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Casting the net wide: how the Environment Agency increased participation through online consultation

Photo: Jason Dale

With declining salmon stocks in many English rivers, the Environment Agency needed to develop options to reduce the take of salmon by anglers and net fisheries.

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Manx views: refreshing public involvement on the Isle of Man

We recently got to chat with the Isle of Man Government about how they changed the way they communicated with citizens using Dialogue. Here’s what they told us:

The Isle of Man Government is continuing to modernise the way it interacts with citizens, as part of a commitment to openness and transparency.

Embracing digital media, enhancing web-based services and inviting public feedback via a new consultation hub are encouraging more people to have their say on important issues and to conduct their business with Government online.

Credit: Andy North

Many of the Island’s residents are active online, with an estimated 60% signed up to Facebook. A lot of discussion of political issues takes place on digital media channels and online forums and Government was keen to provide an official platform for people to air their views.

The Isle of Man Government first used Dialogue to help generate broad public engagement in its Securing Added Value and Efficiencies (SAVE) project. It was considered a good way to connect with the public in a space that could be monitored and regulated and where ideas could be formally recognized, reported and acted upon.

People were invited to submit ideas to help Government achieve multi-million pound budget savings and deliver public services more effectively.

The response was overwhelming. By the end of the first week the Dialogue site had 414 registered users who submitted 401 ideas and 770 comments. One individual contributed no fewer than 80 ideas during the course of the challenge – a level of engagement the SAVE team had not expected.

People also used the Dialogue site to communicate with one another and to collaborate on their ideas. Submissions could be refined and improved by combining suggestions. 

Screenshot of Isle of Man Dialogue

The SAVE team opted to moderate posts, but found that the site was largely self-policing and the conversation was mostly constructive.

A weekend working rota enabled responses to be checked outside of normal office hours. This proved particularly helpful as people were very engaged on Sunday evenings – possibly on account of being on their ‘downtime’, when they had an opportunity to really think about their ideas.

People could also feedback to the SAVE initiative on postcards and cut-out coupons from the local newspaper. Postcards were available at public locations around the Island and members of the SAVE team were on hand to encourage participation and answer specific questions.

Postcard and coupon responses were input to the Dialogue site, so that they could be viewed and commented upon by the majority of people who were contributing online.

The manual responses were not as detailed as those submitted online, suggesting that people found it easier to share ideas on the Dialogue site and were perhaps deliberating over matters more when they could provide their ideas in a considered way.

Users may have also been more engaged using the Dialogue tool where ideas and comments are shared, unlike conventional methods where suggestions are submitted in isolation.

By the deadline, there were more than 1,300 responses and over 2,300 comments – a fantastic result in terms of public engagement.

The Isle of Man team updated the site to confirm the exercise had closed and to inform people about the next steps in terms of assessing the ideas and selecting a number for further consideration.

Several suggestions submitted the SAVE challenge via the Dialogue site are currently being developed in partnership with the relevant Government Departments.

The Isle of Man Government is using Dialogue again to generate public feedback and ideas to improve road safety.

It has also been inspired by HM Courts and Tribunals’ use of Dialogue to generate internal staff suggestions and may consider a similar challenge to improve staff engagement in the future.

Overall, the Isle of Man Government’s experience of Dialogue has been an extremely positive one.

https://consult.gov.im

www.gov.im/consultation

Twitter – @IOMDigitaleng

‘Growing Ideas That Matter’: giving employees a voice at HMCTS

HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) is committed to giving its employees different ways of expressing their views within their organisation. This is fundamentally about giving employees a voice and seeing them as central to coming up with ideas and solutions to improve the way that HMCTS works. Employee voice is one of the key pillars of HMCTS’ approach to employee engagement; through the many channels that employees have to give their views, HMCTS hopes to create an environment where people feel engaged and committed to their work. HMCTS wants people to be able to suggest ideas that matter and that will be put in to practice to help the organisation be more effective in delivering justice.

Previously, HMCTS had tried a ‘Bright Ideas’ scheme, where people could suggest ideas by filling out a form on an internal intranet page. However, there was a perception that ideas would often sit on the platform and not be actioned, falling into an organisational ‘black hole’ with no feedback given and little sense of transparency. HMCTS wanted to enhance the way people could put forward their ideas for improvements and change to show staff that their opinions really did matter. 

