Category Archives: From other people

Fresh stuff from other people about digital democracy.

Digital Hero – Eachann Gillies

Hello again, gosh it’s been a while. For the latest instalment of Digital Heroes I have not one but two people which, to avoid confusion, have their very own posts. Both of them currently work for the Scottish Government Digital Engagement Team, helping to make all of their consultations digital (a huge task) and also trialling more progressive forms of involvement, crowdsourcing policy ideas on a wide range of subjects. We’ve worked with them for the last couple of years and it’s been awesome watching them undertake what is in effect an enormous change exercise. They’re both moving on to pastures new in the near future so if you need a horribly well qualified person to join your organisation, holler at them.

So, onwards to the thorny questions. This time we’re hearing from Eachann (Chris’ interview is linked at the bottom), the impossibly Scottish half of the team. Who is Eachann? What does he think about biscuits? Are we even sure he likes biscuits? Let’s find out.

1. What’s your name and where are you from?13147585_10153450560671143_890746488915378823_o
My name is Eachann Gillies, I hail from the west coast of Scotland. Currently residing in Glasgow.

2. What do you do for a living?
I do digital stuff. My proper title is ‘Digital Engagement Manager’, and my duties include managing Scottish Government consultations and running workshops to help colleagues engage digitally with their stakeholders and the wider public.

 3. Favourite band and / or artist?
This changes all the time but recently Kurt Vile’s ‘believe I’m goin’ down’  and ‘M83’s Saturdays=Youth’ have featured heavily.

4. Creature of habit or maverick thinker?
I’m going to cheat and say that these two aren’t mutually exclusive. You can exhibit maverick behaviour within the confines of your habits, after all. The reverse is also true!

 5. Your house is on fire, what do you save?
My first instinct is to say my partner but the question does stipulate ‘what’ rather than ‘who’ so I’d have to say my bike.

 6. Biscuits – dunk or leave unsullied?
I can’t say I’m a huge biscuit sort of person, unfortunately. I think leave unsullied, though.

 7. Best gov site you’ve seen (other than gov.uk) and why?
I love the US Department of the Interior. Despite the bland name, their instagram feed is pretty great. They’re not doing anything particularly innovative but their content is spot on and has made me more determined than ever to visit the US. Runner up goes to @SWFifePolice and their #popupbob hashtag which makes me chortle every time I see it.

8. Best project you’ve worked on at SG and why?
This is still in its infancy, but I think our Digital Engagement workshops have huge potential.

 9.  Where do you hope gov will be in ten years in terms of digital democracy?
I hope that we’ll get better at understanding the importance of the communities, conversations and interactions that exist or occur online. People growing up today are at home in a digital environment and are developing relationships with the world in these kinds of contexts. If government isn’t there with them, inhabiting that space, that’s going to increase apathy and widen the gap between government and people.

 10. Where do you see yourself in ten years?
Ten years is a long time but…I’d like to continue helping government talk to/with people. It makes the most sense for this to happen digitally, so probably related to that. I find myself most happy when I’m working on something I believe in, so if not in government, then I’d like to be working towards improving conditions for cycling and active travel.

11. Any shout outs?
Shout out to Leah Lockhart for always working on something interesting, and to Mark Muir’s Digital Meetup group in Glasgow.

So there we have it, lots of insight, and an appalling revelation about biscuits. If you want to talk to Eachann about helping your organisation with a bit of digital engagement, Twitter is a thing you could use.

Until next time*

*Chris’s post is here.

Digital Hero – Chris Connolly

Hello again, gosh it’s been a while. For the latest instalment of Digital Heroes I have not one but two people which, to avoid confusion, have their very own posts. Both of them currently work for the Scottish Government Digital Engagement Team, helping to make all of their consultations digital (a huge task) and also trialling more progressive forms of involvement, crowdsourcing policy ideas on a wide range of subjects. We’ve worked with them for the last couple of years and it’s been awesome watching them undertake what is in effect an enormous change exercise. They’re both moving on to pastures new in the near future so if you need a horribly well qualified person to join your organisation, holler at them.

Onto the interview; first up we have Chris (link to Eachann’s post is at the bottom), an enthusiastic American who, for reasons unknown to me, has abandoned those shores in search of rain, gales and horizontal snow storms. Let’s jump right in.

Chris_C

1. What’s your name and where are you from?
Chris Connolly. Unless I’m in trouble, in which case it’s Christine. I’m originally from Chicago. I moved to Edinburgh three years ago to pursue a Master of Public Policy and ended up sticking around. Edinburgh is a pretty amazing place.

