Tag Archives: e-consultation

‘Digital democracy in practice’ – seminar/Q&A with Exeter University students

One of the best parts of my role as an account manager is to get out of the office and spread the word about digital democracy. Last week, I was fortunate enough to return to my old stomping ground – Exeter University, in south west England – and give a talk to third year politics students. (The third year module on ‘civic engagement’ makes reference to online tools generally and Delib specifically.)  It was a real delight to be there for the afternoon. I just wish the module had existed when I was at uni!

Whilst writing my presentation on ‘digital democracy in practice’, I was also able to reflect back on the changes in online consultation and digital in government from 2011 to now. I chose the end of 2010/start of 2011 as a starting point, as this is when Martha Lane Fox’s influential report on the revolution not evolution of directgov came out – a report which marked a bit of a sea change and the beginnings of gov.uk. This was also a useful reflection point for me as I started working at Delib a few months later!

One of the key changes I have seen since 2011 is a shift from one-off ‘singular (project-based) democracy’ which costs government thousands of pounds in websites/one-off builds towards more ‘continuous democracy’ in 2017.  Government departments can now consult more regularly using low cost online tools. The result: more cost-effective solutions for citizens and improved transparency.

The second key shift I have witnessed is a more deep-rooted cultural change in working practices. Government departments are increasingly adopting more agile, lean and collaborative ways of working. Scenes that you see posted on gov.uk’s blog simply wouldn’t have existed in 2010.

Source: gds.blog.gov.uk

During the session, we reviewed some of the key grounding principles, focusing on the Gunning and consultation principles before applying these to real customer examples and teasing out some of the key challenges government departments face. I then opened up the session to questions. Here’s a flavour of the topics which came up from the students and an idea of how I answered them:

+ How does digital democracy help open up the conversation beyond ‘the usual suspects?’

Digital democracy can help open up the conversation to a broader range of participants by providing a different medium through which to conduct those conversations. Customers have indicated that using digital tools has enabled them to reach a broader audience group, which is fantastic. That said, if you are consulting a niche group on a specific topic, you may find that some of the ‘usual suspects’ still turn up, but who’s to say that they will be the only ones there contributing to the discussion?

+ How can social media help these conversations and government departments in 2017?

Social media can both promote and dilute the conversation you are hoping to have in my experience. If you start a conversation on one social media platform or digital engagement tool and it spreads across other platforms, sometimes the conversation can become disparate. It may also become difficult to analyse if there is no obvious flow or output from the discussions taking place.  When used well, however, social media can be a great opportunity to get into spaces where these conversations are already happening or to open up participation to individuals interested people/groups.

In order to use social media effectively, civil servants need to be equipped with the right community management skills. Luckily, there are an increasing number of short, free courses opening up such as this one from Future Learn on using data from social media platforms to understand public conversations. I’m hoping to check the course out to help with the guidance we give our customers.

+ Are these methods inclusive or do they often exclude certain generations?

This topic also came up at a conference I recently attended called NotWestminster as we were working with a case study which featured retired users. It was interesting how quickly some of the group jumped to assumptions. I wouldn’t say that digital democracy excludes certain generations and the idea that the older generation not necessarily having strong digital skills isn’t always true. Often the blocker is confidence in digital which isn’t necessarily age-based. Where there are gaps (sometimes referred to as ‘the digital divide’), the UK government often looks to address them – for example, via setting up departments within GDS, such as the assisted digital team.

+ Do you find that government departments look at the cost-benefit analysis of running online consultation?

Some government departments that we work with are starting to drill into more of the details and nuances in this area, which is great to see. For example, we heard from BEIS at our 2016 London user group about working with statistics and conversion rates from gov.uk (they got from a 3% conversion rate to an impressive 25% by studying what worked well). BEIS are really hot on their analytics at the moment and I’m excited to see what they are going to do next.

+ Do you have plans to expand outside of English speaking territories?

Our current goal is to continue our expansion within English speaking territories. But it would be great to work in more countries around the world one day! Our main blocker to this is being able to translate all 3 applications (though it is something we’re looking at). Government structures are fairly similar in the countries where we work at the moment, but expanding to new countries always means learning more about the particularities of their context.

+ Where’s next for deliberative discussion?

