The dartboard in the Houses of Parliament Sports and Social Club, where we held our sprint retrospectives.

13 things we learned while designing a more democratic Houses of Parliament

Earlier this year Fluxx and the Parliamentary Digital Service worked together to help Parliament find new ways to get citizens involved in their work. Doing innovation in a 1000 year-old organisation was an incredible experience.

1. If you take a huge cardboard website to a shopping centre, you’ll probably get thrown out

Reader, I became a cardboard website

Picture the scene. You’re in a crowded shopping centre on the last day of term and it’s pouring outside. There are school kids, students, parents, toddlers and buggies everywhere. You don’t get to stay inside for long though before you get frog-marched out by a chap in a high vis jacket. He has a badge and a walkie-talkie.

We didn’t mind the odd bit of embarrassment though, because the point was to quickly, and efficiently, learn what real people thought about new ideas for opening up democracy — and the fastest route to learning that is to put ideas in front of them.

As you’ll read later, we found lots of very successful ways to do this, but at Fluxx we always say it’s better to have tried and failed, than not to have tried at all. Do nothing, learn nothing!

2. Parliament has been told it needs to change

In 2013, Speaker John Bercow launched a Digital Democracy Commission, calling for “nothing less than a Parliament version 2.0”. Two years later, the commission published its report, calling for citizens to be engaged more in “the business of Parliament, make it more relevant to their everyday lives, and make Parliament more accessible and accountable”.

The same year, in 2015, Rob Greig was made Director of Parliamentary Digital Service and tasked with digitising both Houses of Parliament and Lords and delivering the report’s challenges.

3. PDS’s ‘customers’ are the entire UK population

The Parliamentary Digital Service have two sets of customers; the MPs and peers that work in Parliament, and the 64 million British Citizens who they represent. We needed to find out what would stir enough passion in them to connect with the democratic process and take action.

The cardboard website was part of our first ‘Pop Up Parliament’ experiment. We wanted to test the idea that citizens were more likely to engage with specific issues than the democratic process as a whole.

4. UK Parliament prints 18 million sheets of paper (and goat skin) every year

Rob has also been tasked with cutting down the 18 million printed pages that Parliament produces ever year. This includes a huge number of copies of Hansard [the record of proceedings in Parliament], questions to ministers and legislation as it passes through the Commons and Lords .

All this material is available online, but also printed and distributed. 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 it is outdated” says Rob Greig.

Every bill is also printed on vellum (paper made from goat or calf skin). Instead of just saving £80,000 by switching to paper, Parliament has been involved in a huge debate about the best way forward.

5. The UK Parliament publishes a suite of iPad apps for members

Many MPs are technically savvy. Some are not, according to Rob. “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.”

“Suggestive themes”

MPs are now issued with iPads and the My Constituency app, which gives stats and details about 650 constituencies and is available to the public. PDS also produces Commons Order Papers (The House of Commons app is Rated 12+ for ‘Alcohol, Tobacco, or Drug Use or Reference… Mature/Suggestive Themes…’), Lords Business Papers, and a Quiz App.

6. Experiment #1: The giant cardboard website

For the first experiment, we did something distinctly lo-fi — rapid prototyping at its most basic — to find out what issues people cared about. We got some giant pieces of card, some sticky-backed plastic (obvs), Velcro and made our very own mobile website, letting the users provide and re-arrange the content.

7. The 1% are quite politically engaged (at least when it comes to golf)

We took to the streets.

Our first stop was Lincoln’s Inn Fields, the grand public square frequented at lunchtime by lawyers, barristers and LSE undergraduates.

Everyone we met cared about everything, was politically engaged and at least one person played golf at the same club as their MP.

Then we hit our barrier — not being allowed to enquire about democracy inside Westfield, so we went outside into the rain…

The cardboard website meant we could let citizens restructure the site in front of us, arranging content so it made sense to them.

8. But the 99% are prepared to get wet for democracy

Outside Westfield, in the drizzle, and many other places during the four week project, we talked to the young and the old. All ethnicities and all stages of employment or otherwise.

We captured stories about immigration and deportation, schools being replaced by academies and deep fears about the EU vote from people prepared to get damp for democracy.

We noted those who had contacted MPs and the alarming amount who had not heard anything back. We met people who follow politics online, sign petitions, email their MP and those that don’t care about any “issues” at all.

We learnt throughout our 4-week sprint — and not just that day by the Stratford train station, in the rain, stopping desperate shoppers-turned-commuters rushing home for Easter holidays.

9. Experiment #2: Helping citizens cut through Parliamentary jargon

Parliament assumes that citizens are fluent in Westminster

One message kept coming up as we talked to citizens about parliament. People felt it was confusing, and conducted using complicated language.

It’s all explained in the Parliamentary glossary, from Adjournment Motions and AAPGs to the Wash-Up Period and Yeoman Usher. But that’s a separate section of the Parliament website, away from the actual business.

Less than 48 hours into working together and we identified our first issue to test. Could we make the language more accessible to users whilst not altering the experience for the Parliamentary old-guard?

10. Working environment matters, and one big table worked for us

While working with PDS we joined forces around one big table. All the relevant departments had people seconded to our team so they could take their seat at that table every day. Challenges arose, were debated and resolved in minutes, not months of meeting requests for ‘stakeholder engagement’.

“One table” came to symbolise the rapid cross-silo way of working that the team adopted. It was also practical — someone came over from Parliament to look at our furniture and see how they could copy it so the new behaviours could be maintained as BAU.

The Definition feature was live on in just two days.

11. From idea to working prototype in 48 hours is possible

It took 2 days to get Jargon Buster live. It was a simple bit of javascript that could live on the Parliamentary website, explaining certain words when you hover over them.

We used Parliamentary social channels to capture engagement with the tool and 58% said it would be very useful if rolled out across the Parliamentary site.

There was also a bigger Experiment #3, but unfortunately we can’t talk about it yet…

12. Unlocking democracy through digital takes time

Digital democracy is a huge area. Projects range from grassroots toolkits like D-CENT in Europe to national projects like Estonia’s internet voting system, tied to a digital identity card and used in eight national elections since 2005. NESTA have a good introduction to the field.

With PDS, we were looking for simple, realistic first steps. Not starting a revolution, but building tools for the least engaged every-five-year voter. There’s a lot more to do.

13. The process of innovating at a 1000 yr old organisation is not dissimilar to anywhere else

There’s politics in every organisation — the key to success is working out how best to navigate them.

Anything that slows down innovation is its enemy. So that means controlling down meetings (we cut PDS standard 200 plus hours down to 7 to get our first experiment live).

Daily stand-ups help hugely. As does only seeking permission where it’s essential.

Remember when it comes to doing something new or doing something differently, if it’s not scary it’s probably not worth doing.

If you feel a little uncomfortable, listen to that voice and ignore it.

Amanda Howe is Head of Content at Fluxx, a company that uses experiments to understand customers and help clients to build better products. We work with organisations such as Lloyds Bank, Royal Society of Arts, Atkins and William Hill.

If you enjoyed this, you might enjoy “How to use empathy in design without killing millions of women.

To find out more about Fluxx’s recent work in with digital engagement, please get in touch.