2. What do you do for a living?
I’m currently a Digital Engagement Manager at the Scottish Government. What does that mean, you ask? It means streamlining consultations by using Citizen Space and providing consultation best practice guidance and training. It also means supporting colleagues to better engage with citizens using digital tools and platforms. This can take the form of developing digital engagement strategies and upskilling colleagues.

3. Favourite band and / or artist?
Oh no! This question has always been impossible for me. I tend to rely on Spotify playlists to fulfill my music needs. Is that too much of a cop out? Currently, I’m enjoying the Summer Throwback playlist.

4. Creature of habit or maverick thinker?
I like my routines but change is always welcomed; too much routine is boring. I think that working in digital engagement requires being a bit of a maverick thinker. It’s a dynamic and relatively new area that we’re still trying to navigate.

5. Your house is on fire, what do you save?
The dog, Breck aka Dirt Paws. He might be a demanding stubborn old man but he has a lot of character and can be good company when he wants to be. He basically rules the house. Oh and my partner, definitely shouldn’t leave her behind.Breck_Dog

6. Biscuits – dunk or leave unsullied?
You can keep your biscuits. If we’re talking about chips (ahem, crisps) then dunk them in all of the dip!

7. Best gov site you’ve seen (other than gov.uk) and why?
One project that I’m really excited about is the work of digital communications colleagues on transforming the gov.scot website. The beta version (beta.gov.scot) has recently been released and offers necessary upgrades including being mobile and tablet friendly. The website is being built with user experience at its core with content based on analytics. You can even submit feedback on the site as it develops. It’s definitely worth keeping an eye on this.

8. Best project you’ve worked on at SG and why?
Oh wow – I’m finding these questions to be getting more and more difficult. Can I tap out now?

I’ve worked on a number of great projects and have had the opportunity to learn about various policy areas ranging from salmon fishing to social security. However, I think the best project I’ve been involved in was rolling out Citizen Space across the Scottish Government for all consultations. This demonstrated a real commitment to improving consultation and opening up the policy making process beyond government. We’ve received great feedback on the ease of using the platform both for respondents and teams consulting.

9.  Where do you hope gov will be in ten years in terms of digital democracy?
I would like to see governments continue to embrace digital engagement and working out loud. I’d like to see more empowered citizens who are given opportunities to engage and shape policy. A stronger commitment to feeding back to citizens on how their engagement influenced policy is important.

10. You’re leaving SG soon, what’s next for you?
It’s sad to have to say goodbye to the Digital Engagement team. I’m proud of the work that we’ve accomplished over the couple of years since the team launched. I know that the team will continue to do great work.

What’s next for me? I’m still trying to figure that out. I’m keen to continue work around citizen engagement. The appetite to engage has been growing since the Scottish Independence Referendum and Brexit. It’s an exciting time to be involved in the democratic sector!

11. Any shout outs?
The Digital Engagement team and everyone who has supported us. A big shout out to Christian Storstein and Alaster Phillips who will continue to take the digital engagement work forward. Also, thank you to the wonderful Delib team who have patiently dealt with my constant pestering.

So there we have it, 11 questions exhaustively answered; much credit is due. If you want to talk to Chris about helping your organisation with a bit of digital engagement, Twitter is a thing you could use.

Until next time*

*Eachann’s post is here.

Top Australia and New Zealand public sector jobs this September (2016)

Each month, we round up some great digital, strategic and engagement/communications jobs going in the Australian and New Zealand public sectors. If any of them take your fancy, click through to find out more…

Australia

Community Activation Officer
Town of Port Hedland
Closing date: 22 September 2016

Team Leader, Partnerships and Community Engagement
Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources (SA)
Closing date: 16 September 2016

Manager (Online Engagement)
Department of Transport and Main Roads (Queensland)
Closing date: 23 September 2016

Manager (Communications and Engagement)
Central Highlands Water
Closing date: 16 September 2016

Senior Communications Officer
Australian Fisheries Management Authority
Closing date: 18 September 2016

Manager – Communications
Australian Maritime Safety Authority
Closing date: 3 October 2016

New Zealand

Head of Audience Insights
Te Papa
Closing date: 21 September 2016

Community Advisor
Department of Internal Affairs
Closing date: 22 September 2016

Community Liaison Advisor – Wellington
Ministry of Social Development
Closing date: 16 September 2016

Top UK #localgov jobs this September (2016)

As we do every month, we’ve rounded up some great digital, strategic and engagement/communications jobs going in the UK local government sector at the moment. Here are some that may take your fancy…

Marketing Communications Officer
Woking Borough Council
Closing date: 25 September 2016

Assistant Planner / Planner (Development Manager)
Kirklees Council
Closing date: 5 October 2016

Community Engagement Apprentice
Torbay Council
Closing date: 14 October 2016

Head of Communications and Marketing
Medway Council
Closing date: 19 September 2016

Regeneration Project Specialist Officer x2
London Borough of Tower Hamlets
Closing date: 25 September 2016

Head of Highways
Milton Keynes Council
Closing date: 29 September 2016

Community Engagement Officer (Local Authority)
South Oxfordshire District Council / Vale of White Horse District Council
Closing date: 22 September 2016

“Without Citizen Space, our consulting would be a very dull exercise.”

