Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Accessible Assembly....what's that

IT has long been a bugbear of NIGAG members that access to our beloved Assembly has been less than perfect, both in reality and in cyberspace. Thus NIGAG committee members and others have been trying to improve that access. Below is a section from yesterday's Hansard that provides some information on that access (Although I wonder if they equate web hits with website visitors as they are two very different measurements!)

Enjoy reading below!

Public Access to Assembly Business
2. Mr McKay asked the Assembly Commission what it has done to increase the coverage and availability of Assembly business to the public through all forms of media. (AQO 1921/09)

Mr Moutray: The Assembly Commission, through its engagement strategy, is making strenuous efforts to ensure that the business of the Assembly is available to the public. The Assembly makes use of a range of media, including the Assembly’s broadcasting service, internet site and printed publications. In addition, the Assembly works closely with the broadcast and print media to ensure that the business of the Assembly is communicated widely and effectively.

Since the beginning of the 2008-09 session, there have been 33 press releases relating to Committee and Assembly Commission business, and seven public notices have been placed in regional and local newspapers to inform the public of Committee meetings that were to be held outside of Parliament Buildings. For all Committee meetings that are held outside Parliament Buildings, Media Services works with the local media — newspapers and radio — to publicise the work of the meeting, to encourage attendance and to inform the local community.

From 1 January 2007 to 31 December 2007, there were over 7 million hits on the Northern Ireland Assembly website. That figure increased to over 9 million in 2008 — a substantial increase of 2·5 million hits. Furthermore, 17 Committee reports were uploaded to the website to provide public access to Assembly business. In addition, Media Services receives an average of 60 public enquiry calls each week and answers approximately 50 web mail enquiries per week, thus providing information for people across Northern Ireland.

The Assembly Commission has also taken action to improve access to the Hansard report. Now, the Office of the Official Report places on the website the first edition of each sitting day’s plenary proceedings on a phased basis, and a draft edition of the Official Report is published no later than three hours after the House rises. That enables the public to access the work of the Assembly within hours of business taking place. The revised Official Report is on the website by 10.00 am the following day.

The Education Service — one of the units within the Assembly’s engagement directorate — is also involved closely in promoting the work of the Assembly to the public. It has its own website, which is tailored to the requirements of the Northern Ireland curriculum, and publishes leaflets and other resources that can be accessed by the public and which are tailored for use by schools, youth groups, further education institutions and universities.

From 1 September 2008 to 20 January 2009, 162 groups availed themselves of education programmes. That represents over 5,000 participants, and 77% of those came from the primary and secondary sectors.

Mr McKay: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Member for his comprehensive answer. Has the Commission considered placing Assembly coverage on video-sharing websites, such as YouTube? The Assembly Commission should ensure that the public is provided with as many avenues as possible to access coverage of the Assembly. A number of businesses, NGOs and individuals use those websites already. It is accessible not only to thousands of people locally, but to millions worldwide, and the Assembly should be doing more to ensure that coverage of Assembly business is put on the Internet in that way.

Mr Moutray: The priorities for the Commission are to make available video content from the Assembly website, and to improve coverage of Assembly proceedings through the existing terrestrial and satellite channels. In the medium to longer term, the Assembly will engage with Ofcom to consider how the coverage can be improved yet further.

Mr B McCrea: Given the success of ‘Stormont Live’ despite its rather restricted timing, has the Commission considered making available a dedicated Assembly satellite channel? [Laughter.]
That would allow people to see every scintilla of proceedings in all their unadulterated glory? It strikes me that the House has all the makings of a good soap opera; people know all the characters. I am making the serious point that people are interested in what we have to say, and they like to see us at work. Some people watch the streaming video of debates on the Internet, but that service is intermittent and not totally satisfactory. Will the Commission consider making available a dedicated Assembly satellite channel that could possibly be shared with other legislatures and the councils?

Mr Deputy Speaker: At last; a cure for insomnia.

Mr Moutray: I am sure that the Commission will take on board the Member’s comments and get back to him.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Question 3 has been withdrawn.

Visitor Access and Orientation

4. Mr McElduff asked the Assembly Commission how it plans to manage (i) accommodation for visitors to Parliament Buildings to ensure easy access to catering facilities; and (ii) signage and information to enhance visitor orientation. (AQO 1923/09)

Mr Neeson: Since September 2008, the Assembly’s gift shop, which is beside the reception area, has provided a hot beverage service for all visitors to the Building, and facilities branch has introduced light snacks, such as tray bakes, to accompany the hot beverages. Immediately on entering the Building, signage informs visitors about that catering facility. The engagement strategy includes several proposals to improve visitor orientation: the provision of a public cafĂ©; the renewal of all visitor material; the enhancement of visitor orientation and information through the provision of improved signage and increased staff intervention externally and internally; and that all visitor-facing staff attend or receive a daily briefing.

