Tag Archives: digital democracy

‘Digital democracy in practice’ – seminar/Q&A with Exeter University students

One of the best parts of my role as an account manager is to get out of the office and spread the word about digital democracy. Last week, I was fortunate enough to return to my old stomping ground – Exeter University, in south west England – and give a talk to third year politics students. (The third year module on ‘civic engagement’ makes reference to online tools generally and Delib specifically.)  It was a real delight to be there for the afternoon. I just wish the module had existed when I was at uni!

Whilst writing my presentation on ‘digital democracy in practice’, I was also able to reflect back on the changes in online consultation and digital in government from 2011 to now. I chose the end of 2010/start of 2011 as a starting point, as this is when Martha Lane Fox’s influential report on the revolution not evolution of directgov came out – a report which marked a bit of a sea change and the beginnings of gov.uk. This was also a useful reflection point for me as I started working at Delib a few months later!

One of the key changes I have seen since 2011 is a shift from one-off ‘singular (project-based) democracy’ which costs government thousands of pounds in websites/one-off builds towards more ‘continuous democracy’ in 2017.  Government departments can now consult more regularly using low cost online tools. The result: more cost-effective solutions for citizens and improved transparency.

The second key shift I have witnessed is a more deep-rooted cultural change in working practices. Government departments are increasingly adopting more agile, lean and collaborative ways of working. Scenes that you see posted on gov.uk’s blog simply wouldn’t have existed in 2010.

Source: gds.blog.gov.uk

During the session, we reviewed some of the key grounding principles, focusing on the Gunning and consultation principles before applying these to real customer examples and teasing out some of the key challenges government departments face. I then opened up the session to questions. Here’s a flavour of the topics which came up from the students and an idea of how I answered them:

+ How does digital democracy help open up the conversation beyond ‘the usual suspects?’

Digital democracy can help open up the conversation to a broader range of participants by providing a different medium through which to conduct those conversations. Customers have indicated that using digital tools has enabled them to reach a broader audience group, which is fantastic. That said, if you are consulting a niche group on a specific topic, you may find that some of the ‘usual suspects’ still turn up, but who’s to say that they will be the only ones there contributing to the discussion?

+ How can social media help these conversations and government departments in 2017?

Social media can both promote and dilute the conversation you are hoping to have in my experience. If you start a conversation on one social media platform or digital engagement tool and it spreads across other platforms, sometimes the conversation can become disparate. It may also become difficult to analyse if there is no obvious flow or output from the discussions taking place.  When used well, however, social media can be a great opportunity to get into spaces where these conversations are already happening or to open up participation to individuals interested people/groups.

In order to use social media effectively, civil servants need to be equipped with the right community management skills. Luckily, there are an increasing number of short, free courses opening up such as this one from Future Learn on using data from social media platforms to understand public conversations. I’m hoping to check the course out to help with the guidance we give our customers.

+ Are these methods inclusive or do they often exclude certain generations?

This topic also came up at a conference I recently attended called NotWestminster as we were working with a case study which featured retired users. It was interesting how quickly some of the group jumped to assumptions. I wouldn’t say that digital democracy excludes certain generations and the idea that the older generation not necessarily having strong digital skills isn’t always true. Often the blocker is confidence in digital which isn’t necessarily age-based. Where there are gaps (sometimes referred to as ‘the digital divide’), the UK government often looks to address them – for example, via setting up departments within GDS, such as the assisted digital team.

+ Do you find that government departments look at the cost-benefit analysis of running online consultation?

Some government departments that we work with are starting to drill into more of the details and nuances in this area, which is great to see. For example, we heard from BEIS at our 2016 London user group about working with statistics and conversion rates from gov.uk (they got from a 3% conversion rate to an impressive 25% by studying what worked well). BEIS are really hot on their analytics at the moment and I’m excited to see what they are going to do next.

+ Do you have plans to expand outside of English speaking territories?

Our current goal is to continue our expansion within English speaking territories. But it would be great to work in more countries around the world one day! Our main blocker to this is being able to translate all 3 applications (though it is something we’re looking at). Government structures are fairly similar in the countries where we work at the moment, but expanding to new countries always means learning more about the particularities of their context.

+ Where’s next for deliberative discussion?

