Now is the time for government to embrace online Dialogue

There are moments when it’s just ‘the right time’ to do something. Sunny afternoon in Bristol? Ice cream ahoy. Zombies inbound? Better head to The Winchester, have a nice cold pint and wait for it all to blow over. Woken up in 1976 with £100 in your pocket? Apple shares, here we come.

Today, we’re launching our new Dialogue – the third of our public engagement products, alongside Budget Simulator & Citizen Space. With Dialogue, you set a challenge and then let participants submit their responses publicly: everyone can read, rate and comment on each other’s proposals. It’s a great way to generate discussion and actionable ideas. And we think now is one of those ‘right time’ moments for a tool like this.

Why? Because there’s a growing demand for a different kind of interaction when it comes to how organisations connect with the public on decisions that affect them. That demand comes in part from the public but, crucially, we’re also hearing it from our customers: government organisations themselves.

A different kind of interaction

We have lots of conversations with our current and prospective customers – especially consultation and involvement staff working in local or national government in the UK, US and Australia. It’s invaluable because that’s where we hear from the people at the coalface. They can tell us what will genuinely help their organisations to better connect with the public. And we’re frequently hearing that, in addition to existing activity, there’s a real interest in being able to layer in the different approach to participation that Dialogue affords – in particular because:

It’s open

Dialogue is an open process. It’s as much about participants talking to each other as talking to you as an organisation. Ideas, comments and ratings are submitted publicly, allowing people to respond and discuss amongst themselves. While of course all submissions can be moderated as appropriate, the point is there’s a different dynamic at work compared to, say, a survey where responses are submitted ‘behind closed doors’. Dialogue is a multi-way conversation, not a one-way consultation. It can be a great way to show transparency in your public interaction, to spark different kinds of responses or to refine and react to ideas throughout the process.

It’s structured

Dialogue is also a structured process. It’s not just a shapeless ‘talking shop’. It provides a format and a focus for discussion, designed to generate productive engagement. When you run a Dialogue, you set a specific ‘challenge’ – like ‘what can we do to improve the quality of parks in the area?’, or ‘how would you spend a £1m community fund?’ Participants then submit ideas in response. People can rate and comment on these ideas, bubbling the best to the top. This keeps the conversation open, within parameters that guide it towards useful outcomes. With Dialogue, you’re getting a method as well as a technical platform for public involvement.

It’s ‘intimate’

No sniggering at the back, there. One part of Dialogue’s appeal is that it changes the dynamic between the decision-making body and the people affected by that decision. Where surveys and questionnaires might feel more formal and focused on individual responses, Dialogue provides a space for you to be ‘in the room’ with a group of people who want to have their say about something that’s important to them – and to them collectively, not just as isolated individuals. It gives you the opportunity to feed back on ideas and comments as they come up, to react to different directions in the discussion that you might not have anticipated, and to engage more conversationally with the community.

Of course, it’s not an either-or between Dialogue, surveys, simulators or any other kind of public interaction. As always, it’s a case of choosing the appropriate methodology (or mix of methodologies) for a given engagement exercise. And we think Dialogue provides an important, different approach to add into the mix.

Why this is increasingly in demand

Partly, this is the natural development of online engagement generally. It’s now pretty much a given for most organisations that they should make consultations available digitally. As that becomes more and more part of the everyday business of government, it’s to be expected that there’s an increased interest in more, different and more tailored options for implementation.

But there also seem to be some wider factors that are changing the general climate (particularly in the UK) of public engagement at the moment – certain trends in how governments are choosing (or having) to operate, which are growing the demand for the different approach you get with Dialogue. These include, for example:

The devolution agenda – from the political (and social media) frenzy of the Scottish #indyref to the recent Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill, there’s a growing appetite for a certain decentralisation of power – a sense that more decisions should have more of a local dimension to them. This makes it even more important that governing organisations have engaging, appropriate means of connecting with their constituents and citizens. Dialogue can be a great way for organisations to keep a conversation open with the communities they work with – not least because there’s no limit on the number of challenges you can run, meaning you can open up online conversations on everything from a 5 year national strategic plan to which keep-fit classes to offer at the local gym.

Major, austerity-driven service change – as finances get ever-tighter and organisations are forced to find significant cuts to their budgets, there are inevitably more difficult and contentious decisions to be made. With such divisive issues having to be tabled (and with public cynicism often running high) it’s understandable that government bodies want to find ways to genuinely bring citizens into the conversation and make them feel part of the process of navigating incredibly hard choices. Lots of people seem keen on Dialogue because it will allow them to have a form of online public engagement that feels human, inclusive and productive (where sometimes there is a risk of appearing clinical, aloof or tokenistic). We’ve seen that participants genuinely appreciate the way in which Dialogue lets them get involved in solving challenges that affect them.

The rise of community planning, participatory budgeting etc – lots of government organisations are running more processes that put decisions more directly in the hands of the communities they affect. Things like community planning, neighbourhood forums and participatory budgeting are increasingly common. Dialogue is ideally structured for this kind of direct public decision-making. In fact, it’s already been used to gather ideas for a participatory budgeting exercise, to administer a £1.8m community fund and to provide an online component to neighbourhood forums. These methods are becoming more widely adopted, and it’s vital that they can be accessed digitally as well.

From our conversations with people working in government, it certainly feels like layering in new, different methods for online public engagement like this, alongside well-established surveys and consultations, is the current direction of travel. We hope that Dialogue can be another way in which we make it easy for government organisations to involve citizens in decision making. To that end, we want your feedback on it, too…

Find out more

We’ve literally just launched the new Dialogue today. You can have a bit of a poke round the demo site at http://demo.dialogue-app.com/

We hope you like Dialogue as much as we do, and we look forward to having lots of examples of it in action in the near future. Watch this space!