In August 2008, facilities branch also devised information cards to be used by security staff at reception when welcoming visitors to the Building. The laminated cards highlighted various key facilities on entering Parliament Buildings and are available in 11 languages. Furthermore, plans are in place to erect external signs along the front perimeter fence at the east and west entrances, and along the access road to the east side of the Building. Those signs will provide visitors with a range of information, including opening times, security contact details and directional arrows to assist access.

Mr McElduff: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I take this opportunity to praise Eurest, the company that provides catering in the Building, for doing a great job. When I asked the question, I was unaware, as would many Members have been, that the hot beverage service was available in the shop beside the front door of the Building. The casual visitor to the Building has a restricted experience.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. That is enough advertising for Eurest; ask your question, Mr McElduff.

Mr McElduff: I seek assurance from the Commission that the issue will appear consistently on the agenda. It can be difficult to attract causal visitors from west of the Bann, but when they come, they want as much free movement as possible throughout the Building and access to the excellent catering arrangements that the rest of us enjoy.

Mr Neeson: I assure Mr McElduff that the signage at the entrance to the Building directs people to the new facility. It is worth bearing in mind that the Commission is reviewing the provision of facilities for visitors to the Building. I stress that one of the Commission’s main aims is not only to increase the outreach process but to improve it. I assure him that we continually keep all such issues under review.
4.15 pm

Mr K Robinson: I am heartened to hear that the website is receiving about 9 million hits and that our tray bakes are about to take off as well — hopefully to the same height.

Has the Commission considered the better management, or extension, of our car-parking facilities — which are under considerable strain, perhaps due to the success of our visitor programme — so that Assembly staff can enjoy a reasonable working environment by having guaranteed parking spaces?

Mr Neeson: Mr Robinson has raised an important issue. He will be aware that the number of car-parking spaces was increased last summer. The Assembly Commission is aware of the need to develop good access to the Building. However, car parking for staff at Parliament Buildings is the same as that for staff in the rest of the estate, and it is a case of first come, first served.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Question 5 has been withdrawn.

Committee Rooms: Upgrade

6. Mr Ross asked the Assembly Commission what plans it has to upgrade Committee rooms in Parliament Buildings. (AQO 1925/09)

Mr Neeson: As outlined in question for written answer 2970/09, following queries by Members over the past two years, the Assembly Commission tasked the building management branch, the Information Systems Office, the Chairpersons’ Liaison Group and the central Committee office with trying to identify the facilities required by Members in Committee rooms. A project has been initiated by the central Committee office of the Clerking and Reporting Directorate to implement the recommendations agreed by the Chairpersons’ Liaison Group.

An accommodation audit of Parliament Buildings is due to take place shortly, which will look at the current use of all rooms and consider options to ensure that the space is being put to best use. The audit will examine the size of Committee rooms, their usage and their facilities.

As part of the Assembly’s engagement strategy, the Commission intends to develop an additional Committee room in Parliament Buildings, which will have videoconferencing facilities and more seats for members of the public. Further to that, there are plans to implement improved audio and video broadcasting facilities in all Committee rooms, together with live streaming and recorded broadcasting of all Committees in public session, which will allow more members of the public to attend meetings virtually.

Mr Ross: I am encouraged by the Member’s response, particularly with regard to having cameras to stream live Committee events. All Committee members will appreciate witnesses having the facility to make PowerPoint presentations. Can the Member give as an indicative time frame in which Committee rooms will be modernised?

Mr Neeson: As I said in my initial reply, the Commission is carrying out an audit of all the rooms in the Building, from the first to the fourth floors. Last week, the group that has been established to carry out the audit had its first meeting. It is hoped that the audit will be finalised by the end of March.

The issue of PowerPoint presentations is continually being looked at. The Assembly Commission wants to further develop and enhance IT services in the Building, and that work is in progress.

Friday, 23 January 2009

Gearing up for a busy 2009

NIGAG is gearing up for a busy 2009, with a series of events already being pencilled in for the diary. on February 20th Environment Minister, Sammy Wilson will address a question and answer session at Parliament Buildings. If you haven't received details yet, head over to the NIGAG website for more information.

Speaking of the website...a much overdue refurbishment of the site was discussed at this week's meeting. Work to update the site will get underway in February/March - we'll keep you posted.

The AGM date is being finalised for February, guest to be confirmed soon.

For those of you with an interest in study trips, two are being planned - to Wales and Leinster House.

The Leinster House date is to be confirmed, while the Welsh trip is on March 2nd and 3rd. Highlights include the annual Public Affairs Cymru dinner (speaker Lembit Opik), a tour of the Welsh Assembly, and talks on lobbying in Wales.

Stay tuned for more information