Members' right hands get clicking

An ambitious Web site project is providing training and support for MPs' assistants. Karl Cushing reports

An ambitious Web site project is providing training and support for MPs' assistants. Karl Cushing reports

The Industry and Parliament Trust has set up a training scheme for MPs' assistants to help them acquire new IT skills and combat feelings of "isolation and vulnerability".

The training scheme, which has been funded by money from the European Commission, began in early 2000. The project team started by setting up a learning centre in Westminster and took CD Rom-based learning aids around the country. It now offers training links via a Web site ( www.working4anmp.co.uk/).

The site is also being used to combat the feelings of job insecurity and isolation that MPs' assistants can feel at election time or when their employer is away in London for most of the week.

A business mentoring programme has been set up for them and the site provides a way of keeping in touch with fellow assistants and hearing about job vacancies.

"It has been very successful," says project manager Matthew Donaghy. "We have had 30,000 hits since it was launched in February 2001."

Access to online training is provided via links to the University for Industry and Learn Direct. The team has also worked with other European parliaments to promote best practice in the area.

However, co-ordinating the project has proved problematic. It is supported by a number of partners, including the Centre for Employment Initiatives, Coutts Consulting, BAE Systems and the House of Commons. Each of them has specific tasks and needs to be kept informed of how the project is progressing overall.

E-mail alone was not up to the job so the project team decided to use a pay-per-use Web-based collaboration service from Projectplace.

The company was recommended by the project evaluator, Jane Massy, whose role was to keep track of what all the partners were doing. "The key concept is transparency," says Donaghy. However, he admits that the team was "quite fearful" of the tool at first. "We didn't know what it was. It was introduced with a bit of fear and trepidation on our part," he explains.

The team started using Web-based collaboration in April 2000, a few months after the project started. Donaghy says he has found it a very useful project management tool, especially for creating workplans and flagging up tasks.

The partners can log on and see what the others should have done and whether they have done so. "You can see if partners are pulling their weight," says Donaghy. "It is quite a clever system and it is quite cheeky as well."

The service acts as a communication aid and an online project archive. There is also an online forum where partners can air their views on how the project is going. "It has worked very well and we would like to continue using it," says Donaghy. "It has certainly helped us to form a clearer picture of who is doing what and at what point in time."

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