So what will the next 5+ years hold? Well, the biggest challenges I see are around standardisation and sharing of best practice. This is perhaps not new or unique to online consultation but does hold one of the biggest opportunities in my opinion. Jodie Lamb, a Communication and Stakeholder Engagement professional recently posted about what she had learnt whilst working in New Zealand. Sharing best practice or having ‘hands across the ocean’ is key. If something has already been trialled in the UK and failed, then let’s ensure that digital teams in Australia and NZ learn from this. There are also some really exciting projects and learning opportunities coming out from countries like Iceland, Brazil and Estonia. Sharing best practice is key.

The future of government and effective online consultation lies in the hands of the next generation of digital leaders. Learning that modules like this one on civic engagement exist is really exciting. I’m hoping that this talk will pave the way to other opportunities to talk to young digital leaders in the future.

10 things we wish you had been there to hear at our 2016 Scottish user group

We kicked off our 2016 user groups in fine style up in Edinburgh this week. This one was hosted in collaboration with the Scottish Government, and the day was particularly exciting as it included our very first Dialogue user group in the afternoon.  The user groups are a regular opportunity for customers to catch up, to see how others in similar roles are using their platforms to manage their online consultation and engagement activity, and hopefully to pick up some interesting tips and insights.

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So, for the benefit of those who weren’t at the event, we’ve a quick round-up of 10 things we wish you could’ve been there to hear. Without further ado:

1. Timing is key

This is particularly pertinent as many of our UK customers are currently in purdah (pre-election period), so are not able to begin new consultations and would have needed to time their engagement activity carefully before this period began.

The key is ensuring consultation or challenge launch, promotion and feedback are timed correctly as this can impact on the success of the exercise. This might include timing promotion throughout the consultation period and not just at the start and end. Or when it comes to Dialogue, giving a challenge a specific window of time to run, as this can encourage participation:

“Dialogue has to be alive, the shorter a challenge is open the better”

Christine Connolly , Digital Engagement Manager, The Scottish Government

Our Dialogue Success Guide has a few tips on structuring when you run your challenges.

2. Using Dialogue for Participatory Budgeting (PB) can help generate ideas which may otherwise have not been heard

At the beginning of 2016, Glasgow City Council used their Dialogue instance  to consult on how they should save £130m in their budget consultation. In order to consult with as many stakeholders as possible, Glasgow ran their budget challenge at the same time as three associated events. What was immediately clear, was that the ideas generated at the events were different to those which had been received online. This helped ensure that views were heard from stakeholders who might not have otherwise provided their thoughts on the topic.

3. Processes are made for sharing

One of the most useful outputs of our user groups is hearing how our users create processes around their tools which can then be shared with other organisations. In our first UK user group in 2014, we heard how Leicester City Council had implemented a consultation tracker to manage their consultation activity – an idea for an effective process which came up again during our Scottish user group. If a consultation wasn’t listed on the tracker by a certain date it, then it wouldn’t be published on Citizen Space: this helped Leicester CC to ensure consistency in approach by giving them enough time to create quality consultations.

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Image source: Leicester City Council

4. Review and improve little and often

Both Edinburgh City Council and the Scottish Government are not only reviewing their processes internally, but are also asking their respondents to feedback to them on how they have found the consultation. They do this by asking a standard question at the end of all surveys, meaning it’s possible for them to track satisfaction levels and to review their approach to online consultation.

5. Making the most of the Citizen Space support page can really help internal processes

One of our digital heroes, Emma McEwan presented how Edinburgh City Council have adopted their Citizen Space in the last couple of years. Following the launch of Citizen Space version 2 last year, Edinburgh were able to add in a support page to their instance detailing how to get support with online consultation from inside the council, and also sharing an issues log of what questions or queries had been raised and the associated answers.

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6. Make the most of the digital toolbox already availableScreen Shot 2016-04-28 at 10.31.29Making the most of existing digital tools can help compliment an engagement exercise. Glasgow City Council have one of the largest Twitter followings of any local authority in the UK. With this expertise, they decided to take a similar approach to running their budget challenge on Dialogue as they do on Twitter.

