A vision for online consultation and policy engagement
This is a short post about a huge topic: what government should do to consult, engage and involve people more openly in the work it does, online.
Consultation is a big part of government. Doing it better online is a coalition commitment. Alphagov’s vision would be incomplete without addressing it head on.
But in scoping what user-centric consultation in a single domain might look like, it soon became clear that building a working demo without first building consensus and capability in Whitehall for mass scale open dialogue would be somewhat jumping the gun.
On the face of it, you could say it’s a simple case of government doing something a bit whizzier and more user-friendly than publishing thousands of PDFs on hundreds of websites for people to find, comprehend and comment on by email. And it was tempting to build that whizzy something, pooling the best current practice from forward-thinking departments (like mine) as a baseline to push things further.
But scratch the surface and you quickly find yourself dealing with big issues around democracy, the delicate balance of trust between citizens and the state, the complexities of our constitution, and the culture of the civil service.
You find yourself touching on every opportunity for citizens, businesses and organisations to interface with any part of the state online, be it to give feedback, ask a question, seek help, present an argument, influence thinking or help solve a problem. And – most importantly of all – you touch on the capability and capacity of the state to process all this user feedback, to analyse, respond and interact.
In short, delivering a user-centric, single domain approach to digital engagement can’t be achieved through tools alone.
So team alpha chose not to build a demonstrator (save for this consultations list), opting to sketch out high-level ideas in a slideshow for sharing here on the blog instead.
First a disclaimer. In the spirit of the rest of the alpha, these slides present a vision of a possible future and are by no means an agreed plan. The ideas imply buy-in from departments and Ministers and those discussions haven’t been had. They also imply resource which hasn’t been assessed or costed. In fact, this vision has all the authority of something 3 dads with iPads huddled around a filing cabinet can come up with in a day – albeit dads who’ve seen a thing or two on the front line of government digital engagement and done much between them to push the agenda forward.
The slides speak for themselves, but three main things I would like to draw out in summary. Getting consultation and engagement right is about:
- Raising the floor. Setting minimum standards for every engagement exercise, making them easier to find and use, providing consistency of user experience and making sure all parts of government have access to the skills, resource, tools and learning to run it well.
- Creating layers. Helping different people to engage in different ways, from Plain English summaries and micro-participation to deeper engagement according to users’ interest levels and expertise. Providing widgets and APIs to engage in relevant places. Collecting feedback at the right time for the user, and cross-selling related engagement opportunities (even across constitutional boundaries) through relationships, recommendations and email.
- Keeping it real. User experience matters hugely, here more than anywhere else. Engagement by government has to be genuinely transparent, providing genuine opportunities for users to influence policy and services, have two-way conversations and receive meaningful feedback about how their contributions have been used. We need consultations, not nonsultations to make better policy and build faith in government.
The prizes for democracy in this country are huge. Is this the right vision to win them? The team would love to know your thoughts.
With huge thanks to Steph Gray and Simon Dickson for shaping the vision; Jimmy Leach for the steering hand; and Harry Metcalfe and Jenny Poole for their input to the discussion.