Boaty McBoatface and the perils (or otherwise) of public participation

So, you might have heard, there’s a boat’s name up for grabs. The public are overwhelmingly voting to dub the NERC’s new ship Boaty McBoatface. Obviously they’re voting (Voty-McVoting) for that. What else would you call a boat?! And, of course, this story has made everyone’s weekends, and Twitter feeds. And why not? It’s a classic bit of British humour.

And yet – and yet. I suspect there are some people out there who will find ‘McBoatface-gate’ less ‘funny’ and more…disquieting. There will be those who look at this and see it, first and foremost, as an example of direct democracy gone digital and gone rogue. Who sigh and say,

‘you see, this is what happens when you just throw things open to the public – especially on the internet.’

And I can appreciate that. If you work in government or have a job title involving ‘public participation’, I can entirely understand how this episode might make you a little nervous – a little more reticent before publishing that next consultation or opening up a Dialogue.

Sure, a ‘hilarious’ novelty outcome makes for a nice story when it’s happening to someone else, but, really, the issues you’ve got to consult on are important and serious and need good, careful, smart decisions – not just people trying to be funny. So maybe better to just avoid the risk of that kind of derailment happening at all. Maybe better to just leave it to the experts – to a few sensible people who can sit in a room and think about things properly, without feeling the need to sneak a punchline into every open-ended survey question.

In some ways, that’s not an unreasonable immediate response. It’s laudable to recognise the importance of decisions that affect thousands of people’s lives. And the temptation to retreat back into ‘control’ mode to make sure you don’t end up as a BBC ‘most shared’ article will always be strong. But acting purely out of that reaction would be a mistake.

I won’t try and make a from-scratch argument here about why more public involvement is a net good, or why any risk of ‘joke’ responses is far outweighed by the benefits of openness, engagement and participation. (This is supposed to be a quick and light-hearted reaction to a mildly farcical story, for goodness’ sake!)

Rather, I just wanted to quickly give some reassurances that it really isn’t the case that opening a decision up to public input online will automatically result in people flooding your new policy/road/local plan/housing development/annual budget with silly names and not much more.

Of course, it’s far less headline-worthy when online feedback exercises garner sensible, savvy, helpful input. That’s partly ‘cos since when did ‘sensible’ or ‘helpful’ sell newspapers… And it’s also precisely because it’s the case the vast majority of the time (‘dog bites man’ vs ‘man bites dog’).

So, just to balance things out a bit and maybe calm a few jitters, here’s a handful of examples demonstrating that the public absolutely can be trusted to make not just ‘sensible’ or ‘reasonable’ but incredibly valuable, articulate, important and necessary contributions when the floor is opened up to them – digitally or otherwise.

Ministry of Justice Dialogue

Screenshot of MoJ Dialogue

The Ministry of Justice ran an online Dialogue for men who had suffered sexual abuse, asking what kind of support they would want. There were hundreds of genuine contributions and helpful conversations on what is obviously a difficult topic.

Consultation on the referendum on Scotland’s independence

Screenshot from the Scottish Government's Citizen Space

The Scottish Government ran an online consultation about the referendum on Scotland’s independence. Some 24,000 people took part, giving valuable input on an obviously high profile decision. Ultimately, these responses shaped the proposal for the referendum.

Government Renewal Initiative Dialogue

Screenshot of Government Renewal Initiative Dialogue

The Government of Newfoundland and Labrador opened up an online Dialogue to get public input on the ‘unprecedented fiscal situation facing the province’. Now, they did have a few deliberately comic contributions. But they also had hundreds and hundreds of genuine, insightful and interesting ideas and comments from members of the public across three separate challenges.

Calgary’s Budget Simulator

Screenshot of Calgary's Budget Simulator

The City of Calgary ran a major strategic planning process for the city’s future. They used Budget Simulator as part of a wide-reaching public engagement process, helping thousands of people to understand and have their say on the hard choices to be made. These responses were reflected in the Council’s final budget proposals.

At this point, we should also acknowledge that this is partly to do with how you set up the exercise. Straight ‘direct democracy’ style public polls (/popularity contests) are almost inevitably more subject to people trying to game the system. There’s little need or reason to deliberate before wading in, and it’s a quick and easy way to get people to ‘mob’ together behind a novelty or protest option. Also, I’m fairly sure that most of the participants in the NERC ship poll are going to be, in practice, entirely unaffected by the outcome of that decision. Whereas when you’re talking to stakeholders – people who are genuinely involved in the choices at hand – the incentives for honest, considered input are far stronger. And it comes right down to some very practical things as well about the framing and language of involvement exercises. (It comes up sufficiently often in conversations with our customers that we’ve written support articles about the art of wording a good Dialogue challenge, for instance.)

So – yes, even in a world where boats can end up being called Boaty McBoatface – don’t be scared off inviting public participation online! Set it up right and people can be trusted to get involved in a productive, beneficial way. Not to mention, it’s far, far riskier to preclude people from engaging with decisions that affect them than to have the occasional funny boat poll.

Oh, and just one more thing…

It’s OK for things to be funny sometimes.

#McBoatfaceforPresident2016