“We didn’t want to be too heavy-handed in our approach when it came to moderation. We really wanted to let the conversation flow as much as possible on Dialogue like we do on Twitter”

Gary Hurr, Strategic Web and Customer Care Manager, Glasgow City Council

In order to ensure that Glasgow City Council ran a well-promoted budgeting exercise, its chief executive hosted a Twitter Q&A and they published the outputs on their budget page. In order to feedback on the whole process, the council used Storify to display the Tweets received.

7. Don’t let anything slip through the net: supporting your users

Digital engagement includes a broad spectrum of responsibilities and knowledge learnt. Tools like Zendesk can help ensure this knowledge is recorded and shared in the right way and that your colleagues’ requests for your expert help don’t get lost in your overflowing inbox. At Delib, we use Zendesk to manage our online support and knowledge base of help articles. It’s a pretty big job to keep this updated, but an important one to support the thousands of people that use our software. The Government Digital Service (GDS, UK) has also been using Zendesk since 2012 and the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS, UK) also uses Zendesk to manage its digital ticketing work flow.

8. Make something you are proud to share and use plain English

This was a key message from most customers at the user group and one of Edinburgh City Council’s key learnings since adopting their Citizen Space instance in 2014. Making something you are proud to share goes hand in hand with giving yourself the time to pilot surveys. Often you will know when a big consultation is about to spring up, but the smaller ones can slip through the net without any quality assurance run against them to check whether they have been translated from policy speak to plain English.

9. Running internal meetings with colleagues can help share important messages about how you do online consultation

Another of the key questions which came out of the user group was around how to encourage different teams to begin doing online consultation (adopting a de-centralised approach) and to ensure the quality of consultations they are running is high. To help solve this, Edinburgh City Council run regular internal meetings with their Citizen Space ‘power users’ alongside their own internal user group twice a year to share information and best practice.

10. Decide early how you are going to analyse and feedback to respondents, but be open to adapting your planned approach

Before launching the budget challenge on their Dialogue instance, Edinburgh City Council decided that they would get back to the top five highest rated ideas as part of their feedback process. As it turned out, the top five which had the highest rated average vote didn’t fully capture other ideas which generated equally important discussions, so they responded to the top fifteen ideas: adapting their feedback criteria appropriately.

We hope you enjoyed the user group as much as we did and if you didn’t have time to attend don’t fret we’ll most certainly be holding more user groups in 2016 with London up next. In 2015, we ran no fewer than 5 user groups around the world: kicking off in Scotland and finishing in Australia.  Here’s a summary of the other user groups we ran around the world last year:

London: October 2015
Perth (Western Australia): October 2015
Canberra (ACT, Australia): October 2015

How our Citizen Space customers are consulting with cyclists

Thanks to our Citizen Space Aggregator, it’s possible to quickly identify who our Citizen Space customers are consulting with and on what topics. Among the many audiences our customers are increasingly seeking views from are cyclists.  Here’s a quick round-up of some of the ways they’re going about it:

Using illustrative visuals

Transport for London (TfL) are currently consulting on further improvements to lorry safety in London: a consultation which includes some excellent illustrative visuals. These images clearly depict the differences being proposed (namely, having lorries operating in London that are fitted with vision panels in passenger side doors for improved visibility of cyclists).

4 Lorry interior with panel_colour
Source: TfL ‘Further improving lorry safety in London’ consultation


Embedding videos explaining schemes

The London Borough of Enfield are using their Citizen Space instance to consult with residents on the fourth scheme of their ‘Cycle Enfield’ project, for which they recently secured £30m of funding from Transport for London. This funding is proposed to be used for new cycle routes, improving the use of existing routes, developing green ways, secure bike parking  and investing in local projects. All these proposals are clearly explained in the introductory video on the consultation overview page which respondents can watch before completing the consultation.

Consulting on strategic issues: new super routes

Camden Council are consulting on ‘Brunswick Square Walking and Cycling Improvements‘, a project which which aims to capitalise on proposals from nearby schemes which have identified Brunswick Square as an important intersection of east-west and north-south cycle movements. In order to clearly present the proposed changes, Camden Council have included side-by-side images of both current and future state for the square. This helps respondents re-imagine how cycling can become a key part of improvements.

