All posts by Ben Whitnall

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.

Top UK #localgov jobs – March 2017

As we do every month, we’ve rounded up some great digital, strategic and engagement/communications jobs from the UK local government sector. Here are some that may take your fancy this March…

District Councils’ Network Policy & Research Officer
Tandridge District Council on behalf of the District Councils’ Network
Closing date: 9 March 2017

Consultation and Engagement Officer
Dorset Councils Partnership
Closing date: 12 March 2017

Digital Media Officer
Erewash Borough Council
Closing date: 12 March 2017

Senior Consultation Officer
London Borough of Hackney
Closing date: 15 March 2017

Consultation & Communications Manager
London Borough of Hackney
Closing date: 15 March 2017

Communications Officer
Derby City Council
Closing date: 19 March 2017

Head of Councillor Support and Democratic Process
Cornwall Council
Closing date: 22 March 2017

Local Plan Manager
London Borough of Tower Hamlets
Closing date: 27 March 2017

Strategic Policy Leader (Corporate Policy & Community Planning Partnership)
Aberdeenshire Council
Closing date: 27 March 2017

Senior Planning Officer (Policy)
Epping Forest District Council
Closing date: 9 June 2017

Top Australia and New Zealand public sector jobs this February (2017)

Each month, we round up some great digital, strategic and engagement/communications jobs going in the Australian and New Zealand public sectors. Here’s our February 2017 collection – if any of them look tempting, click through to find out more…

Digital Communications Officer
National Library of Australia
Closing date: 5 Feb 2017

Digital Communications Officer
Baw Baw Shire Council
Closing date: 5 Feb 2017

Manager Digital Transformation
Adelaide City Council
Closing date: 8 Feb 2017

Democracy and Governance Manager
Southland District Council
Closing date: 8 Feb 2017

Communications Officer (Digital)
Closing date: 10 Feb 2017

Audience Research Manager
National Museum of Australia
Closing date: 12 Feb 2017

User Experience Designer
Department of Internal Affairs (NZ)
Closing date: 15 Feb 2017

Top UK #localgov jobs this February (2017)

As we do every month, we’ve rounded up some great digital, strategic and engagement/communications jobs from the UK local government sector. Here are some that may take your fancy this February…

Community Development Officer
Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council
Closing date: 3 Feb 2017

Policy Officer
Westminster City Council
Closing date: 6 Feb 2017

Communications and Engagement Officer
Plymouth City Council
Closing date: 6 Feb 2017

Communications and Engagement Officer
Plymouth City Council
Closing date: 6 Feb 2017

Insight and Consultation Manager
London Borough of Waltham Forest
Closing date: 12 Feb 2017

Digital Communications Manager
London Borough of Barking and Dagenham
Closing date: 12 Feb 2017

Website and Digital Media Officer
Waverley Borough Council
Closing date: 13 Feb 2017

Head of ICT
London Borough of Hillingdon
Closing date: 20 Feb 2017

Planning Policy Officer
Harrow Council
Closing date: not specified

Head of Digital
Buckinghamshire County Council
Closing date: not specified


Top Australia and New Zealand public sector jobs this January (2017)

New year, new job?

Each month, we round up some great digital, strategic and engagement/communications jobs going in the Australian and New Zealand public sectors. Here’s our January 2017 collection – if any of them look tempting, click through to find out more…


Senior Communications and Engagement Officer
Department of Justice (Victoria)
Closing date: 6 January 2017

Director, Community Engagement
Department of Premier & Cabinet (Victoria)
Closing date: 6 January 2017

Communications and Project Support Officer
Department of Premier and Cabinet (Tasmania)
Closing date: 9 January 2017

Stakeholder Engagement Officer
Department of Natural Resources and Mines (Queensland)
Closing date: 17 January 2017

New Zealand

Senior Engagement & Communications Adviser
Ministry of Transport
Closing date: 12 January 2017

Senior Communications & Marketing Adviser – Students
Victoria University of Wellington
Closing date: 16 January 2017

Agile Project Managers
Te Papa
Closing date: 23 January 2017

Communications Advisor
The Treasury
Closing date: 25 January 2017

Top UK #LocalGov jobs this January (2017)

