Author: Ben Whitnall (Page 2 of 3)

Budget Simulator – now officially in 3 distinct editions (perfect for any occasion)

Budget Simulator is used by all sorts of government organisations, all over the world, to get insight into people’s priorities when they’re facing difficult decisions. No two decisions are exactly alike: sometimes, it’s about setting a budget to hit a fixed savings target. Sometimes, it’s about seeing where people make the trade-offs between tax and service level. Sometimes, it’s about getting a broad sense of people’s preferences when any resource (time, effort etc) is contested.

A simulator is supposed to be just that – a simulation, an accurate representation of the decision under consideration. So, to better support the different kinds of decisions Budget Simulator can, well, simulate, we’ve just formalised 3 main editions of the tool. So now it’s even easier to choose the configuration that suits your situation.

The three editions are:

Total budget

Screenshot of total budget edition of Budget Simulator

Users are presented with your total budget; they adjust spending in key areas until they’re happy with the overall balance of allocations.

Great for visualising your organisation’s spending, showing the scale of a budget challenge and giving people ‘the big picture’.

Personal bill/rates

Screenshot of rates edition of Budget Simulator

Users are shown a budget expressed as a personalised bill or tax rate – tailored to their situation. They adjust spending and see how these changes will directly affect their payments.

Great for helping people to understand the effect of choices on their own pocket.

Points allocation

Screenshot of points edition of Budget Simulator

Perhaps you want to understand people’s priorities in a way that doesn’t directly correspond to a financial figure. In this version, users are given a number of abstract points, which they can assign to their preferred areas.

Great for exploring the trade-offs between any set of options – budgetary or otherwise.

You can see some examples of how people have used Budget Simulator in different ways in our collection of customer stories.

And if you’re interested in using Budget Simulator yourself, or just want to find out a bit more about it, you can always drop us a line.

Citizen Space release announcement v3.1.15

We’ve just released our latest Citizen Space update. As with most of these smaller milestones, this one focuses on incremental improvements to the platform – a handful of ways we’ve identified to make it faster and smoother to use. Specifically:

  • Big downloads: sometimes, you’ll want to download a set of responses that includes files uploaded by respondents. This can make for some pretty hefty zip files – but we’ve improved the way these large files are handled so these downloads should now run noticeably quicker.
  • Security update: we’ve added in new protections against Cross-Site Request Forgery (CSRF) attacks.
  • Minor fixes: you can now reliably download response files even if a respondent uses a special character in the title (&, ! etc). And we ironed out a sporadic glitch in the ‘Skip to main content’ accessibility link (we found some odd edge cases where it would take you to a different page).

v3.1.15 rolls out today to all Citizen Space customers. If you have any questions about the new release, you can always get in touch.

Tips and advice

18 (!) lessons from our first two user groups of the year

In the past couple of months, we’ve had Citizen Space user groups in Edinburgh and Belfast. As always, we hear a heap of useful things from our customers sharing their experiences at these events. Check out our round-ups of the respective days:

A full meeting room at the Citizen Space user group in Belfast

Skip Logic: a quick start guide

Do you ever use skip logic in your surveys? It’s one of those things that can be daunting if you’re not familiar with it, but is incredibly useful once you are. If you’re not sure where to start, or want to help train up colleagues, our quick guide could be useful. There’s also a bunch of more detailed instructions for setting up skip logic surveys in Citizen Space on our knowledge base.

A little help?

We’re looking for outcomes…

We’re currently undertaking some research into consultation outcomes – how organisations track and report on their findings; what, if anything, happens differently as a result; how input shapes decisions, that kind of thing. So:

  • Do you have any success stories – a time when you felt a consultation went really well?
  • Do you have any examples of when consulting has driven positive change and/or delivered better services?

If you’ve got any stories along those lines that you’d be happy to share, please do get in touch with us. Thanks!

All aboard

Welcome to our new customers!

Our latest Citizen Space customers include Nottinghamshire County Council and Torfaen County Borough Council  – a warm welcome to them. And remember: you can search through all consultations running on Citizen Space via the Aggregator.

Democratic hero – Andrew Greenway

Welcome back to our Digital Heroes series – it’s been a while.

In the latest instalment, we hear from Andrew Greenway, a former civil servant turned independent consultant, who, in his own words does ‘a mixture of hacking bureaucracies and writing about them’.

Andrew has some fascinating insights on the future of digital democracy as well as some clear views on music tastes and biscuit dunking.

So, without further ado, let’s get on to the questions.

1. What’s your name and where are you from?

My name is Andrew Greenway, and I live in London. I grew up in Huntingdon, a town that I wrote the entry for in the book ‘Crap Towns 3’. It wasn’t all that bad.

2. What do you do for a living?

I’ve never been very good at answering this question.

I help governments and other big organisations run in ways that respond better to our rising expectations of what’s possible. Usually that involves some combination of freelance strategy, governance, capability building and design.

In practice, I do a mixture of hacking bureaucracies and writing about them. In the not too distant past I was a civil servant, and worked in quite a few bits of the UK government, including the Government Digital Service, Government Office for Science and three other departments.

These days I work with international governments and some UK organisations. I also write about Whitehall in various places, trying to play the role of critical friend.

3. Who is your favourite band or artist?

I have a soft spot for Radiohead, Pink Floyd and John Lee Hooker, which I recognise as the tastes of someone twice my age.

I basically struggle with any music made after about 2004. My memory of anything made after that point is retained solely for the purposes of future pub quiz questions.

4. Android or iPhone?

iPhone – I am a fully-paid up member of the Apple cult. 

5. PC or Mac?

See above…  

6. Creature of habit or maverick thinker?

Context is all. I was told more than once by ex-colleagues: ‘you’re not a typical civil servant are you?’. The tragedy of it is that I probably am, but I was saved from going down the usual paths by good luck and working with a lot of brilliant people who showed me the value of openness, agility and actually getting stuff done.