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Running staged local consultations and associated events

Southwark Council are currently consulting on improvements to a number of quiet ways: a network of bike routes for less confident cyclists using mainly low-traffic back streets. The council are consulting 6 different areas of the borough in total; including running 4 different consultations concurrently. One of these examples is the ‘Elephant and Castle to Crystal Palace Quietway (QW7) Turney Road‘. In order to provide cyclists with the opportunity to comment, Southwark have also included a number of associated events which are running on a weekly basis in nearby schools and town halls. Both the events and associated consultations are linked from the consultation hub page:

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Transport for London are also holding a number of public events as part of their consultation on the new East-West cycle super highway from Paddington to Acton. Again these events are clearly displayed on the consultation home page.

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Use tables to detail proposed changes

Edinburgh City Council used tables on the consultation overview page of their ‘Roseburn to Leith walk cycle link and street improvements consultation‘ to present proposed changes in a clear format to respondents. By breaking down the changes by geographical area, cyclists can quickly see which changes apply to them.

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Consulting on ‘hyper-local’ issues: bike hangars

A small handful of our customers have also been consulting on ‘bike hangars’ recently: an example of ‘hyper-local’ consultation. For instance, both Camden Council and Southwark Council are consulting on where bike-hangars should be installed. Using images of how the bike hangars will look helps residents consider how they’d feel about them being installed in their own neighbourhood.

2014 09 17 LB Southwark - Hayles St - Bikehangar Installation -1- -2- blurred
Source: London Borough of Southwark

Lots of the examples above provide ideas for how to make the most of the consultation overview page. Here’s a handful of top tips for optimising your own cycling surveys:

Have you seen any great examples of methods to consult with cyclists online which we haven’t included above? We’re always interested in seeing how our customers are making the most of the tools at their disposal!

 

5 things I learnt from AU/NZ about online consultation & digital services in government

Australia, New Zealand and the UK are often considered among the world leaders when it comes to digital government/online public involvement. Having recently returned from a secondment to Australia and New Zealand, I wanted to reflect back on what we in the UK can learn from these markets and our customers there.

To set the scene quickly: let’s remind ourselves how far digital in government has progressed in all three countries. With digital increasingly recognised as a ‘given’ (even declared a basic human right in a recent UN report), all three countries have been taking online developments seriously in government – perhaps especially over the past 5 or 6 years:

Each of these countries are striving to make rapid advances in online government in their own different contexts. So what can the UK/what did I learn from Australia and New Zealand about digital government and online consultation? Here are 5 things that stuck with me from my trip:

  1. Make consultations even more informative
    One thing that struck me, even during my first week in Australia, was how genuinely informative our customers there make some of their formal consultations. The WA Health cancer care consultation, for example, which was showcased during our first Australian user group in Perth, uses infographics and a user-friendly layout throughout the consultation – so taking part is a real opportunity for respondents to learn about the issues as well as to give their feedback.
  2. Become more familiar with APIs and what they can do
    Our New Zealand customers have been some of the first to embrace full use of our Citizen Space API: an incredibly useful and flexible tool but one that’s not always well-known or well-understood. However, I found it possible to walk into meetings in Australia and New Zealand and for there to be an assumed understanding about APIs and their potential – demonstrating a level of technical awareness that’s great to see.
  3. Develop more of a culture of ‘doing first’
    In New Zealand in particular, I was struck by government employees’ appetite to ‘get stuck in’ and make things happen. That’s not to say there was no planning or strategy, which obviously are hugely valuable too. But I think sometimes in the UK we can err on the side of cautious preparation a little too much, and could do with ‘just launching in’ sometimes. The civil servants I met in Wellington were also incredibly pragmatic in their approach, often working on an iterative basis: ‘doing’ first and then quickly working out how to make improvements.
  4. Keep taking privacy and data security seriously
    I found lots of organisations in Australia are pretty stringent on protocol – which certainly has its benefits when it comes to security. In my training sessions there, people were already very aware of things like good practice for strong passwords – and instinctively tended towards general ‘safety-first’ behaviour, even if it was less convenient or not strictly necessary. This is no bad thing.
  5. Sometimes, being a bit more direct is a good thing
    One of the things I noticed whilst walking around Wellington were posters focusing on the conversation about improving the New Zealand family violence law: a campaign closely linked to a consultation which was recently run on their Citizen Space instance. The Australian government also led the way with the implementation of plain tobacco packaging, again taking a very direct tone and outreach strategy on the issue. Whilst the UK tendency might be towards more circumspect communications (perhaps to avoid being accused of taking a particular position), I certainly think there are times when a pretty bold, direct approach is a helpful way to drive public participation.