Clackmannanshire Council wanted to do consultation better. We asked Maciej AlexanderPerformance & Information Officer at the council to share their experience of switching to Citizen Space…

What was your public engagement like before you used Citizen Space?

“Local governments tend to have a poor history of engaging with stakeholders. Here in Clackmannanshire, we recognised that we could do things much better. I think communication always is an issue, both externally and internally. We wanted to address this problem and ensure we do our best to engage with as wide audiences as possible.

“Prior to the introduction of Citizen Space, we had several (at least!) licences of another online survey tool across the whole of the Council. Although we did have an internal consultation database, it wasn’t very user-friendly, and coordinating all the surveys, let’s be honest, was a pain. Needless to say, the costs of individual licences kept rising!

“There was an understanding of what needed to happen, but we couldn’t quite find the right way of communicating and engaging with our stakeholders.”

Why did you choose Citizen Space?

“We wanted a more coordinated approach to consulting and Citizen Space is just what we needed. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t like someone just said: ‘Go with Delib, they’re great.’ We did our homework and we did it pretty thoroughly. We approached other organisations that provided similar services. They seemed good, but what ‘sold’ Delib was their proactive approach, flexibility and the amazing ‘we asked, you said, we did’ section of Citizen Space, which we use to report back on the actions we have taken in response to consultations… Not to mention their staff’s wicked sense of humour and, naturally, a competitive price.

“In the blink of an eye, we got access to the demo site – no-one likes buying a pig in a poke. But it wasn’t until we had training delivered by one of the staff that we realised how much more there is to Citizen Space. Surprise, it’s not only an online survey tool! It is indeed a comprehensive engagement tool. Nine months on, we see Citizen Space as Clacks’ ‘notice board’, where we advertise consultations, public meetings, and put out questions to the public.”

What’s your experience of using Citizen Space as a council?

“I think we must be adding at least one new consultation to Citizen Space per week. Most recently, we have used Citizen Space to consult our residents on the very contentious topic of budget proposals. The online tool allowed us to present our proposals in a clear and concise way with a simple Likert-type scale the respondents seem to like.

“Unlike other online survey tools, Citizen Space is very visual and interactive. It is also very fluid, allowing us to customise our consultations to reflect the topics we’re exploring. We very often liaise with graphic designers to create something unique and appropriate to what we’re consulting on. We use images, Google maps, Facebook, Twitter and digital libraries to better communicate with our stakeholders – something other tools did not support to this extent. Without Citizen Space, our consulting would be a very dull exercise.

“It’s not like we completely rely on Citizen Space to do our work for us though. Since we introduced Citizen Space to the Council, we have developed a consultation toolkit, which explains the most appropriate methods of carrying out consultations; their strengths and weaknesses. We also now run consultation training. Citizen Space has been a breath of fresh air and ‘nudged’ us to re-think the way we engage.

“Like any system, Citizen Space is not perfect (it’s close though). But whenever we have had an issue with the system or couldn’t do something, we contacted Delib and they fixed it straight away or in the space of a couple of hours (I wish my mobile phone network was as efficient!).

“As much as Citizen Space makes our work easier, it also makes us think differently about the way we engage with our stakeholders and residents. It’s a great tool supported by a very proactive and knowledgeable team of developers and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to organisations wanting to improve the way they consult.”

Democratic Hero – Emma McEwan

Emma_M

A couple of weeks ago we heard from David Porteous, one half of the City of Edinburgh’s Senior Business Intelligence team and now it’s time to meet the ying to his yang, Emma McEwan. True to form, Emma has many a sound opinion on the future of this digital democracy stuff and she’s also really rather amusing to boot (once you get past the excessive pet ownership).

Let’s jump right in.

1. What’s your name and where are you from?
My name is Emma McEwan and I’m originally from Irvine, which is on the west coast of Scotland and home of the Magnum… not the fantastically moustachioed P.I., but the leisure centre. I now live in Edinburgh.

2. What do you do for a living?
I’m a Senior Business Intelligence Officer.  My mum thinks I’m like a spy or something but really I manage a number of research and consultation projects for the City of Edinburgh Council.