I would say I’m a creature of habit, because it turns out that almost nothing that I’ve written about the reform of the civil service is radically different from what similarly-minded people have been saying for at least fifty years. It is quite deflating to think you’ve come up with something new, only to find someone like Peter Hennessy got there before I was born. He’s a Lord now, so there’s surely ermine in my future somewhere. 

7. Your house is on fire, what do you save?

Assuming my fiancee is already long out the building, I’d grab a box of sentimental old letters, a laptop, and my passport. You may as well go and travel after something like that. 

8. Biscuits – dunk or leave unsullied?

Unsullied. Soggy biscuits? No.  

9. Best project you’ve worked on and why?

During my time in the Cabinet Office I was product manager for the UK’s digital service standard and design manual. The idea was to set the bar not only for what digital public services should look and feel like, but how they were built too – the shape of the team, the data they cared about, and so on. The second challenge was to help teams around government meet that standard. 

It was great fun for lots of reasons. Everyone on the team brought something different to the mix. We worked in the open, and iteratively – getting the chance to draw on expertise from hundreds of people within and outside government in a very short space of time. We knew our management and minister trusted us. That gave us the space to do the right thing, and politely ignore any unhelpful conventions.

The idea of government digital service standards and manuals have since been copied all over the place – Australia, the US and parts of Canada have something very similar, many others are dabbling with the idea. It directly helped make millions of online government experiences simpler and quicker for people. I’m proud of that.

10. Where do you hope the UK will be in 10 years in terms of online consultation/ digital democracy?

The gap between those thinking deeply about how the Internet-era is changing the role of government versus mainstream democratic debate seems to be getting wider. That’s a great pity, I think, and I would like to see it narrow. 

A lot of political argument focuses on levers – spending more on x, y or z, regulating this or that, running public services via the state or private companies, leaving the EU – that actually have a debatable impact on the reality of our daily lives.

They all sound important, transformational. But I’m increasingly sceptical that turning the money taps left and right in our public services really makes an appreciable, long-term difference to outcomes. Ditto Brexit. The real structural challenges in democracies run much deeper, and the current level of public debate largely distracts from that. The civil service’s internal discussions are not that much better. 

Failing to confront this kind of big, knotty problem is arguably making conventional politics and democracy more fragile. People can say with some justification, ‘What’s the point of all this? We always end up in the same place’. That is a worrying place to be. 

Closing that gap will require a lot of things to happen. One is our political and official class becoming far more comfortable with technology and the digital age. Much of that world still thinks in paper, even when it operates through the web.

11. Any shout-outs? 

There are lots – really, LOTS – of interesting and inspirational thinkers about civic tech, design and the like to be found on Twitter. A very small selection of them: Richard Pope, Kate Tarling, Janet Hughes, Sarah Gold, Ben Holliday, Matt Edgar, Kit Collingwood, Dan Sheldon. There are many more.

You should obviously follow me as well, but I’m rubbish at Twitter. 


So, there you have it: a journey into the mind of Andrew Greenway. You can see more insights on his Twitter feed (he’s not rubbish). And if you do ever meet up over a cup of tea, just make sure your biscuits aren’t soggy.

Until next time…

How Forestry Commission is opening up Dialogue with stakeholders

Would you like to involve citizens and stakeholders in the early stages of your policy making? Have you ever found yourself ‘in the field’, wondering if there were a simpler way to generate and collate ideas?

If so, you’re not alone. We speak to lots of people in public sector organisations who find themselves in the same boat. Victoria Tustian from The Forestry Commission was one of them.

Victoria is the Thetford Recreation and Community Manager. Not so long ago, she was looking for a simple way to engage audiences at the initial stages of decision-making. She decided to try out Dialogue – a tool we designed to help people produce valuable and actionable ideas through structured online discussion.

Victoria has since used Dialogue for a variety of consultations, including one that involved local people in finding a way to sustain valued visitor facilities at Birchden Wood.

We recently caught up with her to hear about her experiences.

Q: Why is participation so important for you in the early stages of policy making?

A: For us, a big part of participation is about increasing transparency. And we find there are a heap of advantages to working more transparently.

When people submit their ideas and get involved, they tend to feel real ownership for the project and want to see it through. We also find that consulting early on and providing good information gives people a better understanding of the decisions and processes, which makes them more open-minded about our solutions.

Q: How do you run these early stage discussions?

A: We use a variety of on and offline methods, including Dialogue. Creating an online discussion is becoming more of a first choice for us. It enables people who are less able to get out, or those who are always on the go, to get involved at a time that suits them.

Q: What are the benefits of Dialogue?

A: There are several main benefits. We get a good variety of participants and because the process happens online, the discussions are completely open. They aren’t taken over by one person, or one group. Everyone gets to have their say.

Being online, you decide when to get involved. You can book in dedicated time for reviewing, take turns to moderate – and respond quickly to any issues. For example, if you realise people need a bit more information or support, you can add to the discussion and help resolve any issues. You can also feedback as the discussion unfolds, which contributors appreciate.

I really like the fact the discussion happens in one place. It’s much more convenient for participants, and it’s easier for administrators. We don’t have to try and catch every email that comes in and it helps everyone keep track of the conversation. If people are feeding back on all sorts of disparate channels, we can’t always respond in a timely manner.

Q: Do you use other methods for consultation?

A: We carry out stakeholder analysis and then work out the most appropriate means of engaging with them. We do use a range of offline methods, including ‘in the field’ surveys and drop-in sessions, but if we did this all the time, it could be exhausting, especially when resources are limited.

Q: How do you promote your discussions?

A: This is where the hard work lies. Without promotion there is limited participation and the discussions aren’t as productive as they could be. You also have to demonstrate hard work on the outreach front, and show that efforts were made to get people involved.

We identify our key stakeholders and then cascade information out. We use posters in the local area and send out emails directing people to Dialogue. For the right topics, we’ve found schools can be really helpful, as you can reach out to hundreds of people in one go. 