So what will the next 5+ years hold? Well, the biggest challenges I see are around standardisation and sharing of best practice. This is perhaps not new or unique to online consultation but does hold one of the biggest opportunities in my opinion. Jodie Lamb, a Communication and Stakeholder Engagement professional recently posted about what she had learnt whilst working in New Zealand. Sharing best practice or having ‘hands across the ocean’ is key. If something has already been trialled in the UK and failed, then let’s ensure that digital teams in Australia and NZ learn from this. There are also some really exciting projects and learning opportunities coming out from countries like Iceland, Brazil and Estonia. Sharing best practice is key.

The future of government and effective online consultation lies in the hands of the next generation of digital leaders. Learning that modules like this one on civic engagement exist is really exciting. I’m hoping that this talk will pave the way to other opportunities to talk to young digital leaders in the future.

5 things I learnt from AU/NZ about online consultation & digital services in government

Australia, New Zealand and the UK are often considered among the world leaders when it comes to digital government/online public involvement. Having recently returned from a secondment to Australia and New Zealand, I wanted to reflect back on what we in the UK can learn from these markets and our customers there.

To set the scene quickly: let’s remind ourselves how far digital in government has progressed in all three countries. With digital increasingly recognised as a ‘given’ (even declared a basic human right in a recent UN report), all three countries have been taking online developments seriously in government – perhaps especially over the past 5 or 6 years:

Each of these countries are striving to make rapid advances in online government in their own different contexts. So what can the UK/what did I learn from Australia and New Zealand about digital government and online consultation? Here are 5 things that stuck with me from my trip:

  1. Make consultations even more informative
    One thing that struck me, even during my first week in Australia, was how genuinely informative our customers there make some of their formal consultations. The WA Health cancer care consultation, for example, which was showcased during our first Australian user group in Perth, uses infographics and a user-friendly layout throughout the consultation – so taking part is a real opportunity for respondents to learn about the issues as well as to give their feedback.
  2. Become more familiar with APIs and what they can do
    Our New Zealand customers have been some of the first to embrace full use of our Citizen Space API: an incredibly useful and flexible tool but one that’s not always well-known or well-understood. However, I found it possible to walk into meetings in Australia and New Zealand and for there to be an assumed understanding about APIs and their potential – demonstrating a level of technical awareness that’s great to see.
  3. Develop more of a culture of ‘doing first’
    In New Zealand in particular, I was struck by government employees’ appetite to ‘get stuck in’ and make things happen. That’s not to say there was no planning or strategy, which obviously are hugely valuable too. But I think sometimes in the UK we can err on the side of cautious preparation a little too much, and could do with ‘just launching in’ sometimes. The civil servants I met in Wellington were also incredibly pragmatic in their approach, often working on an iterative basis: ‘doing’ first and then quickly working out how to make improvements.
  4. Keep taking privacy and data security seriously
    I found lots of organisations in Australia are pretty stringent on protocol – which certainly has its benefits when it comes to security. In my training sessions there, people were already very aware of things like good practice for strong passwords – and instinctively tended towards general ‘safety-first’ behaviour, even if it was less convenient or not strictly necessary. This is no bad thing.
  5. Sometimes, being a bit more direct is a good thing
    One of the things I noticed whilst walking around Wellington were posters focusing on the conversation about improving the New Zealand family violence law: a campaign closely linked to a consultation which was recently run on their Citizen Space instance. The Australian government also led the way with the implementation of plain tobacco packaging, again taking a very direct tone and outreach strategy on the issue. Whilst the UK tendency might be towards more circumspect communications (perhaps to avoid being accused of taking a particular position), I certainly think there are times when a pretty bold, direct approach is a helpful way to drive public participation.

One of the key benefits of working for an international company like Delib with offices and customers around the world is that we can each learn new techniques or insights into how different countries operate their online involvement work. Often, we’ll look at our Citizen Space aggregator and find that two departments on opposite sides of the worlds are consulting on a similar issue. Things like this can provide fantastic opportunities to link up and share best practice, ideas and lessons learnt. Hopefully, that will only accelerate improvements to online interactions between citizens and government right around the world.

BIS give us a lesson in effective promotion with their sharing economy consultation

The Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) has recently finished conducting a call for evidence on an Independent review of the sharing economy. Feedback on the review is being collected in three ways:

BIS Independent Sharing Economy

What is the sharing economy and why is it important to conduct a call for evidence?