One of the key benefits of working for an international company like Delib with offices and customers around the world is that we can each learn new techniques or insights into how different countries operate their online involvement work. Often, we’ll look at our Citizen Space aggregator and find that two departments on opposite sides of the worlds are consulting on a similar issue. Things like this can provide fantastic opportunities to link up and share best practice, ideas and lessons learnt. Hopefully, that will only accelerate improvements to online interactions between citizens and government right around the world.

Introducing ENTSO-E: Delib’s first mainland European customer

ENTSO-E is the European Network of Transmission System Operators. They’re based in Brussels and also happen to be our first mainland European customer to use Citizen Space.

I hadn’t really gained an appreciation of the scale the organisation works at and the varied geographical levels they need to consult on until I recently spent a couple of days in Brussels running my first European training session. Representing a total of 41 electricity transmission system operators (TSOs) from 34 countries across Europe, ENTSO-E is tasked with implementing the long-term transition from national oriented electricity markets and technical systems towards an integrated European view.

Due to the technical nature of ENTSO-E tasks, their consultations have been primarily oriented towards close stakeholders since they were created in 2009. However, as ENTSO-E is growing and gaining experience, they aim to use Citizen Space as a part of their strategy to open up their activities beyond this historical group. They want to provider an easier way for other groups such as environmental or citizen organisations, and for European citizens, to directly comment on their activities.

 

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The organisation had an existing consultation process but it was fragmented across different systems and there was plenty of room for improvement. They chose Citizen Space to bring all of their consultation activity into one easy-to-manage system.

Previously, ENTSO-E had been using a cumbersome approach of SharePoint coupled with an Excel spreadsheet. As well as being difficult to administer, this process also often resulted in stakeholders sending an email through with their consultation response – making the submissions difficult to analyse. By adopting Citizen Space, they can now create, promote and analyse consultations all in the same system. This massively reduces the administration overhead and simplifies the work involved in running these large scale consultations. It also means users get the benefit of a far more intuitive, attractive way to submit their response, and all submissions feed into a single, centralised data set.

ENTSO-E also have the challenge of needing to consult on large documents. Citizen Space helps meet this need, as large documents can be broken down per-chapter and added into Citizen Space via the tool’s document reader. The opportunity for consultees to leave a free-text response enables them to comment on existing proposals alongside suggesting alternatives, creating an informed response.

The organisation will primarily be looking to use their Citizen Space instance to consult on all stages of the drafting process of major work products, which have significant impact on pan-European energy transmission.

One of the major consultations which ENTSO-E will be conducting each year is the European Ten Year Development Plan (TYNDP). This document lists and prioritizes which new high voltage electricity lines (over head or submarine) are needed between European countries to allow renewable electricity to flow across Europe at a minimum cost for consumers. It is a key element of the European decarbonisation strategy. The 2015 consultation on the 2016 plan was recently opened for consultation, running an online survey as well as promoting associated consultation events.

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As part of the consultation process, ENTSO-E are also asking respondents for feedback on their new approach at the end of their first consultations. This helps to ensure that their whole consultation process is being continually improved upon.

Screen Shot 2015-05-14 at 12.40.30We welcome ENTSO-E to the Citizen Space family and look forward to seeing how they chose to use Citizen Space.

The digital divide

Written by Eric Lui – secondee from the Civil Service Fast Stream

a picture of 'mind the gap' on a tube platform

My colleague Row recently wrote about the digital skills gap in government. She pointed to the good work organisations such as GDS were doing but also the progress that still needs to be made. She ended with a thought provoking statement:

“…by improving the digital skills across its own workforce, could government then begin to lead in advancing the digital skills of its citizens?”

This made me wonder. Looking beyond government, how ‘digital’ is the UK? So I went ahead and did some digging, the stats below are enlightening:

Currently 1 in 5, or 10.5 million people lack the basic digital skills and capabilities required to realise the benefits of the internet.