Working with partners and key stakeholders is also important as they can help cascade information through their own social media channels. Having all the consultation information in one place online is very important when using social media as it means other social media channels can link to it easily, but you still have control of the information to ensure it’s correct and up to date.


It’s great to hear that Dialogue has made such a difference to Victoria and the Forestry Commission. We’re pleased to say that Dialogue has also helped over 60 other organisations, including the likes of the Scottish Government, HM Treasury and Bristol City Council.

Climbing Arnstein’s ladder?

If you work in consultation, engagement or public involvement, you’re probably aware of Arnstein’s Ladder of Participation.

It’s a bit of social research theory from the 60s, most famously summarised in this little diagram – a perennial favourite of any kind of white paper or documentation about citizen participation, and still seen on presentation slides all over the place today.

You can also spot echoes of the Ladder in things like IAP2’s spectrum of participation.

In lots of ways, that’s laudable. We’re all for applying rigour and research-based thinking to the work of involving people in decision-making. It’s important stuff, after all. And building on work that’s gone before, or developing theories for effective engagement – that’s all good.

BUT (you knew that was coming, right?)…

There can be an issue with Arnstein’s Ladder. We’ve seen it a few times, where it actually causes more problems than it solves, or sets people on the wrong track. And it can be especially dangerous when it’s seen as the definitive guide for public engagement. Here’s why:

The thing with Arnstein’s Ladder is that it has a value judgement built into it. Things at the bottom of the ladder are ‘bad’. Things at the top are ‘good’. (Just look at the words used in the lower sections: ‘manipulation’, ’non participation’, ‘tokenism’. They’re deliberately pejorative).

Thus, the goal for ‘good’ public involvement work must be to get to the top of the Ladder ASAP. If you rigidly stick to the Ladder, logically, you can end up thinking things like: ‘I shouldn’t spend time on informing or consulting – they’re low-down and BAD. I need to find a way to get this decision directly into CITIZEN CONTROL, because that (the theory tells me) is the pinnacle.’

And this is where it gets people into trouble. Because Arnstein’s Ladder was developed in response to a specific social situation and issue, in a particular time and place.

It was developed in a time of systemic unfairness and exclusivity towards black communities of urban planning processes in cities in 1960s USA. It’s an attempt to identify what might be done to rectify this issue, so we get things like direct citizen control put forward as a defence against corruption or malicious political intent.

But that is also exactly why Arnstein’s Ladder shouldn’t be extrapolated into some kind of universal model for public involvement. Because good involvement is about what’s appropriate to the decision at hand. And that needs a careful evaluation of each decision on its own merits. You can’t outsource that thinking to a single diagram.

There are loads of times and decisions where informing people is an absolutely essential part of effective participation – it’s not tokenism at all, or somehow a ‘lesser’ rung on the Ladder. Ditto consultation.

There are so many decisions where consultation is a formal, powerful, even legally recognised process for citizens to hold governments to account (Rhion Jones has some good chat on this, too). And, while there are plenty of times where direct citizen control can be an amazing, appropriate and effective way to operate a decision-making process (things like thoughtfully-implemented participatory budgeting schemes, for example), there will equally be many times where actually it’s entirely the wrong way to involve people in the process.

And that’s the risk. A glance at the Ladder would make you think that ‘consultation’ is always lesser, or that ‘informing’ is just a rung on the way up to something more valuable. There’s a danger that the Ladder makes some activities appear inherently better or worse than others. This can get in the way of carefully planning the most appropriate forms of participation for each individual exercise.

It doesn’t always happen that way, and there’s a lot to be said for Arnstein’s theory. It’s just important to understand it for what it is, and not to see it as a universal panacea on the issue of ‘how do I best involve people in this decision?’

Lots has been written about this, so if you’re interested in getting more in-depth information, you could start with ‘Dare we jump off Arnstein’s ladder?’:


Three useful resources for creating successful consultations

Over the last couple of weeks we’ve been digging around and updating some of our resources. We thought you might be interested in these three.

The Digital Consultation Playbook

What it’s all about: A booklet offering strategies, advice and principles for creating excellent online consultations – even if you’ve never done one before.

How it can help you: The playbook provides guidance on pinpointing a target audience, creating an engaging question, promoting consultations – and more.


What it’s all about: A comprehensive online knowledge base, crammed full of practical advice, support materials and FAQs.

How it can help you: Zen Desk addresses some of the most common questions our customers ask. These include: how do I set out a challenge? What’s the difference between a radio button and a check box? And how can I get consultation questions approved internally?

Customer stories

What they’re all about: Practical examples from other organisations who have run successful public consultation exercises.

How they can help you: Our case studies can offer useful insights and provide ideas for future consultations.

There are lots of customer stories online. The Scottish Government,  The City of Melbourne and Forestry Commission are just three of them.


We hope these tools and support materials are helpful. Should you ever find yourself stuck, or in need of some guidance on delivering a great consultation, do take a look. You can always get in touch with us for a chat too.

Health, involvement and digital: a UK perspective

Ben Fowkes, our Commercial Director, is currently meeting some of our customers and other movers and shakers across Australia and New Zealand. Among other things, he’s giving a series of talks on effective online involvement and consultation for government.

The first of these was last week, to around 100 delegates from various health bodies, looking at the idea of digital involvement in their field.

Very briefly, for those of us who couldn’t be there in person, here are some of the points he covered:

A bit of UK context

  • Local health is…complicated. CCGs, CSUs, lots of organisations merging or otherwise changing structure, frequent shifts in management, policy, priorities etc.
  • There are interesting initiatives like NHS Citizen and NHS Digital.
  • There are certainly steps towards increasing digital capacity/skills nationally but (as is almost always the case), culture change takes time.
  • It’s not always a straightforward environment in which to operate. And anything with a whiff of IT/software/infrastructure systems about it is seen as especially complicated.

