Lots of public sector organisations have caught up to, or are in the process of catching up to, the rise of social media. That means many are more frequently using things like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram in their public engagement efforts. (This is definitely progress from a few years ago, where such things were often met with suspicion, fear or total unawareness!) Among the most common reasons for this shift are:

  • a desire to be where people are – a laudable aim, to communicate on citizens' terms, not expecting or relying on them to visit a corporate site daily, for example.
  • in a time of massively pressured budgets, many social media channels seem to be cheap/free – an understandable appeal, though never actually the case (time, infrastructure, policies and staff are never free).

However, this new-found enthusiasm can sometimes mean that social media almost becomes an organisation's sole or default means of online public interaction: so long as something's been posted on the website and Twitter feed, it's considered 'done'. Or, say a new policy needs to be put out to public consultation, there can be a temptation to say 'we can just do that on Facebook'.

We think that's as much a mistake as not using social media at all. Not least because it's not actually the best thing for citizens. In our experience, social media can be great for communication and, to an extent, light-touch 'engagement’/outreach. However, there are critical differences between general communications efforts and genuine consultation/participation, which requires a different approach.

Public sector consultation involves significant decisions – decisions that matter to people and affect their lives (whether on huge, broad issues like spending priorities or really specific ones, like where to place a new bus stop). Because of the significance and scope of these decisions, it is absolutely vital to undertake consultation activity online as well as offline, and to do so with appropriate care and seriousness. And we’re convinced that that requires a dedicated online consultation tool.

Social media is a great part of an organisation's communications/engagement arsenal – but posting a Facebook poll about a new policy decision is not an adequate substitute for genuine consultation. There are significant risks and disadvantages that come with not having a dedicated platform. For now, let's look at:

  • Audience accessibility
  • Organisational accountability
  • Process consistency

Audience accessibility

Without a dedicated platform, participation is necessarily limited to those who are able to see the questions being asked. Engagement undertaken on Facebook or Instagram automatically precludes anyone without a Facebook or Instagram account from being able to respond. More than that, though, the nature of social platforms like these means that not all posts are treated/displayed equally. You can publish a post in a group with 15,000 ‘fans’ and only have 300 people even see it, let alone respond to it. Some people might see every post you publish, whereas others might never know you’d asked for their input. The unpredictability of this visibility is problematic for exercises where equality of opportunity to participate is important.

A ‘persistent’ platform like Citizen Space, meanwhile, is accessible through smartphone, tablet or computer and with no account required. This means that anyone with internet access is able to take part, ensuring the digital process is as open, inclusive and participatory as possible. Citizen Space specifically has a ‘save and complete later’ option, allowing people time to give unhurried input. No account being required also allows people to respond privately or even anonymously, which can, on some issues and in some contexts, be vital to genuine and widespread participation.

Organisational accountability

Without a specialised consultation tool, it’s far harder to reliably keep track of past exercises and interactions. Some things may easily get lost (try tracking down an individual post to a busy Facebook group from two years ago without a direct link) and/or it will necessitate laborious additional processes (maintaining an accurate spreadsheet of questions, responses and who made them, for example).

The arduous overheads of managing multiple consultations/teams/staff members and maintaining accurate, reportable records are all hugely reduced by using a platform which automatically keeps track of these details in one place. With some of our customers this is vitally important for accountability processes like judicial reviews, where they need to robustly demonstrate their consultative efforts. But even just for efficient ‘housekeeping’ or being able to report back to management, Citizen Space’s reliable and straightforward record-keeping is invaluable.

Process consistency

Without a dedicated platform, it’s hard to maintain a consistent process in your consultation and engagement efforts. This brings a host of disadvantages: data becomes far less useful if it can’t be compared across exercises; there’s huge and unnecessary duplication of effort in the drafting of surveys; and the risk of a serious mistake (for example, an inflammatory or reputationally-damaging question) is greatly increased.

Citizen Space provides a range of functionality that makes it really easy to create a consistent process. All consultations can be built in a draft state prior to sign- off and banks of saved questions can be created to standardise the information received, such as demographics. Moreover all consultations can be cloned for later re-use or to create numerous small consultations slightly tailored to their audience. Most importantly, all surveys can be made ‘private’ so that only an invited list of participants can take part, which is designed to help run stakeholder consultations.

We've not even mentioned things like data security, privacy or ownership, or questions of support and assistance in developing specific digital consultation skills. But, suffice to say, if you want to take consultation seriously (and you should!), you'll need more than just Twitter or Facebook.