Tag Archives: consultation software

We’ve some important work going on behind the scenes….

Over the past couple of months we’ve been focusing our development efforts on improving our hosting and associated product environment via an appropriately titled ‘production infrastructure sprint’.

Although this doesn’t sound as exciting as adding features to our products, it’s a vital part of Delib’s service to our customers, as it helps to ensure that we continue to meet our uptime and performance commitments.  Here’s a little overview of what we’ve been up to.

Photo of our sprint calendar

What we’ve been doing

Up until recently we hosted all our customer instances on large multi-tenancy servers. ‘Multi-tenancy’ means that several Delib customer sites run side-by-side on the same machines, although all their data is stored in separate databases.  These servers live in secure data centres, physically located in the same territory as the customers they serve.  The data centres are responsible for providing Internet connectivity for the production servers.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been moving customers slowly and carefully in batches from our current hosting providers to new providers who can better meet our service and uptime requirements.

Why we’re changing our hosting infrastructure

The reasons for migrating to new hosting providers are threefold:

1. Improvements in availability

In the UK, we are moving all our hosting to Rackspace, the market leader in cloud hosting, which offers a 100% uptime guarantee.  Since our uptime is necessarily bounded by that of our upstream providers, it’s important to use the best that we can get.  We are researching the best providers in other territories, to ensure that we continue to meet and exceed our commitments for all our customers.

We use a server monitoring service that notifies our account managers and developers by text message whenever a customer’s instance is unavailable for any reason (even if it’s in the middle of the night) so we’re all keen to ensure that these improvements pay off as soon as possible!

2. More hosting options for customers

After migration, every Citizen Space and Budget Simulator instance will live on its own virtual machine.  This allows us to offer different hosting packages for different usage patterns: we can now tailor the system specification (RAM, disk space, number of processors) to the requirements of the customer.  Furthermore, large spikes in one customer’s traffic can no longer adversely affect the response times of other customers’ sites.

Dialogue App instances will continue to run on a multi-tenancy setup by default.  However, customers with heavy usage requirements (eg large, heavily-publicised national dialogues), will have the option to host their Dialogue App instance on its own machine.

3. Consistent configurations and automation

As our number of customers grows, our developers have been spending more and more time engaged in administrative tasks such as rolling out new instances and upgrading existing customers.  While this is vital to the business and to our customers, developers would much prefer to spend their time developing new features and fixing bugs in the products.

At the same time as moving customers to the new hosting infrastructure, we’ve been improving our suite of developer tools so that more of the day-to-day tasks can be done without developer intervention.

For our customers, this means that planned maintenance should soon be able to take place, as far as possible, outside working hours.  It also means that developers will have more time to spend on improving our products, resulting in a better user experience for our customers and end users.

Find out more

If you are interested in finding out more about the improvements we are making please feel free to get in touch with either Louise or Rowena.

Sitting in on Defra consultation training – part two: things I learnt about running a training session

Policy officers are regularly on the move in central government. This presents a challenge for effective consultation, as their knowledge and skills travel with them. In order to begin sharing the skills for great consultations, Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) piloted their first workshop on ‘consultation procedures and principles’ with colleagues.  What can other central government departments learn from running a session like this?

Defra consultation event pic

1) Establish your processes before the session and stick to them

Often, consultation processes can be improved ‘on the fly’, which is great for group input, but it can be confusing to have frameworks and guidelines ‘designed by committee’. A good idea is to have the current procedures used by your department fully documented and readily available. It’s useful to have a consultation lead, who can advise on queries and help clarify any uncertainties. As an example, during the Defra session, the current processes were included as handouts.

2) Don’t be afraid to use examples

Looking back at examples of what has gone well and badly can help colleagues learn how to consult effectively. During the session, one attendee cited an example of running a consultation for four weeks over the summer period – this was pulled before the House of Lords as it was felt four weeks wasn’t a long enough consultation period for the particular issue. Sharing this kind of information about potential hurdles could save colleagues from spending time and effort repeating mistakes.

