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 (90.8%) of the adult UK population already uses the internet [1], but those that don’t tend to be over 75 and/or disabled and/or vulnerable [2]. 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. minority ethnic & 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.

Image of Citizen Space, which is fully reactive, displayed on a tablet
Citizen Space is fully responsive, working seamlessly across all devices

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 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.

GIF scrolling through one of Environment Agency's 'information boards'

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 to be no or severely decreased options for alternative participation methods. Your digital engagement absolutely must be optimised for assistive software, conforming to visibility requirements, and so on. View the latest international Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, WCAG 2.1, or the government’s guide to accessibility.

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 [3], 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.

Image of the New Zealand 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.).

The Scottish Parliament used Dialogue to gather ideas on how to improve mental health services for teens. That specific project was an example of how a digital exercise was more beneficial than an offline one, as Dialogue’s optional anonymity meant it became a safe space for young people to discuss their mental health concerns.

GIF scrolling through Scottish Parliament's Mental Health Dialogue challenge
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.