They ran a survey to see what sort of scheme people would like and to gain insight into what employees wanted out of it; how they would want it to work and what they thought it should be called. A colleague suggested a working group that could work on ideas for functionality, a name, a logo and who could represent the wider HMCTS team. They looked at a few different systems and consulted cross-government networks to see what other departments were using for this type of exercise. 

They were aware of the Ministry of Justice’s Dialogue site, which had proven to be a huge success when used for a pioneering public engagement exercise (asking how to best allocate a fund provided by the government to support victims of male rape and sexual abuse). This challenge received so many thoughtful and constructive responses via the Dialogue platform that funding was reviewed and increased as a result, helping victims across the country through new support networks. HMCTS saw this success and the level of participation the challenge received, and through the outcomes of their working group and survey found that Dialogue fitted all of their criteria for functionality.

Using Dialogue, they created a new site called ‘Growing Ideas That Matter’, using an acorn growing into a tree as the logo to represent the idea of conversations developing. Ideas can start small and be built upon by everyone involved until a workable and beneficial proposal is generated. The team is making it as easy as possible for staff to get involved, encouraging people to contribute at any time, even on the bus on the way home from work using shortcuts on their phone. With responsive design, Dialogue has allowed employees to access challenges from anywhere, on any device, meaning conversations can carry on continuously. 

Under the previous scheme staff became frustrated at the lack of organisational response to ideas that were being submitted. This led to people taking to other channels to raise issues that were often off topic and therefore lost. HMCTS set up their new Dialogue in a way that would encourage genuine and positive interaction.

To ensure there is clear ownership, employees registering on Dialogue are asked to enter their name in a certain format. This is monitored to ensure people are commenting on ideas as themselves, which improves the quality of conversations. The underlying rule for suggestions is to make them count, make them matter, and to own them. 

New challenges are posted every four weeks and members of the Senior Leadership Team have been allocated as sponsors for them, commenting on ideas and ensuring the conversation is heard, and acted on where possible. Teams also have ‘team information board’ meetings where they can talk about issues with one person in charge of posting it on Dialogue and monitoring the level of response it receives. With 450 locations across the country, this has proven to be a great virtual workshop for geographically dispersed colleagues to have meaningful discussions. 

HMCTS has found that the new notifications function in Dialogue has enhanced conversations by keeping people updated on the ideas they have submitted. The single notification per day means that people can keep up-to-date on how their ideas are moving forwards, without being overwhelmed by email updates.

The current challenge is to gather ideas around updating internal guidance and it’s working well. The success of using Dialogue has already led to some ideas being taken forward and organisational changes which may have gone otherwise unheard and is helping HMCTS employees to feel valued and able to have a genuine input in improving their place of work.

“Dialogue has given HMCTS a platform to build our engagement and help take a broad spectrum of ideas and experience into account when delivering change. We feel like we’ve only just scratched the surface of what we could achieve with Dialogue and are excited to see where this leads.”
Lauren Waters, Customer Innovation Manager, HMCTS

We’re hiring – Excellent Account Manager wanted

This job listing is no longer current. Please visit www.delib.net/jobs to see our current vacancies and more information about working at Delib.

Citizen Space v3.8 release announcement

Our latest Citizen Space release is here and as always it includes a handful of new features as well as some smaller, business-as-usual improvements to enhance security or fix minor bugs.

What’s new:

“Consultation completion” checkbox
There’s a new optional feature called “Consultation completion” which allows a consultation owner to indicate once they’ve finished working with the data and all work on that consultation is complete. When switched on, this tool appears on the consultation dashboard.

This feature was requested by the Scottish Government and is designed to help administrators from all organisations manage data retention periods. By logging the date that all work was completed on the consultation, it means your organisation will now have a record of how long it’s holding data for, making it easier to keep in line with data protection guidelines.

Automatic logout for internal admins after one month
To strengthen the security of Citizen Space, we’ve added an automatic logout period. Your internal admins’ log-in sessions will now expire one month after they last used Citizen Space. This time period is configurable so we can reduce it for your site if need be — if you’d like to make it a shorter time period, please get in touch with your account manager.