3) Lay all of your tools on the table

Many departments have lots of ‘tools in their toolbox’, ranging from software applications to the personal skills of the team. Look at what you have at your disposal and combine these to produce the most effective consultation. A mixture of both on and offline tools can help you to reach a wider audience. During the session, it was decided that events such as ministerial road shows are part of your consultation toolkit and with the right planning can lead to great results.

4) Get a facilitator to help run the workshop and continually improve it

When you are close to an issue, it can sometimes be hard to run the session from an objective point of view. Getting an external company in can help you to present the bigger picture. Having run a variety of consultation training sessions, one of the most useful things is getting objective feedback and coming back with ideas for additions or tweaks to improve the day.

5) Ensure the next steps are clear

Once the session has finished, it’s important to ensure colleagues know where they can access help from then on. Get all your guidance, tips and tricks in one place – your organisation’s intranet is a good one. Then you need to let everyone know where it is and how to use it.

As policies increasingly span multiple departments, it would be great to see an increased sharing of best practice and acknowledgement of learnings and failures in consultation across government. In an ideal world, amassing a small army of consultation champions (perhaps as one part of a related role – social researcher, analyst, policy or digital lead?) who represent the key teams in their department and could then be linked up pan-governmentally to share ideas and best practice would be fantastic.

With that in mind, we’re putting together Citizen Space user group meetings so that our users can share best practice and stories amongst one another – if you’d like to know more about any coming up, please ask your friendly Delib account manager!

Can the future of investment in science research be solved via a live discussion?

The UK Science Minister David Willetts will today discuss how the government should invest the £5.9bn it has committed to spend on research infrastructure over the next five years.

Obviously, this is a big topic – and a big opportunity for public engagement. As scientist Steven Curry noted on Friday,

“Plain speaking between the public and scientific communities has never been more important, so the BIS consultation on government investment in UK research is an opportunity worth seizing”

And, interestingly, part of this ‘plain speaking’ conversation will be taking place via a live online discussion hosted by Guardian Science.

This throws something a little different into the consultation mix. Is it an approach that could be useful for others to learn from?

Minority report 600
Source: BIS https://bisgovuk.citizenspace.com/digital/consultation-on-proposals-for-long-term-capital-in/consult_view

The exercise’s full title is ‘on proposals for long-term capital investment in science and research’. BIS are running the official consultation using Citizen Space (our online consultation tool) and it currently runs to 12 questions. Clearly, this is a fairly involved and complex discussion.

The challenge of complex consultations

As anyone who has consulted on a matter of expert interest will know, it’s not easy to engage a wider audience so they can make an informed response. The BIS consultation is faced with exactly this issue: they’ve endeavored to make the consultation document accessible and readable but it is, by nature, inevitably pretty technical. This could be where the Guardian live debate comes in: a more in-person exchange, chaired by an expert panel, potentially giving users another way into the material.

This example of combining a comprehensive online survey with a live debate highlights the importance of broadening out the conversation around and beyond the consultation itself. Although running a successful live discussion as part of a broader engagement exercise can have challenges of its own (there are several useful blogs on engaging your audience with live discussions), in the context of this BIS consultation there are some key benefits.

Some benefits of pre-consultation discussion

  • Using multiple channels in the same medium can grow the number of respondents. As the consultation is being conducted online, it’s smart to reach out to other sizeable online audiences (e.g. the Guardian online readership).
  • Timing is important (broadly). The consultation itself is already open so attendees can review the questions at hand before taking part in the discussion.
  • Timing is important (specifically). The Guardian are backing this with a live discussion over the lunchtime period (12-2pm) which will allow a broader range of attendees to take part.
  • Build momentum. In this case, BIS are successfully providing information in advance. For example, The Guardian are providing a series of blogs around the issues prior to the event.

We think that more citizens, better informed and more able to participate in decision-making, can only be a good thing. We hope that this effort from BIS and the Guardian science blog network really does get more people involved in this consultation and connect with the decision-making process.