3. Favourite band / or artist?
Ooh, that’s hard… I can’t pick. Instead, I’ve put my music on shuffle and these artists/bands were the first five:

1. Bjork
2. John Travolta
3. Girls Aloud
4. Biffy Clyro
5. The Civil Wars

Wait, John Travolta has completely thrown me! I’ve done the next five just to see if that is any better:

1. Lamb
2. Kylie Minogue
3. Mogwai
4. LCD Soundsystem
5. Nine Inch Nails

What I’ve now realised is:
1. ‘Shuffle’ is rubbish and basically just breaks up my music into alphabetical chunks;
2. The next lot probably would have included Katy Perry and Taylor Swift; and
3. I haven’t listened to the Grease soundtrack in a while.

4. Android or iPhone?
Android – purely because that’s what I have just now. I don’t particularly care. I just know how to use my phone to make calls, text and stalk people on Facebook when I’ve had too much wine. It does the trick.

5. PC or Mac?
PC. Again, purely because that’s what I use at work and what my partner has in the house. If someone bought me a Mac I wouldn’t chuck it out…

6. Creature of habit or maverick thinker?
At work, our team do a lot of creative thinking so when I’m there I’d like to think I’m in the zone! When I get home it’s a different story though… I’m probably more a creature of habit there. I like routine, if you upset my routine it makes me grumpy. I’ll probably always have an android phone. I always do the housework on a Saturday morning. The cushions always need to sit a particular way on the sofa. I can tell if someone has touched my stuff.

7. Your house is on fire, what do you save?
My partner can find his own way out… I’d save the animals – Mabel the rabbit, Winifred the hamster and the degus, Munch & Tutuola! You might be wondering what a degu is. This is a degu. They are awesome.

8. Biscuits – dunk or leave unsullied?
I don’t dunk biscuits. I don’t like the risk of little soggy biscuit bits at the bottom of my cup. I could forget I dunked my biscuit and then panic that I’ve just found a bug in the bottom of my cup. However, I do enjoy dunking a chocolate bar into tea.

9. Best project you’ve worked on and why?
A few years ago we consulted on the Leith Improvement Programme, where we were looking for input on how to deliver a range of environmental improvements to the area. We spoke to a range of key stakeholders for this – local residents, businesses, commuters (particularly cyclists) who all had different views on the issues we were exploring. We used a few engagement techniques to gather feedback – online surveys, focus groups and public events. It was a really interesting project as people were so passionate about improving the area. It was the first time I’d used images/maps etc., in an online survey to illustrate the proposals and ask people their views, so that was really interesting. And I really enjoyed working with the project team – you could tell they were really knowledgeable about the issues. The public events were great to see in action, as they gave people the opportunity to speak to officers, make suggestions and have a genuine discussion on the proposals and why certain ideas wouldn’t be feasible. The feedback gathered was invaluable for the development of the final plans for the programme, and we adopted a similar approach for the consultation work we did for Edinburgh’s city centre.

10. Where do hope the UK will be in 10 years in terms of online consultation/ digital democracy?
I’m already pretty amazed at the potential that using things like Citizen Space, Dialogue etc., have for gathering views and ideas from people. When I look back on projects like the Leith Improvement Programme, I think things would have been so much easier using Citizen Space in terms of illustrating the proposals and gathering views! My hope is that in the future we are able to use more online tools like these to make it easier for anyone to have their say on the matters that they care about, no matter where they are or when it is. I think making it as simple as possible for people is so important. I also hope that we are more creative in the different ways we engage with people – sometimes we need to be braver about trying out new things and not just sticking to the old tried and tested methods. I think no matter what, there will still be the need for offline consultation methods but we need to realise how powerful digital methods are for connecting us with a whole range of stakeholders too!

 11. Any shout-outs?
I feel like I’m writing my Oscar acceptance speech…

I’d just like to thank the rest of the Business Intelligence team. I work with a bunch of amazing people – they’re really supportive, incredibly clever and brilliant to brainstorm with if you have a project that is a bit complicated. They make work fun and you can always be sure someone will be up for a pint at the end of the day. And to my partner, Candy – who hasn’t banned me from Pets at Home’s adoption corner just yet!

–––

So there you have it, a small insight into the mind of Emma McEwan; we laughed, we cried, we learned about Degus. Just make sure you don’t touch her stuff. Ever.

Until next time.

Democratic Hero – David Porteous

DavidPB_WI’ve interviewed quite a few people for my ‘hero’ series over the years and whilst they’ve been variously informative, eye-opening and at times silly, I’m not sure any of them have been as downright funny as this one. So, “who are we going to hear from?” you might well ask… The man in question is David Porteous, Senior Business Intelligence Officer at the City of Edinburgh Council: writer, social researcher, grumpy human and erstwhile stand-up comic. He also supplied what can only be described as a portfolio of photos, so I’ve liberally embedded them throughout.

