Information Strategy for the Digital Parliament.

The Internet is changing the way all organisations operate and do business. The conventional Information System and Information Technology Strategies of the past are no longer sufficient or appropriate. Instead, a different approach is needed that takes into account the new convergence of content. It is proposed that a new kind of content-driven, high-level strategy, the Information Strategy or Information Architecture, is required to provide a strategic framework for low risk systems development and implementation in the new digital organisation. Parliaments of the future are no exception to these needs but do have special characteristics and requirements that must to be taken into account when setting the goals that the Information Strategy must satisfy.

Strategy? Which Strategy?

IT staff and suppliers often seem to forget that a good strategy sits between policy goals and their implementation. It should provide the co-ordinating framework in which decisions can be taken that result in the implementation of the policy. It should not contain either the decisions or the implementation, these are tactical, not strategic.

Conventional strategies for applying information technology either tend to be Information Technology (IT) strategies, concentrating on hardware and networking, or Information Systems (IS) strategies which, although supposedly about Information Systems (in systems analysis terms), usually end up being all about specific software products, i.e. more technology.

By contrast, an Information Strategy is, as far as possible, a technology-free document or family of documents that concentrate primarily on the information architecture of the organisation. It describes the structure and content of the information used within the organisation, the processes that are applied to that information and the associated information used indirectly to describe and assist the processing (metadata, i.e. information about information, but to a new, more detailed level than before).

Instead of being a prescriptive document describing what is to be done, it is a descriptive document describing what the new systems will need to contain and do when they are done. It thus provides a truly strategic framework in which independent but co-ordinated future development work can proceed.

All too often in the past, a study of the information and the user interaction was made only as part of the requirements capture process for individual project contracts, referencing the conventional IS/IT strategies to delineate the range of proposed solutions. Technology drove the strategy and this was used to reverse-drive the business process. This approach needs to be reversed to take a human-centred approach, concentrating on information and not technology. The information and the interactions, between information elements and between information and users, are the new fundamentals, not the technology.

The Information Strategy

Driven by the business goals, the Information Strategy encompasses, at high level, some or all of:

  • User requirement - because the user requirement is, ultimately, all about information access and the processes which take place within the information architecture defined in the strategy.
  • Conventional metadata – such as data dictionary or database definition work with its usual name, record, field, and data typing information.
  • Advanced metadata, to assist the downstream processing of the information.
  • Very high-level semantic metadata that will transform information from machine-readable to machine-understandable (this is still something for the future but will come).
  • Information flows – charting the flows both internal and external to the organisation.
  • User interaction – how the user interacts with the information, not with the technology.

Throughout, the guiding principle is to treat information as being architecture, consisting of structures containing content and process, not just content. The process information not only describes but also automates, facilitating automatic information handling and interoperability.

The new Information Strategy is thus a combination of requirements capture, information definition, linguistics, semantics and business process analysis. Leading the work of preparing the Information Strategy, or “Information Architecture”, is the role of the new Information Architect.

Why is a new approach for Parliaments needed?

Conventional IT and IS strategies have served Parliaments with varying degrees of success for many years, so why is what may appear to be just an additional layer of complexity required?

Technology is different.

The technology marketplace today is very different from that of twenty, ten or, even, five years ago. All those decisions between competing technologies that used to be so hard to make have now been taken for you by the new global marketplace of the Internet. Whatever the project, it’s going to be Ethernet, it’s going to be TCP/IP, it’s going to be Web-enabled and, very soon, it will be XML. These things no longer need to be specified in a prescriptive IT strategy.

That technology convergence has made what was once complex and hard to procure technology a commercial off the shelf (COTS) commodity product with procurement and operational concerns, such as price, performance and support usually being more important in deciding between competing suppliers than the technology they are offering.