Principle vs practice

  • And yet… Even amongst lots of complexity and caution, broadly, everybody ‘gets’ that public involvement is important; there is a desire to find ways for people to have their say in their healthcare.
  • The principle of public involvement is well-established (as are a decent number of standards, policies and processes as a result).
  • However, the ways in which that is undertaken – people’s practice in this area – continue to develop and change – especially as a result of digital tools.
  • That includes straightforward modernisations to existing mechanisms, such as traditional surveys being conducted online (e.g. But it’s also about the changes in culture/behaviour that follow with digital approaches.

Some notable developments we’re seeing

  • Online in general continues to become more the accepted norm – just look at the considerable growth in the number of consultations on Citizen Space (have a look at the Aggregator); we’ve also been seeing more desire for training in digital skills, including for engagement/patient involvement teams.
  • In particular, there’s an increasing recognition of the importance of responsive/mobile – have a look at any round-up of browser stats and you’ll see the same trend: tablets and mobiles have been quickly growing as the main way to access the internet. Health organisations are catching up to this reality and we’re seeing greater consideration for mobile users in their technology procurement and design processes.
  • As with government in general, GDS etc, there’s a definite rise in ‘design thinking’, and the importance of good quality, well-crafted content (see, for example, some of the lessons that the Department of Health shared at one of our previous user group sessions.)

If you work in public health and are interested to find out more, have a look at how health bodies, including Stockport CCG and NHS England, are already using our tools to improve their public consultation activity online – or drop us a line.

6 things to read in the Christmas wind-down

Are things starting to wind down as Christmas approaches? You know: the office gets empty of people and full of tinsel (fire regulations permitting, of course). The emphasis is more on finishing the communal tub of Celebrations than the to-do list. There’s that end-of-school-term vibe, when every lesson becomes a quiz, game or the first half of some retro-tastic film (in my case, it was always Labyrinth for some reason).

We know the feeling – and that it’s not really the time to try and embark on a trailblazing new project. So, to save you staring at an inbox where nothing’s going to arrive (except out-of-office messages), here’s a few suggestions of things you can usefully read.

These are some perennials of our bookshelves: things that make for helpful primers, or that we frequently reference in passing. Reading any of them would be a good investment of time – a great way to make the most of that pre-Christmas quietness.

Orwell: Why I Write

Self-reflection, pithiness and a side-order of championing democracy – plus it’s only, like, 2 pages long. Can’t be bad…

‘Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it. It seems to me nonsense, in a period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects. Everyone writes of them in one guise or another.’

The Cluetrain Manifesto

This was the book about ‘the digital revolution’ back at the turn of the century. And there’s still lots to learn from its central premise that ‘markets are conversations’. But it’s not on our list because we see it as some kind of internet gospel. It’s more just that it’s interesting and instructive to revisit it, 15+ years on, and reflect with curiosity on its analysis and insight. Always intriguing to see how some things have dated, while others look really prescient – and useful to consider the big principles of internet, culture and social interaction.

From Arrogance to Intimacy

We often give this book to new starters as a way to quickly familiarise themselves with the world of public engagement and ‘active democracy’. It’s a great, short summary of lots of good thinking about the importance of citizen involvement in government. Also has plenty of useful stuff about digital in particular (including the principle, which we’d entirely endorse, that ‘what’s wrong with democracy can’t be fixed with a new app.’)

The Toyota Way

‘Lean’, ‘agile’ and similar methodologies have really been gaining ground the last few years, which is great to see. We’re big fans of lean approaches and have been trying to embed them into our thinking since the early days of Delib. And our starting point was to get the whole team studying this book (perhaps the ‘original’ book on lean processes). Now, staring at a literal factory production line for 8 hours isn’t something that applies directly to our work – and probably won’t to yours, either – but we’ve found the principles incredibly helpful. Try it: you’ll be reading about car parts and suddenly you’ll start seeing all sorts of ways to make your organisation radically more efficient. And, soon, ‘genchi genbutsu’ or ‘little up’ will become part of your vocabulary and you’ll be wondering how you ever ran things otherwise…

A Technique for Producing Ideas

You can finish this whole ‘book’ in about half an hour. But it packs a huge amount of brilliant, really practical instruction into its few short pages. It’s an invaluable little guide – especially for anyone who says ‘oh, I’m not creative’. It prescribes a practice – one that you can literally practise – for thinking about things in new and different ways. It’s so straightforward that you’ll probably put it down and think ‘surely, that’s just common sense’ – and yet, for many people, it will be brand new information. And it codifies and clarifies the ‘technique’ into a few simple steps that will help it stick in your head – and you’ll find yourself using it all the time. To be honest, by the time you’ve read this ‘summary’, you could probably have read the actual book. So just go do that!

East of Eden

No, it’s not a business book but I read it for the first time this year and totally loved it so I’m putting it on my list. And you know what? I daresay it will challenge you and possibly inspire you and generally leave you less likely to be OK with simply letting the world drift on by. And even if it doesn’t do those things, you can just be fascinated by the striking characters, gripped by the intriguing plot or revel in the fantastically crafted and lyrical sentences. Seriously, this book is great.

A fine example of a first consultation from the Canal & River Trust

The Canal & River Trust recently took the plunge into the world of Citizen Space for their public engagement activity. In the blink of an eye, they had set up their first Citizen Space consultation, asking the public for their views on planned improvements to 16 miles of London towpaths.

We asked Dick Vincent from the Trust a few questions:

Delib: How did the Canal & River Trust previously do consultation?

Dick: We didn’t have a standard system, but usually used Survey Monkey.

Delib: Why did you start using Citizen Space?

Dick: We looked at what was available and this was the one we liked best. Knowing that your servers are based in the UK was a big plus point.

Delib: What do you like about Citizen Space so far?

