All posts by Eric Lui

An end-of-secondment reflection

Written by Eric Lui – secondee from the Civil Service Fast Stream

I’ve come to the end of my 6 month secondment here at Delib. It’s been an eye-opening opportunity, working outside of central government – and certainly a good learning experience. Here are just a few things I’ll take away with me:

Digital democracy is less about the tools and more about the people.

Delib work really hard to make digital engagement tools of the highest quality and they’re constantly looking to refine and improve them. Their mission is focused on building digital tools to improve the dialogue between government and citizens, all under the banner of digital democracy. This has been encouraging to witness, not least because Delib is a for-profit social venture sitting outside of government.

Looking forward as I step back into government, I am well aware of government’s mantra that ‘open policy-making is better policy-making’. What has been interesting to see first-hand, and which has brought the challenge of ‘open policy-making’ into the cold light of day, is that the challenge is not in the tools available but rather the people. More specifically, the real change needs to occur in the culture and mindset of policy and decision-making that permeates in central and local government.

I’ve seen some truly excellent consultations being run on Citizen Space, most notably on the future of the BBC and the devolution of Sunday trading hours. However, I’ve also seen a number of online consultations which are rather less impressive – not because of the technical delivery, but because the exercise as a whole has set off on the wrong foot. If a consultation is treated as just an ‘afterthought’ in the policy cycle, if citizens are ‘consulted’ on decisions which have effectively already been made, or if communication and promotion plans are poor, it’s going to be a disappointing consultation, whichever platforms are used in its delivery.

Digital tools can offer a fast and cost-effective way to not only run consultations but also to feedback to citizens the impact of their input. However, they need to be embedded in the process of policy and service delivery. Only then is the power of digital democracy truly grasped.

Furthermore, with devolution of powers and resources to local councils high on the agenda of this government, I think it is imperative that local councils galvanise around improving the way they converse with their citizens. I believe strongly that public services which have been designed with the public’s input are stronger and better.

There is still some way to go for ‘digital by default’

Rowena, one of the account managers here in Delib, wrote some thoughts on this subject a few weeks ago. She noted that although there has been real progress with GDS, the lack of basic digital skills in some parts of government can be quite stark. To a certain degree, I agree with her assessment.

Firstly, in relation to skill level, I do think more can be done to train civil servants in basic digital skills and more to encourage their them to adopt the digital tools and habits they have in daily life in the workplace. My own experience within the civil service has echoed this and I do believe an attitude change needs to occur. People must be encouraged and given more confidence to use digital tools and in particular the attitude that ‘digital is just for the millennials’ needs to be shed. Only then can the civil service hope to push forward with the digital agenda without leaving the majority behind.

Secondly, perhaps even more broadly, ‘digital’ needs to be conceptualised differently. It is no longer acceptable for digital to  only be done by ‘digital experts over there’. In the 21st century, digital must permeate throughout the way we work, communicate and design public services. It is not a thing to be done, but rather a way of thinking.

Working in an agile fashion – can it be applied to policy making?

One of the main takeaways from the last 6 months will undoubtedly be living, breathing and working in an ‘agile’ environment. I’d be foolish to say that it wasn’t alien to begin with; the myriad fluorescent post-it notes was a bit daunting at first! However, I’ve learned to appreciate this way of working and there are two core principles which I’ll be looking to take back into my next policy role.

The first is to always start with user needs and the second is to ‘iterate wildly’ (fail small and fail quickly).

These are not new principles and they’ve been preached time and time again. Even within government, the GDS lives by these principles. The former head of the GDS Mike Bracken had some inspired things to say on the topic of policy and its interaction with ‘agile’ principles. There’s a lot to be grappled with in his speech but broadly I agree with him. Working in a small agile business which relies on a niche market has definitely reinforced this. What the user needs is core to delivering a useful product, and iteration in software development is a given. I can’t say for sure that agile can be applied wholesale to policy-making but I’ll definitely be trying to formulate my thinking and that of my colleagues around those two principles.

Challenges of a small business

The opportunity to come to Delib on secondment came about from the development programme I am currently on with the civil service, the Fast Stream. The scheme is focused on developing the future leaders of the Civil Service and secondments have only recently been added to the scheme. From my own personal experience here, I think secondments are a huge benefit to the scheme. Being able to observe how a small business attempts to lead the market, navigate the (sometimes unnecessary and frustrating) levels of government bureaucracy, all whilst holding onto its principles has been enlightening.

Leadership coupled with a strong vision is definitely prevalent here, even in such a small company. I have been grateful for the opportunity to see a successful small business from the frontline and I’ll definitely be taking many personal development points away. I do wonder though, on a more hypothetical note, whether it’ll be possible to expose current civil service leaders to the risks and challenges faced by a small business. I am certain it would be beneficial and hugely rewarding for the organisation.

