Want to Redesign Parliament? Don’t forget about the website, please.

Blog Post

Tuesday, February 26, 2013 View Count = 2729

Want to Redesign Parliament? Don’t forget about the website, please.

Throughout the month of February we've been posting an idea-a-day on the theme of Redesigning Parliament. Today, Amanda Clarke a Trudeau scholar and PhD student at the Oxford Internet Institute talks about Parliament's website: parl.gc.ca.

Any reputable business owner, mommy blogger, or cat video enthusiast worth their salt knows this well: make it easy and enjoyable for users to find, share and play with the content on your website, and you’ve got them hooked. Unfortunately, Canada’s parliamentary website (parl.gc.ca) is neither easy nor enjoyable to access, casting doubt on its ability to “hook” its users, the citizens whose interests Parliament is meant to represent.

To be sure, this is not a “content” issue. The parliamentary website is a fount of high quality information on members, bills, committees, and the day-to-day happenings of Parliament Hill. Rather, the problem is one of access. Many citizens will struggle to find the content they are looking for when they arrive at the site.

Navigating through Parliament's website can be a chore.

Want information on a bill discussed on the radio this morning? You better know the title or number of the bill, or else the search function won’t be much help. Want to know what Parliament is doing about the seal hunt? You better know that content from the Senate, the House of Commons, and the Library of Parliament is presented separately, and that you’ll need to work through each of their offerings before you squeeze out all relevant information from the site.  Similarly, you should also know the difference between order and notice papers, journals, and debates, or else you may find yourself sifting through mountains of text before you realize that the information you want is in yet another mountain of text found elsewhere on the site.

Given all this, you’ll also need time. Time to learn how to navigate the site (since it is rarely intuitively organized), time to realize that the Senate actually runs a second site separate from the main parliamentary one, and yet more time to figure out how to use this additional site. Time to get frustrated. Time to leave the parliamentary website. Time to rely on Google searches and sites like openparliament.ca—a website that does make accessibility a priority—and time to worry about the fact that your 14 year old’s blog about young adult vampire fiction is more engaging than the website of the most powerful institution in the land.  

To be fair, this is not to say that the people behind the current site are oblivious to these shortcomings. A recent re-design, the addition of RSS feeds, user experience testing, and the slow rollout of XML (which lets users download information from the site in easy to play with formats) all indicate that the site’s creators are hardly resting on their laurels.

And this is also not to say that it is easy to take Parliament, a complex, politicized, and fragmented institution, and present its operations and members simply and intelligibly in an online context. Restrictions on IT procurement, tricky information management challenges, the need to remain politically neutral, and the constitutional and practical barriers dividing the House of Commons and the Senate (institutions that cannot even coordinate the same transportation suppliers), all complicate the development of a seamlessly integrated, user-friendly parliamentary site.

Some solutions to these internal hurdles might be found by looking externally for help. Let users comment on things that work and don’t work as they navigate through the site’s offerings. Open up the site’s source code and let civic-minded web developers have their own stab at it. Publish APIs so that users can extract data from the site and mash it up in new and interesting ways with other data and applications. Work with groups like openparliament.ca who have already demonstrated the innovations that result when outsiders play with information on Parliament. In short, embody the principles of openness and participation upon which parliamentary democracy is based in the development of the very site that serves as the portal to our Parliament.

But whatever tactics pursued, Canada’s Parliament cannot remain satisfied with a site that is only truly accessible to those with the knowledge and time required to make sense of it.

Of course, some might argue that even if we improve Parliament’s website, the disappointing world of offline parliamentary politics will nonetheless roll on. A flashy website is no solution for a broken institution. Yet, if we want to re-design our Parliament to face the challenges of the 21st century, surely we cannot discount the role that the web will play in this process.

After all, in today’s digital age, the dividing line between an offline institution and its online presence is ever narrowing. Institutions are becoming their websites as the bulk of the interactions they share with their audience moves online. This is true for newspapers, music stores, and for Parliament.  An inaccessible parliamentary website quickly translates into an inaccessible Parliament; many citizens will never visit Parliament Hill, attend a committee meeting, or contact their MP, but they are likely to turn to the web when an issue they care about hits the political agenda. Let’s just hope that the parliamentary website is open and ready for business when they do so.


More of Amanda Clarke's work can be found at www.aclarke.ca.


On the Samara BlBlog logo representing the letter 'o'g