The Assembly's Vision
A strategic view of the importance of information
to Assembly business
- This paper sets out the views of the Research and Information Directorate on the strategic importance to the Assembly of information and information management processes, and the need to be pro active in the management of the development of information services as the Assembly's business evolves.
- The purpose of the paper is to establish a strategic vision - a broad expression of business aims - that will provide a foundation for the development of business objectives, information policies, strategies, procedures and systems concerned with:
i. the administration of the Assembly - where the focus is on efficiency and effectiveness, and
ii. the Assembly's relationship with the people of Northern Ireland, the public at large, the media, and other bodies - where the focus is on communications, image, inclusiveness, cross community support and openness etc.
- Whilst the focus of this paper is on information uses and information management, its purpose is not constrained by the remit of the Research and Information Directorate. It is strategic in intent and must achieve corporate ownership and application if it is to succeed.
The political context
- The political context in which Assembly business is carried out can lend a political interpretation to language that is otherwise used to describe business matters and intent . The language of this paper should not be interpreted as progressing any political agenda other than that legislated by Parliament and expressed by the Assembly Commission.
Setting the business context
- The paper re-affirms the value of information and the necessity to employ effective and efficient means to acquire, manage, process and disseminate information. It builds on the understanding and acceptance within the Assembly of the business context in which an information strategy should be pursued, and thus establishes a firm basis for the development of:-
- Information Services (structures, people and products);
- Information Systems (mechanisms and processes); and
- Information and Communications Technology (ICT - tools).
- Many of the principles of information management are common to any business operation but the needs of government, and more particularly the Northern Ireland Assembly, require broader thinking on the importance of information to the democratic process and the peace process.
- The paper therefore proposes a vision for the exploitation of information within the Assembly and in our dealings with outside bodies and the public - Section I. It goes on to define a strategy for making the vision a reality - Section II. Acceptance of the vision and the strategy for information will enable services, systems and ICT infrastructure to be developed which fully support the Assembly's intentions as an institution and target our investments towards areas of agreed priority.
The intended Users of information - the customers
- The paper identifies two distinct categories of information users: The Assembly and the Public.
- Within the Assembly, all Members, Committees, Assembly Parties support, and the Secretariat place high demands on information services for the supply of quality and timely information - both to inform analysis and debate on political matters and in the management of the operations of the Assembly.
- The public's interest and need for information about the political process is of primary importance to the success of the Assembly's political agenda - the Assembly needs to be seen to be effective.
The Business Vision
- The information facilities that have been developed for the Northern Ireland Assembly have addressed a basic set of business needs and have evolved in parallel with the structures and processes of the Assembly. It is now time to adopt a strategic approach to the development of information services and systems - to make sure that the opportunities to use information, to the benefit of Assembly business, are fully realised in a sustainable way.
- The following paragraphs describe the unique context of the Northern Ireland Assembly and it's business processes and the way that the Assembly's business vision for modern, open, inclusive and efficient operations and ways of working reflects the importance of information and the use of ICT.
- The Assembly is a new institution, and has sought to grasp opportunities for adopting best practices in information management - to get it right from the start. Our size, focus and lack of historical legacy means that we can be nimble in addressing information needs and adopting best practices in information management. This strategic intent deals with the internal workings of the Assembly but also enshrines the importance of public access to the process of government and the need for seamless access to central government, other devolved UK Legislatures and the EU.
- The political developments within Northern Ireland are in the spotlight of global media attention and the Assembly has a key role to play in promoting a positive image of the devolved administration. The Assembly would like to become regarded as a model of modern government - a showcase.
- The Assembly needs to acknowledge the hunger for information within society at large, and the very keen interest in the practical outcomes of the political process. It is also important to establish and continually reinforce cross-community support for the Assembly and to maintain a focus on human rights.
- These are the driving forces of Devolved Government in general and the Assembly in particular, and must be fully reflected in our information strategy.
