I cannot conceive how a local authority could deliver consultation or engagement…without a tool like Citizen Space.”

This article is part of an interview I did with David Porteous, Insight Manager at the City of Edinburgh Council. In this instalment, he talks me through the specifics of bringing in Citizen Space and how it’s impacted Edinburgh’s consultation activity. (Read part one and part two.) He’s been working at the Council for a long time – sixteen years, to be exact – so he’s seen the authority’s consultation processes completely transform over time.

Edinburgh Council have been a Delib customer since 2015. The landscape of the internet is a lot different today than it was then, particularly in terms of digital democracy and consultation. Since that time, the world has moved increasingly online, with the expectation from many – particularly for younger generations –  of ‘digital by default’ for the services we access as citizens. 

Before they procured Citizen Space, Delib’s flagship engagement platform, Edinburgh’s online consultation process was scrappy and inconsistent, without a clear system in place. “There were a couple of really clunky message-board things, and spreadsheets that got updated with current public consultations and put up on the council’s website,” says David. “Completely inadequate, and nothing like what you would expect even back then. Nowadays, expectations have obviously got higher.”

Solving common consultation problems

Expectations have got higher, both from a citizen’s perspective in terms of the online experience, and from the authority’s perspective in terms of supplier quality. But principles of good consultation have remained the same: keep it accessible, keep it simple, keep it secure. Unfortunately we still see a lot of online consultation run on poor systems, or even without a system; just a PDF with an email address attached, buried in a remote corner of a website without a working search function.

“When Citizen Space came in, there was nothing in the market that could’ve provided the same sort of service. We had a number of engagement or consultation activities going on, but when it came to having a handle on that, knowing what was happening centrally, being able to control quality, being able to notify citizens that these things were happening, and then having any repository of information to say that the consultation had happened – that just didn’t exist. When we adopted Citizen Space, we thought, ‘this does everything that we need it to do – it solves so many problems’. Even a local authority as large as Edinburgh is completely unequipped and under-resourced to be able to tackle those problems in isolation, so an off-the-shelf solution was a no-brainer.”

Citizen Space does everything we need it to do – it solves so many problems.

It’s nice to hear that from a customer – to those of us within the very limited sphere of digital democracy, a well-designed tool is a no-brainer. Having good, accessible online democracy processes increases response rate, saves time and resource, and makes life easier for citizens as well as administrators. Plus, because Citizen Space is an annual subscription, rather than multiple licenses for the same tool, it’s cheaper than other common tools. Why wouldn’t you?

“I think the only online tool we had was—” He interrupts himself to ask if I can hear his neighbour screaming at her child. (I can’t.) “Ok, good, that’s only distracting me then.”

“Anyway, the only online tool that we had where people could respond to us, besides email, was SurveyMonkey. When I was talking about populating information on spreadsheets – we kept a repository of active consultations on the Council website, at that point. But it would have been out of date, very poorly maintained, and woefully incomplete. Because there was no easy way of storing or presenting consultation information, our spreadsheets would include a phone number for the lead officer and little, if any, other information.”

One of the barriers for a local authority procuring new tools is existing work structure: there can be a real culture of ‘well, this is the way we’ve always done things, and we don’t want to have to train everyone on a new system.’ I ask David how the uptake of Citizen Space was at Edinburgh.

“Almost everyone has been very receptive to it. People who work in community planning, transport and such – services that would normally be conducting a lot of consultation and engagement activities themselves – immediately realised the benefits. Everybody else was fine with it at worst!”

Public consultation standards

Edinburgh consults fairly often, and many of its consultations are high-profile, like the one on the introduction of a Transient Visitor Levy or ‘tourist tax’, which David spoke about in part two of this interview series. So does Citizen Space help to manage that scale and scope, and if so, how?

“One of the main aspects is standardisation. If you created a space which was like a Word document – blank and you can fill it with anything – what you would have is an asylum of random and inconsistent approaches shaped by a hundred different people trying their best, making something for the first time or in their own style. Having a structure is really useful; it helps people understand how they should think about both presenting their information and the process their engagement should follow. The ability to have one dedicated site means that we, as a central support service, can see what’s going on, and other services or departments can identify things that they wouldn’t necessarily have been aware of otherwise. The survey mechanism built into Citizen Space itself and the ability to create and load organisation-specific or standard demographic questions is helpful. A standardised reporting function also helps people become familiar with the consultation reports; staff understand what data exports will actually be from a system before they get their data. We don’t do anything automated with the reports, so it’s all manual analysis… I mean, it happens with computers, not picks and axes, but it’s still manual. There’s also a certain amount of gloss which individual services might struggle to create; applying branding, pictures, images, and so on, to landing pages for their consultation or engagement activity, which at the same time fits with the Council’s own website branding.”