Dick: It’s easy to use and solid. Survey Monkey is like a Swiss army knife, but Citizen Space is more like a scalpel. Have you ever done an appendectomy with a Swiss army knife? It never goes well!

Delib: Has the Delib team been helpful?

Dick: Beyond compare. Amazingly so. They helped us pull off our plans in record time … it was a real joy. We had a really tight deadline (4 weeks!) so we didn’t even have time to do the proper training. Thankfully, it’s a pretty easy system to use and after a couple of hours of truly expert tuition via a web link with Alexis we could just ‘bash it out’, and then she did some last minute checks that made all the difference.  

A great first consultation

To return the praise, here are five things we really like about their ‘Better Towpaths for Everyone’ consultation.

1) Accessible language

Screenshot of an easy to read front page

Firstly, the Canal & River Trust have pulled off what can sometimes be a difficult feat – making a consultation readble and engaging. We liked the use of a video on the first page, and we expect respondents have smiled at their admission that: “Some might think that a great towpath is … well … a great towpath.”

They’ve avoided jargon and given concrete examples wherever possible too:

“… there are some small things you can suggest that will make all the difference. For example, you might know of a great place we could put in a new wheeling ramp or even a bench.”

2) Use of further info

Screenshot of a closed further info sectionScreenshot of an expanded futher info section with an embedded video

The Trust have made extensive use of Citizen Space’s ‘further info’ feature. This means you can include more background information about a particular topic or question that neatly concertinas away unless people choose to read it.

Using this feature is a great bonus because it means you don’t have to keep asking people to refer back to an earlier document to get more info on the current question – something that’s very offputting. It also means that nobody has to download big PDFs at the start of the consultation – instead, they can view the relevant part of the PDF embedded as they go along. This is especially important for mobile users.

Screenshot of an embedded pdf page in a further info section

The Canal & River Trust have done a great job of embedding PDF pages (and even videos) alongside the relevant questions, where they could have made the mistake of having a dozen planning and policy PDFs to download and refer back to.

3) Relevant sections

The Trust have made sure that not everybody has to trawl through all the sections of their large consultation – instead, they can just respond to the parts that concern or interest them.Screenshot of consultation section options

4) Events listings

The Canal & River Trust are making the most of their Citizen Space as an engagement platform by also running an events listing in the footer. Again, there’s optional further info to read about each event:

Screenshot of events section in the footer

5) Including other opportunities to engage

A consultation like this is a great time to engage further with an audience that’s already interested in the place or topic but may never have heard of your organisation before.

Throughout this consultation, the Canal & River Trust have seized the opportunity to tell respondents a little more about the Trust and flag up other ways they can get involved.

Screenshot of get involved section

All in all, we’re pretty impressed with this first Citizen Space consultation! And we even learnt the meaning of the word “gongoozling”.

A gongoozler is an old English word for a person who enjoys watching activity on the canals

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How to make online consultation better – a first look at GDS-commissioned research

Earlier this year, the good people at the Government Digital Service (GDS) commissioned a discovery report into online consultation – specifically, online consultation conducted by central government. This kind of direct user research is really valuable, so we’re delighted that GDS commissioned it and are making the findings freely available.

The report has recently been published, covering important questions like: how do government bodies currently consult online? What platforms are used? How can the methods and the setup on be improved? What do the creators of consultations and the people who respond to them really need?

It makes interesting reading for anybody involved in the field of digital democracy and online public engagement. Here are a few things that drew the attention of our highlighter pen on a first read-through:

Helping the public understand the consultation process

The report suggests there’s more to do when it comes to explaining the consultation process to people who might want to respond. The researchers interviewed a lot of civil servants involved in running consultation, as well as participants and members of the public, and they heard comments like:

“we are not communicating the process – there is nothing in the Cabinet Office guidelines that says we have to do that” (page 42)

This obviously isn’t ideal – especially as understanding the terms of a consultation is identified as a clear user need for participants:

“As a respondent I need to know what is/isn’t on the table as part of this consultation so that I can add input that is valuable.” (page 46)

There often needs to be clearer communication with the public about what consultation is, how the process works, what difference people’s input can make and what the expected time frames are. Shared expectations are needed, the report says, to avoid ‘disenchantment on both sides.’

This was precisely one of the issues that Donna Weston from the Government of Western Australia’s Office of the Environmental Protection Authority (WA EPA) identified when we interviewed her last month.

WA EPA’s consultations now feature a simple diagram on the home page explaining where this consultation fits within the whole deliberation process, helping respondents to understand what difference their response will make at this stage and what to expect to happen next. They find this helps to manage expectations and get more relevant responses, e.g. submitted evidence rather than emotional responses at the evidence-gathering stage.


Going beyond question-and-answer surveys

The report questions why surveys are the overwhelmingly dominant way of doing online consultation. A question-and-answer format may largely be popular because it’s an effective way of quickly gathering opinion in a format that’s easy to analyse – particularly at scale. But there are a wide range of other formats and tools that could also be used – why aren’t they used more widely?

One of the reasons put forward in the report is that there’s ‘an ingrained cultural expectation of what ‘consultation’ entails’ within government – that is to say, sometimes people just automatically assume that consultation = survey/questionnaire.

The report suggests broadening the types of activities that go into the consultation mix, and highlights a few such potential approaches.

For example, there’s a focus on open ideas generation processes: ‘at an early stage of consultation, civil servants are often seeking suggestions or ideas, rather than detailed comments’ (page 74). In these stages of the consultative process, the report suggests, open idea generation could be a useful addition or complement to the traditional closed survey approach.

We have our own open discussion tool for exactly this kind of alternative approach: Dialogue. The City of Edinburgh Council are using Dialogue to ask residents to share their ideas and vision for how the growing city should look by 2050 – mixing in a more open, discursive approach to their consultation approach, exactly as suggested by the report.

edinburgh 2050 dialogue

As we’ve written about before, there are lots of advantages to combining different, complementary consultation methods and tools like this. As the GDS report says, ‘mixed methods… will broaden the public views that are received, and increase the quality of evidence gathered.’