- The Assembly, by its constitution and operational processes, is unique, responding to the need to ensure fully inclusive participation by all elected political representatives, and where the hopes and expectations of the people of NI are bound up to a significant extent in the workings of the democratic institutions. The Assembly's use of information therefore needs to respond to the local and unique aspects of the Assembly, to be seen to be inclusive in the widest sense, while building on established democratic practices and responding to national and global trends and best practices of modern government.
- Northern Ireland is subject to external influences and the Assembly's performance will be assessed against global norms and benchmarks. UK government policy and the UK's Information Age agenda (Modernising Government and Joined-Up Government - defined in Northern Ireland as Better Government) apply to the Assembly, but in many cases these need to be amplified locally and made relevant to the particular needs of the Assembly. The new agenda for government within the UK and in other developed countries is based on an appreciation of the fundamental changes in working methods and interaction with "customers" which technology is making possible and which have already changed the landscape of many commercial sectors.
- The Assembly is a busy institution, dealing with a large number of "live" issues at any time, and the information flows are in many (if not most) cases time critical. The objective in meeting the Assembly's information requirements is principally to do with effectiveness but, as the institution gains maturity, the efficiency of information provision and support will grow in importance. The Assembly therefore seeks to ensure that the approaches adopted for meeting information needs are as effective and efficient as possible, covering:-
- timeliness and quality - getting the right information to the user at the right time and in a form that best supports the current use or purpose; and
- effectiveness and efficiency - the approaches and techniques used should ensure that the overhead on information-based activities is kept to an acceptable minimum in terms both of the users' time and the level of professional and administrative support effort and cost involved.
- Meeting requirements for effectiveness and efficiency in a modern context implies a pervasive use of ICT and the use of flexible and highly integrated Information Systems.
- The Assembly's vision for the use of information is:
i. based on an understanding of the sources and uses of information and the needs of users within and outside the organisation;
ii. built on precepts that have been developed to fit the particular needs and intentions of the Assembly, of the benefits sought and the risks that will need to be managed; and
iii. predicated on a strategic and holistic approach to Information Systems and ICT whereby the technological aspects are indivisible from the broader strategic intent.
- The vision targets directly the main features of the Assembly's approach to its remit - to be inclusive, open, transparent and modern, efficient and effective in its operations.
Information and Information Systems - precepts
- In addressing the full range of sources and users of information, the Assembly's approach has been based on a number of precepts:-
i. ICT is transforming the way activities are undertaken in all economic sectors - including government: ICT considerations should not dominate our plans for Information and Information Systems, but the Assembly fully accepts and welcomes the opportunities now available to do things differently and better;
ii. in developing information services in the future it will be important to strike a balance between the sophistication and costs of the facilities available and the ease of use by all users, covering the full range of needs and competencies;
iii. the quality, timeliness and efficiency with which information needs are met will depend on the effective management of common repositories of underlying data and the use of common tools for accessing, updating and re-use of information; and
iv. the Assembly should continue to utilise standard approaches and techniques as these develop in the global world of ICT and as they are specifically applied in parallel and related sectors and institutions.
- These precepts together describe the distinct elements of the strategy that will realise the vision in terms of what is possible and desirable, and how the opportunities identified are to be grasped.
- The Assembly has already made significant progress in meeting information needs. We have implemented the basic platform, systems and services required to deliver a modern set of facilities to users within the Assembly, and to provide communications facilities to the outside world. In doing so, modern technologies and communication systems have been used.
Re-applying lessons learned elsewhere and working in partnership
- We have drawn on experiences and approaches of Westminster in particular and from other jurisdictions where appropriate but in such a way that the unique nature of devolved government in Northern Ireland is reflected in the solutions which have been deployed. We have forged effective working relationships with colleagues in Westminster, in the devolved assemblies in Scotland and Wales and in the Dail in order to continue to exploit the potential for sharing experiences, and have adopted a collaborative approach to the development of systems and services.
Building on the firm foundations already laid
- The basic ICT infrastructure and associated services are now substantially in place and this has created the platform on which further applications can be delivered to meet business needs and address information requirements.
