Tag Archives: government

‘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

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.

BIS give us a lesson in effective promotion with their sharing economy consultation

The Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) has recently finished conducting a call for evidence on an Independent review of the sharing economy. Feedback on the review is being collected in three ways:

BIS Independent Sharing Economy

What is the sharing economy and why is it important to conduct a call for evidence?

“The sharing economy is coming and it’s being driven by consumers” Debbie Wosskow

The sharing economy is a new set of business models, driven by technologies that are making it easier for people to share their property, time and skills. Examples include property sharing via services such as Airbnb and shared transport – for example Barclays Cycle Hire scheme. The call for evidence is being led via an independent review by Debbie Wosskow (CEO of Love home swap). Ms Wosskow’s tactics will be to ask for evidence both in the conventional government ways and digitally, aiming to produce an interactive report that will draw from the experience of workers and consumers too.

Effective survey design

In order to ensure the call for evidence was tailored to different respondents’ needs, the Citizen Space survey included the use of skip-logic to ‘route’ respondents to a set of questions relevant to them. Especially commendable was the use of survey routing by audience-type, with more open free-text questions for respondents from an organisation to enable extended commenting on the subject. The survey also included the use of fact banks, which enable respondents to view more information on the topic if needed.

Generate Twitter noise

The consultation picked up a large amount of traction on Twitter. The call for evidence opened on 29th September 2014 and on the same day attracted 806 tweets being posted within just 24 hours. Using the relevant hashtag #sharingeconomy in most tweets, it was easy to follow the conversation on Twitter.

BIS also tweeted the call for evidence at potential respondents who may be interested in the subject, which helped ensure a two-way conversation. A summary of some of the best Tweets which had been posted were also made available by BIS via a Storify post.

Screen Shot 2014-11-11 at 16.13.12An extended period for comment with a sense of urgency created around the closing date

A sense of urgency was also created around the closing date of the call for evidence, with the consultation date being extended to enable more participants to take part.Screen Shot 2014-11-11 at 16.08.53

Direct link and page through from GOV.UK

In order to ensure respondents could also find the call for evidence from GOV.UK a direct link through to Citizen Space was added under the call to action ‘Give your views on the sharing economy’.

Screen Shot 2014-11-12 at 12.18.08A dedicated microsite and newsletter created as a hub for the review

The sharing economy review itself has its own dedicated micro-site, recently commended by Helpful Technology. The site links through to relevant posts about the review – namely a number of stories, sites and blogs . The site also provides an opportunity to sign-up to a dedicated newsletter for the review which links through to the call for evidence.

Inclusion of existing research and relevant infographics

BIS also included reference to previous research conducted by PwC on the sharing economy, which helped contextualise the consultation.

Screen Shot 2014-11-11 at 16.12.09BIS aims to produce a report by the end of the year following the call for evidence and we’re looking forward to seeing the results.

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.

BBC Trust launches review of its six radio stations using Citizen Space

The BBC Trust has recently launched one of the biggest reviews of its six radio stations. The consultation will run for three months, and invites BBC radio listeners to express their views on the different stations. The review is being run via an online consultation, using their Citizen Space instance. In addition, the Trust will conduct audience research and consult with BBC Radio and industry stakeholders.

Screen Shot 2014-08-12 at 16.37.06The review will assess whether the six stations are fulfilling the commitments defined in its service license. Listeners can also give their views on the consultation via Twitter, using the hashtag #trustreview.

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The final conclusions of the review will be published in early 2015.

Introducing our first Citizen Space user group meetings hosted by the Department of Health and Birmingham City Council

After a few months in the making, we finally have two user group meetings planned this year – let’s all meet up and get to know one another!

BIS Digtial Engagement
Image courtesy of @bisgovuk Department of Business Innovation and Skills

Who are the user groups for?

Digital leads, analysts, policy leads, communication managers – anyone using Citizen Space or interested in digital engagement. We’re hoping the groups will be a mix of people with different skills.

What should I expect?

Sessions on all things digital engagement. Including the following:

  • Show and tell of recent or upcoming engagement exercise. Review of the process and challenges of how you do consultation
  • Example from an analysis team and/or input from Delib on tools for analysis in Citizen Space
  • Citizen Space roadmap – we’ll talk through our plans for development of Citizen Space and garner your input
  • Top tips and best practice examples

Tell me when it is and I’m there with bells on!