Changes to suspended users
Suspended users will now see an on-screen message telling them that their account has been suspended if they try to log in.

This message is editable by site admins, so your organisation can provide guidance about who users should contact if they want to get their profile reinstated. They will also no longer appear in the drop-down list of potential owners on the Manage Consultations page.

Improved reliability for response exports
A couple of customers with a high number of responses to their consultations recently experienced a problem exporting the spreadsheet of all responses. They found that the export would time out without letting them know that the request had failed. We’ve made some changes to the process so that the export is much more reliable, especially for consultations with a high number of responses, and the user will now be shown an update in real time of how many responses Citizen Space has added to the export so far.

Google Analytics removed from admin pages
A customer got in contact asking how they could filter out Citizen Space admin pages when viewing their Google Analytics data. We’ve changed Citizen Space so that only its public-facing pages will appear in Google Analytics data from now on, enabling you to concentrate on the more useful data about what your respondents have been up to on the site.

In other news…

Some helpful hints on GDPR
As you’re probably aware, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) will come into effect in May this year. We’ve been busy doing prep work and have put together a list of useful resources that might come in handy when getting to grips with the new legislation.

Welcome to some new Citizen Space customers
In the last couple of months we’ve welcomed Scottish Water, the UK General Optical Council and the UK Gambling Commission to the ranks of our 90+ Citizen Space customers around the world.

Featured consultation

Talking of the Scottish capital, Edinburgh City Council recently opened a public consultation on a proposed new tram line in the north of the city. Running until 29 April, the consultation is well-presented with images embedded throughout and a nice example of the Events tool in action on the overview page.

You can keep up to date with other public consultations running in Citizen Space by visiting the Citizen Space Aggregator.

Democracy Mark-up Language (DML), the Semantic Web and machine-readable policy documents: Thought Paper

The semantic web is a term used to describe a web which is made up not just of data but of data with attributed ‘meaning’.  The result of contexualising data and meaning is ultimately ‘machine-readable meaning’ i.e. the ability for a computer to understand that the word ‘Acne’ that appears on a website doesn’t refer to a skin condition but rather a brand of jeans.

The term ‘semantic web’ was coined by Tim Berners Lee based on the following vision

I have a dream for the Web [in which computers] become capable of analyzing all the data on the Web – the content, links, and transactions between people and computers. A “Semantic Web”, which makes this possible, has yet to emerge, but when it does, the day-to-day mechanisms of trade, bureaucracy and our daily lives will be handled by machines talking to machines. The “intelligent agents” people have touted for ages will finally materialize.

Semantic languages & Schema.org

Since 2001 when Tim Berners Lee set-forth his vision, various semantic vocabularies have been developed to enable people to mark-up web pages to give them meaning.  One of the leading markup vocabularies is Schema.org, created as a collaboration of leading search engine organisations including Google, Bing, Yandex and others.

Schema.org was created to create widespread usage of semantic markup, and is broad in its scope incorporating 500+ ‘types’ and 800+ ‘properties’ meaning that Schema.org can be applied to pretty much anything to date.

An example of Schema.org mark-up structure, with its ‘types’ and ‘properties’ is as follows – using the website information of my local pub ‘The Duke of Edinburgh’ as an example:

Type:
BarOrPub / FoodEstablishment
itemtype=“http://schema.org/BarOrPub”
Properties:
Name
itemprop=“name” Duke of Edinburgh
Address
itemprop=“address” 204 Ferndale Road, Brixton, London SW9 8AG
Opening hours
itemprop=”opening hours” 5pm – 11:30pm

By adding this semantic markup language to the pubs website information enables Google (or other search engines / service that relies on open web data) to more easily understand the meaning of the information provided.

For example, a very important thing that it does is help Google understand that this information is related to an organisation (pub) called the Duke of Edinburgh rather than a ‘person’ called the same thing.

The result when searched via Google is this, when searching for ‘pub near me’

. . . rather than coming back with this 😉 (photo courtesy of Aaron McCracken)

When looking at Schema.org’s application, one important area missing to date is democracy & legislation.