- With the achievement of devolution in December 1999 and the experience gained since then, further requirements have been identified and a better understanding now exists of the demands that will be made by a working institution.
- The experiences and lessons learned are encapsulated in the Assembly's vision for information and have fed directly into the development of the information strategy: and they will determine, to a large extent, the approaches we take in the future to the development of our Information Systems and ICT infrastructure.
Exploiting information and ICT
- Where the Assembly is operating in a well established way (such as the Official Record - Hansard) and where the information processing required is based on legislative or procedural rules (order papers, Bills) the information management and processing requirements have been easy to isolate.
- Similarly, where approaches to particular information-based activities are mainly described by the ICT facilities available (such as publication on the Internet), the Assembly has already established a robust means of supporting these needs. But so far each requirement and each stage has been considered largely in isolation from others.
- . To date the focus in meeting these requirements has been to establish the basic information and systems infrastructure to enable the Assembly to operate. An evolutionary approach has been adopted which has responded to priorities in a flexible way and which has made best possible use of extant solutions and de facto standards.
- The Assembly is still developing and evolving as an institution and the continued further evolutionary development and expansion of Information Systems and the use of ICT is expected to be most appropriate way forward in the short term. But it is clear that there are opportunities for these developments to be underpinned by a coherent strategy for Information in its broadest sense and for this Strategy to set the context for future IS and ICT plans.
The Information Strategy
- Clearly, at this stage of development of the Assembly's business, any attempt to define strategic intent needs to recognise and allow for the evolution of business aims and objectives and the potential for significant changes to the way information is used by the Assembly. Currently, the emphasis is on internal and operational needs but in the future, broader business needs will prevail. For this reason, the information strategy considers only the key tasks, policies and standards that need to be defined now in order establish a sound and broad basis for developing information systems and services over the next 18 to 24 months. A mechanism is also proposed for refreshing/evolving the strategy in a way that will ensure that alignment with the business needs and priorities of the Assembly is sustained, as these needs and priorities develop.
Realising the benefits of a strategic approach to information
- Our vision of the importance of information and the precepts underpinning the vision draw on a clear understanding of the benefits which should accrue from a coherent and corporate approach to the further development of our uses of information:-
i. strategic and purposeful deployment of information to educate and inform the electorate and public at large about the workings of the Assembly;
ii. ensuring the availability of the widest possible range of information from within Government, Government services, the EU, etc. and expert sources world wide to support Assembly business;
iii. consistency and accuracy within the data sources used to support a range of information needs;
iv. efficiency in processing information through the use of agreed standards and tools which ensure that the same underlying data can be easily accessed and manipulated and that the growing volumes and complexity within the Assembly's main internal repositories can be navigated;
v. built in security, privacy and access controls to ensure that the entitled users are able to access information readily but that the dangers of compromise are eliminated or minimised; and
vi. a structured and logical approach to storage and archival of information for re-use later.
- In articulating the importance of information and the use of ICT to the business of the Assembly, we use the following arguments:-
i. that the Assembly should be projected as modern and progressive in the way it goes about its business;
ii. that the Assembly should adopt best practices in the methods and systems used in the processing, presentation and archiving of information;
iii. that information processes should be efficient and effective and that information is accurate, timely, secure and shared within the Assembly - using the "create once, use many times" principle;
iv. that the Assembly should have seamless access to sources of information in central government, other devolved UK Legislatures and the EU; and
v. that public access to information is of strategic importance to the process of government (supporting the need for openness and accountability) and that information should be made accessible to individuals and groups with different knowledge levels and using different communications media.
- We also argue that it is now timely to develop standards and policies on the use of information - to "get it right from the start", particularly when information volumes are at a manageable level.
- Adoption of the Information Strategy will endorse the need for and establish the context within which lower level strategies and plans for Information Systems and the deployment of ICT will be developed.