The first is a central government user group meeting on the afternoon of Friday 29th August, hosted by Department of Health in Whitehall. Focusing on specific examples from central government.

The next is a full-day user group meeting hosted by Birmingham City Council in late September/October. This will include some useful workshops as well as discussions around benchmarking and collaborative working, amongst many other things.

Interested in attending? Contact one of our Account Managers – Louise (louise@delib.net) or Rowena (rowena@delib.net) or give us a call on 0845 638 1848.

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.

Take home pointers and a newbie’s view of Govcamp 2014

UKGovcamp is an annual unconference where participants lead the agenda on all things data, government and digital.  Held this year in City Hall, home of the GLA (and with a fantastic view of Tower Bridge); the conference had a truly buzzing atmosphere and plenty of newbies in attendance.  Following a similar format to my 2012 and 2013 Govcamp posts, I have included 3 learnings and 3 challenges, followed by a view from our very own newbie in attendance, one of our Account Managers, Louise Cato.

A photo of GovCamp 2014
A lovely pic of GovCamp 2014 in impressive City Hall (photo by Alex Jackson http://www.flickr.com/photos/aljackson/)

What did we learn?

1) Policy making should have clear achievable outcomes

Sounds obvious right? However, I’d argue it’s necessary to take a step back as often as possible to ensure the purpose and proposed outcomes are still within focus. I could list many more here, but the following 2 key points in my opinion should be consistently considered;

  • What are we trying to achieve?
  • What is our organisational capacity to act on the results?

Government departments are often at risk of opening up to conversations they aren’t ready to have yet, occasionally consulting on outcomes they couldn’t even implement. Ensuring this doesn’t happen or is caught early, often comes down to organisational readiness from the onset. Going to consult? – Plan early.

2) We shouldn’t shy away from documenting the full policy making ‘journey’

In an engaging session run by Anthony from Demsoc, the group considered whether it could be possible to document the whole story around a policy change, all starting from the heading of what you are trying to achieve (note the theme ;).

The session also cited a couple of examples of where this had successfully happened previously, including the ‘Red Book for Evidence’ run by NESTA.  The red book is an excellent example of this idea in action and is full of supporting evidence for whenever a legislation change is proposed, so that those interested can scour it and confirm the credibility of the evidence supporting the policy.

3) Don’t let the tools determine the focus – use them as an enabler

During Govcamp break out sessions, conversation will often turn from ideas to “how can we achieve this then?” with attendees often citing examples which have previously worked in their organisation. As a provider of such tools, we are always keen to ensure our customers are ready for the inevitable processes which are needed to enable it to work. It’s all about people, processes and tools.

Consultation works most effectively when a variety of methods are used, but are these methods always clearly communicated and documented?  A successful example of consulting early and in an open manner was the Spending Challenge Dialogue. Acknowledgement and transparency about who was welcomed and took part in the conversation, alongside how responses will be weighted is also key.

What challenges did we identify?

1) How can we use/translate Agile methodologies in Government?

After running my first unconference session on this during BlueLight camp back in April 2013, I couldn’t help but think that the challenges and learnings of using Agile in a Government context are only really just unfolding. Dxw work regularly with Government departments to run Agile projects. In their session they discussed the idea of starting with the principles of Agile, in particular citing the need to ‘indoctrinate’ the customer into an Agile mindset approach from the outset. If this simply isn’t suitable, is there an argument to talk Waterfall and act Agile?

The great advantage of Agile is that you realise early if something is not working as you had planned. Linked to this point, projects may fail if they were the wrong scope originally. Let’s remember not to get too carried away; as Steph Gray from Helpful Technology mentioned, shoe-horning projects into Agile processes when this isn’t the best method is often worse.

2) Can we create a culture which recognises risk and failure in a positive light?

Risk and failure are often taboo words in most organisations, but should they be?

A tip for problem solving that we practice in Delib is: Always have the option to ‘do nothing’. Sound like a cop out?  Trust me it’s not, it really helps to weigh up whether you should carry on (at all) with what you are doing.

3) What’s next for the open data agenda?

The open data agenda is much talked about in unconferences, and this year particularly.  There are three major puzzles that crop up:  What’s the next phase in the open data agenda? What is the published data being used for and, more importantly, is it useful?