DML (democracy mark-up language)

In the context of Delib’s work, the idea of applying the semantic web to democratic processes (like policy creation and legislation)  highlights a whole raft of exciting advantages to enrich democracy.  We might call this specific mark-up language “Democracy Mark-up Language (DML).

Government policy & legislative documents are famously wordy and inaccessible, but at the same time are generally well-structured and part of a wider well-structured government process.

The natural structured nature of policy / legislation means it has the potential to be made more accessible by technology; the starting point for making this government policy data more accessible is providing an easy way to mark it up and give ‘machine-readable meaning’ to policy documents.

What this might look like from a practical perspective using Schema.org, is something like this (using this proposed policy from Dept of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs as an example https://consult.defra.gov.uk/animal-health-and-welfare/ban-on-electronic-training-collars-cats-and-dogs/consult_view/ )

Type:
PolicyDocument / Government Work

itemtype=“http://schema.org/GovernmentWork”

Properties:
Name
itemprop=“name” Ban on electronic training collars for cats and dogs in England
Description
itemprop=“description” We are seeking views on banning electronic training collars (e-collars). These corrective behaviour devices allow electronic or static pulses and other signals to be given to pets by their owners.
Organisation
itemprop=“organisation Dept of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Audience
itemprop=“audience type” Anyone
Start Date
itemprop=“startdate” 12/03/2018
End Date
itemprop=enddate” 27/04/2018
Geography
itemprop=“EligibleRegion” England
Contact Point / Email
Feedback Point

Benefits / practical uses of DML applied to policy & legislative documents

Having applied DML to a series of government policy documents would then, like the pub example, enable search engines to more easily surface policy documents relevant to individuals.  For example, instead of searching for ‘pubs near me’ a person might search for ‘What government policies affect my local area?’ and the results may look something like . . .

Or alternatively more specifically a person may search for ‘What’s the latest with the government’s HS2 policy’? And the latest policy document would appear, along with the ability for the citizen to feedback on it.

Schema.org + Citizen Space

The hugely exciting bit in all of these is that we’re 90%+ there in making DML a reality.  Breaking down what’s needed to make DML work in practice at scale there’s 2 key parts, reliant on Schema.org and Citizen Space.

  • Agreeing the DML language (via Schema.org): policy documents are very similar to other standard documents that are covered by Schema.org’s type ‘CreativeWork’ http://schema.org/CreativeWork so we’re 99% there with the Schema.org language (types and properties).  I think there does need to be a sub-type of ‘CreativeWork’ which is ‘GovernmentWork’, which includes additional properties specific to policy and legislative documents like ‘feedback’ (relating to the ability for citizens to feedback / input into policy).
  • Easy application of DML to policy documents: sure, all of this DML idea sounds interesting in theory, but given that the practical application would involve civil servants needing to specifically add code to online documents to mark them up with DML, the idea would die very quickly – as no civil servant would have the time (or realistically the technical expertise) to add DML to their policies.

That’s luckily where Citizen Space comes in, as Citizen Space is already used by a high percentage of government departments (UK and Australia) to publish policy documents through.  To make DML a reality, Delib would need to map Schema.org language (i.e. DML) to the existing structured data that Citizen Space is structured around.  N.B. to get a sense of how policies in Citizen Space are structured, check out the Citizen Space Aggregator.

This essentially would mean business as usual for the government departments who publish their policies via Citizen Space, but a huge potential step change in the value that government and citizens get out of the publishing of policies.

Appendix 1: Mapping Schema.org to Citizen Space structured data

The following is a breakdown of existing Schema.org language applied to policy documents listed in Citizen Space (according to the policy information structuring allowed for in Citizen Space).  I’ve added some additional notes and questionned some

Citizen Space policy document data Schema.org ‘type’ or ‘property’ Notes (thoughts on appropriateness)
Document type GovernmentWork [type] NEW This doesn’t exist at present.  Only ‘CreativeWork’ exists as a ‘type’
Name Name
Overview description
Area  EligibleRegion
Audience audiencetype
Interest (interest category area) category
Organisation organisation
Department (of organisation) department
Consultation start date startDate
Consultation end date endDate
Contact Contactpoint (?) Or should this be ‘accountable person’ – refers to ‘legal owner’
Contact information (of owner) Telephonenumber, email
Feedback format (online survey, .pdf, email, event) FeedbackPoint [NEW]  This is a new property and does not exist at present
Related documents Citation (?) May not work, may need other option.
Language availablelanguage
Published response comment

Next steps?

