Our second user group of 2019 was a success! 

This time, we went up to lovely Edinburgh, where we were very kindly hosted by the Scottish Government in their v impressive building. The room we had was pretty swish with a stage and a podium and everything. (Can you tell I don’t get out much?)

We do 5+ user groups per year, all across the world. They’re great opportunities for our customers to get together and share insight on how they use Citizen Space, as well as hearing in-depth presentations from our developers and account managers with tips and tricks on how to get the most out of their subscription.

Delivery Director Louise Cato started off the day, giving a talk on Delib news and what we’ve been up to this past year. We’ve done Lots of Things, including big updates to Citizen Space, Simulator and Dialogue, introducing Kaizen as a development methodology, and some impressive numbers regarding all the consultations that have been run through our platforms.

First of our customer speakers was Christian Storstein from Scottish Government, who’s an old hand at Delib user groups by now. He gave a great talk on ScotGov’s consultation activity, which is pretty immense – they run upwards of 100 consultations a year, on anything from devolution of taxes to animal welfare to climate change strategy. Managing this is obviously a lot of work, so they use Trello as a project management tool – which is also helpful in terms of devolving access to their Citizen Space, as it’s all centrally managed at the moment. He also raised some interesting points on the use of social media as a consultation and engagement tool: one consultation that they shared on their social media received more activity in the comments than the actual consultation itself, which raised some questions on how that data should be used when it came to analysing the consultation responses.

One of the themes that popped up throughout the day was data security and GDPR. We had a really strong focus on privacy in 2018, and added lots of extra security features (for example, controlling how long admin users can stay logged into Citizen Space before an automatic logout). Emily and Mike from Falkirk Council gave a fantastic presentation on their view of GDPR as part of an ethical framework for conducting research (consultation is a type of research). They already held the view that data protection and confidentiality are essential to carrying out responsible consultation that protects the respondent, and GDPR coming into effect made the process of ratifying that framework much easier – because everyone had to comply! Erin and Clare of the Scottish Borders Council also mentioned it came up when they were procuring Citizen Space: the tools they had been using previously (Snap Survey, SurveyMonkey) had data protection issues even before GDPR came into effect. Once legislation passed they knew they needed a tool that was fully data compliant, so Citizen Space was the right choice.

Mike and Emily also talked about how their ethical framework translated into the way they run their consultations: before a consultation goes live, it has to go through rigorous checks, and all their Citizen Space users are given a series of rules to follow. These include:

  1. protection from harm for the user (there isn’t exactly a risk of physical harm from an online consultation, so this means social or psychological harm – for example, no consultations that might cause unnecessary distress or cause rifts in communities)
  2. Informed consent: users agree to take part, and the language used is written simply and with core elements only. No council-ese!
  3. Managing expectations: they must be open and realistic about the outcomes of the consultation. This means no promises they can’t deliver on in terms of policy change, and no consulting as a box-ticking exercise when a decision has already been made. This was absolutely brilliant to hear, as honesty and accountability are behaviours we hope to foster when organisations choose our products. They have a feedback section at the end of each consultation, and 40% of respondents think that the answers they provide won’t have any impact at all. By being honest about the consultation process and the effects it has, they hope to reduce this number over time. 

They are very strict when it comes to these rules. If they find that users aren’t publishing responses and feedback after the consultation has closed, they may even suspend access for that user. They’ve found the ‘saved questions’ feature useful when it comes to devolving access to other users: it helps to standardise all their surveys.

Erin and Clare of Scottish Borders Council had a slide saying ‘Citizen Space is Fab’, which we obviously enjoyed. They talked about how they’re using it in ways other than just public consultation – they use it internally quite a lot as well as a way of monitoring evaluation as well as an online voting tool for staff. One example they gave was learning disability data monitoring – i.e., how many children with learning disabilities attend each school. Previously a form would be sent out to the relevant staff member at the school and it would have to be sent back in the post, so using an internal Citizen Space survey which can then be sent out in an email is much more efficient.

They are trying to move the Council towards a digital default rather than a document-based one. They mentioned one consultation that was run by publishing a long, 50+ page PDF online, and simply asking respondents ‘What do you think?’. It got a grand total of one response. Their public consultations on Citizen Space, on the other hand, have been getting hundreds. We’re all about making the participation process easy for citizens, so we’re very much fans of not making people read 50 page policy documents before they can even take part!

Lorna Bryce from SEPA (the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency) spoke about the impact the issue of climate change is having on her organisation. Understandably they have to be leaders on the issue: incremental change is no longer enough. In terms of sector plans, they’re going to start with stakeholder engagement and making sure that businesses are compliant with climate obligations. She also spoke about a consultation that was run on the topic of Finfish Aquaculture. This was a contentious topic which made the news; a number of FOI requests were made; so they knew the consultation had to be excellent. Citizen Space was a great tool to use as it essentially created a ‘one stop shop’ for all of the different complex information, engagement events, press releases, videos, and so on that related to the consultation. Rather than citizens having to look through the website for documentation that might be old or buried somewhere, Citizen Space allowed SEPA to feature everything on one page.

Last of our speakers was Ali Stoddart of the Scottish Parliament. He works with the digital engagement department the Scottish Parliament, as part of a team identifying digital tools and trialling processes. When it comes to finding tools, they go by the ‘4 Ds’ of digital engagement: Discover new ways of gathering info; Debate –  encouraging and facilitating the exchange of ideas; Decide – participants make and contribute to decisions; and Do – this one’s pretty broad but it generally means ‘allow participants to create, share and take action together’.

They’ve recently procured Citizen Space (yay) after having used Dialogue to facilitate a discussion among teens on what mental health services they’d like to see available to them. This was prompted by a petition by a parent following the tragic loss of her daughter, who took her own life after being denied the support she needed. All too often tragic events occur with no meaningful discussion with the public or action from the authorities on how they can be avoided in the future – an issue brought into relief today by the 2nd anniversary of the Grenfell tower fire. Seeing an authority taking positive action in the wake of something so sad is hopeful.

We had presentations from Delib staff as well as customers. Developer Michaël Ball spoke in-depth about Kaizen, a methodology we’re using when it comes to product development. It means ‘continuous improvement’, so in the context of Delib, it means making small but visible changes to our products on a regular basis. This means customers don’t have to wait as long to see improvements. Customers submit suggestions to us on what they’d like to see, and we vote internally on what makes the next update using Simulator. We then roll out the changes in frequent updates, about 6-8 times per year. He also told us that he frequently gets emails intended for the singer Michael Ball and has to politely redirect them. Kind of reminiscent of the endlessly patient man called John Lewis who gets a LOT of misdirected Tweets around Christmas time.

Account manager Chris Neil gave a presentation about good survey design in Citizen Space. Some of the important things to remember are:

  • Work backwards: think about the type of data you’ll be receiving and the analysis process. What types of answers will be most useful, qualitative or quantitative? Then build the questions around that.
  • Make it as easy as possible for your respondents – this can include things like tailoring the reading age, keeping the survey concise, and including plenty of information in case respondents don’t have prior knowledge of the topic.
  • It’s all in the question: this ties in to the first point. They type of question plays a huge role in the type of data you’ll receive.
  • Test, test then test again.
  • Close the loop: feed back to your respondents! This relates to what Emily and Mike were saying about building trust: if citizens participate in a consultation and never find out the outcome, they may feel like their time was wasted. Feeding back builds trust with citizens and stakeholders.

All in all it was a great day, and it was encouraging to see our customers sharing ideas and taking inspiration from each others’ work. Thanks to everyone who attended and to ScotGov for being excellent hosts!