Put the kettle on.

1. What’s your name and where are you from?
David F Porteous. (Close enough to) Edinburgh (as makes no difference).

2. What do you do for a living?
I’m currently a Senior Business Intelligence Officer working for the City of Edinburgh Council. I manage the largest face-to-face opinion survey conducted by any UK local authority and (on behalf of my employer) I hold the record for the UK’s best response to a budget consultation using budgetsimulator.com. I’m kind of a big deal.

3. Favourite band / or artist
I did not answer these questions in order and as a result when I come to this one it is with an enhanced understanding that I am a man out of time. To provide a robust answer to this question, I’ve used the metric “number of songs by that artist on my phone”. The clear winner was Various Artists with 320 tracks. Close runner-ups were McFly (including as McBusted) (58), Elton John (56), Bob Dylan (49), Bruce Springsteen (47) and Green Day (45). I have seen all of those artists in concert except for the Boss.

4. Android or iPhone
I don’t care so much about this issue. I just want a nice phone that allows me to access the thousands of pounds of ill-advised purchases I’ve made on iTunes over the last seven years. I liked clam shell phones. Do you remember clam shell phones? Clam shell phones made me feel like I was in Star Trek, and I genuinely thought we’d reached a technological end time from which there neither could nor should be further advancement. Phablets activate my gag reflex.

5. PC or Mac
I care so much about this issue. PC. Buying a Mac means favouring form over absolutely everything else. I’m not going to tell you that everyone who uses a Mac is evil, they’re not – but they are definitely stupid. Mac users are the Trump supporters of personal computing. Suck on that, Mac using scum! (I have an iPad with a Bluetooth keyboard – that is NOT the same thing, c.f. previous iTunes reference).

6. Creature of habit or maverick thinker?
I haven’t read all of these profiles, but do people admit to being a creature of habit? I would think even if that were objectively true you would take all reasonable steps to conceal this – even from yourself. And what about those people who are all “wooo, look at how unorthodox I am” – you wouldn’t hire those people for any job involving keys, passwords or scissors.

If you rebel against everything you’ll never get the people in Starbucks to serve you – because you won’t queue, and you keep trying to buy coffee using an impromptu barter system that places an unreasonably high value on pocket lint and beat poetry – then you get no damn coffee, you fall asleep by 11am, and the day belongs to the creatures of habit.

Walk a wandering path, not a middle road. Have I answered this question?

DavidP27. Your house is on fire, what do you save?
Nothing. Everything important is backed up to the cloud, including my insurance documents. You’re owned by what you think you own. A good fire would save me the bother of vacuuming in that awkward spot on the window side of my bedroom. It’s blocked by the bed. I have to move furniture. And unless you’re in my bed already you can’t even see it. That side of the room is a total non-issue. Though, to be scrupulously fair, I also haven’t vacuumed the visible, near-side in quite some time either. PS – for some reason I’m single. Is it the McFly songs? It is, isn’t it?

8. Biscuits – dunk or leave unsullied?
I’m just going to hit you with science here. Heat and moisture activate aroma, and smell is the most important component of taste – dunked biscuits just taste better. Vaccinate your kids, vote to stay in the EU, dunk your biscuits – everything else is crazy.

9. Best project you’ve worked on and why?
A few years ago Emma McEwan (subject of a future profile) and I worked on the consultation for Edinburgh city centre. We spoke to business leaders, activists, local residents – a real mix of people who had different understandings of the issues. While traffic routes, pedestrianisation, public spaces, desire lines, signage (and so on, and so on) don’t feel exciting, the changes that have been introduced subsequently have impacted (hopefully positively) on millions of visitors and residents. It’s the first and only research project I’ve ever done where I can walk on a pavement that exists, in some small part, because I recommended it. And it’s always great to work with Emma, who brings passion and intelligence to all her projects.

10. Where do you hope the UK will be in 10 years in terms of online consultation/ digital democracy?
Creative problem solving – which is, in my view, a major reason to involve people in decision-making – should be fun. I hope we get more accustomed to using that specific word – fun. There are cases where that might not be appropriate, but those are the exception and not the norm. When we begin by saying that local democracy is a serious issue, we immediately lose young people and most working age adults – who have plenty of other serious issues to deal with.

Engagement cannot simply be about a positive outcome, it needs to be arrived at through a positive process. In practice what that means is we in the public sector spend time on the mechanisms, spend time on the marketing, and interact with people as people – without trying to speak with the voice of our organisation in an attempt to offend to smallest number of people.