The obsession with strategies attempting to standardise technology to ease procurement and simplify security, maintenance and support have led to two undesirable effects:

  • The “PCs only” problem. The dominance of the PC as the primary network client is set to fade dramatically as TV set-top boxes, PDAs, mobile devices, information appliances and embedded network connectivity in office machines all grow. Strategies that pretend they can outlaw all such connectivity are playing King Canute, attempting to prevent the inevitable, and just increase conflict between users, management and the IT department.
  • The “managed desktop” problem. Either users are prevented from changing any settings on their PC, causing frustration and loss of efficiency, or everything is controlled remotely by management software, making the temptation to undertake central roll outs of new software upgrades too great. Those of you who want to understand the effects of this on the users, and are not scared by the statistical mathematics, should read the work of Valery Venda on Ergodynamics. This describes the mutual adaptation that occurs between users and their tools, and offers a mathematical basis for estimating the loss of peoples’ work efficiency caused by successive software upgrades and a means of determining the optimum time to perform an upgrade (Ref. 1).

In the future, the architecture of content and process will be the real distinction between systems, not technology. At last, the focus is where it should always have been, on content. The next convergence will be of content, the content convergence will be based on the principles of XML and RDF and that new converged content is what the Information Strategy will primarily address. For the first time in the history of IT, it will be possible to use a single information architecture for everything. This simple principle will enable and drive the digital organisation.

Parliaments are different.

Although the principles of a good Information Strategy are applicable to all organisations, parliaments have some special goals and characteristics that need to be taken into account.

  • Parliaments have many unchanging historical traditions that have to be preserved and their business model does not change at “Fast Company” speed. Yet, they are not entirely unchanging, so things cannot be “set in stone”. On the other hand, technology is changing very rapidly, with the 90-day product lifetimes of the consumer marketplace becoming common but parliaments are not usually able to write off outdated equipment as fast as commercial enterprises.
  • Members of Parliaments are notoriously demanding users of information systems but from the point of view of the staff providing and supporting those systems they are a special kind of internal customer, neither employees nor bosses. They also have the power of review.
  • Parliaments have special statutory obligations, such as public record, transparency and citizen access that do not exist in commercial organisations. In the newer democracies, they have a role in the development of civil society.
  • Parliaments are an authoritative information monopoly. That is the real reason for parliamentary Web sites’ high hit rates, not the beauty of the artwork! That monopoly position carries with it obligations of availability and accuracy, especially as electronic publishing takes over from paper publishing.

The need for a new approach.

The digital organisation needs a new kind of guiding strategy. Parliaments need a different kind of strategy from commercial organisations. The Digital Parliament, therefore, requires a special kind of new strategy, adjusted to its needs.

Information Strategy Goals.

The goals of an Information Strategy for the Digital Parliament are to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the parliament.

Efficiency improvements

  • Maximum efficiency of information creation, processing, archiving and retrieval within the Parliament.
  • Fully integrated information services for Members, their staff and the staff of the Parliament.

Effectiveness

  • Full, online public access to proposed legislation, records of Members’ contributions and voting history and, where applicable, legislation in force.
  • Direct electronic citizen access to their elected representatives.
  • Information interchange between parliament and government, between parliament and international bodies (e.g. EU) and with parliaments of other countries.

The New Fundamentals.

Preparing the Information Strategy must start with the usual “old fundamentals” yet, all too often, IS/IT strategy preparation and application development are still begun without them.

Old fundamentals

  • Clear management goals and support – without these the entire project is at risk.
  • Genuine user requirements – not what suppliers or IT departments want to provide.

Another key activity of the Information Strategy preparation is to examine the business processes, as part of the information flow and process metadata activities. This helps to ensure that, where necessary, corrections to problems found in the business process are made before any systems development is started. Another fundamental often forgotten – good IS cannot fix a bad process. This is especially important if you are considering outsourcing of all or part of your IS.