The main themes of the Information Strategy
- The strategy must recognise the complexity of the use of information by the Assembly and others outside the Assembly:-
i. for internal use, information needs to be indexed and searchable in order to track the progress of legislation and other business of the Assembly, its committees and individual members; and
ii. for external access, information should be available in a variety of different forms, using a range of media and presented in ways that best serve the needs of the different groups of users - to make information attractive and specific to the many categories of users with an interest in the Assembly (e.g. schools, libraries, international news media, academics and overseas politicians and legislatures).
- The strategy must recognise the importance of efficient processing and dissemination of information. Once created, information should be available to all users, internal and external, in a form and using media that enables secondary and onward processing, incorporation and association with other information and processes.
- Where information or data is re-used many times, there should be facilities and mechanisms to access it from a common or central information repository.
- The strategy must also recognise the importance of ensuring the accuracy and integrity of information. There is a clear need to define and apply security policies and measures, standard naming conventions and formatting templates. As noted above, commonly used data or information should be made available from central accredited sources rather than generated, time and time again, by the different business functions - this will avoid risks of introducing inaccuracies and/or unwelcome variations.
- And, finally, the strategy must recognise the importance of regulation and control in the production and use of information, particularly where the production process is complex and/or where many individuals contribute within short time scales. The application of ICT offers effective solutions here by way of Workflow and Document Management systems.
- The information strategy establishes the link between the Assembly's vision for information - which is abstract and aspirational - and the specific ways that technologies of this sort can assist in realising the vision. It therefore provides a simple mechanism for establishing and sustaining the two-way relationship between the Assembly's aspirations as an institution and the way that information is used to make sure that aspirations become a reality.
- The Information Strategy recognises the process of change brought about by the evolution of Assembly business, past and future:-
i. meeting the increasing demands and expectations of all users of information - the Assembly, the Executive, the NICS and the public etc. - as the Assembly and other implementation bodies get into full operational mode
ii. handling the volumes of information needed to support the Assembly and generated through the Assembly's routine working;
iii. ensuring that the best value for money is gained in managing information in terms of both user and professional IS/ICT effort; and
iv. preserving the integrity of information processed and stored by the Assembly.
- In implementing the strategy it will be important for the associated risks to be actively managed and for the knock-on effects of counter measures taken in one area of risk on other areas to be clearly understood.
- Maximising the benefits available from a strategic appreciation of the importance of information and translating this appreciation into plans for information systems and the further exploitation of ICT will require planning and decision making. These plans and the decisions taken will establish the underlying business objectives, policies, the organisational structures, along with standards, controls and the services and systems necessary to manage the processing, dissemination and use of information within the Assembly and to meet needs in the broader stakeholder community.
- The key tasks that need to be addressed over the next 18 to 24 months are noted below. The proposed timescales for completing these tasks are noted in italics.
- A strategy refresh mechanism (to ensure that the strategy adequately reflects the business needs of the Assembly, as they evolve) is included.
- Appendix 1 shows the Strategy Plan in Gantt chart format.
Timescale: November 2000
- In the first instance, the strategic basis for the Assembly's future use of information needs to be re-validated through acceptance of the principles and business aims set out here. The Assembly's information vision should therefore provide the main vehicle for communication, consultation and refinement at a strategic level of aspiration and intention.
Define Business Objectives
Timescale: December 2000 - February 2001
- To establish business aims and objectives necessary for the managed development of information services and systems to realise the Assembly's vision for the exploitation of information.
- This will be an ongoing process, as Assembly business develops, but relevant business aims and objectives need to be defined now, even in general or tentative terms, to lend purpose and direction to the development of information services and systems.
Timescale: December 2000 to April 2001
- Policies on the use of information need to be developed in areas such as:-
i. public information and education - to inform and educate the electorate and general public (e.g. support of schools, libraries, business etc. and the public at home and abroad);
ii. security of information - to classify information and protect it against unwelcome and inappropriate access, modification or destruction whilst allowing free and easy access where appropriate;
iii. archival and long term storage of information - to satisfy the need to retain information, using different media, for the long term; and
iv. sharing of information and information systems with other institutions of government and the public sector:-
a) to capitalise the investment of government in the development of systems and expertise in the management and processing of information; and
b) to ensure that the Assembly is not handicapped by it's distance and/or detachment from the information repositories and systems of central government.