The New Year inspires many people to look for a change of scene, so, as we do every month, we’ve rounded up some great digital, strategic and engagement/communications jobs from the UK local government sector. Here are some that may take your fancy this January…

Customer Insight and Data Officer
Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council
Closing date: 6 January 2017

Communications Assistant
Christchurch and East Dorset Councils
Closing date: 6 January 2017

Specialist Communications Officer 
East Sussex County Council
Closing date: 8 January 2017

Senior Data and Spatial Analyst
Chelmsford City Council
Closing date: 8 January 2017

Community Engagement Assistant
London Borough of Sutton
Closing date: 9 January 2017

Senior Sitecore Developer
Islington Council
Closing date: 16 January 2017

Communications and Campaigns Advisor
Southend-on-Sea Borough Council
Closing date: 23 January 2017

Assistant Director – ICT and Digital Services
Birmingham City Council
Closing date: 24 January 2017

2016: our year in review

Tonight’s the night of the Delib Christmas party, which means only one thing: the hotly-anticipated Secret Santa gift exchange! (I’m hoping for some kind of novelty mug.)

Oh, OK, it means two things: it’s also time for our annual look back at how the past year has gone.

So: 2016, eh? Let’s leave world events to one side for a moment – there’s been no shortage of those this year (both the events and the leaving of them to one side to focus on oneself, you might say) – but that’s for other people to cover. Here’s a few snippets of what 2016 has looked like for us:

Some numbers

We’ve hit some pleasing milestone figures – including:

For us, these are encouraging signs that – even in the midst of incredibly stretched budgets and unpredictable political climates – public bodies remain committed to involving people in the decisions that affect them. And that ‘digital’ continues to become more ingrained as just an obvious and important channel for public involvement (you might be surprised how much this is not to be taken for granted!)

Some consultations

We love seeing the huge range of topics that are consulted on using our tools. From headline-grabbing national issues to hyperlocal pilot schemes; entire city spending priorities to early experiments in participatory budgeting – whenever there’s a decision that matters to people, we’re proud to see it opened up on one of our platforms.

Here’s a smattering of examples from this year:

Austin Texas Budget Simulator
The City of Austin, Texas asked for public input on spending priorities using Budget Simulator


DoH consulted on how to improve support for carers
The UK Department of Health used Citizen Space for their consultation on improving support for carers



The Environment Agency's consultation on a new nuclear power station design
The Environment Agency used Citizen Space for their (bilingual) consultation on a new nuclear power station


TfL consults on individual bus routes
Transport for London make extensive use of Citizen Space – including for consultations on a host of proposed local route changes


'Shall we put a new ramp here?', asks the Canal and River Trust
The Canal and River Trust started using Citizen Space in 2016, with an excellent consultation on Better Towpaths for Everyone


Motorcycle security trial in Southwark
Southwark Council (UK) use Citizen Space for a host of consultations, including this one on a trial scheme about motorbike anchors

Some development

As every year, we’ve continued to work on improving our products. The biggest development for us in 2016 was probably the release of Citizen Space v3. A huge amount of work went into this major overhaul, which makes it more responsive, more customisable, easier to use and just straight-up prettier. The vast majority of our 100+ Citizen Space customers are now using the new and improved v3, and it feels good to see their sites looking great and being well-used. Celebratory tapas were had.

Some events

We had our first Dialogue user group in April, up in Scotland. We also had a whole round of user groups for our Citizen Space customers in Australia and New Zealand.

We got to go to some excellent events and meetups – including, but not limited to, Demfest, GovCamp Cymru and the DigitalNI consultation event.

And, of course, that whole Boaty McBoatface thing happened – without dampening our enthusiasm for public participation. 

We also picked the hottest few days of the year to have our annual team holiday in Dorset (who said 2016 was short on reasons to be cheerful?!)

Some thanks

Lastly, a quick thank you to our customers. There’s been plenty of despair and vexation washing around about politics, government, democracy and so on – perhaps more so this year than usual. Be that as it may, we do lots of work with public bodies and government organisations and the vast majority of our experience – with civil servants, local government officers etc etc – is of people who are deeply dedicated to their work, to serving the public and the common good and who work hard to improve government and civic life generally. So thanks especially to them, for keeping our chins and general levels of optimism up 🙂

Here’s to 2017…