I am thankful to all the wonderful people here at Delib for accommodating me in their digital democracy journey. Hopefully I’ve also contributed something to the cause!


From next week I’ll be back in government, working on assessment policy at the Department of Education. I have Twitter and Linkedin, so feel free to connect with me.

5 reasons why we build off-the-shelf software

We specialise in building commercial-off-the-shelf-software (COTS) focused on equipping governments to better engage with citizens. Citizen Space, Budget Simulator and Dialogue can all be categorised as COTS tools; as the name suggests, they are ready-built, ready to be deployed and ready to be used right ‘out of the box’.

Photo of tools on a shelf

Here are 5 reasons why we choose to build off-the-shelf software:

1. Easy and regular upgrades

Each of our products has a single code base – meaning, for example, that Wyong Shire Council in Australia’s Citizen Space is underpinned by the same essential code as the Citizen Space used by The Ministry of Justice in the UK. This cloud-based approach allows us to roll out upgrades for our products to customers easily and quickly, and every customer benefits from the improvements to the common code base. Upgrades often introduce new features to improve usability as well as the effectiveness of the tool.

As we build off the shelf software, we’re continually in the cycle of developing our products. This would not be the case if we built bespoke custom software which meets a specific brief from a customer at a specific point in time.

2. COTS is part of the solution for a leaner and more efficient government

Government recognises that this approach can make its ICT infrastructure more efficient and leaner. As set out in its ICT strategic implementation plan, it is acknowledged that government currently has an “expensive and fragmented ICT infrastructure which often duplicates solutions and impedes the sharing and re-use of services and solutions.” In order to increase public sector agility and reduce the cost of its ICT, a core objective in the plan is to make the most of commodity ICT services through the use of cloud computing technologies.

Our products align with this objective. They are available through the G-cloud framework in the government’s digital marketplace. We endeavour to equip government with tools to engage better with its citizens without resorting to expensive bespoke solutions with a long lag time. And the government is talking the same kind of language: “It means changing the culture of government to adopt and adapt to the solutions the market provides and not creating unnecessary bespoke approaches.”

3. Economies of scale

We’ve been creating digital tools for engagement since 2001. Each product has undergone thousands of hours of development, testing and user feedback. They represent a significant amount of investment which has resulted in highly refined products. We’ve also been deploying these products for hundreds of customers over the years.

All this experience and expertise means we know what we’re doing when it comes to digital engagement tools. By buying our products, our customers tap into an economy of scale for a tool that offers greater value for money and hassle-free and easy deployment. Our tools enable our customers to hit the ground running with their online engagement activity without having to worry about things like hosting, security, bugs.

4. A dedicated account management service

By developing off-the-shelf products, we’re also able to offer dedicated account management support to all our customers. Our account managers work closely with the developers that have built the products and know our products inside out. They’re on hand to offer support and help our customers achieve their goals with our tools.

If we specialised in building bespoke tools, tailored for each and every customer, we would not be able to offer the same level, if any, support for customers. Bespoke solutions are, by definition, different in each case. It would be too costly to have enough account managers trained to support hundreds of differently-configured engagement tools.

5. A shared experience

One immediate benefit of having a standardised platform is that it can offer a coherent user experience for all those involved in the engagement activity. Responding to – or, for that matter, administering – a consultation on the Department of Health’s Citizen Space is the same as on that of the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills.

Our products make it easy to set up consultations online and to digital engagement. We hope that by providing a great platform for involving citizens, organisations can get beyond purely technical questions of online involvement and give more time to nuanced questions like strategies for encouraging effective participation. ‘Now you have a tool that’s cost effective and easy to use, how do you make the most of it?’ This is part of the reason we’re trying to actively encourage the sharing of experience and expertise between customers who use our tools – because that’s where a real step change in the quality of interaction between government and the public can start to happen.

The digital divide

Written by Eric Lui – secondee from the Civil Service Fast Stream

a picture of 'mind the gap' on a tube platform

My colleague Row recently wrote about the digital skills gap in government. She pointed to the good work organisations such as GDS were doing but also the progress that still needs to be made. She ended with a thought provoking statement:

“…by improving the digital skills across its own workforce, could government then begin to lead in advancing the digital skills of its citizens?”

This made me wonder. Looking beyond government, how ‘digital’ is the UK? So I went ahead and did some digging, the stats below are enlightening:

Currently 1 in 5, or 10.5 million people lack the basic digital skills and capabilities required to realise the benefits of the internet.

43% of the individuals that lack these basic digital skills are of working age.