DML is very much in concept phase at the moment, and this thought paper is a first articulation of what DML could be and the benefits.  If you’re interested in discussing the concept further, and are interested in applying it (especially if you work in government policy), drop us a note: chrisq@delib.net

The latest, greatest digital democracy and involvement jobs (UK, March 2018)

Looking for a good, interesting, chance-to-make-a-difference job? The world of digital government keeps on providing great opportunities. Check out this latest bunch, for instance:

Digital Design Team
Hackney Council
‘The new Digital Design team will provide the key skills and expertise required to deliver agile, user centred change across the whole range of the Council’s services.

We are looking for people with a clear vision for delivering excellent digital services, have experience of delivering transformational results and excellent user experiences as part of effective multidisciplinary teams and with the ability to inspire and influence colleagues across services to make effective use of data and service design.’
Closing date: 14 March

Digital Communications Manager
National Audit Office
‘With an ever-changing digital landscape, and an ambitious communications strategy, the NAO is looking for someone to help us modernise our external digital communications approach and activity, increasing our influence with key stakeholders.’
Closing date: 14 March

Director of Technology, Product and Delivery
Government Digital Service
‘The Director of Technology, Product and Delivery will run the Government Digital Service Delivery and Support Group. They will ensure the successful running of its ambitious programme of work with an annual budget of £85 million. Reporting to the Director General, they will have line management responsibility for 4 Deputy Directors and an overall indirect report of 550 staff.’
Closing date: 18 March

Product Lead
House of Commons
‘At the Parliamentary Digital Service, we’re transforming the way Parliament does digital. We’re responsible for the digital output of all parliamentary services. We think it’s important that everyone can access and understand what’s going on in Parliament. Our goal is to bring together the public, Parliament Members, and Parliamentary staff to inform, engage, support, and communicate through one, unified digital core – PDS.’
Closing date: 18 March

Content Designer
House of Commons
‘…focus on the development and production of engaging digital content aimed at increasing learning, awareness and understanding of the work and role of Parliament.’
Closing date: 18 March

Social Media Officer
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
‘…you will also advise on the social media strategy and work with Ministers, staff and stakeholders around the world to ensure they are using social media effectively. As real time editorial leadership becomes increasingly important in creating breaking news, views and information, your work will have high visibility and real impact.’
Closing date: 19 March

Consultation & Engagement Manager
Cornwall Council
‘Looking for a significant opportunity to shape and influence outcomes for the people of Cornwall? We can offer the opportunity to work on high profile strategic initiatives such as the Devolution Deal, the Strategy for Cornwall, the promotion of Cornish as a recognised National Minority Group and the Council’s leadership approach across key policy areas as we commence the process of leaving the European Union.’
Closing date: 19 March

Customer Engagement Officer
West Lancashire Borough Council
‘As a Customer Engagement Officer, you will support the Customer Engagement team to develop, promote and manage the Council’s customer experience process, to ensure the views of our tenants and customers are instrumental in the delivery and improvement of services. You will be the lead officer for the Tenant Scrutiny Group and will also help to deliver a Council wide digital inclusion programme.’
Closing date: 21 March

Head of Digital Services
Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council
‘Leading a range of specialist professionals, you’ll develop a customer-focused service, which is responsive, flexible to customer needs and delivered to high standards. You will help us drive a digital first approach, internally and externally. So you’ll need to have experience of leading a major IT or Digital Service successfully.’
Closing date: 22 March

Senior Engagement Officer
Greater London Authority
‘OPDC is a Mayoral Development Corporation…Working in the CEO Office within the Communications and Engagement team, you will:
– Deliver an engagement programme and activities to support the statutory public consultation of the OPDC Local Plan.
– Help OPDC understand and engage all audiences in the area including hard-to-reach groups…’
Closing date: 28 March

 

Shifting approaches to consultation at Reading Borough Council

We recently got to chat with Adam Bevington who heads up the web team at Reading Borough Council (UK). Since taking on the role, he’s overseen a dramatic shift in the team’s balance of skills, competencies and workload.