I want Jane, 27, mother of one, to come home after work and spend ten minutes checking up on what the issues are in her local community using simple software. I want her to feel connected to real people she can also interact with offline. I want this to be as normal and uncomplicated as using Facebook.

We need to accept gradations of involvement as being valid, which means not leaving decisions with (what we in Scotland would call) “well-kent faces” just because they’re the only ones who will turn up to three hour long meetings every two months. Digital democracy has the potential to reach groups who are currently as excluded from local government decision making as any other, and there needs to be continuous push-back against the challenge to using online tools. Offline consultation excludes far more people.

(Concluding by saying that) there will always need to be a place for both online and offline consultation (is boring, but probably true).

DavidP3

11. Any shout-outs?
Firstly to me – I’m also a writer and my books Singular, Good Witch and The Death of Jack Nylund are available everywhere. The audio book for Singular, read by me, can almost certainly be downloaded on the same device you’re using to read this. My website is www.dfpiii.com

Secondly also to me, but for a different reason – I’m one half of the Cheerful Despair podcast about nothing http://cheerfuldespair.libsyn.com (NSFW-ish: PG-13, there are no boobs, but we do swear) which will be returning for a second season this year.

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So, there you have it: a short insight into the rambling mind of David Porteous. We laughed, we didn’t cry and we probably didn’t learn anything either. Ordinarily, I’d point out how you can connect with David on Twitter but I think he’s amply covered ways and means to get in touch.

Until next time.

Local Government’s Favourite Biscuit

Hello, Delib world! My name is Nicole Otero, and I’m a postgraduate student earning my MA in Marketing Communications at Richmond, the American International University in London. I’m a newbie to the world of tech and UK government (I’m originally from the United States). Photography and cooking (badly) are my try-hard hobbies and I’m almost constantly in search of a bottle of water or a snack.

But back to the topic at hand…

You may ask yourself: what does this tech and government newbie/student have to say on here that’s of any interest to me? Well, I’m here to talk about the big issue. The divider of a nation. An equalizer amongst the masses. The pièce de résistance.

Of course, I’m here to talk about biscuits.

More specifically, biscuits in local government. (Stay with me.)

Nicole Otero with a plate of biscuits

To complete my MA, I was required to undertake a topic of my own choosing for a professional research project. The task was to research a topic to the ends of the earth, create a media plan and try to get real world media coverage. Easy right? (Just to clarify, definitely hasn’t been easy).

I know it’s hard to believe, but the topic of biscuits in government was not my number one choice for my last impression I would ever leave upon the academic world (one hopes).

My first choice was open data: a more conventional choice (and sounds much better than biscuits when people ask you what your final dissertation is about).

My primary topic choice was a natural one. Leading up to the start of my professional project, I was working as a marketing communications intern at a SaaS company called Socrata. Their specialty is all things open data, and they’re great at what they do. So of course, I wanted to make the most of my access to expert opinion and knowledge on the topic!

But that’s not what the world of local government had in mind for me…

My open data approach started off well enough. Great, in fact! My colleagues were all incredibly supportive and helpful, and allowed me to craft and circulate a survey that would be informative for both Socrata AND my dissertation.

After a few drafts of hit or miss questions (and a lot of help from one of your former Digital Heroes, Ben Unsworth), the survey was ready to send out. But to me, it just seemed a little flat. So I decided to add a cheeky little addition to the survey and ask local government employees to name their favourite biscuit.

Of course, inspired by the one and only Delib blog and its penchant for throwing in a biscuit question here and there (and also again, Ben Unsworth! Who had introduced me to the blog…)

The results from the survey came pouring in. And although we were able to draw some great insights from the responses to the open data questions, I can’t say that people were wildly enthusiastic or excited about the topic. But MY GOODNESS do people get hyped about their favourite biscuits. The idea snowballed from there, and before I knew it I couldn’t deny my biscuit destiny any longer.

The result is the illustration below (well, not just that – a fifty page media plan as well. Still in disbelief myself.)

North East: Gingernuts; Yorkshire: HobNobs; East Midlands: HobNobs; East of England: Digestives; London: Gingernuts; South East: Bourbons; South West: Digestives; West Midlands: Jammie Dodgers; North West: Jaffa Cakes
The favourite biscuits of local government staff, by region

I had so many respondents to the survey, that I was able to pinpoint UK local government’s favourite biscuit by region. And also learn that nearly 40% of local government biscuit eaters dunk their biscuits… And apparently two biscuits is the ideal number to have with your tea… And that dunking your Jaffa Cake is definitely NOT okay (again, I’m American so this is all news to me).