Around a third of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) don’t have a website. This rises to over 50% if you include voluntary, community and social enterprises (VCSEs).

Being a ‘millennial’, I can put my hand up and say I’ve been guilty of taking digital literacy for granted. Doing a stint at a large technology company with a fruit for a name exposed me to some pretty head-in-hands episodes; a wide-eyed lady once walked in with her unplugged modem asking us to ‘fix the internet’.

However, the stats are no laughing matter. Independent research by management consultancy firm Booz & Co. estimate that full digital take up could add £63 billion value to the UK economy. Parliament also recognise the gravity of the issue, a recent report by the Select Committee on Digital Skills concluded:

“ Digital skills (the skills needed to interact with digital technologies) are now necessary life skills. Individuals and businesses alike will need skills to protect themselves online. It is not acceptable for any group to be excluded from access to digital technologies. We must aspire for the vast majority of the population to achieve the level of digital literacy needed to fully participate in society.”

Clearly the problem is challenging but the rewards are great.

The same report puts up a number of recommendations for government. In particular an emphasis to address the deficit in provision for digital education at all levels. Government has provided an initial response to the report, though according to the Chair of the Select Committee, Baroness Morgan, it was a bit disappointing. It’s definitely a ‘watch this space’ worth monitoring. Technology is been moving at lightning pace. The government has a real task on its hands to ensure that the UK is not left behind in the emerging digital era.

But enough about politics. The ‘digital challenge’ should be bipartisan and embraced by all. We need it to be. I’ve set out what the challenge is so far and it would be mean to leave you with no light at the end of the tunnel. Unsurprisingly Martha Lane Fox’s efforts have not gone unnoticed.

One of those is Go ON, a digital skills charity dedicated to helping everyone have the basic digital skills they need. You’re asking, what are these basic digital skills, well they’ve created a handy framework to explain. In the spirit of public participation they have even set up a Digital Skills Charter to inspire people and organisations to commit to helping others to gain those skills alongside a web tool to help.

The one I’m more interested in is her recent initiative to set up Dot Everyone with it’s broad sweeping purpose to “to transform understanding and use of the internet in every aspect of UK life”. It will aim to lead the charge and thrust Britain as a leader in the digital world prioritising opportunities in education, women and ethics. It definitely doesn’t lack ambition and considering the statistics above, if successful, the implications could be tremendous. With 10,000 signatures clocked on the petition on change.org it has certainly has some momentum.

Technology is just one component of digital democracy. Delib strives to build tools which improve the interaction between government and citizens, continually improving them to be more responsive and better for everyone. However, clearly there are still barriers to some groups of users getting online and taking advantage of these tools to make their voice heard. The digital divide is real and present but it is heartening to see efforts being made to close it.

A Western Australian approach…maximising the potential of social media

Recently we had Donna Weston from ‘Down Under’ pop into Delib’s offices to have a cup (or many cups!) of tea and to chat about all things digital and democracy. Donna is the Communications Coordinator at the Office of the Environmental Protection Authority in the State of Western Australia (WAEPA) and has been using Citizen Space over the last few years.

Donna had just attended the 35th Annual Meeting of the International Association for Impact Assessment (IAIA) last week in Italy. The IAIA is the leading global network on best practice in the use of impact assessments to make informed decisions regarding policies, programs, plans and projects. By bringing together experts and practitioners with diverse backgrounds, the IAIA aims to establish and disseminate best practice for impact assessments. The Office of the Environmental Protection Authority were there to present a paper on how they were using digital tools and social media to revolutionise environmental impact assessments in Western Australia.

Lucky for us, Donna made the extra effort to pop a little further across Europe to our part of the world, to share some of those insights with us. We’re always excited to hear stories from our customers about how they’re engaging people in better ways!

Image illustrating the Western Australian approach to the social media landscape with dedicated tools for publishing, sharing, discussing and networking

The Western Australian Approach to Social Media in Environmental Impact Assessments (adapted from Cromity, 2012 and Nagle and Pope, 2013)

Donna shared some of the positive engagements they have had through using digital tools and social media to influence the environmental impact assessment process. At the core of their strategy is the Citizen Space consultation hub, acting as the primary tool for publishing, managing and running consultations. In particular the WAEPA used Citizen Space extensively in 2014 for a number of contentious assessments including proposals to implement a shark mitigation program, and proposals to explore and mine in areas of natural bushland with high biodiversity values.This strategy was effective in increasing levels of participation and also helped to raise awareness for sharks and the complex relationship between man and nature. Responses to the three consultations relating to shark mitigation were particularly strong with over 14,000 responses received.