For some organisations, exposing data publicly has proven an opportunity to review how the data is structured – offering the chance for internal and external improvements in the handling and delivery of the information. From a service delivery point of view, it provides a window to see how things are going and to report back on deliverance. We need to ensure that opening up data to some individuals isn’t an end in and of itself.

Once again, GovCamp was an opportunity to meet people working in a similar field and with similar aims, but refreshingly varied views. Many thanks to all the hard working GovCamp 2014 organisers for bringing us geeks together!

GovCamp for the uninitiated – a newbie’s view

Having worked in digital democracy for all of 3 months, the thought of going to an unconference with the premise that I might be expected to actually say something insightful, whilst surrounded by most of the data/digital experts working with and in government, made me mildly anxious.

I arrived early (so early that the doors weren’t even open – I may be new, but I’m keen), so I had plenty of time to waft about, taking in people’s conversations and trying to pick up what the trends of the day might be.  I heard snippets of suggestive phrases, things like “big data”, “open policy” and “tech cities”.

NB: One of the other key talking points was the lack of coffee available on site – it seems GovCampers are united by three loves; technology, transparency and caffeine.
image of bingo card game from gov camp
DXW game to play during GovCamp, I didn’t win 🙁

If, like me, you’ve not been to an unconference – here’s how it works:

  1. Take 250 eager people with various roles, ideas and experiences and put them in a big room
  2. Make them stand up and introduce themselves (terrifying)
  3. Ask people to come up the front and pitch ideas for sessions – each idea is voted for using the tried and tested method of audience applause
  4. Give bewildered attendees a chance to assimilate all the information and decide which sessions to go to
  5. …and disperse!

Our first chosen session was “What do you want from your Agile supplier?” As a supplier who does Agile, this seemed fairly appropriate and it was interesting to hear the difficulties faced by government and other suppliers when initiating a project.  As Rowena has highlighted above, an Agile method can allow room for failure and subsequent correction, but the very fact that failure is mentioned can cause problems. It takes good communication at the outset and throughout the project to make the progression clear.

Session 2 “Making open policy real/enabling better policy” was fascinating – I was even close to piping up at times.  It was run by Anthony from DemSoc, with Ade Adewumni from GDS, Andrea Siodmok former Chief Design Officer at the Design Council  (and now for Cornwall Council) and Esko Reinikainen, co-founder of the Sartori Lab.  Many great ideas on how we can make open policy work, with quite a bit of talk around evidence-based policy making, although this really is only one part of open policy.  We were also pleased to hear many people mentioning best practice consulting and transparent public engagement as part of the process, but again, even we realise that this on its own does not constitute open policy either. You need more than just vodka and tomato juice to make a decent bloody mary.

Drawings from Open Policy session
Just some of the collective scribbles from the Open Policy session

A particular point from this session was that all policy-making is not equal – some policy proposals will only have a few possible outcomes, whilst others may need more of a free-range of ideas.  However, we all agreed that consulting on a variety of options, of which only say 3 would actually be considered in practice, is not a transparent process and, arguably, a waste of everyone’s time. Giving people the range of possible outcomes from the start will give them scope to submit their opinions and ideas within the reality of what can be achieved.  And if the policy paper really is a blank sheet and anything goes, then the mighty power of the crowd could generate some seriously interesting ideas.  Here’s a link to the civil service page on open policy and policy reform for further reading.

Session 3 we stumbled into rather late as we had hoped to get into Jukesie’s talk on publishing stats on the web, but he was somewhat oversubscribed!  Instead we arrived in a room, halfway through another conversation about how government display data.  I’ll be honest here, I was mostly lost throughout this discussion as I had no context on which to base any of the chat, but it was clear there was a drive to display top level data at a local and national level in an interesting way.  I think the ONS have started to do this brilliantly – as evidenced below, which was one of their infographics used in the Eastern Daily Press.

ONS infographic showing percentage of young adults still living with parents
ONS infographic – making data more user-friendly

I spent session 4 chatting in the foyer with Zak Mensah, Technical Development Manager for Bristol Museums. It was great to hear about how they manage such a small budget to deliver big interactive projects across the museums in Bristol.  Their work to digitally archive all documents will be of true benefit to the public for years to come.

I learned that this is what GovCamp is also about, it’s there to bring people together to discuss important things locally and nationally… and it doesn’t matter if you do that in a conference room or a corridor.