“The sharing economy is coming and it’s being driven by consumers” Debbie Wosskow

The sharing economy is a new set of business models, driven by technologies that are making it easier for people to share their property, time and skills. Examples include property sharing via services such as Airbnb and shared transport – for example Barclays Cycle Hire scheme. The call for evidence is being led via an independent review by Debbie Wosskow (CEO of Love home swap). Ms Wosskow’s tactics will be to ask for evidence both in the conventional government ways and digitally, aiming to produce an interactive report that will draw from the experience of workers and consumers too.

Effective survey design

In order to ensure the call for evidence was tailored to different respondents’ needs, the Citizen Space survey included the use of skip-logic to ‘route’ respondents to a set of questions relevant to them. Especially commendable was the use of survey routing by audience-type, with more open free-text questions for respondents from an organisation to enable extended commenting on the subject. The survey also included the use of fact banks, which enable respondents to view more information on the topic if needed.

Generate Twitter noise

The consultation picked up a large amount of traction on Twitter. The call for evidence opened on 29th September 2014 and on the same day attracted 806 tweets being posted within just 24 hours. Using the relevant hashtag #sharingeconomy in most tweets, it was easy to follow the conversation on Twitter.

BIS also tweeted the call for evidence at potential respondents who may be interested in the subject, which helped ensure a two-way conversation. A summary of some of the best Tweets which had been posted were also made available by BIS via a Storify post.

Screen Shot 2014-11-11 at 16.13.12An extended period for comment with a sense of urgency created around the closing date

A sense of urgency was also created around the closing date of the call for evidence, with the consultation date being extended to enable more participants to take part.Screen Shot 2014-11-11 at 16.08.53

Direct link and page through from GOV.UK

In order to ensure respondents could also find the call for evidence from GOV.UK a direct link through to Citizen Space was added under the call to action ‘Give your views on the sharing economy’.

Screen Shot 2014-11-12 at 12.18.08A dedicated microsite and newsletter created as a hub for the review

The sharing economy review itself has its own dedicated micro-site, recently commended by Helpful Technology. The site links through to relevant posts about the review – namely a number of stories, sites and blogs . The site also provides an opportunity to sign-up to a dedicated newsletter for the review which links through to the call for evidence.

Inclusion of existing research and relevant infographics

BIS also included reference to previous research conducted by PwC on the sharing economy, which helped contextualise the consultation.

Screen Shot 2014-11-11 at 16.12.09BIS aims to produce a report by the end of the year following the call for evidence and we’re looking forward to seeing the results.

Sitting in on Defra consultation training – part one: 5 things I learnt about consultation

Working with Defra for the past 18 months, I was pleased to be invited to one of their department training sessions on running effective consultations (including using Citizen Space). Here are some tips I picked up:

Defra online consultation event

1) Don’t ignore your users; bring someone in to represent them

Consultation should be considered from a user’s point of view – which sounds obvious right? But this is all too often forgotten amidst the document creation, planning and bureaucracy. To help solve this, Defra invited Ruth Chambers, Vice Chair of Defra’s civil society advisory board, along to the consultation session. Ruth highlighted the importance of setting out expectations early on and sustaining engagement. She also advised that departments should be honest with stakeholders about changes or challenges to help ensure they are engaged in both the topic at hand and the process.

2) Don’t get stuck in a silo, bring in skills from across the organisation

Defra are fortunate enough to have a dedicated consultation co-ordinator and better regulation unit. However, there are many other skills within the organisation which can be drawn upon to aid with the challenges of effective consultation. During the session, one of the policy officers on my table cited an example of a consultation which was run using solely paper-based methods with no forethought to analysis. The consultation attracted a large number of responses, which they are now struggling to collate and analyse. Sound familiar? It often is in many departments – but how many times can such mistakes be made, and could more case studies of how not to run consultations help with this?

3) Don’t get too comfortable, bring in a ‘devil’s advocate’ to keep you on your toes

Consultation has the potential to be a lengthy and involved process, and it’s easy to get bogged down in the nuts and bolts of it. During the session I sat with two policy offers – one of whom had been working on a consultation document for over a year. Bringing the document to such a session meant the attendees could offer some fresh-eyes on how to progress, especially when it came to the actual consultation questions. When asked for my advice about document creation with the view of consulting online, I recommended that the document structure could be clearly presented in chapters – a framework which can be easily mirrored in an online survey. In terms of setting the right questions, piloting with colleagues and any relevant stakeholder groups can help on this (see points one and two!).

