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Prism: The House of Commons Integrated Technology Project
Audrey O'Brien

At the time this article was written Audrey O’Brien was Deputy Clerk of the House of Commons

The publishing of parliamentary documents began years ago and has evolved with different technologies including pen and paper, typewriters, word processors, computers, off set printers, laser printers, and now the Internet.  Legislatures are now looking to technology for more sophisticated means of managing and disseminating their information. Recent technological advances and the emergence of standards that enable the re-use and exchange of information in many different formats have made it possible to rethink the entire process for capturing and organizing information found in the parliamentary documents, while continuing to provide the traditional paper publications. At the House of Commons, the result has been creation of a new integrated technology system called Prism to replace nine stand alone systems.  Prism creates a shared database environment that allows employees to capture information once, at the source, eliminating duplicate data entry and increasing the consistency and integrity of the information across parliamentary publications.  This article describes the launch of the Prism Project in September 2001.

On September 17, 2001, Hansard staff sat down in front of their computer screens and formally signed onto the Prism system for the first time.  As each Member of Parliament rose to speak, the time along with the details about who was speaking and what item of business was under consideration was entered into the new system.  Using this log of the day’s events as a series of electronic hooks, staff in the Parliamentary Publications Directorate of Information Services and the Translation Bureau at Public Works and Government Services Canada created Hansard and its translation by attaching pieces of text to the skeleton data.

The launch faced the added challenge of a late-night sitting since the House decided to hold a special evening debate on terrorism. Yet despite the midnight adjournment, the first Prism edition of Hansard rolled off the House of Commons presses before the House met again the next morning.  To the Members who found copies of Hansard awaiting them when they returned to work the next day, there was little immediate evidence of the change.  But Prism will eventually yield some exciting improvements in the way that both Members and the public access and retrieve information about what goes on in the House and in Committees.

Prism is not an acronym, but a name meant to evoke the image of a spectrum of information – information about Members, about the House and its committees, about their debates and decisions.  It is also the name for the sophisticated environment that has been built to sustain well into the 21st century the record-keeping activities of the Commons and its committees. To date, this new environment is supporting the work of approximately 300 employees and is the primary means of producing not only the daily Hansard, but also the Journals, the Order and Notice Paper, and all committee evidence.  In the year ahead, more committee publications will be added to the list of Prism products and the total number of users will exceed 500.


The concept of linking all the information associated with a Member’s participation in debate, from the moment he or she rises to speak, is at the heart of Prism.


The new environment will create an indispensable archive of structured information that will allow users to find and retrieve the details of debate and decision-making in the House and in committee.  Whereas in the past, the House’s record-keeping systems were designed primarily around the demands of publishing, Prism generates the traditional documents as by-products of a database that is focussed on capturing information at the most granular level possible so that it can be presented in many different ways and so respond to the full range of needs of those who follow parliament.

Prism tracks a bill’s progress through the legislative process as a series of events: it begins with the submission of a notice for the Notice Paper; continues through first and second readings cataloguing the speeches in the House and testimony and interventions in committee; the tabling of the committee’s report; debate at the report stage, if any, and eventually the passage of the bill at third reading.  In the future, a list of these events can be published to a web page for each bill, with links to the relevant extracts of the publications, giving users a huge advantage over the present scenario whereby they themselves must take the time to find and follow the applicable entries in the various publications.

Similarly, users will be able to find all events associated with a particular Member of Parliament, creating a comprehensive index of all his or her interventions in Commons and committee proceedings.

The launch of Prism is an important milestone in meeting the House of Commons commitment to improving information resources for Members.  In June 2000, the Board of Internal Economy agreed to spend almost $9 million on the Prism program over a two-year period.  The program’s primary goal for those two years was to replace the aging technology that supported the publishing of the parliamentary documents. Prism increases the House’s ability to integrate emerging technologies in the areas of voice and video, data exchange, the web and information management.

Due to the mission-critical nature of the systems being replaced, it was necessary to provide assurances to Members that the ability to deliver the publications and other services would not be put at risk during this move forward.  The program’s commitment was therefore to make the development and deployment as invisible as possible.  It was agreed that the first priority was the creation of a solid and reliable foundation for the future, and that more visible improvements to the information management environment at the House would be made as part of a second phase of the program.

The first phase of Prism has been a major project for the House of Commons.  The application had to be designed and built to meet the operational needs of more than 15 groups of employees, each of which plays a distinct and crucial role in supporting the work of the House of Commons.  Extensive testing and training had to be conducted during breaks in the parliamentary calendar, so as not to interfere with regular production schedules.

The launch of Prism was not, however, the first time that the House has embarked on an ambitious project. The publication of House of Commons Procedure and Practice 2000 in February was the culmination of another massive project that required combing through decades of records and documents to reconstruct from primary sources the events of the past in order that their significance could be substantiated and set down as a guide for the future.  The editors of House of Commons Procedure and Practice – Robert Marleau and Camille Montpetit – retired shortly after the book’s publication, leaving a significant portion of the institution’s collective memory safely stored between its covers.

By investing in Prism, the House has sought to ensure that as it moves forward, the institution is able to capture and classify more key parliamentary information at its source.  Not only will this serve the day-to-day needs of Members of Parliament and other users of the parliamentary websites, but also when it comes time to prepare a second edition of Marleau-Montpetit, Prism will provide an exhaustive catalogue of all the business of the Chamber and its committees.

The development of Prism has also provided an extraordinary opportunity for procedural clerks to capture the intricacies of the unique classification systems they use to record procedural events, as well as the standards of phrasing and terminology adhered to in preparing entries for the Journals and the Order Paper and Notice Paper.  By creating an application that has the capacity to store this type of information, as well as the flexibility to adapt as parliamentary procedure continues to evolve, the House of Commons has dramatically reduced the risk that this knowledge could be lost and has ensured that each new generation of clerks is well-equipped to do their work.


Prism has a great potential for safeguarding the raw material of the organization’s institutional memory.  The knowledge and experience that the House of Commons staff draws on every day to support the work of the Members of Parliament constitute assets that cannot be valued or replaced.


Members of Parliament in Canada, like their counterparts around the world, are examining the ways that technology and electronic communications can enhance the role of elected representatives, improve their working methods, and encourage more productive interaction between elected assemblies and their electorates. The Prism program puts the House of Commons at the forefront of legislative assemblies around the world in the way it manages, publishes and disseminates its core information.

Discussions about the relationships between parliaments and other institutions (whether government, NGO or civil society) often raise expectations around concepts of e-democracy and e-parliament.  No one can predict where the evolution of parliamentary government will take us or what the term citizen engagement will eventually come to mean. In the meantime, however, the Canadian House of Commons hopes that the Prism program will provide the foundation that will allow it to respond strategically to these new imperatives.


Canadian Parliamentary Review Cover
Vol 25 no 2
2002






Last Updated: 2019-11-29