Gone is much of the old emphasis on purely technical/code/ICT work. Instead, Adam has focused on bringing in more and more content expertise: when recruiting for the web team, Reading have been hiring writers, communicators and people who can produce engaging and accessible material (which just so happens to be delivered digitally). 

As a result, the team is now (rightly, one might say) understood within the organisation as more of a communications function than an internal support/infrastructure one. These days, people are more likely to come and ask them for help with wording or tone than they are about a malfunctioning mouse or the intricacies of rebooting an iPad. 

Where has this approach come from?

Perhaps this shift isn’t so surprising given that Adam’s own background is in marketing. But this wasn’t a move made out of personal preference – it’s a strategic decision, designed to reflect the essential integration of digital into everything the Council does. 

And it’s another indication of the continuing, encouraging trend towards what I guess you might call ‘digital by default’. Every week there’ll be another (un)conference extolling the need to realise the full/holistic potential of digital transformation: centred around people, not systems, emphasising ease of interaction over monolithic back-office infrastructure. And that’s good: these need to be such oft-repeated refrains that working this way just becomes business as usual.

What’s the upshot?

For Reading, the change has already made a big difference to the way the organisation works. A prime example is around consultation – a function that now primarily sits with the web team (not the comms team, as one might expect).

Reading use Citizen Space as their online consultation platform and Adam explained that, alongside bringing in more content expertise, adopting this tool has helped change the way they work. 

This is because Citizen Space is, by design, easy for anyone to use, with no specialist technical expertise required. One staff member at Reading now boasts of having the training down to a fine art and is disappointed in herself if she can’t teach someone everything they need to know in order to use the system within 19 minutes. 

This has created a different feel to consulting online. It’s not seen as a complicated thing that requires extensive technical setup. Rather, it’s an exercise in public engagement – one that staff from across the Council can initiate themselves. And when they go to the web team for help, it’s not because they need ‘someone who’s good with computers’ to do their job for them. Instead, people are asking about how best to present materials, how to maximise reach and how to engage participants as effectively as possible. Questions of good communication, not technological operation.

We’re big fans of Reading’s approach and, in our training, events and advice to customers, you’ll frequently hear us arguing for exactly this stance. It’s so easy to get distracted by the fact that ‘digital’ involves technology and mistakenly focus on the technical aspects themselves – as if just connecting up enough cables, screens and devices would, in and of itself, suddenly change the way people interact with government. 

Instead, as it has been for Reading, new technology should be a prompt and an opportunity to find new, better ways of working. That’s not just an optimistic platitude – we consistently find with Citizen Space customers, for example, that when they adopt the platform, it helps them bring in a new approach to consultation and public engagement, not just an increase in the efficiency of their old methods. 

If you’re interested in finding out more, get in touch to see Citizen Space in action.

How we work: Natalie Williams, Account Manager

Delib has got some awesome people doing some great stuff for digital democracy. We recently chatted with one of our Account Managers, Natalie, about what her job entails and how she works, to give you a glimpse into how Delib ticks.

How would you summarise your job in one line? What’s the overall goal?

My job in its simplest, most nutshell form is to support our customers. This can take the form of delivering training to build users’ confidence in using our products; providing consultancy & advice to help spread best practices; responding to support queries & solving problems; and listening to feedback so we can better understand our customers’ evolving needs. The ultimate goal is happy customers whose jobs are made easier by using our products.

What’s the thing you most get enthused about hearing/seeing from a customer? When do you get to go home feeling like ‘that was a good day’?

It’s always a pleasure to work with customers who are investing genuine time & effort into making a consultation easy to understand & respond to, and trying to put themselves in the shoes of a respondent. What’s even more rewarding, however, is seeing or hearing about what the outcome of a consultation was – how the information that respondents provided was used, and the change that was made as a result. We tend to hear from customers early on in the process and often don’t have visibility of the outcome further down the line, but it’s brilliant when we do get to hear about real world change that has been effected by a consultation run using one of our products. I’d love to see even more customers opening up the process & regularly reporting back in a transparent way.