4) Do run training sessions, but don’t stop there

Workshops or formal training sessions are just one part of the picture. BIS (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) for example, run weekly digital surgeries where a member of their digital team will sit and allow colleagues to drop-in on sessions. BIS are also running their digital fortnight in October – a great opportunity to weave in online consultation. Related to this, one of the policy officers attending the session also suggested the idea of having consultation leads (or champions) within each team, so that consultation is managed and the issues being consulted on are kept at the policy level.

5) Don’t make it impossibly broad – be clear about the purpose of the consultation before you start

Where possible, thinking about the output early on and planning ahead for the different eventualities will ensure a smooth consultation analysis and reporting period. Summarising the outcomes of something which doesn’t quite fit into your original research question will prove much more challenging and could potentially invalidate your outcomes.

If you are reading this from a central government department, feel free to get in touch and share your experiences of similar challenges or your organisation’s approach to consultation.


Can the future of investment in science research be solved via a live discussion?

The UK Science Minister David Willetts will today discuss how the government should invest the £5.9bn it has committed to spend on research infrastructure over the next five years.

Obviously, this is a big topic – and a big opportunity for public engagement. As scientist Steven Curry noted on Friday,

“Plain speaking between the public and scientific communities has never been more important, so the BIS consultation on government investment in UK research is an opportunity worth seizing”

And, interestingly, part of this ‘plain speaking’ conversation will be taking place via a live online discussion hosted by Guardian Science.

This throws something a little different into the consultation mix. Is it an approach that could be useful for others to learn from?

Minority report 600
Source: BIS https://bisgovuk.citizenspace.com/digital/consultation-on-proposals-for-long-term-capital-in/consult_view

The exercise’s full title is ‘on proposals for long-term capital investment in science and research’. BIS are running the official consultation using Citizen Space (our online consultation tool) and it currently runs to 12 questions. Clearly, this is a fairly involved and complex discussion.

The challenge of complex consultations

As anyone who has consulted on a matter of expert interest will know, it’s not easy to engage a wider audience so they can make an informed response. The BIS consultation is faced with exactly this issue: they’ve endeavored to make the consultation document accessible and readable but it is, by nature, inevitably pretty technical. This could be where the Guardian live debate comes in: a more in-person exchange, chaired by an expert panel, potentially giving users another way into the material.

This example of combining a comprehensive online survey with a live debate highlights the importance of broadening out the conversation around and beyond the consultation itself. Although running a successful live discussion as part of a broader engagement exercise can have challenges of its own (there are several useful blogs on engaging your audience with live discussions), in the context of this BIS consultation there are some key benefits.

Some benefits of pre-consultation discussion

  • Using multiple channels in the same medium can grow the number of respondents. As the consultation is being conducted online, it’s smart to reach out to other sizeable online audiences (e.g. the Guardian online readership).
  • Timing is important (broadly). The consultation itself is already open so attendees can review the questions at hand before taking part in the discussion.
  • Timing is important (specifically). The Guardian are backing this with a live discussion over the lunchtime period (12-2pm) which will allow a broader range of attendees to take part.
  • Build momentum. In this case, BIS are successfully providing information in advance. For example, The Guardian are providing a series of blogs around the issues prior to the event.

We think that more citizens, better informed and more able to participate in decision-making, can only be a good thing. We hope that this effort from BIS and the Guardian science blog network really does get more people involved in this consultation and connect with the decision-making process.

Defra showcase Citizen Space and Dialogue App as part of better regulation event

This week we attended the “Defra better for business” event at the House of Commons, showcasing some of the initiatives being adopted to help business. The event was an opportunity to explore some of the tools, programs and plans Defra is using to help businesses concentrate on growth and innovation via effective and efficient regulation. With 13 stands providing an overview of some of the tools and initiatives being adopted, the event was both interactive and informative.

Defra consultations

In order to improve the quality and consistency of consultations conducted by Defra and its agencies, online consultations are now run using either their Citizen Space or Dialogue App before being published on the consultations area of .gov.uk. Defra’s very helpful Consultation Coordinator was also on hand to run through a demonstration of some of the consultations which have already been run.

