How we’re working to build better digital consultation: the road to Citizen Space v3

Towards the end of 2015, we were excited to tell you about Citizen Space v2.

(For those who don’t know, Citizen Space is our all-in-one-place tool for online participation. Governments and other public bodies use it to manage and run their digital consultation activity.)

Now, usually, we work by making lots of small, iterative improvements to the product: we upgrade customers to new versions regularly, and we aim to get 6 updates out every year. But it’s been ~6 months since we sent a release announcement. So what gives?

Our plan of continuously improving the product certainly hasn’t changed. The reason we’ve not shipped a minor release recently is in fact because we’ve been busy working on a major new version instead: Citizen Space v3.

v3 will be a sizeable refresh of how Citizen Space is presented. It’s responsive, it’s even more customisable and it will make your consultations look gooooood.

We’re in the midst of v3 development right now. It’s a big piece of work (Citizen Space is a large product, used by myriad public sector organisations and hundreds of thousands of citizens.)

Here are 3 headlines about the way in which we’re approaching the task:

1. Carefully!

These days, Citizen Space has 100+ customers, 5,000+ admin users, 10,000+ consultations and has processed more than a million responses. That means that any change we make to the product is a significant one, with potentially wide-reaching ramifications.

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That’s a lot of important material that we need to make sure we handle appropriately. It’s a lot of people’s jobs that can be made significantly easier if we get it right (or more of a hassle if we don’t!) And it’s a lot of opportunities to for people to get involved in decisions that affect them – which we always want to make as easy as possible.

We’re very conscious of the importance of these things, so we’re making sure that our development affords them due respect. We continue to use an agile/lean approach – but we’re also taking a lot of care about the details of how migration from v2 to v3 will work before we deploy anything.

One quick example: we’ve identified a few customers to be v3 early adopters (in consultation with them, of course!) We’ll move them on to v3 as soon as it’s ready and get their feedback on the experience. This will help us make sure the system and the process of transition are as good as they can be, in preparation for upgrading all of our customers worldwide.

2. Based on user needs – for citizens

Citizen Space has always been about making it ever-easier for citizens to participate in governance – to get involved in the decisions that affect them.

With v3, we’re especially animated about accessibility – in the broadest sense of the word. So, yes, we’re continuing to emphasise compliance with W3C guidelines to make sure, for instance, people with visual impairments find it easy to take part in consultations.

But we’re also making it incredibly smooth and simple to use Citizen Space on a smartphone or tablet – because it’s important that mobile users find it easy to take part in consultations. If there’s a correlation between your socio-economic group and the likelihood of accessing the internet via phone rather than desktop or laptop, that makes the mobile user experience an accessibility issue. Being able to give your feedback on transport services while you’re sat on the bus is an accessibility issue.

And we’re looking at things like readability, layout and use of imagery – not just because we want Citizen Space to be ‘shiny’, but because that’s an accessibility issue, too. We don’t want people to be excluded from taking part in a consultation because they literally find it hard to read the information.

One quick example: we’re spending a lot of time researching and experimenting with line lengths and typeface size. Seriously: if we can make it even 5% easier to read a consultation overview, that’s one more barrier to participation lowered, and that’s got to be a good thing.

3. Based on user needs – for public sector staff

Some digital democracy initiatives seem to think the opportunity the internet offers is to overthrow, bypass or otherwise counter government. But we’re convinced that the way to improved governance and better democracy is to work with the public sector – to better enable decision-makers to do their job well. That’s where real, substantive change happens.

In our experience, civil servants and public sector staff are invariably passionate about hearing from the public. They want to listen well and to make good decisions, informed by the people they affect. The more that can be done to enable that, the more it will happen. That’s why we always want to make sure our tools work for those working in the public sector as well as the public themselves.

With v3, we’re talking a lot about helping our customers to be excellent at their jobs. That means everything from a public-facing design that will make all sorts of surveys look beautiful to training guides and support articles that will help staff build their digital consultation skills.

One quick example: we’ve been talking a lot with customers (for instance, at our user groups) about options they’d like to see, and we’re bringing in even more customisable content and admin-controllable settings so that organisations can really make Citizen Space ‘their own’. Again, if we can make it even 5% easier to get internal buy-in on running more public consultations, it’s another big win for increased participation.

You can expect to hear more about Citizen Space v3 in the next couple of months as we move towards roll-out (all our current customers will be upgraded for free, as ever) – both in terms of what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.

And if you’re not currently using Citizen Space and would like to see it in action, you can always have a browse of the 7,700+ consultations on Aggregator or get in touch to book a demo.