What does a consultation platform need?

It was encouraging to see a number of positive reports from users of Citizen Space (our online consultation platform) cropping up throughout the report.

There’s a lot of overlap between the report’s recommendations and features which exist in Citizen Space – which is mostly just reassuring about the conversations we have with our government customers! (We take a lot of feedback on board from our users, and we’re glad to see similar input reflected in the report’s findings.) Just as a couple of examples:

“I need the ability to link to outside sources so that I can build context. I need the ability to embed visual content so that I can make my consultation more engaging and accessible.” (page 42)

“I need the ability to see support info and questions at the same time so that I can read while I respond.” (page 46)

Lots of the guidance marries up with the advice we give to our customers – like embedding an appropriate amount of information into the consultation, immediately alongside the questions it relates to (rather than expecting respondents to read through several large PDF documents before even starting the survey).

It was great to see some of our customers come in for praise for their consultation work. For example, Transport for London – whose Citizen Space site ‘is considered by many to be one of the best uses of the current survey-style platforms for consultation.’ 

Also, the Department of Health, who are very diligent about making their consultations as accessible as possible. The report points out that, along with each online survey they put on Citizen Space, ‘an offline toolkit is provided, encouraging local groups to run a discussion about this topic and submit a response… This helps reach individuals and groups who are not currently involved in responding to consultations, do not have a high degree of digital literacy, or do not have access to the internet at home.’

Final first thoughts

We were glad to see this discovery phase commissioned, and glad to see a report with so many solid, pragmatic recommendations for running effective consultations. It’s great when other people share our desire to make consultation as good as it can be, and the emphasis on user needs/user-centric design is always encouraging. In some ways, the report is a round-up and affirmation of existing knowledge, rather than totally new information, but it’s helpful to have these things all in one place – and hopefully that helps more people adopt better consultation practices.

It’s great to know that and GDS want to keep making it easier for citizens and stakeholders to participate in consultations; we look forward to seeing that work take shape. And we’ll try to keep up our side of things as well, by making sure tools like Citizen Space are as easy to use as possible.

10 things we learnt at the Citizen Space user group, October 2016 (London)

We had a great time with a group of Citizen Space users in London yesterday, kindly hosted by one of our Westminster customers, the Department of Health (DH). These user groups are a regular opportunity to catch up, see how others in similar roles are using Citizen Space to manage their consultation activity, and share ideas and tips.

Photo of Citizen Space user group, London, Oct 2016

We always come away from user groups with a host of new information and insight. Hearing people’s experiences ‘at the coalface’ is invaluable. And even if you weren’t there in person, you needn’t miss out on that wisdom – here’s 10 of our take-away points from the day:

1. Words matter. Write simply.

Several people stressed the importance of content design in successful consultation.

We had a fantastic presentation from DH’s Content Designer and Lead Editor, Juliet Brooker, about how their content team works with policy teams to make consultations as accessible and effective as possible.

And it was great to hear others endorsing the same message: when it comes to words, keep it simple! For instance, Marilyn Booth and Gwenny Whelan from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) ran through lots of things they’d learnt about boosting participation – one of which was that ‘just being forced to write in a simple way does half the work for you.’

2. Improving consultation is not a one-team job – internal collaboration is a huge deal.

This was a theme that came up time and again over the course of the day: so much of what determines the success of a consultation is about internal collaboration, cooperation and buy-in. 

Is your policy team bought in to the process? (There’s limited value to getting a whole pile of feedback if it will only be listened to with half an ear). Has the whole organisation got into the habit of telling you about upcoming consultations months in advance, allowing you time to plan well (rather than just pinging over a cursory email the day before one is due to launch)? Are you able to liaise successfully with your marketing or social media teams to promote consultations, or is it something that never really gets much of their attention? What do you do if you’re dependent on your IT team for anything ‘website-related’ but they’re already massively overloaded with other work? 

So many of the blockers we heard weren’t technical or skills issues – instead, it’s about getting organisations as a whole more geared up for effective consultation in their internal culture and processes.

3. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Appropriateness is key.

Another repeating refrain on the day: no two consultations are the same, and it’s important to determine what will work best in each case, rather than being inflexibly wedded to a single, fixed approach.

Sometimes, content should be complex and detailed. Sometimes, it will help to use an open-ended response mechanism like Dialogue alongside a more traditional survey. Sometimes, a short, snappy survey is best; sometimes, you want a very involved, chaptered or routed questionnaire.

The key word there being ‘sometimes’. Understanding and adapting to the context and audience of each individual consultation is a crucial skill in designing appropriate, and therefore effective, involvement activity.

(An interesting detail from BEIS on this: they know that some consultations will generate many more responses than others [a large scale public consultation vs one targeted at a small number of expert stakeholders, for instance]. They use a ‘Gold’ assignation to identify cases where they expect a high volume of responses. This helps them manage timings, expectations and resources appropriately: if there are multiple ‘Gold consultations’ coming up, they can anticipate needing to bring in additional analysis capacity.)

4. Citizen Space helps boost participation rate – statistically

BEIS have been Citizen Space customers for a while. They know they like using it but they wanted to (in their words) ‘find out if it really helped’. As in, does Citizen Space actually improve their consultation activity and/or success in a tangible way? They did some thorough investigation of their statistics, traffic patterns etc and we were treated to a wealth of interesting findings.

Just to quickly highlight a couple: when they first started using Citizen Space, they were getting a completion rate of around 7%. They were happy with this at the time – but they now average a completion rate of 25%, and a high point of 52%: a vast improvement! And evidence that creating engaging consultations is an art and a science that can be learned. They also told us this:

In summary: (their words again) ‘so, does Citizen Space help? Yes’. (Phew!)

