by Charlotte Jee

Parliament Digital Service director Rob Greig interview – Legislating change

Sep 16, 2015
GovernmentIT Strategy

Rob Greig has been director of the year-old ‘Parliament Digital Service’ for seven months, and already seems to have an incredible workload.

“Normally meetings are back to back constantly. My PA sometimes books people to walk with me to talk between meetings. That’s how busy it gets. And there’s still so much to do,” the formerRoyal Opera House Chief Technology Officer says.

The service was set up last year to replace two units: the internal ICT team and web and intranet team.

The decision was taken after an internal report conducted by mySociety concluded: “A major effort is needed simply to keep up with what’s now seen as normal, never mind to achieve an exemplary service.”

Greig says he agrees with the conclusions “absolutely”. His priority is to get the ICT up to the ‘normal’ levels called for in the report for the 8,500 users, both within Parliament and in MPs’ constituency offices.

“There are three themes I’ve talked about repeatedly: good service, technology that works, and building a digital capability. I don’t think we have any of those to be honest,” he says.

In response, he wants the team to focus on maintaining and improving services once they’ve been launched, “wean ourselves off” legacy and as many systems and applications as possible to the cloud.

“The capability part is about reinventing ourselves from a digital perspective, putting the user at the centre of it and moving much more quickly,” he says. However Greig says the service will produce a strategy in the coming months which will outline plans in further detail.

He reckons Parliament is actually “very good at change”, despite being on the cusp entering its ninth century at Westminster.

“Think about it: it changes every five years significantly. It’s about harnessing that and putting it into other things,” he says.

Top team

One of Greig’s pressing tasks has been to appoint a senior leadership team. The majority are internal appointees – notably his deputy Tracy Jessup, after a long and distinguished career as a senior House of Commons clerk.

He says she was appointed “in direct response to some of the findings of the mySociety report but also some concerns internally about bringing in a new director of the digital and that person getting caught up in all the governance and politics, and processes you don’t see in a normal business like Parliamentary Questions of Freedom of Information.”

The top team also comprises a strategy director, a CTO, a resources director, a director of live services and a project director, plus a head of cyber security.

Greig says he is due to appoint someone external to become ‘digital director’ for the service, which is now a 318-strong team, imminently.

So far the discussion has focused on high-level appointments and strategy – what about the nitty gritty of delivery? Who are Greig’s users?

He clearly feels he is accountable to lots of different people – and they have conflicting demands.

Although he says he has “64 million customers” – the British public – day to day, Greig directly reports to the clerks of both the House of Lords and the House of Commons (as it is a shared service). From our discussion it is apparent Greig’s main focus is on getting the IT used by 650 MPs and 8,000-odd staff up to scratch.

“We’ve got 650 constituency offices to support across the UK. One minute someone comes and calls up from the Shetland Isles and the next thing someone else is calling up from Wales asking for IT support,” he says.

The fact these users are so geographically diverse is a bit of a headache for Greig – particularly where cloud services are concerned as they rely on a robust broadband connection.

Cloud first

Parliament moved to Office 365 in 2013 and uses some other cloud applications including for forms and blogging, according to Greig.

Having come from a fully cloud organisation (he was previously CTO at the Royal Opera House, which no longer has any data centres on site), Greig is keen to maintain a ‘cloud first’ strategy. However he acknowledges it won’t be straightforward.

“In some ways they’ve done the ‘easy bit’ which is to get the office out into the cloud. The hard part of it now is to get all those legacy applications and transform them to a state where we can get that out as well,” he says.

However his plans to move to cloud face another challenge, a topic Greig evidently feels strongly about: broadband.

“The broadband in this country is awful. I live in London and I’ve got 1.1MB per second. BT is responsible for the infrastructure, so it needs to sort it out. I don’t think 2MB to homes is the answer. It needs to be 100MB,” he says.

“BT has fundamentally failed to deliver a robust and fast infrastructure for the country. Infinity is great if you can get it, Virgin Media is great if you can get it, fibre optic is great if you can get it. But for the vast majority of people, it feels like fast internet access is just not there yet,” he adds.

Good internet connectivity is ‘really important’ to the UK economy, Greig says, but it also matters closer to home, for his role in Parliament.

“If we want people to access our digital services and get information about Parliament to them, we need that infrastructure to be there,” he says.

The problem seems even worse when you compare the UK to other developed countries, according to Greig.

“If you go to other countries, it’s interesting to compare. The performance that they get is absolutely incredible,” he says.

Parliament’s 18 million pages of paper a year

Like the rest of us, Greig is forced to wait for the government to act (or not) on improving the UK’s poor internet speeds. One of his more immediate concerns is trying to cut down on the amount of paper Parliament produces.

In total the Parliamentary estate prints 18 million pages a year, including a huge number of copies of Hansard [a record of proceedings in Parliament], questions to ministers and legislation as it passes through the Commons and Lords – all of which are all available online.

Cutting this down will generate savings “in the millions”, make Parliament more accessible and ensure documents are updatable. “As soon as the paper is printed out its outdated”, he says.

However the diversity of IT and digital literacy among MPs is “extreme”, according to Greig.

“On the one hand you’ve got someone like Martha Lane Fox in the Lords but then we might have somebody chairing a committee who doesn’t use email,” he says.

Despite this, most MPs have been open to adopting new devices, a crucial part of decreasing the amount of paper they use, he says.

Mobile MPs

Since the election in May all MPs have been offered an iPad Air 2, an offer “the majority” have taken up, although some declined due to concerns over Apple – for example its tax position or whether its supply chain is ethical, he explains.

Since joining, Greig has since broadened out the range of devices, in effect setting up a ‘Choose Your Own Device’ policy which includes Apple, Samsung and Microsoft devices, he says.

“We’re coming to a point where we want the digital platform to be agnostic of the device. We definitely believe there’s a benefit for members and peers to have the tablet devices so they can be mobile, get access to the information anywhere, and we don’t have to print it, we don’t have to post it etc, it makes it more efficient,” he explains.

Greig’s team has also developed an app called ‘My Constituency’ which he is keen to promote. It provides “all useful, up-to-date data about each member’s constituency they need and it’s available to the public”, he says.

It is easy to forget Greig has only been in post for a few months. He could be forgiven for being slightly shell-shocked at the complexity of the job, and a little star-struck at the ancient, famous surroundings.

But he has very clear ideas about what he would like to have achieved come this time next year.

He says he would like to have a new Parliament website and start to bring together an IT organisation “that is not just catching up with the norm but exceeding it”.

“I would like to be able to say our IT services have improved for the users in parliament. I really want us to have cracked that nut and be able to be delivering better performance for those users because that builds a confidence and trust to allow us to go and do more ambitious things on the digital side,” he adds.