43% of the individuals that lack these basic digital skills are of working age.

Around a third of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) don’t have a website. This rises to over 50% if you include voluntary, community and social enterprises (VCSEs).

Being a ‘millennial’, I can put my hand up and say I’ve been guilty of taking digital literacy for granted. Doing a stint at a large technology company with a fruit for a name exposed me to some pretty head-in-hands episodes; a wide-eyed lady once walked in with her unplugged modem asking us to ‘fix the internet’.

However, the stats are no laughing matter. Independent research by management consultancy firm Booz & Co. estimate that full digital take up could add £63 billion value to the UK economy. Parliament also recognise the gravity of the issue, a recent report by the Select Committee on Digital Skills concluded:

“ Digital skills (the skills needed to interact with digital technologies) are now necessary life skills. Individuals and businesses alike will need skills to protect themselves online. It is not acceptable for any group to be excluded from access to digital technologies. We must aspire for the vast majority of the population to achieve the level of digital literacy needed to fully participate in society.”

Clearly the problem is challenging but the rewards are great.

The same report puts up a number of recommendations for government. In particular an emphasis to address the deficit in provision for digital education at all levels. Government has provided an initial response to the report, though according to the Chair of the Select Committee, Baroness Morgan, it was a bit disappointing. It’s definitely a ‘watch this space’ worth monitoring. Technology is been moving at lightning pace. The government has a real task on its hands to ensure that the UK is not left behind in the emerging digital era.

But enough about politics. The ‘digital challenge’ should be bipartisan and embraced by all. We need it to be. I’ve set out what the challenge is so far and it would be mean to leave you with no light at the end of the tunnel. Unsurprisingly Martha Lane Fox’s efforts have not gone unnoticed.

One of those is Go ON, a digital skills charity dedicated to helping everyone have the basic digital skills they need. You’re asking, what are these basic digital skills, well they’ve created a handy framework to explain. In the spirit of public participation they have even set up a Digital Skills Charter to inspire people and organisations to commit to helping others to gain those skills alongside a web tool to help.

The one I’m more interested in is her recent initiative to set up Dot Everyone with it’s broad sweeping purpose to “to transform understanding and use of the internet in every aspect of UK life”. It will aim to lead the charge and thrust Britain as a leader in the digital world prioritising opportunities in education, women and ethics. It definitely doesn’t lack ambition and considering the statistics above, if successful, the implications could be tremendous. With 10,000 signatures clocked on the petition on change.org it has certainly has some momentum.

Technology is just one component of digital democracy. Delib strives to build tools which improve the interaction between government and citizens, continually improving them to be more responsive and better for everyone. However, clearly there are still barriers to some groups of users getting online and taking advantage of these tools to make their voice heard. The digital divide is real and present but it is heartening to see efforts being made to close it.

A people’s plan to fight cancer

We’re always excited to see the public bodies we work with here at Delib taking steps to engage people in more and more interesting ways, and to share examples of when they do it really well.

This week will see the end of a consultation by the Western Australia Department of Health on the future of cancer control in the state. It’s really well-designed, interesting and informative – exactly the kind of thing we like to see our customers doing!

The consultation opens with a video introduction from the state’s Chief Health Officer, Tarun Weeramanthri, presenting the project’s key goals – to get some genuine public input into the Department’s report on cancer, and for that input to be based on people’s own interpretation of the data and assessment of the choices that need to be made.

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This is a great way to start. Having a senior official take ownership of the consultation immediately gives it a personal feel, and helps respondents connect with the organisation. It also clearly spells out to people why they should respond and what their responses will be used for.

That data is presented in an easily accessible and engaging way, using infographics, embedded videos of interviews with cancer experts, and other media.

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It’s great how WA Health have taken the opportunity not just to ask the public’s opinion, but to provide some really interesting content within the consultation – meaning most people will come out of the consultation knowing more than when they went in (at least I did).

The interviews with experts, infographics and external links are all interesting, easy to understand and helpful. The comparison of cancer survival rates between Australia and other OECD countries was particularly interesting (spoiler alert: The UK doesn’t come off well…)

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The survey also focuses the respondents on the choices that the state and everyone in it have to make when confronting an issue like cancer. Questions like whether alcohol or unhealthy food should be made more expensive can trigger immediate responses, often connected to emotions and political alignment. That’s why the consultation does a great job of demonstrating, based on that reducing cancer rates means having to make difficult choices on these issues.

