The Parliamentary Digital Service is in the latter stages of a full rollout of Microsoft’s Skype for Business technology across 8,000 people within both houses of Parliament and support staff, in a major shakeup to how MPs communicate with one another and their constituents.
Speaking at Microsoft’s Future Decoded event in London this week Tracey Jessup, director and head of the Parliamentary Digital Service (PDS) described the telephony environment the PDS inherited as a “60s style environment” with traditional copper telephones and no video conferencing capabilities.
This limited what the organisation could do in terms of communications and “the choice of vendors was getting smaller and the cost was getting higher, so that’s a compelling business case to move,” she said.
Microsoft offers a service through Office 365 where organisations like PDS can operate their business phone system in the cloud as-a-service and retire old PBX hardware. This is included at the E5 Enterprise tier of Office 365, or for $8 per month on top of E1 or E3 packages.
Working with managed service provider GCI, the PDS plans to have all members on the new unified phone system by June 2018, giving them the choice between VoIP handsets connecting to Skype infrastructure, or the Skype for Business application on their computers. The old PBX telephones will be entirely decommissioned. Users may also set Skype calls to forward to their mobile phones.
In terms of adoption, especially in the House of Lords where the average age is 69, the risk of changing something as core as telephones was not lost on the PDS. However, as Jessup put it: “How many people use FaceTime, or Skype for consumers? It’s like shifting from an old Nokia to an iPhone.”
Jessup admits that she came into the project with an “unconscious prejudice” that MPs and Lords would be resistant to Skype, but “actually that hasn’t really happened”.
The engagement plan has involved a network of 100 ‘champions’, who are tasked with walking around the 18 buildings that make up Parliament and helping staff adjust to the new system. As Jessup put it: “Everyone says they want training but they don’t have time, they want coaching.”
MPs are already able to join board meetings by Skype and can now take work calls more freely when out of the office using Skype on their mobile phones. Jessup even envisages Skype for Business allowing MPs to conduct virtual surgeries, increasing political inclusion.
The PDS was established three years ago to help modernise IT and web services within Parliament, and is driving an ambitious cloud-first strategy. Running Skype for Business in place of a traditional PBX is just one plank of that, alongside moving staff to Office 365 and SharePoint and building a new website which will work better across multiple devices.
Finally, Jessup admitted that while the bar isn’t that high for “to be a world leading digital parliament”, countries like Estonia are showing the way.