HELP ME

I seem to have written that as the subject line of a great many emails today! So why not a post?

On Thursday, 4th December 2008 – midday, I am hosting a meeting, wrong handle…, hosting a ‘thing’, about how departments will consult policy online and how we might help policy groups choose the most effective channels available (in light of transformational government) to engage/inform (gulp).

The background to why this event is happening is:

  • that online communication has moved on at a speed that organisations/public sector would struggle to keep up with
  • adoption of social media as a communication tool in the digital world has been aggressively successful
  • transformational government: website rationalisation

The problems we are looking to address are:

  • how can those involved in developing policy in this democracy ensure that they can engage effectively online with those people either affected by or interested in that policy
  • what are the most effective channels for digital engagement in the ‘website rationalised’ world

This started as a very small discussion amongst those I knew in the public and private sector who were great at this kind of thinking, an informal chat that would offer up some interesting grist for our overworked mill. I blagged favours and felt rather chuffed that I had so many great people agree to come.

It has grown into much more than that, as obviously there is much interest in this, and it is a huge opportunity not to be wasted: having so many stonkingly brilliant people together in the same room for two hours.

Why am I posting? Why do I want help? Well, I thought that those of you who read this blog are obviously also interested in this kind of stuff and thought that it would be a bit rude not to include you.

So, two things, send me, by email or post here:

1. Questions/thoughts that you think we need to address in such a meeting

2. Ideas/links to innovative ideas you have on consulting policy online

Special thanks to Sarah Goulbourne and Will Jones from Tom Watson‘s office for helping at the last minute with a suitable venue; Oli Barrett for an invaluable telephone conversation about tips on getting the most value out of this session; Steve Moore for offering his facilitation skills; Mitch Sava for agreeing to present and Tiffany St James for focusing my mind (as ever).

26 responses

  1. Most people look at the ‘consultation problem’ as being all about the processes by which departments handle things. After all, with several online consultation vendors in the market, that side of the equation’s sorted, right?

    Wrong. The single biggest weakness of online consultation is that nobody’s built a brilliant enough online consultation platform that it will create enough energy and enough public demand such that the internal systems have to change, forced from outside. And nobody’s used the traffic that government websites at their biggest attract to bring in a new tranche of the population.

    Until someone invests the substantial amount in designing and testing a higher class of consultation software, and linking heavily to it, the only question around government consultations will be how to handle the 100-500 submissions that they’ve been getting on most things since consultation started. Shuffling deckchairs, in other words.

  2. Thanks Tom, will certainly include this. The investment in a working software solution, and working out how we ensure policy units can easily use it is something we should certainly discuss.

    Question though: should government consultation be of this magnitude every time? Surely some policy development requires the dedicated input of a small group of wise people who are heavily invested emotionally (i.e. talking about it all the time) already. How to harness that energy?

  3. Well, I did try and make a consultation document commentable way back with the ID card white paper by converting it into a blog.

    As Tom says though no system works well at the moment.

    I think there is some stuff you can do to facilitate the conversation online, make sure the document is published in a way where you can link to ‘atomic’ parts of the consultation and wrap your thoughts and comments around that.

    I did some further thinking on the whole comments stuff after the ID card thing and have written about it in terms of what the BBC should do, as there is a certain ‘lets all put comments on every page’ that happens every so often at the BBC, they shouldn’t of course and what we still need to go through is a whole level of digital literacy in terms of ‘This is how you start to create your space online’.

    I wrote some rambling stuff here: http://nodalpoints.vox.com/library/post/raising-the-social-bar.html in my usual manner it is quite extreme (switch off all comments, if people have something to say let them find out how to blog etc first!) but I think that is part of the route that the BBC and possibly other institutions should encourage.

    Also make stuff like tags visible your consultation.

    ie: Publish ‘consultation 1 – if you have something to say about this consultation use the tag ukgovcons1′ and then on the same page have the results of say Technorati showing what that tag has against it.

    There will be problems with time windows etc but until you start to get a larger participation online frankly that is not your immediate worry. You need to get the dialogue recorded online first, even if it does sprawl a bit. There are tools to corral information across the web.

    Sorry, i’m rambling again now :)

    mark.

  4. Mark, this is great stuff… hmm… I do know that there are some technical solutions being developed to address the issue of moderating big scale consultations, but only over a very limited time period, for example, over three days of conversation.

    This is the stuff we need to look at – and NOT at huge stupid cost to the public purse!

    Not rambling at all, you are helping :) thank you!

  5. Having worked on a council’s consultation strategy some year’s ago, I’d say two things. 1) The motivation has to be right and more importantly has to be seen to be right or it will never be bought into.
    2) If those who respond are not substantial in number (hard to achieve both substantively and technologically) then what’s the point?