 5. Email is a precarious response mechanism!

We heard of one case where the primary means of responding to a consultation was simply sending an email. Unfortunately, the inbox in question had a pretty meagre message size limit (as is often the case with government organisations). And it really wasn’t geared up for the huge scale of public reaction that the topic prompted.

Tens of thousands of responses arrived in short order and quickly, predictably, crashed the email server. This led to thousands of people per hour getting bounce-backs saying that their message could not be delivered – obviously not a situation the organisation in question would have wanted. Further proof, if it were still needed, that email isn’t really a sufficient standalone online response mechanism.

6. There’s a big push to keep improving on reporting back

Rowena, one of our account managers, gave a presentation on the importance and value of reporting back to participants. It was encouraging to then hear from several attendees about how there’s already a growing desire in their organisations to improve on this front.

TfL, for example, have recently instituted a target of reporting on 90% of consultations within 90 days (that’s not to say they’ll always have reached a definitive decision by that point, but they will update participants on findings and progress to date). This is tracked and monitored by the consultation team and, in the past quarter, they actually saw 100% of consultations reported on within 90 days. That’s a great precedent and hopefully will increasingly become the norm.

7. Only asking open-ended questions is really problematic

Juliet from DH told us about how one of their annual consultations had previously been ‘just a PDF form with 5 free text questions’. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this didn’t render the most useful results. Participation was low and the responses they did receive were difficult and time-consuming to analyse. She pointed out that open-ended questions can often be simplified to, or at least supported by, quantitative question types instead. Done well, this makes both participation and analysis easier.

8. But so is asking only closed questions!

It can then be tempting to produce surveys that only use quantitative questions. But that comes with its own risks. TfL explained that this could leave people feeling like they weren’t really being given the chance to express themselves, and consequently feeling un-listened-to.

So it’s important to have a good mix of question types – not just determined by what’s easy to analyse, or what’s easy to write, but ultimately by ‘what is the most appropriate way to discover the information we need?’

One interesting specific detail on this: TfL asked their participants for feedback on the consultation process itself and found that people ‘really liked ranking-type questions’. Now, that won’t necessarily be the case in every instance (see point 3) but an intriguing little insight nonetheless.

9. Interim reporting can really improve results

Juliet from DH extolled the virtues of interim reporting (rather than waiting until a consultation is completed before running any numbers/analysis). The example she gave was from their young carers consultation. Obviously, this was a hugely important topic and the Department was keen to hear from the many diverse perspectives of people who would be affected.

They ran an interim report, while the consultation was still live, to see how it was going. One of the findings was that, whilst stakeholder and campaign groups had been quick to take part, there hadn’t been many responses directly from young carers themselves. 

Because they discovered this before the consultation close date, DH were able to pivot their plans to address the issue. For instance, they went to dedicated young carer events and launched a new social media campaign designed to boost their engagement from that audience in particular.

10. Don’t just ‘replicate documents and hope for the best’

We heard of a few cases where a consultation would be written in one part of an organisation and simply ‘delivered’ to the consultation team or Citizen Space admin user in paper form, with little thought given to its digital implementation. 

Or where a survey would be produced as a written PDF document with instructions like ‘if you answered ‘yes’ to question 4, please turn to question 9′ – and then simply copy and pasted into the survey tool, without realising that there would be better ways to present that information online.

Rather than just replicating documents on Citizen Space, it’s important to take advantage of the design tools at your disposal to present content as effectively as possible. That includes using things like expandable Fact Banks for detailed information (to prevent pages getting overwhelmed with huge walls of text), or implementing skip logic for routing questions (to minimise friction for participants without confusing them or making them feel like they’ve missed out on something).

11. (Bonus one!) BEIS is pronounced ‘baize’

Not ‘bees’, as we initially thought. We still think it should be bees, really. Bees.

Taking public consultation online: interview with Western Australia’s EPA

Donna Weston is the Communications Coordinator at the Government of Western Australia’s Office of the Environmental Protection Authority (WA EPA). Back in 2012, they started running their public involvement activity (primarily more formal ‘comment on referral’ processes) on Citizen Space. We talked to Donna about her experience…

What sort of consultation do you do?

For us, it’s most commonly a standard process of information-gathering – inviting people to share information with us about any significant environmental impact of actions that companies or others are proposing. The responses we’re looking for are usually technical, evidence-based ones, more than gauging the public’s opinion or feelings about the proposals (that’s the responsibility of other agencies).

What kind of influence does the feedback you receive have on the EPA’s decision-making?

On occasion, comments provide new information that may not have been evident in the documents provided, prompting a change of thought on a proposal; other times, it might reinforce the initial direction. We always look at the feedback and ask, ‘has that issue been raised?’

For example, we ran a consultation on a proposed shark cull, which raised international public attention. We had 10,500 responses in seven days. Many of the comments were primarily emotive, without offering new environmental information. Given our remit, these didn’t provide information the EPA could use to inform its recommendations to our Minister. But there were some really valuable contributions that did provide new intelligence on environmental impact.

We’re careful to be very clear about how we will use the information people share and what we will do as a result. We don’t promise to always make concrete changes based on people’s input because many responses touch on issues outside those the EPA can consider under its legislation, or may not be relevant to science-based decision-making.

How do you manage your consultations internally? Has this changed since adopting Citizen Space and doing more online?

Every referred proposal goes through a seven-day public consultation to help the EPA decide whether a formal environmental impact assessment needs to be conducted, and some then have up to two other consultation periods during the assessment. During 2015-2016, we ran 49 consultations – each of these needs to be processed by a small team so you can imagine how time-consuming this could be!

Running these consultations on Citizen Space saves heaps of time. For example, the ability to clone consultations has been brilliant. We use four or five template surveys that we clone and amend instead of starting from scratch every time. Cloning consultations also helps us maintain consistency, which is important for our processes, so that’s another bonus.

Responses and evidence submission used to be just via email; then we moved to a web-based list, but it was so clunky for what we were doing, and there were no analytical tools behind it.

