In these landmark times, every single system, routine and process that makes up modern society is facing serious disruptions. However, we’ve still got the internet.

With the ability for mass communication even while quarantined, many of our processes, in particular consultation and engagement, can and must continue. We recognise that offline participation is a vital part of a fully-formed consultation process that's accessible to all parties and audiences. Now, however, quarantine and social distancing has removed the opportunity to consult offline completely. The question then becomes: how do we bring it online in a way that doesn't exclude members of society?

Delib has been answering this question since 2001. Over the past two decades our customers have run over 40 000 consultations and received nearly 5 million responses. We've got nearly two decades of insight to share, so we put together this guide for public sector officials in the process of transitioning their consultation processes to a digital-only format.

Here are some things to consider when making the switch.

Audience & demographics

The demographic spread of people who access services online has just jumped from ‘most people' to 'basically everyone'. The vast majority (88 and 89%, respectively) of the Australian and New Zealand populations already use the internet [1][2], but those that don't tend to be elderly and/or Aboriginal/Māori and/or vulnerable [3][4]. So it's more essential than ever that there are no barriers to participating online. Consider things like the fact that older people and harder-to-reach groups (e.g. Aboriginal/Māori and immigrants/non-native English speakers) usually access services via a tablet or a mobile phone, so your online consultation and engagement must be optimised for any device.

Citizen Space is fully responsive, working seamlessly across all devices

Internet speeds

Given Australia's notoriously patchy internet, you'll need to make sure your online consultations are compatible with slow broadband speeds. Platforms with shiny interfaces and loads of bells and whistles are appealing, but aren't much use if your citizens in poorly-connected areas can't load them. You'll need to use technology that has essential components like the option for simple landing pages/interfaces without lots of animation and large graphics, as well as the ability for respondents to save and come back later. Consider this as well if you usually ask citizens to respond by uploading a file: this can be a barrier if their internet is too slow or cuts out and means they have to try and upload it again.

Screenshot of Australian Department of Health's consultation named 'National Stillbirth Action and Implementation Plan'
The Australian Department of Health uses simple blue branding on its consultations

Different aspects of consultation/engagement

The process of consultation isn’t just collecting responses - there's lots of surrounding activity as well. This could include complex information related to development plans, which is usually displayed in libraries and other public spaces for residents to look at. Displaying visual information will need to be moved online as well - you can see one of the UK Environment Agency's online ‘information boards’ here. They display them on their consultation platform (Citizen Space), which makes it easy for respondents to follow the information thread when a related consultation is opened. Environment Agency consult frequently on flooding and emergency preparations and are an excellent example of digital best practice when it comes to consulting in times of crisis.

Accessibility

Services should always be accessible online anyway, but this is an opportunity to ensure that your accessibility compliance is robust. Online-only services will affect your constituents with disabilities, as there are likely no or severely decreased options for alternative participation methods. Your digital engagement absolutely must be fully accessible - that means optimised for assistive software, conforming to visibility requirements, and so on. View the latest international Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, WCAG 2.1.

The New Zealand Health and Disability System Review ran a consultation on Citizen Space last year to hear from those affected. The consultation was available in several different formats, such as one in Te Reo, one in plain English and one which included embedded sign language videos. This approach took a range of factors into account, such as the fact that deaf people have a lower-than-average reading age [5], and that English isn't always the preferred language. To reach all of your constituents effectively, these factors will need to be taken into account.

Screenshot of the Health & Disability System Review's consultation with embedded sign language videos

Different forms of engagement

Not all democratic processes (for example, citizens’ assemblies) can be reasonably transposed into an online format, but consider those that can with the right tools. For example, numbers of councils around the world have some form of citizen's panel. Some of these are fully online already, but key aspects of many are regularly scheduled meetings where constituents discuss ideas, so you'll have to consider how this can also become fully digital. Done effectively, a digital citizen's panel can be a way to reach a more representative audience (see point 1.).

Metro South Health is one of the most highly accessed health services in Australia. The land area they serve is vast, as is the variety of patients they serve. In order to make sure that everyone is getting the health care that they need, good quality patient engagement is essential. They used Dialogue to gather ideas on how to improve health services in an area with a huge demographic variety as part of their 'Futures Lab' project. The best submissions have a chance of being developed and implemented as policy.

Dialogue is a platform for holding constructive conversations online

If you’d like to learn more about how Delib can help with your digital transition, book a free demo and we’ll walk you through it.