  6. I did ask you, see above ;)

    Your points, 1 and 2… the motivation will be policy, therefore something the political party in power is thinking of doing (no choice), and I agree, the numbers of people consulted need to be either great in number or great in effect, a small group of people can change the world if dedicated enough.

  7. 1) At county council level I saw a desire to cover arses and look for political problems coming down the line. That is not the motivation that will produce buy-in. It will just increase prevailing cynicism.

    2) Yes, but a small group does not represent the majority and this is still a democracy.

    p.s I feel so used.

  8. Ok well that is something I have not included, local level consultation – but the work we have been doing on two areas on Directgov have proved that the most interest in ‘what the politicians do and decide’ is at a local level, so that is foolish of me not to consider.

    Point 2, yes and online consultation cannot be the whole consultation as it is not exactly ‘inclusive’ to over-use the word, again. However, it is the world that I work in and it is the issue I am addressing. But you have a point, will a smaller group of committed people influencing a policy that directly affects them be enough?

    Will certainly be doing something with this.

    PS Sorry :)

  9. @Tom: surely, surely it’s not about the platform. Even the most fabulous bit of technology won’t solve the two glaring problems with public engagement in policymaking:

    1. We ask people questions they can’t answer.
    2. We don’t do enough with the answers when we get them.

    ‘Consultation’ tends to conjure up images of 12 week processes, thick PDFs and half-arsed attempts (mine included) to add digital whizz to the deeply unwhizzy. The point is that policymakers need to think more like designers, put effort into understanding to their users’ lifestyles and ambitions and come up with solutions to actual problems. I think co-design fits in there somewhere, but I’m not quite sure where yet.

    If there’s a technological solution to the problem, I’m starting to think it’s in getting, sharing and collaborating around those customer insights, rather than the process of asking questions and try to get answers about policy itself.

  10. 4) People aren’t shown clearly “what’s in it for them” and have been disappointed by too many consultations in the past, so don’t believe it’s a worthwhile use of their time to participate.

  11. I think one of the biggest issues, alongside getting the right technology and motivating people to get involved is embedding the new channels of engagement within public sector organisations so that they become fundamental to the way those people work. At the moment these new tools are not broadly perceived by policy staff as a positive nehancement to the way they do their job but as a hassle. This is the nut we need to crack.

  12. I don’t want to take up loads of space here, but I posted a long and rambling comment here. In summary, picking up on Tom’s point, no-one has built the place online where people can come to be political but not partisan. This is a much wider issue than consultation, because it implies a two-way dialogue between the political/lobby group/journalist signoria and the general interested population. In that way ideas and concerns can bubble up, as well as having individual ideas or proposals from government discussed.

    Of course, for this to have any credibility, it can’t be run by government.

  13. Anthony, I am not sure how to respond… ‘for this to have any credibility, it can’t be run by government’. I disagree, it can but it requires a different modus operandi to the ones currently exercised: this is kind of the point!

    I like living in a democracy, and living in a democracy means that we need to collectively help make it work.

    Criticism is easy, making a change is not.

    That said, your points and your post seem to defy your final word. Thanks for your cry to arms, and I promise to give you the gen on what happens tomorrow.

  14. Emma, I don’t want you to think I’m cynical about Gvt’s ability to do consultation right – I was a civil servant for ten years and I know that consultation is usually done honestly and with good intentions. I also agree that we need to work together to make things work.

    My point is more that the sort of consultation ‘place’ that Tom and I are talking about will have more credibility if it’s run by an independent non-profit than if it’s run by a Government Department. It’s just a reflection of the regrettable cynicism and lack of trust of politicians out in the general population.

  15. Right on the hoof, this is my boiler plate quote on these matters: http://url.ie/ys7

    “… the value of any dialogue may be brought into question if it is not seen to command an audience, or is used merely to legitimise previously made decisions. Some researchers, practitioners and commentators have warned that unless those wishing to embark upon public dialogue, clearly understand these dimensions, there is a danger that public dialogue may be conducted in an atmosphere of cynical tokenism, leading to bland exercises in public relations.”

    Gary Kass, OST, Open Channels 2001.

    I like his use of the word ‘dialogue’. There needs to be a sense in which there is a sharing of the fruits of the ‘consultation’ to reinforce the kind of ‘linking in’ Tom mentions at the top. In other words, in some way government needs to be able to engage in conversation with the people it wants to consult. Open Space; Open Source are too terms that leap out at me. But the idea that you open that space and they will come; and you can sit behind a virtual wall and eavesdrop is faulty. ‘They’ won’t, necessarily.

    I think Anthony has a point about independence. The channel you use has to be trusted, consistent, and palpably useful to the people who want to talk with. Government has a reputation (sometimes undeservedly) for commissioning reviews simply as a way of parking or putting certain issues on the long finger; or avoiding having to make controversial decisions.