To centralise or de-centralise? How Citizen Space supports both methods of working

Examining how software can compliment, aid and add value to existing processes is a keen interest of mine. Our customers often ask how Citizen Space can be used to aid their workflow, or can be set-up in such a way to help manage approval processes. It may sound a little geeky, but I love hearing about when Citizen Space has made an organisations’ life a little easier.

We are regularly asked how other organisations choose to adopt Citizen Space internally and, broadly speaking, there are two methods of adoption – the centralised model or a de-centralised way of working.

How Citizen Space can be used to compliment a de-centralised method of working

The whole idea of this method is that policy teams are closer to the issues being consulted on. They can analyse and use information garnered through consultation to help inform the policies they are currently working on. In short, respondents’ answers will come through to those who really know the issues at hand.

Using Citizen Space in a de-centralised manner in practice, essentially involves rolling out the system across the whole organisation. This means utilising the systems’ robust user structure to set-up site admins (normally one or two) who take control of the overall set-up and ‘lead’ on the app. Department admins can then ‘advocate’ and check consultation quality standards within their team, whilst working with individual admins to run consultations. The following features can be used to help manage such a method of working in practice:

Both London Borough of Sutton and London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham effectively utilise this method of working. LBHF also effectively run internal training on a regular basis.

How Citizen Space can be used to compliment a centralised method of working

  • Set up one or two site admins who have control over all consultations. This approach helps ensure there is an organisational overview of all consultation activity.
  • All consultations are built by one or two individuals within a small team who know the system the best, the aim here is to maintain a consistent quality approach.
  • Calendars can be closely managed, reducing the risk of survey fatigue to the public. Consultations can be created and templated by this central team before being copied across between departments using our newly released survey cloning feature.
  • Reporting on outcomes can be fully standardised and sent for action within the appropriate team.

Transport for London build their Citizen Space consultations within a core team and these are signed off by two key users who have established a consultation centre of excellence. Rochdale Borough Council also centrally manage their Citizen Space instance within their research team, meaning their analysis experts are part of the survey build, as well as assessing the consultation outcomes.

Choosing which method works for you, or indeed benefiting from both models of working, will of course depend on how your organisation is structured and what suits the skills within it. There certainly isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ approach here and many of our customers benefit from a mixture of both methods, adapting these as their use of Citizen Space evolves. Our aim is for all of our customers to become ‘consultation centres of excellence’, so if you would like to discuss these methods of working or other ways we can help you, please contact your account manager as we’d love to chat.

How to run an effective Dialogue App with some help from the Forestry Commission

Forestry Commission England has successfully used its Dialogue App to consult with stakeholders on a diverse range of topics. Here we look at the discussion held about Friston Forest to gather ideas and comments about the way bike trails are accommodated within the forest. Here are some top tips from the Friston team’s experience;

Keep the information online and in one place

Before using Dialogue App, Forestry Commission England would promote consultations via a poster and email address, with drop-in sessions being held for any significant consultations. Being able to move this process online has enabled Forestry Commission England to create a single information source which can be boxed off and heralded as a primarily web-based activity. Furthermore, the discussion – including most importantly the key outcomes- can be accessed and referenced by any stakeholder, as and when needed.

Screen Shot 2014-04-08 at 15.45.33Establish a process and promote it

In terms of promotion, stakeholders were directed to a single overview page on Forestry Commission England’s main site, with all key content for the discussion and the consultation process held on this page; http://www.forestry.gov.uk/fristonforest. Additional promotional materials, including posters and press service, were provided for key stakeholders to review prior to being published, ensuring they were consulted on the key text before going to print. Once up and running, the Friston Forest discussion team continually reviewed how the Dialogue App was being promoted, often considering what more they could be doing to further involvement.

To ensure the full consultation process was clear from the outset for key internal staff, the project team created a timeline for the discussions in the form of a Gantt chart. By running a discussion for a set 5 week period, key promotional activity and staff involvement could be planned for in advance.