Defra Consultation team
Defra’s Consultation Coordinator showcases Citizen Space and Dialogue App

Defralex and Dialogue App

The event included a section for speeches from Defra stakeholders, as well as the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – Owen Paterson MP. He took the opportunity to mention the launch of Defralex, a new database which allows users to search an index of Defra’s legislation that is currently in force. Defra’s Dialogue App also launched this week, providing a discussion space for Defralex users to feedback on the initiative and submit ideas on how it could evolve.

Screen Shot 2014-04-10 at 15.35.21
DefraLex Dialogue App discussion

Defra regulators consult better

One stand which was of particular interest was the Marine Management Organisation (MMO), who were showcasing their model for educating stakeholders on the challenges of managing and regulating the marine environment via a 3d model of the seabed.

MMO display
MMO display model

MMO are also one of the organisations who are now running consultations through Defras’ online applications.

We’d like to extend our thanks to the Better Regulation team and organisers for such an informative overview and insight into the initiatives that Defra have and will continue to be working on.

Introducing survey cloning in Citizen Space – 5 example uses

We’ve recently released the ability to clone existing online consultations in Citizen Space and already we’re seeing an increased number of uses for the feature, as well as positive feedback from current Citizen Space customers:

“The ability to clone an entire survey is something many of our users here in Sutton have been wanting to see, so the fact that this is now a simple to use feature within Citizen Space is great news. This will save us significant time when running repeated surveys, as well as making sure everything is as consistent as it needs to be. Another very, very welcome development from Delib.”

Glen Ocskó, Community Involvement and Innovation Manager, London Borough of Sutton

In order to celebrate the release of this awesome time-saving feature, we’d like to highlight 5 initial example uses:

1) Set up templates for online consultation which can be used to help standardise consultation processes.

In the past, customers such as Environment Protection Agency in WA have used their Citizen Space instance to enable information gathering through the online survey feature (as opposed to more formal consultation). Now with the ability to clone consultations, such exercises can be easily repeated. What is more, creating a survey based on a pre-existing template is quicker and simpler than creating one from scratch, meaning that subsequent consultations could be run by more junior staff members, saving EPA both time and money.

Citizen Space customer Stockport CCG who run a number of patient panels, can now also use the survey cloning feature to clone existing panel consultations. Newly cloned consultations can be easily tweaked and quickly re-published as a forthcoming consultation.

As well as cloning existing consultations, skeleton consultation templates could be created by Citizen Space users or consultation leads to ensure best practice. If template consultations are marked clearly, for example with the word [template] at the beginning of the title, other users can quickly identify and copy them as the basis of their own consultations.

2) Run quarterly surveys or annual consultations with the same question and answer structure, enabling longitudinal analysis.

Citizen Space customers such as London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham often run customer satisfaction surveys. Consultation cloning enables customers such as LBHF to run the same online survey at regular time intervals, ensuring results exports use always exactly the same column headings. Exported responses can then be merged, allowing direct comparison of service standards over time. Such longitudinal studies help to ensure that improvements are met within an organisation over a specified period of time.

3) Run multiple geographically specific consultations.

Customers often ask how they can ensure questions and consultations are relevant to respondents at a level which is meaningful to them. Citizen Space customers such as East Sussex County Council, for example, have used their instance to allow residents to have their say on street-lighting in different geographical areas. Such online consultations can now easily be created just once and then copied – simply re-naming for each geographical area of interest. Local level trends can be identified and published for each consultation, and higher borough-wide trends can still be identified through amalgamating the results data.

4) Run a private and public consultation with the same survey questions included.

Consultations often need to be open to the public but also target specific stakeholder organisations or individuals. By setting up a public-facing online consultation initially before cloning the consultation and choosing to add further questions applicable to respondents who may be responding in a private manner, consultations can easily be tailored to the needs and interests of both a broad and targeted stakeholder group.

5) Run two consultations in parallel with slightly different stakeholders in mind

Previously customers such as Leicester City Council often ran slightly different targeted consultations with stakeholders on service use. The ability to clone consultations now enables one consultation to be created for one target audience before a second is made and tweaked for a slightly different target group.

Are you a current Citizen Space customer and have a use for Survey Cloning which we haven’t thought of? If so, we’re always interested in hearing about innovative uses of our apps – please get in touch by emailing Rowena, one of our Account Managers, at rowena@delib.net.