If you could entirely solve one (work-related, don’t say ‘world peace’) problem with a wave of a magic wand, what would it be and why?
Right at this moment (you may regret asking) it would be a problem we’re experiencing thanks to an email security provider used by several of our customers treating Delib emails as spam & blocking them, which is very frustrating as it’s stopping me from communicating with customers & sending them useful information they’ve asked for!

But putting aside the trials and tribulations of the day, I’d say that a more long term problem I’d like to make magically disappear is a widespread lack of understanding in the UK about how our political systems work, both centrally and locally. Why is this stuff not taught in schools when it would serve us all so well? With a flick of my magic wand I’d add it straight onto the curriculum & get us all educated from a young age & hopefully therefore more engaged throughout our adult lives.

You work closely with customers to practically implement this stuff in the real world. How do you think the connection between digital tools and better democracy plays out in practice? Is it just a question of efficiency; is it an increased accessibility thing; does adopting new products somehow change organisational culture or is it something else entirely?

The primary benefit is definitely being able to reach a wider audience than ever before, including communities that perhaps historically wouldn’t have been involved in the engagement process. Another layer to this of course, as I mentioned above, is transparency – increased accessibility means increased opportunities to share what you’re doing and be open about your processes and the opportunities people have to influence them.

Efficiency is certainly another advantage of using digital tools, in terms of streamlining the consultation process, making it easier to achieve a consistent level of quality, and having all of your response data accessible in one place. I’m slightly more cautious about the idea of adopting new products as a means of changing organisational culture; while they can help to act as a catalyst, my general experience is that change will be more effectively achieved if organisations choose to adopt new tools specifically to support existing goals, rather than expecting a digital tool alone to make all the difference.

Thanks Nat, it’s always good to have an insight into what people do! For democracy-related stuff, excellent gifs or to chat more, catch Natalie on Twitter.

Increasing participation through ease of use

We work with a lot of people in government who want as many citizens as possible to be involved with consultation. They don’t want to see empty rooms at consultation events where people are supposed to give their views and nor do we.

There’s a genuine commitment to increasing participation. As a result, a common question from civil servants about our products is ‘will this help us open up our consultation to a wider audience?’

The short answer is ‘yes’. The slightly longer (more interesting) answer is that we have a guiding principle for increasing accessibility and participation: that the best way to open up consultation is to make it as easy as possible for people to get involved. Our conviction is that removing friction from the process of participation will increase the range of people who are willing and able to get involved.

Keeping things simple

When the UK Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) published their consultations on the gov.uk website and Citizen Space simultaneously, they found that the average completion rate was much higher when using Citizen Space – 21% compared to 3%. 

In part, this was simply down to there being fewer steps in the end-to-end journey. Citizen Space lets you manage the entire consultation process in one place, from listings to survey to response publishing.

We do whatever we can to keep it easy to participate: people don’t have to register an account or login to take part, for instance. And we try to maintain a clean, simple interface design to help people remain focused on the matters at hand, rather than getting stuck on convoluted or overly-technical processes. We’ve consistently seen that keeping things simple delivers better results.

User-centred design

Visual design is another important factor which has been considered for every aspect of Citizen Space. From spacing, to font size, to line lengths, everything is centred around the user experience. In Reading Borough Council’s experience, well-presented content was shown to increase participation. By involving marketers and content-writers in the building of consultations, they made sure surveys were easy to understand and easy to parse – and response numbers improved as a result. If people can quickly and easily understand what is being asked of them, they are far more likely to participate.

Accessible to everyone

Accessibility has been meticulously considered in the building of Citizen Space which makes it available for anyone to engage with, including those who may need to use screen readers, have sight issues or other disabilities that might prevent them from taking part in consultations in person. Responsive design also means that consultations can be viewed and responded to on all devices, meaning that those who perhaps don’t have access to a laptop or desktop computer can still get involved using their tablet or mobile phone.

All of these factors combined make consultation easier for participants – lowering the barriers to entry and reducing the friction in the process – leading to increased involvement.

The aim is simple: we want to help people who are working to get more citizens involved in government and consultation. If that sounds like you, drop us a line to find out how we can help you.

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