For the sharks consultation and some others that attracted many responses, we used Citizen Space’s tagging system to track the key themes. Officers have found it very easy and helpful to tag responses with topics (like ’groundwater’, ‘vegetation’, etc) so they can analyse responses by themes. This is definitely an improvement on searching through an Excel spreadsheet!

What would be your top three tips for other organisations wanting to improve how they manage and run their own public involvement work?

  1. Know beforehand what you want to do, and be very clear about what you’re going to do with the feedback that comes in. You can’t go out and ask questions without a clear idea of what you’ll do with that info. You’ll lose integrity as a government department. Once the public loses trust in you, it takes a hell of a long time to win it back.
  2. Have a consistent, coordinated approach. Even if you’re a massive department, with different teams running your consultations, the public still sees you as a single entity. Using a single platform like Citizen Space really helps with consistency, but have a monthly meeting to compare the language and approach you’re using. A member of the public should have a similar experience each time they interact with you. Coordinate your activity. If you can, try not to have three consultations in two weeks, then nothing for six months. Organisations are getting used to planning their social media strategies two months ahead, so you should be able to plan your consultation strategy, too.
  3. Let people know where they are in the process. In our context, there are up to three points during the assessment process where the public are invited to give input. People sometimes jump up and down and say, ‘this is the first I’ve heard of this!’ But in many cases there will be more opportunities to comment coming up, so we need to make sure people are informed and understand that. I think all our consultations need to be honest and clear about the way the environmental impact assessment process works. With the sharks consultation, 95% of respondents had probably never been exposed to the process before, and we needed to clearly explain to those people what the nature of the consultation was and how the commenting process worked to show that we really were genuine about wanting their input.

Announcing Citizen Space v3

This is a big release announcement for us!

We’re delighted to say that Citizen Space v3 is here.

This is a major update: v3 is a complete visual overhaul of the public interface, along with a host of usability and accessibility tweaks – all designed to make it as easy as possible for the maximum number of people to get involved in the decisions that affect them.

If you already use Citizen Space, you won’t see any changes on your site just yet – your account manager will be in touch to let you know when we’re upgrading you to v3. (We’re planning to have everyone switched over by the end of the year.)

The backstory

With 100+ customers, 5,000+ admin users
 and 10,000+ consultations, we’ve accrued lots of insight into what it’s like to use Citizen Space.

Our last major update was about behind-the-scenes improvements for admin users. This time, we focused on the ‘front-end’ – the part your participants see. We know that good design overlaps with participation rate and user experience, so it was time to turn Citizen Space from a functional product into a beautiful one. The result is v3.

The changes

If you’re at all familiar with Citizen Space v2, you’ll immediately notice the differences when looking at a v3 site. There’s a lot of them, though, so here’s a little introduction to the major changes:

A visual overhaul

The most immediate thing you’ll notice about Citizen Space v3 is that it looks totally different. This new skin not only makes Citizen Space more modern and aesthetically-pleasing; it’s also built to be even easier to use on phones and tablets.

'Arlen Hill' Citizen Space front page 'Arlen Hill' Citizen Space mobile front page

Try resizing your browser window, or visiting the demo site from a mobile device. You’ll see that all the content rearranges dynamically so that it remains incredibly easy to read, navigate and interact with.

There’s richer use of imagery throughout the site, and we’ve picked a new typeface that’s pleasing to the eye (this matters when the majority of the content on your consultations is text).

These changes aren’t just to make it look cool – it’s all about accessibility. From easy-to-read line lengths and spacing to mobile-friendliness – plus, of course, all the W3C guidelines – these design decisions make it as easy as possible for as many people as possible to use Citizen Space.

More theming options

You also get a host of new ways to control what your Citizen Space looks like and to present engaging, attractive consultations.

Set a sitewide logo and wallpaper, for visual consistency across all your consultations.

Apply your brand colours across your whole Citizen Space site, so that it looks and feels like part of your organisation.

Screen Shot 2016-09-07 at 10.51.42

89. Manage themes - pink 89. Manage themes - grey

There’s also a whole range of per-survey theming options. For example, for each consultation, you can choose to use one or more logos or a unique banner or a simple block colour or the sitewide wallpaper. This means you can tailor the presentation of individual surveys – especially useful on projects with their own branding, or where you’re working with a number of partner organisations.

Improved search, sort and filter

It’s now super clear and easy for your participants or users to search for a specific consultation, including an advanced search with filters, and some quick, simple sort options.

'Arlen Hill' find consultations page

A whole new page

An About page for your Citizen Space instance! Fully editable, use it to provide loads of helpful background information for anyone who lands on your consultation site.

Citizen Space v3 'About' page

Improved navigation

V3 sports some new features to help people find their way around the site quickly. We’ve made the survey title visible on each page, so your users don’t forget where they are.

Useful info in the sidebar tells people how far through the survey they are, when it closes and other useful information, like relevant contact details.

Screen Shot 2016-07-26 at 10.41.13

Plus unmissable, customisable call to action buttons:

Improved surveys

There are lots of other little tweaks in v3 that will make your surveys even better.

The survey fields now have improved line lengths. And your images and other embedded media will resize fluidly with the browser window size, making sure everything’s always easy to view.

Improved preview

Preview has got comprehensive. You can now preview every page of your consultation, including the ‘response submitted’ page, and a handy drop-down menu enables you to see what it’ll look like when it’s an open, closed or forthcoming consultation.

You can also switch quickly between any page of your consultation using the preview drop-down menu.

Screen Shot 2016-07-26 at 10.22.12

The future

We’re really pleased with Citizen Space v3, and we think you will be too. We’ve made all these changes with the aim of increasing accessibility, minimising friction and maximising participation, making it easier for you to create engaging consultations.

As ever, there’s comprehensive help available on our online knowledge base: or get in touch any time with your comments or questions.

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