New fundamentals

A new fundamental is a component approach to information of all kinds to facilitate reuse. One of the benefits of the migration from HTML to XML is that it provides the opportunity to examine what the information is and what it means instead of just what it should look like. Information creation should seek to create information with the richest possible structure and the maximum amount of metadata and making no assumptions as to who – or what – will reuse the information or why or how. Adding the structure and metadata at the creation stage is by far the most efficient place; adding them downstream is very laborious. The creation of this new high-quality and high-level metadata is a task well suited to the talents of librarians. For them, moving to become a participant in the creation process, a kind of shadow author, instead of being only the passive recipient of the work of others, is also a natural evolution in the all-online world where their conventional role will largely disappear. (Ref. 2)

Information should no longer be thought of as sitting passively in a database waiting for a query. It can have an active, independent life carrying its context with it in a metadata wrapper – the messaging model that got the e-Commerce companies so excited. For many purposes, an information interchange model based on “listen and accept or discard” may prove more suitable, both in terms of timeliness and efficiency than the query or web crawler models. This has particular relevance in the political and parliamentary arenas, with their publishing dynamics.

The Information Strategy should create a high-level framework that permits parallel, incremental insertion of applications and the technology they require. This maximises flexibility, to cater for the inevitable changes that will occur before, during and after implementation, and minimises the risk of failure inherent in large projects. Remember how the Internet works: distributed, parallel evolution. Two recent major reports published in the UK examined the problems involved in the management of large government IT projects. These reports make important and cautionary reading for anyone planning such a project (Ref. 3 & Ref. 4).

Short development cycles, to minimise the opportunity for technology change and requirements change (“scope creep”), are now fundamental to reducing the risk of IS project failures. Small is good, the smaller the project the lower the risk of failure. The future is many, small projects implemented as a rolling programme within an overall framework, not a single, large project attempting to do everything, however attractive that might be for reasons of procurement overhead.

Another new fundamental is to treat infrastructure as a “given”, a utility which is installed, developed and enhanced separately from application development and which is noticed only when it fails. Electricity supply does not usually form part of an IS/IT strategy, except for contingency measures; networking and Internet access must achieve that level of pervasive invisibility. Conventional utility supply companies understand this and are buying heavily into Internet provision.

What happens to the IT/IS Strategies?

With content as the new convergence arena and, hence, the defining project characteristic, conventional IT/IS Strategies will no longer be as important as they once were. IS and IT documents will become increasingly less strategic and instead be shorter, sharper and more tactical and operational, better able to be updated regularly to accommodate the rapid changes in the marketplace. They will still play a role in development, implementation and, especially, in systems and application procurement but they will no longer provide the overall strategic focus they once did.

Conclusions

The Information Strategy, or Information Architecture, is the new, fundamental, strategic document for the digital organisation.

Taking advantage of the new convergence emerging in content, it allows content and process to take centre stage in the definition of the information systems of the organisation.

It is not a magic wand and must still start from the usual sound foundations. It does bring new benefits of flexibility and modularity that allow new, evolutionary ways to implement systems.

Incremental insertion of many, small projects within the content and interoperability framework provided by the Information Strategy will reduce systems development risk and improve the quality of the systems.

Preparing a good Information Strategy is not a quick or easy task; it requires the new skills of the Information Architect and a fundamental understanding of the business, parliamentary, government or commercial, to which it will apply.

Without a good Information Strategy, IT/IS development will not achieve its true potential. Done right, it provides a knowledge resource of immense value to the digital organisation.

References

1. Venda, V, “Work Efficiency vs. Complexity: Introduction to Ergodynamics”, Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences, Vol. 83, No. 1, Pages 9-31, March 1993
2. Hardie, A. S., “Librarian of the Future – Receptionist or Author?” (To be published in Vesmir, in Czech)
3. Improving the Delivery of Government IT projects House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, First Report, Session 1999/2000
4. Getting IT Right For Government - A Review of Public Sector IT Projects by the Computing Services and Software Association.

(Presentation to ECPRD WPICT Seminar, Paris, September 2000.)