You can check out the consultation here – and we’d thoroughly recommend doing so, even if you’re a long way from Western Australia!

 

 

Delib Product Development Process

Here at Delib we are pretty happy that our products help make it easier for government to engage with citizens in decision making. We work hard to make these apps as good as they can be. Every once in a while we get suggestions from our customers on how we can make things even better.

Do you actually do anything with these suggestions?

The resounding answer to this is yes! When your account manager thanks you for the feedback it’s not just lip service. Your suggestion is included in our product forum where the account managers, developers and MD discuss how we can improve our apps. Product features we can crack on with are then considered for inclusion in upcoming releases.

Why can’t you quickly make changes to the apps if it is obviously a good idea?

Making changes to the apps isn’t something we do on the fly as any change will affect all our users. We investigate, test and discuss suggestions to make sure that an idea which makes a lot of sense on the surface works well in practice. We also look at the change from a customer perspective to make sure it improves user experience.

How long do suggestions take to develop?

We have a nicely structured calendar of two and four week development cycles, plus a bunch of feature-focused product updates each year.

There is no golden rule on how long developments take as each one is different. Development timeframes are entirely dependent on what the change is and making sure that the change works as well as we need it to. The questions we ask ourselves are: Is this good enough? Will this make everyone happy? Is it clear how it works? If the answer to all of these is ‘yes’ then, provided all else is good, we will ship it out.

We work on all three of our applications, so development cycles are also shared between the products – we may be focusing on Citizen Space one month and Dialogue App or Budget Simulator the next.

How do you prioritise these improvements?

The first priority is fixing bugs.  No software is free of defects and we want to keep ours as healthy as possible.  The second one on the list is fixing issues that aren’t bugs but will improve usability for customers. This helps to minimise support requests and let you guys, our lovely customers, get on with using the apps!  The third priority is scheduled items that are customer co-funded. The final developments we look at are improvements we want to invest in to make the product better.

What we call ‘housekeeping’ or upgrading the internal aspects of the software is kept separate to developing new features.  The reason for this is the two are quite different beasts and need to be focused on independently.

What are some examples of developments?

Developments can include:

  • improving the technical architecture of the system (for example, to improve performance)
  • improving user experience / usability of existing features
  • making more of the application’s behaviour customisable by admin users
  • features which add new capabilities to Citizen Space

Sometimes we have to make changes to the underlying infrastructure around our apps and this kind of work also gets built into our development process – a recent example of this was moving Citizen Space sites to a new hosting environment.

How we release new features

To release a new feature we run a formal QA process internally which tests for things like data integrity, cross-browser compatibility and accessibility. We test improvements and new features with our account managers and other staff to make sure we are considering the change from a customer perspective.

While this means that the total time to get features into the hands of customers can occasionally be quite long, it ensures that the quality is high, and we don’t drop nasty surprises on our users.

Who are these people that are beavering away behind the scenes?

We have a team of four developers – Alan, Richard, Tom and Jess (who is currently on maternity leave). They built our applications from scratch and if you ever want to be surprised about how much one person can know, come to our offices and chat to our devs.

We have two QA specialists – Hamish and Stan, who thoroughly check every angle of the development work being done, notice and care about the small things and keep us on the straight and narrow.

Our developer and QA teams also work on the other necessary technical aspects of our business, such as responding to some of the trickier support queries, doing day to day work for customers and all of the system administration and security work that comes as part and parcel of being a software company.

We hope that explains how we do things here and why, and if you’ve ever any questions you can find us on support@delib.net or by going straight to your account manager.

Three big challenges for Open Government

A couple of colleagues from Delib and I had the pleasure of attending a workshop this week run by the Open Government Partnership Civil Society Network in Bristol, led by Tim Hughes from Involve.

The workshop brought together a mix of people working in digital democracy in Bristol and the area with the goal of discussing what the OGP has achieved so far and what the priorities should be in the future – then working up some new ideas of our own for how to make the vision a reality.