I cannot conceive how a local authority could deliver consultation or engagement in any sort of rational way without a tool like Citizen Space.

Does he think that Citizen Space and its features, like standardisation, have helped create efficiencies in Edinburgh Council as a result?

“The volume has increased year on year. Consultation and engagement activity have a larger resource implication for local government now than five or ten years ago. It’s difficult to accurately estimate improvements in efficiency; but what I can say is I cannot conceive how a large local authority would be able to deliver consultation or engagement in any sort of rational way without having a tool like Citizen Space. In terms of institutional awareness I’m sure we’re managing and avoiding a lot of risk by having it.”

I ask if he can give me an example of how Edinburgh have avoided risk by using Citizen Space, which he politely declines. He does give me a hypothetical scenario, in which a lower-level manager signs off an activity without the awareness of elected officials or senior managers and ends up publishing information that isn’t suitable for public consumption. “The risk of something like that happening is minimised because a central support service have a window into operations through having Citizen Space. There’s also something on the standardisation topic: a tool exists and people are aware of the support that surrounds it, which means that they understand implicitly that there are some standards that they need to meet.”

an example of one of edinburgh council's public consultations
An example of one of Edinburgh’s public consultations

Edinburgh have used all three of Delib’s tools over the years. One thing that we’ve noticed as the expectation for digital-by-default has increased, and the number of suppliers in our field along with it, is that what tends to get offered is an all-in-one ‘engagement solution’.

“If you were being an absolute purist around what you were doing, then you would think about your information needs for a process: what is the decision we need to get to, and how is best to get there? Then you would start thinking about the tools that you have available to you. That is a good general rule for everyone. The reality is that if someone is equipped with a limited set of tools, then they begin to see problems through those particular terms. It’s difficult to not do exactly the same thing we just did, because it feels roughly right. I suppose the bigger quote is, for a man with a hammer every problem is a nail. It’s useful for us to be able to say, ‘this year we have this vision for what it is we’re doing with this project, and this one of Delib’s products fits with that’. 

There’s a real challenge with how you train and maintain skills across an organisation for a wide set of tools that are built into a product. With software solutions, you often buy functionality which most people will never need or use, and might not use well. I don’t know if I’d be happy if every single person who was conducting an engagement activity suddenly decided they wanted to run message board-style online ideation, because while it can be really useful and you get some really good feedback, it requires more staff resource than anything else. Until you run that project yourself, you don’t really understand the demands of using those particular tools. 

Often times a bundled solution is just crap in one area. It may be that whatever the tool is, it does A fantastically but does B just awfully. If you can’t get a better solution for B, then you end up either not using it or doing something really inferior.

If everything gets bundled together then you’ll never get agreement from budget holders to do anything different, and often times a bundled solution can just be crap in one area. It may be that whatever the overall tool is, it does A and B fantastically but does C, D and E just awfully. If you can’t get a better solution for C D and E then you end up either not using those elements and are never able to do something in that context, or you end up doing something really inferior, that potentially damages the outcomes that you’re aiming for and your organisation’s reputation.”

My time talking to David is coming to a close – he’s been generous with his time, talking to me for an hour an a half. Before I let him get on with his life I ask him if there’s anything else he wanted to add?

“What we have found with all of the people we’ve worked with at Delib is people who are enthused about what it is they’re doing and what we’re doing is helpful. Sometimes we’re very enthused about what we’re doing, and sometimes (laugh) what we’re doing is a slow grind against multiple forces that we have very little control against. It’s nice to have positive suppliers who are actually, oddly, often not trying to sell us anything else. It’s an unusual thing in the public sector.”

We definitely like to do things a bit differently and it’s great that David appreciates it. He’s been saying such nice things about Delib that I’m tempted to let him talk all day, but that wouldn’t be fair. Huge thanks to him for giving up his time for this series – you can see some the good consultation work he and his team have been doing on Edinburgh’s Citizen Space site.

If you’d like to learn more about what Citizen Space can do for your organisation, book a free demo and we’ll walk you through it.

Read part one: Education, empathy, Edinburgh: fostering understanding with Simulator

Read part two: Public participation and the policy cycle