Success in any organisation depends on the quality of assistance. A strong foundation is a precondition for well-functioning top layers. The assistance division of the Dutch Parliamentary Reporting Department has gone through substantial change over the past 15 years to provide a firm foundation for the reporting process. What prompted those changes, and what demands did this put on the assisting staff?
From Paper to Software
About 15 years ago, the Dutch Parliamentary Reporting Department started digitising the reporting process. Historically, reporters worked autonomously. They made notes of the meeting, made their own sound recordings, typed their report on a word processor and submitted a printout of it to the editor. The editor put the separate parts together, read the report through and submitted it to the assisting staff. The main task of the assisting staff was to photocopy the typed reports, to send them to the speakers and to collect the corrections a few days later.
To reduce paper flow and increase efficiency, a software system was designed to assist reporters in their work. In this system, VLOS (an acronym of “reporting support system” in Dutch), all the different parts of the reporting process came together: sound recordings, digital notes and reports became part of one software programme and could thus be shared with others.
From Report to Video
The possibility of “reusing” reporters’ digital notes gave an incentive to the development of two video platforms: “Missed Debates”, where debates are stored for later viewing, and “Debate Direct”, where debates can be viewed in real time. Reporters’ notes are used as meta-information in the debates: for example, they indicate the topic of the debate and the names of the speakers. The parliamentary reports are used as subtitles in the videos on the Missed Debates platform.
The video platforms have been in use for a decade and have grown in popularity in recent years. In the last two years, the range of broadcasts was expanded to include parliamentary committee meetings, general meetings and events such as the yearly commemoration of World War II.
However, the development did not stop there. To ensure barrier-free access to the debates, live subtitles were added to high-profile debates in Debate Direct. A live stream with sign language interpretation is also available.
Control and Support
Currently, Debate Direct shows around 60 debates, meetings and events live every week. The parliamentary report is published daily on the website, two hours after the debate has taken place. Tweets are sent about short web reports and the live subtitling and sign language interpretation features. To make all this possible, the reporting software programme VLOS has to be online 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This has had an effect on the assistance in several ways.
First, the number of assisting staff members has grown. Until 13 years ago, there were five general assistants who were mainly concerned with copying, mailing and faxing. Assistance is now offered through a separate division: Control and Support. This division has 13 specialised employees with a variety of tasks. Seven audio and video assistants are responsible for monitoring the broadcasts on Debate Direct and Missed Debates. They verify whether videos are shown and complete. They also provide support to reporters by making back-ups of the sound files. As a result, reporting can continue if there is a malfunction in the regular sound supply.
Four business information managers have been appointed to administer the software system. These employees deal with software errors, account management, corporate chain management, development and the training of reporters.
Finally, two report processors are working full-time on processing corrections and finalising the reports, a task that no longer requires paper. Everything is done digitally, in VLOS.
The second effect of the developments in parliamentary reporting is that assistance is no longer aimed at reporters alone but is also extended to the organisation and everyone who uses a product of the reporting department. The VLOS system and the video platforms are stable, but, if there is a malfunction, both reporters and countless users notice this immediately. It is therefore necessary for Control and Support to monitor incoming messages both day and night to respond swiftly if the situation calls for it.
Thirdly, Control and Support staff are subject to different and, above all, higher demands than before. The assistance division was originally an extension of the mailroom, copy department and catering services; the main tasks were copying, mailing and delivering coffee. Today’s employee must know his way around facility affairs, content management, video and audio recording, web publishing, general and specific computer hardware and software and account management. Above all, Control and Support employees must be team players who communicate effectively with their teams, monitor ongoing meetings like a spider in a web and take immediate action in the event of incidents.
The general office of the Control and Support staff resembles a news studio, with a large number of video monitors and computer workstations. This inspires further development in the field of multimedia. The Control and Support division is taking cautious but innovative steps into editing debate videos into short videos that provide summarised information. The objective is to inform citizens briefly about what has been discussed. Experiments are also being conducted to make podcasts about debates. These audio broadcasts would be accessible to a wider audience because the narrators would use language that is easier to understand.
Ahead of the Game
The change that the Control and Support division has gone through is irreversible and permanent. As employees have consciously experienced the digitisation of the reporting process and as their capacities and facilities have grown along with it, they can offer the firm foundation that modern reporting requires. The development of the Parliamentary Reporting Department has also led to an unforeseen flywheel effect that has extended to new products like Debate Direct, Missed Debates and live subtitling. In that respect, the future is very promising, with growing accessibility for the general public to the work of the Dutch Parliament. Control and Support is critically important to the reliability of, and trust in, the democratic process. In that respect, Control and Support is not at the bottom of the organisational ladder but is at least on the same level as other employees of the Parliamentary Reporting Department, particularly when considering the broad impact and potential risks to monitoring systems and proactively taking action to avoid problems.
Anneke Faaij is the team leader of Control and Support at the Parliamentary Reporting Office of the House of Representatives.