Not only have I been able to learn and share some of these fun facts, I’ve had some great conversations with the Metro, The London Evening Standard and City AM about publishing a story based on my research (nothing confirmed yet, but fingers crossed).

So I guess what I’m trying to say is, thanks Delib! It’s been a bizarre few months writing this dissertation, but its been made all the more sweeter by being able to write about biscuits.

Mevan Babakar – Democratic Hero

MevanA couple of weeks ago I went along to a Citizen’s Advice Bureau roundtable thing, to have a chat about a report they’ve just produced; ‘Going with the grain’, examining how our democracy can be made more fit for a digital age; essentially, it was very much my cup of tea. As is usual with this kind of event, I saw some old faces and also met some new ones, one of which being Mevan; fact checker, democracy exponent, good egg and now, most importantly, the latest member of the immortals; Democratic Hero. Mevan is one of the few people I know who has a cooler job than me and now – thanks to the wonder of words, the internet and my copy and pasting skills – she’s going to tell us all about it.

Let’s jump right in.

1.  What’s your name and where are you from?
Mevan, its a weird Kurdish name. It’s “me” and “van” stuck together. I was raised in London, but I was born in Baghdad. I consider myself British. It all gets so complex so fast.

2.  What do you do for a living?
I work at the UK’s leading factchecking charity: Full Fact.

3.  Favourite band and/ or artist?
Bjork, Grimes – slightly kooky incredibly talented women are my thing.

4.  Android or iPhone?
Android

5.  PC or Mac?
I was pretty devoutly PC till I started to learn how to code, then I quickly realised the error of my ways.

6.  Creature of habit or maverick thinker?
I think its always good to reimagine a system for the better if you can. Although its pretty cool when you fall into the safe comfort of a good one. So how about “Maverick thinker when I need to be”

7.  Your house is on fire, what do you save?
Assuming my family and friends are safe, I would probably not save anything. I’ve always been pretty into the idea of not owning anything. Although I wonder if that’s one of those things that you think in theory, but regret pretty soon after your house burns down.

8.  Biscuits – dunk or leave unsullied?
I like to smash them with my fists, turn them into a ball with the dampness of the tea, and then consume it as if it were a ferrero rocher.

9. Best project you’ve worked on at Full Fact?
We factchecked the 2015 election for 6 weeks straight. We were going from 6am to midnight every single day. Our tiny team was augmented with more staff and 40 volunteers a day. We saw more excitement about factchecking than ever before. We got corrections in every national paper, got Ed Miliband to change the way he spoke about Zero Hours Contracts, live factchecked every leaders debate, and were described as the “anti spin doctors”. To get it all off the ground I raised £33k in crowdfunding too. It was all pretty immense, and tonnes of fun.

10. Where do you hope the field of digital democracy will be in 10 years? Opportunities and pitfalls.
I just hope that we’ve sorted out the easy wins. Every interaction with government should mean that you’re registered to vote. Every election you should know who your candidates are and know where to vote – that shouldn’t be hidden away in a pdf somewhere, it should be a google now card that notifies you. I hope that if you wanted to find out if a claim that a politician or newspaper has made is true or not, you could. I want to equip people with the tools to make up their own minds. I hope that factchecking comes back into newsrooms, and becomes an important part of political debate. I hope that where tech can ensure that we keep services fair and efficient, we do. I worry that legislation isn’t keeping up with technology. I hope that in ten years time that gap is smaller.

11. Best Gov/ Civic site you’ve seen and why? 
yournextmp.com – an easy win – executed beautifully by Democracy Club.

So there you have it, 11 questions answered by the now legendary Mevan Babakar. We laughed, we cried, we might even have learnt a few things. If you’d like to talk to Mevan online, she does Twitter here or for an offline high-five, you should totally go to one of her Citizen Beta meetups, (the last word in civic tech events).

Until next time.

Hull City Council on using Budget Simulator

We asked Hull City Council how they found it using Budget Simulator. Here’s what Sarah Tonks, Customer Insight and Engagement Officer, told us:

Hull City Council used Budget Simulator as part of our public budget consultation activity in 2014/15, and we’re using it again for 2015/16.

We wanted to achieve two things by using the Budget Simulator:

  1. To build on previous research and consultation undertaken with residents, to understand what services they valued.
    We have asked residents their opinion on different services a number of times: how they rate them and which they think are the most important, both for themselves and for the city as whole.
  2. To give residents the chance to understand the challenge of balancing a budget in the face of such deep cuts year on year.
    The decisions facing the Council are really difficult, and we hope that Budget Simulator gives the people of Hull an understanding of why some services need to take a back seat to others.