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To give some background, the Open Government Partnership was launched in 2011, bringing together governments and civil society around the world to promote transparency, build civic participation and tackle corruption. Each country that signs up produces an action plan, which contains a series of commitments to opening up government. The UK is now on its second action plan – which includes commitments to make more data open data, to practise ‘open policy making’, and to increase transparency among government contracts, amongst others.

The OGP Civil Society Network plays the role of coordinating civil society input to what government is doing, ensuring that the process of opening government itself does not become a closed one! They are also collecting the public’s contributions to a crowdsourced Open Government Manifesto – using (what else) our very own Dialogue App.

With a desire to make sure they avoid being too London-centric, they are running a series of workshops around the country this spring to engage with local civil society – and it was the inaugural session that brought them to Bristol.

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Personally, I got a lot out of the workshop. In particular, listening to a group of people expressing their hopes and concerns for Open Government highlighted what for me are three of the biggest challenges in this area:

1. Turning transparency into participation

Working in government, the open government agenda tends to generally be very closely associated with open data and transparency. This is one of the areas where the UK has performed very strongly on a global scale – coming in at first place for 2014 in Open Knowledge’s Open Data Index. Sites like data.gov.uk are really impressive pieces of work, and the enterprising citizen now has an unprecedented range of government information available to them at the end of a google search.

However, I can’t help feeling that this strand of work only takes us so far. Whilst all of this data is useful, much of it is unintelligible to the ordinary citizen without being summarised or analysed by an expert. Such a focus on opening up datasets risks neglecting one of the other main strands of the OGP’s work – increasing participation. After all, what better incentive do citizens have to engage with the data that is available to them than if they are asked to make real decisions based on that data? There is also the concern that the section of the population that engages with open data tends to be predominantly well-educated, well-employed, and already in the orbit of government and policy.

Projects like the open policymaking pilots show a lot of promise – in the future I’d love to see government finding more ways to let citizens make, or at least contribute to, the decisions that the data can help inform.

2. Making the data useful to everyone

Following on from the point above, there are a lot of challenges relating how data is presented. We could perhaps imagine a matrix that plots clarity against obscurity on one axis, and useful accuracy against confusion/inaccuracy on the other. Typically, a lot of information released by government is either clear but confusing/inaccurate or accurate but obscure/unintelligible.

For the former I am thinking of press releases, ministerial speeches and infographics that use easy to understand language and visuals, but strip out the important detail to an extent that without context they are very little use in appraising the policy concerned.

For the latter, I mean the very lengthy delivery plans, parliamentary bills, and spreadsheets of data that are all publicly available, and comprehensive in their detail, but whose size and complexity mean that they are only really of use to the few people with the time and inclination to read them.

It would be great to see more data that is both clear and comprehensive, giving the facts in a nuanced way that is also easy to understand. There already some organisations that do good work producing this kind of information – fullfact.org is a favourite of mine, and the BBC and Guardian Data Blog do a good job too.

In the future, I think it’s important for government to be filling this space more – working hard to make sure that everything published presents all the facts, rather than the ministerial office’s ‘lines’, and seeks always to inform, rather than to hide or deflect.

3. Turning Open Government into something big

One of the real difficulties when discussing Open Government is balancing expectations against reality in terms of the scale of what can be achieved. The concept promises a lot,  especially in the current era, with its distrust of politicians and parties. There’s also the sense that new technology should have the potential to redesign the way we participate in public life in the same way it has completely changed how we shop and socialise.

In this context, some of the projects that are being carried out – many of which are quite specific and policy-wonkish – might appear to be failing to address the issues at the required scale. What the government has done to improve transparency in aid spending, or what we do at Delib to help councils consult on budgets, is (we believe) good and important work, but it all often falls beneath the public radar despite our best efforts. At the workshop, there was also a sense that even for those us working in the sector, the goals and actions of the UK’s Open Government programme hadn’t been high-profile enough.

For open government to really capture the imagination of the wider public, we need to embrace big ideas, and these ideas need representation at the top of our political system. The OGP has called on political parties to commit to open government going into the general election – let’s hope they do!


Thanks again to Tim and Jo (with support from Development Initiatives and VOSCUR) for facilitating a fun and thought-provoking session – see you again soon!

Matthew