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