When it comes to consulting on issues as complex as this, it is always a challenge to present information in an engaging way that everyone can understand. It needs sufficient detail so that each element of the decision-making is informed and, at the same time, not so detailed that no-one will read it. As one resident put it:

“I appreciate the opportunity for consultation and this tool is intuitive and easy to use”.

Having undertaken extensive research into the attitudes of our residents, Budget Simulator was really useful as a way of checking (and in many cases validating) other findings. The ability for residents to see what has to be done in order to save services was really helpful, as was being able to detail the potential consequences of savings in specific services.

It gave residents a much better picture of what it means to work with reducing budgets, and helped make it real for them.

Screenshot of Hull City Council's Budget Simulator 2015/16

Using Budget Simulator gave residents an insight to the extent of the work that the local authority does and how their own lives are affected by the council. Overall, we found that those who visited the site fell into two broad categories:

  1. those who couldn’t make the budget balance, no matter how hard they tried
  2. those who balanced the budget but only by cutting services that they valued but felt were of less importance than others

The former tended to comment on how hard it was, and how impossible they found it to make some of those decisions.

The latter also commented on the difficulty of the decisions that had to be made, and in the main, felt that we should increase our income where we could. Many comments suggested an increase in Council Tax charges, which came as a surprise.

A resident expressed the view of many:

“I can’t do this. I don’t know where you might make economies from the information given. My heart aches for the decisions the government is forcing you to make.”

A number of comments simply wished us luck.

We promoted the consultation using Budget Simulator through a variety of channels, as part of the “Value Hull” campaign, asking residents to take the “Budget challenge”. Hull City Council has a resident panel, The People’s Panel, which consists of around 3,500 local people whom we regularly contact for research and consultation. All members of the Panel received information about the Budget Challenge.

The Value Hull campaign used street advertising, local newspaper and radio items, as well as events with members of our local voluntary and community sector. Through our network of public access PCs at customer service centres and libraries, we used pop-ups to encourage residents to complete the challenge. As part of this campaign, we also created a video detailing the work the Council does, which we ran alongside Budget Simulator. We ran banners on our website, with links through to the Simulator, and also made extensive use of social media.

Screenshot of Hull City Council's 'Value Hull Challenge' video

We had about 4,000 visitors to the site, and about 10% of those managed to complete the exercise and submit their budget. We got some rather shocked comments from visitors who had not appreciated the extent of cuts, or the extent of council services and how they would be affected.

Having already completed other research and consultation to help us make these decisions, this exercise helped to confirm that our direction of travel was the one that our residents felt was right. There were a number of key themes that emerged, which will be used to inform further decision-making. One we have already mentioned is the suggestion that we increase Council Tax charges. Others that we had not expected included:

  • residents taking more responsibility, for themselves and for their city, particularly around things like littering and waste recycling
  • the acceptance of “must-have services” versus “nice-to-have services”
    some proposed cuts, such as to library or leisure services, have often met with quite vocal opposition. However, using the Simulator showed residents some of the stark choices involved. This increased appreciation allowed residents to understand that, really, there was often no choice

Screenshot of the introduction to Hull City Council's Budget Simulator

Hull City Council is generally good at reaching a demographically representative sample, and this exercise was no exception. In Hull, a reasonably high proportion of residents do not access the internet regularly and of course, Budget Simulator is an online tool. We overcame this through the provision of free internet access to residents across the city, via libraries and customer service centres, so we were able to enable those residents to participate.

The analytics tools gave us some real insight into the types of devices that local people use when they access the internet. We have used some of this information to look at ways that we can redesign some of our ongoing research and consultation activity to work with a variety of devices, so it has been really useful.

We found Delib really easy to work with. They are great fun, and really laid back and they can’t do enough to help. They are clearly very good at their job, and each person we dealt with knew their onions, undoubtedly. They were able to answer our questions (of which we had many) and someone was always available to us when we needed it, especially in the stressful run up to our Budget Simulator going live. We won’t hesitate to work with them again.

Hull City Council Chief Executive Matt Jukes said:

“The use of Delib’s Budget Simulator as a part of our budget setting engagement work has been extremely useful.  It has helped us to engage and involve our residents in a very complex and difficult process.  The comments that we got back from residents show that those who participated got a real insight into the decision-making process that touches so many people’s lives.”

For our part, it’s always great to hear of more Councils and citizens finding Budget Simulator a valuable exercise. Any time it helps bridge the gap between decision-makers and people affected by those decisions, Budget Simulator is doing what we made it for. Of course, Hull City Council are just one example among many public organisations facing challenging budget cuts and accordingly difficult spending decisions. We hope Budget Simulator can at least help people to understand and be involved in these choices, even when they seem impossibly hard.