Some of these policies have already been partially developed and are in place in a de facto form, but should now be formally adopted and promulgated.
Validate Organisational Structures
Timescale: December 2000 to June 2001
- It will be necessary to validate the existing organisational structures against the Assembly's agreed strategic needs for information, defined by the policies noted above, and to identify and implement new or improved structures to support the information services supported.
Resourcing and Planning - Information services
Timescale: December 2000 to June 2001
- A number of actions need to be taken as precursors to the development of lower order strategies and plans for Information Systems and ICT. The immediate and obvious need is to define and agree the approach and resources required for the development of Information Systems and the deployment and management of the Assembly's ICT infrastructure.
- Plans for the development of Information systems plans will, of course, need to reflect the strategic aims and objectives of Assembly but they will need to be flexible to allow for the future refinement and extension of those aims and objectives (as many of them have yet to be fully defined).
Strategy Awareness - Promulgation
Timescale: December 2000 - June 2001 - Assembly Members & Secretariat
May 2001 to June 2002 - Others incl. Public
- Once this strategy has been agreed, the lower level strategies for Information Systems and ICT, initially defined in 1998, can be re-invigorated. The strategy thus sets the context for lower level action plans and programmes of work, and will provide a touchstone for testing the enduring validity of decisions taken in each area. In this way, the development and refinement of the strategy is part of the on-going process of educating all users of information within the Assembly and ensuring that all needs for information are met in a coherent and controlled manner.
Adopt Standards and Controls
Timescale: December 2000 to June 2002
- The Assembly's vision for Information and the Information Strategy demands the adoption of an agreed range of standards and techniques for accessing, manipulating and storing information throughout the Assembly. These standard approaches should cover the lifecycle of information use:-
i. acquisition of data and information;
ii. organisation of data and information into common repositories;
iii. access methods which support the quick, simple and repeatable use of information and which make allowances for different levels of competence among users;
iv. tools for processing, updating, organising and sharing information within the Assembly; and
v. presentation and promulgation in a variety of formats and media.
Wherever possible, these standards and techniques should be consistent with universally adopted standards.
- The application of standards should ensure that the opportunities for sharing information are maximised and that data is created and held once and then available for use many times and for any/all relevant purposes thereafter.
Business Objectives and Strategy Refresh
Time scale: May 2001, November 2001 and June 2002
- The information vision described for the Assembly's future use of information is unlikely to change significantly over time. But the business objectives and information strategy will continue to evolve and develop in response to changes in the business environment and as the Assembly's role evolves and develops. The business objectives and information strategy focus on the relatively short period of 18 months in order to place our current information (IS and ICT) activities onto a more robust basis which is clearly linked to the Assembly's business direction. These actions should position us to take a more coherent, proactive and less ad hoc and reactive approach.
- In the somewhat volatile situation we anticipate over this period, at least three checkpoint reviews are proposed to ensure that the evolutionary development of the information strategy is managed, business objectives are defined and refined and key changes documented and their impact on lower level plans understood.
- The ownership of the information strategy lies with the Assembly. Normally, the Assembly Commission will exercise the Assembly's authority over the application and development of the strategy.
- The Assembly Commission has already indicated its desire to establish a House Committee to oversee the development of information systems and the deployment of information technology. It is proposed that this House Committee be established as soon as possible to oversee the implementation of the strategy.
- Responsibility for the implementation of the information strategy will lie with the Board of Management. The Board must ensure that, where appropriate, other strategies, systems and services are consistent with the information strategy and that the future development of the strategy continues to reflect the business needs of the Assembly. The Directorate of Research and Information is responsible for advice on information systems and information technology, and for the development of related systems and services.