simultaneously. Even an individual's voice can vary dramatically. For example, people may change the inflection of their voices when trying to get their points across in a speech or debate."

There is also the problem that what goes into the official report is not necessarily a word for word copy of what was said, but a 'tidied up' version, editing out the 'Ums' and 'Errs' or sometimes restructuring the sentences to clarify the argument being put across. "We can't automate that part yet," said Beddie.

Another means of communication recommended by the ICT expert panel was Teletext. However this has not been adopted by the Parliament. "We decided against Teletext," explained Beddie, "because the format is too restrictive for the amounts and types of information we are trying to get across. We realise that the Internet is only accessible to a small percentage of the public so we are looking at other possibilities. One of these is digital television."

"There are four stages in the path to getting people more involved in the goings on of the Parliament," she said. "You have to make them aware, then interested, then participate and finally interact. The openness and accessibility of the Parliament is new to most people, so we are currently at the awareness stage."

Electronic Voting

MSPs use electronic voting in the chamber and their voting (and attendance) at debates is recorded into the SPP (Scottish Parliament Profiles) database. This information is also available automatically via the database as a list for the inclusion in the official reports (the equivalent of Hansard, which records the daily and weekly proceedings in the chamber and committee meetings). The eventual aim is to link the database to the website so that the public can run queries such as 'How has Joe Bloggs voted on such- and-such an issue'.

The SPP database also records MSPs biographies, which it makes available to the public via the website. It also records naming convention information for the MSPs, ie how they want to be known in official records. For example an MSP with the title 'Dr.' may want to be known as plain 'Mr.' in the records.

SPP was created for the Parliament by local Edinburgh software company Edina Software. "The Profiles Database has provided, since 8 May, two of the base modules needed to acquire and interrogate the business of the new parliament," said Edina's Charlie Hussey. "More important however is that these modules are implemented within a generalised framework for the classification and retrieval of information using a controlled vocabulary. This provides an environment by which such systems can support the precise interrogation, as well as full text searching, of the information captured from the activities of the Parliament."

Research and Information

One definition of Knowledge Management is 'the process of getting the right information to the right people at the right time'. This summarises the aim of the Research and Information Service for the Parliament. MSPs, committee clerks and parliament staff need up to date information on a variety of topics to enable them to carry out their day to day business. It is the key role of the Research and Information Service to provide it. The researchers try to be proactive and anticipate MSP's demands. "We try to have the information available for when the request is made," said Janet Seaton, Head of the department. "Deadlines are often very short, so we have to be as prepared as best we can".

Information is gathered from up to 25 information services, including Dialog Profound (newswires, country and economic date, etc), FT Profile (news stories, business, etc), Lawtel (Legislation, cases, etc) and the UK Parliament's POLIS database. Researchers' first priority is to provide research for the Parliament's committees, and they work closely with the committee clerks and convenors. All queries are tracked from initial question to the delivery of the information and the answers are recorded. A database of previous queries is classified using a thesaurus (the same one, based on the POLIS thesaurus, is used for SPP and the Information Service catalogue). This allows input and retrieval of information using synonyms and abbreviations in the classification terms.

Around 100 queries are processed each week by the 27 staff in the Research and Information Service (in addition to the requests it receives for particular documents). The form that the queries take can vary enormously, from a specific question such as "How much is spent on " to the request for a briefing on a particular topic. This is because the department serves users with a broad spectrum of backgrounds and abilities. "Although someone is an expert in one area," said Seaton, "They may need a complete briefing in another area that is new to them".

Knowledge Economy White Paper

In government, the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) is working on its Implementation Plan in response to its 1998 Competitiveness White Paper (CWP) on the subject of 'Building the Knowledge Driven Economy'. Although the majority of the CWP is aimed at improving the competitiveness of the UK by building capabilities, encouraging collaboration and helping industries to become more innovative and entrepreneurial, two of the commitments set out in the paper focus on knowledge management.

The first of these is the commitment to establish a knowledge management unit within the DTI itself. This unit was set up in February 1999 with a remit of capturing best practice from outside the DTI and aiming to establish by December 1999 an action plan for modernising the DTI. One area highlighted for attention in an earlier DTI report was the lack of knowledge sharing in the department. It has been estimated that up to 20% of some departments' time is spent seeking information and expertise.

The second commitment is to set up a pilot study to identify the knowledge management needs of small businesses. "It is not enough for the Government merely to set an agenda," said the Rt. Hon Stephen Byers, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. "It is only by working together with businesses and others that we will be able to meet our shared objectives." To this end, a review of the capabilities of SMEs in the South East has been carried out by the DTI using outside consultants. Based on this study the DTI and Business Link Kent have made several recommendations and proposals and are in the process of implementing them.

Contact the author at freelance@madscotsman.com

Case Studies

Workflow Management of Parliamentary Questions

Contacts

CSG Report  www.scotland.gov.uk/library/documents-w5/rcsg-00.htm
Competitive White Paper Implementation Plan  www.dtiinfo1.dti.gov.uk/comp/default.htm
Scottish Parliament website  www.scottish.parliament.uk
Scottish Executive website www.scotland.gov.uk
Edina Software  www.edina.co.uk
Delphic Interactive Communications  www.delphic.co.uk

  1999 Learned Information Europe Ltd

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