A screenshot of the Western Australia Environment Protection Authority Citizen Space

The WAEPA was able to monitor conversations through channels such as Twitter. They used it to direct the public and stakeholders to information relating to impact assessments, and policy development, as well as opportunities to respond to new consultations. Although they are unable to engage in a two way dialogue due to their particular remit and purpose, the EPA was able to take advantage of the networks to disseminate information as well as raise awareness about their work. In particular I was impressed by their application of the social media framework above to ensure they covered and monitored the realms of publishing, sharing, discussing and networking

The Western Australian experience is hugely informative and provides a helpful case study on how digital tools and social media can positively influence the environmental impact assessment process. These methods offer an often untapped potential for greater public participation. For the WAEPA it has helped them to:

  • communicate the clear purpose of environmental impact assessment to stakeholders, providing the opportunities for them to feedback into the decision making process;
  • increase the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of large scale public participation;
  • become more adaptable during the public consultation process;
  • show greater transparency by providing open and immediate access to information;
  • better target the interested and affected public for participation.

Being a secondee from the British Civil Service, meeting Donna offered a refreshing and encouraging insight into the use of digital tools and social media internationally. Something I’ll definitely be taking back with me for sure! It’s exciting to see the digital democracy bug catch on across the world and I can’t wait to hear more stories from customers and to celebrate their successes.

 


 

With thanks to Donna and her colleagues from the WAEPA.

Turning a detailed document into a beautiful online survey

We know how it is. Someone has lovingly created a multi-page document, stuffed to the brim with tasty images, maps, tables, graphs and paragraphs of well-researched contextual information. The document looks great, it probably even smells great, and now you need to somehow translate that opus into an online consultation so you can ask your respondents questions about it – where to start?

It can be done, let’s scenario it out:

The easy way that’s not so ideal for respondents

I need people to answer questions on my document, so I’ve attached it as a PDF to the overview page of my consultation and the questions about it are in the online survey

OK, this is fine I guess as you’re consulting online (presumably as well as offering people the option to respond in other ways too *nudge nudge*) and you’re giving people all the information they need. However this method means that they have to keep toggling back and forth between your survey questions and the document itself, as well as having to dig around for the page of the document that’s relevant to the questions.

It may be worth asking: Is this the most accessible the survey could be? Do your respondents really need to read the whole document upfront to respond?

The next level up

I’ve attached the whole document as a PDF to the overview page of my consultation, but I’ve also broken the document down into chapters and embedded these as PDFs throughout my survey, with the corresponding questions beneath.”

Nice work! Not only is the document provided in full for those who wish to download it to have a good read, but it’s also been broken down into manageable sections right above the relevant questions. Nobody has their time wasted, barriers to entry are reduced and proper contextual information is given throughout the survey to gather quality answers to your questions. The final win is that your document looks exactly as it did when it lived in your ‘Documents’ folder.

How do I achieve this?

Use the PDF document embedder to add the sections of your document to the intro of each page in the survey, you can then build in corresponding questions below the information as you would normally.

Going the extra mile

“I’ve taken the information and content from my document and embedded it directly within the online survey instead of having standalone documents for respondents to scroll through.”

You’re on a roll! Maximising the publishing tools available can really turn your document into an easy-to-read online survey without the need for standalone documents to scroll through. This is very clear and makes it as easy as possible for your respondents to give you their views.

How to do it:

A picture highlighting the "Additional Information" answer component options in the online survey settings

Additional text and fact banks

These can be chosen as answer components and allow you to add contextual information, guidance, images, videos, tables, and PDFs within question sections and it helps you to layer answer components. If you ever think to yourself “it’d be great if I could add an image in to this question” or “I could really do with adding in more of an explanation here (within the question area)” then this is the component for you. If you’re planning to copy and paste from an existing Word document, then make sure to use the paste from Word button.

Fact banks are collapsible, which is what differentiates them from the additional text option. This offers your respondent a choice on viewing this extra information, e.g. if they are an expert in the policy area they may not need any more context, whereas others might.

Animated Graphics Interchange Format (GIF) demonstrating how a fact bank is collapsible

A whole world of rich content is now available so you can make your questions and pages as engaging and immersive as possible.

Image depicting the different forms of rich media and answer component that can be incorporated into a question to aid the respondent
Image taken from http://www.businessinteriors.co.uk

 

By using the tools above you’ll be well on your way to a beautiful online survey which does justice to all the hard work put in crafting the contextual information and the questions. Importantly, you’ve put time and effort into creating something interesting and easy to complete for your audience, which we hope will result in quality responses. For more detailed instructions on any of the above elements, have a gander at this useful support article on the topic.

That’s all for now folks, until next time!

 


 

Eric – secondee from the Civil Service Fast Stream