    Someone sitting on the edge of government (because, I think that person or organisation would need to be committed/dedicated to government, but not owned by it) could act as a conduit to and from the government machine; respectful of the need for confidentiality in communicating externally, but requiring honesty and openness inside it.

    Trust is the key to making it work. Both inside government, and outwith.

  16. I think the current DWP welfare reform consultations offer an interesting study in involving different stakeholder groups. The ministers in question have been travelling to discussion groups all over the country for a long time now, have taken part in No. 10 webchats, and have gone through a commendably full process.

    But do stakeholders view this as genuinely open engagement, or as an attempt to win people over on the proposals in the green paper? The presence of concrete and potentially controversial proposals is bound to shape both online and offline engagement. I suspect a more valuable exercise might be to openly publish the consultation responses alongside the government’s analysis of them and the final proposals.

  17. I’m late to this. Emma, you must have lost my number? ; )

    Technology is part of the problem. Tom’s right: the tools aren’t quite up to it. Commercial, free, none of them. But it would need to be an amazingly flexible tool to meet the needs of every consultation that comes along – some want to crunch numbers, some want qualitative debate, and some want consensus. Most want a mix of all three.

    And policy-making tradition is the other part. Steph’s right. Old habits die really hard with a vengeance. There’s no point opening up the debate if we’re not asking questions people understand – and listening to the answers. Really listening to them and letting them know it too. MJ Ray is right – a lot of people feel that way, as found by Digital Dialogues many times over.

    If you ask me, the real wins are probably in pre-consultation; floating ideas and gathering input before setting pen to paper at all. When the consultation goes formal, it’s more about adding an online response mechanism to the traditional stuff, and making that as engaging as possible.

    Emma: I’m interested in the last of your bullets, about how we make sense of web rationalisation on the one hand (consolidation: closing stuff*) and online engagement on the other (innovation: building stuff*). Especially when the target audience spans more than one of the holy trinity of citizen, business and stakeholder… ie, *most* consultations.

    *these are massive simplifications, let’s not go there.

  18. Sorry, I’ve got more.

    If we (government) are serious about this, and really want to normalise the use of digital tools to engage, really engage people (GCN ‘engage’ them), and see any kind of change quickly, then it needs to be a top-down imperative, managed through consultation co-ordinators, alongside all the other standards and codes for consultation.

    Otherwise we’re cherry picking, and we’re at the whim of how overworked the individual policy teams are feeling or how much we are able to convince them of the benefits.

  19. Neil, apologies as ever, this meeting started as one thing and became a whole other thing. Just as website rationalisation started as a planned conglomeration of government information – so it became something else – as we all know who are at the bleeding edge of doing this stuff.

    You are so right in everything you say. The potential white space created by the rationalisation of online information onto a ‘one-stop shop’ for business, citizen and stakeholder is temptingly beautiful to the purists who see the potential. And for me, too much of a good thing to ignore.

    Online consultation of government policy is clearly the issue for every department, policy unit and political party in this spring-cleaned world.

    The solution is not one that can be resolved easily. As you say, it involves fundamental change in policy development, a thorough understanding of the current influencers of policy and a brave challenge to how we do things.

    Essentially, a review of our democracy. (Yes, I accept that online is only a catalyst for such change, but ’twas ever thus – something relatively low on any agenda ends up being the thing that blows apart the status quo).

    At the meeting on Thursday, notes and interviews to follow next week, much of it was taken up by the inevitable discussion around policy development and e-democracy.

    Once we focused on a particular scenario, took a policy and looked at how we might ‘consult’ it, we came up with three ways of doing so:

    1. Traditional
    2. New media
    3. Local

    Now, we were doing this completely blind, some people had been looking at consulting professionally for years, some had a vague interest, some had none… but the point was a mashed up conversation as it were, to see what we came up with. I was surprised that it was so easily divided.

    The most compelling discussion was not around how policy units consult their individual agendas, rather how to get the engagement beyond the dozen people who regularly comment.

    Therefore you are spot on. The issues are:

    1. Pre-consultation: Who is warming up the audience?
    2. Formal consultation: Who wants to know what and how can traditional. formal consultations be more effective and inclusive?
    3. Post-consultation: How can we track the effect of the response through the formulation of the Bill?

    Secondary to this, the issue is: How can we enable the change that needs to happen? That is such a wanky sentence, but really, how can we help policy units see the value in this and do it. JFDI does not work… see Yes Minister.

    There is no easy way to solve this. I am working on behalf of one department that wants to bring itself out from the current way of consulting; there are squadrons of people employed to look at this across government and I hope that by garnering as much knowledge as we can, we can help embrace the opportunity we have unexpectedly found through website rationalisation and assist a teensy shift in the way we do things.

    Here’s hoping.

  20. Pingback: V-Logs from the online consultation meeting « Emma Mulqueeny

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