Take moderation seriously

Moderation is a key part of any successful Dialogue App discussion. With clear content and expectations given to users from the beginning, the Friston Forest team only needed to act 3-4 times on inappropriate comments. In total, 43 ideas and 213 comments were contributed from 71 individual user accounts. In order to anticipate a higher volume of ideas flowing through, 5 of the team took it in turns to be the key moderator on the Dialogue App for a week each – all moderating under a consistent name on behalf of Forestry Commission England. Update meetings on a weekly basis gave moderators the chance to hand over to each other, ensuring they were moderating consistently.

Think about your outcomes and then shout about what you’ve achieved

As an organisation responsible for multiple sites and infrastructure across the country, Forestry Commission England are hoping to continue using their Dialogue App as a key consultation tool to help decide how to sustainably manage other sites. Key outcomes from these discussions can then be added to the discussion overview page to ensure stakeholders have a hub for discussion outcomes and feedback.

Share what you’ve learnt with colleagues running the next discussion

One of the key project managers involved in the Friston Forest discussion also took an advisory role for another successful discussion, which sourced ideas on how dogs could be better managed in Jeskyns Community Woodland to ensure everyone can continue to enjoy the space.

Working across two discussions enabled this lead to share key learnings for both teams. Both discussions had, for example, two key milestones – one in the middle and one at the end, with natural highs and lows in activity. Another key learning was to involve the policy officer (who would be in charge of implementing the decision) in the community moderation; this gives them the chance to comment and feed back directly on users’ ideas and comments in a manner which acknowledges them, and also identifies how they will be acted upon.

Delib holds local democracy event in partnership with the Democratic Society

This morning the Delib team, in partnership with the Democratic Society had the pleasure of welcoming a number of local individuals to Delib HQ for a unique opportunity to discuss democracy in Bristol, share past projects and explore the potential for future partnership working.

Delib event

While the group were able to ask questions and link to their experience, key attendees shared overviews of their background, favourite projects and goals for the future landscape of democracy in Bristol.

The group then discussed some of the key trends and challenges seen in the city over the last 18 months or so, with the view of identifying where networks could be bridged and new projects devised. Some key trends emerged from our discussions today;

Increasingly innovative engagement projects have been happening for years and successes should be shared

Sammy Payne from Knowle West Media Centre told us about the recent ‘Cardboard Living Room’ art exhibition, which explored innovative ways of collecting and representing data. The exhibit saw 100s of residents having fun engaging with local issues by interacting with 3D cardboard furniture connected to computers which logged their responses to survey questions. Paul Hassan from Ujima radio spoke about a recent project challenging local youth volunteers from Ujima to work in partnership with Bristol University and local politicians to curate a radio program. The project required volunteers to brush up on their knowledge of local politics and follow the mayoral election train whilst engaging their preconceptions and views around voting.

Delib event 3
Neighbor.ly discuss what they are about

Citizens are no longer just consumers, they are also producers

With the rise of crowdfunding and pledge sites, it is perhaps more possible than ever to take an existing partnership or community group and realistically garner funding to get that project off the ground without any Government involvement. In Bristol for example, partly thanks to the site Spacehive, Bristol will be showcasing their first ‘park and slide‘ through the use of a giant waterslide through the center of town.

Cities like Bristol have the opportunity to strive ahead in their own right

As European Green Capital of the year 2015, Bristol is at the forefront of European activity. Bristol City Council who were also in attendance, recently worked in partnership with Bristol’s mayor George Ferguson to run the citys’ first ideas lab through their Dialogue App. If you would like to find out more, we’ve just published this awesome guide on how to run an effective Ideas Lab.

There is an opportunity to bridge networks, the challenge just remains how

There are still some key challenges to address, namely how each of these projects can be effectively linked up via the bridging of networks. It is also worth considering how such a varied skills base can be more effectively utilised collectively perhaps via the use of a skills bank for example. The opportunities available in the next few years have only just begun, needless to say these are exciting times ahead.

Many thanks to the Democratic Society for coming all the way from their native Brighton to attend and present at the event and for Ben, Lorna and Jayne for organising.