Open up the policy dialogue online (draft)


Opening up an online policy dialogue

The Taskforce judges that the interactive technologies that have been the subject of much of its work also provide a good platform for engagement in policy discussions.  Formal consultations by the public services essentially present information  for comment on the web.  If this information is made easier to re-use, the Taskforce judges that consultations will reach more people in new ways.  It is clear from discussions with HMSO that the online distribution of government consultation ‘documents’ exceeds by orders of magnitude the distribution of printed copies.  If the main means of distribution is digital, then the opportunity to take a digitally native approach should be seized.

Whilst this topic was not explicitly covered in the original Power of Information report recommendations, we believe that is worth setting out here thinking that has developed over the last year.

There is excellent practice in opening up the policy dialogue in the UK upon which to build , such as Downing Street ePetitions, CommentOnThis and the Hansard Society eDemocracy programme and the new innovation platform at DIUS, which is hosting this report.  The Taskforce has worked closely with ‘TellThemWhatYouThink‘ which scrapes many government consultations into one place, for free to understand the technical obstacles and opportunities.  The Taskforce has also followed the work of MySociety in the UK and the Sunlight Foundation in the USA on transparency and data publication.

The original Power of Information report was one of the first to be re-worked and presented on CommentOnThis as an experiment.  CommentOnThis was an early innovator in reworking government consultation documents online so that they can be used more easily.   More recently a team of civic bloggers in Birmingham has translated and repurposed Birmingham’s ‘Big City Plan’ on the web in Big City Plan Talk.  This Taskforce report is being presented in ‘beta’ mode for comment and review by the online community before it is finalised.

These technical developments could improve the effectiveness of policy development in consultation, but will require new skills amongst policy makers and communicators.  A plan for supporting the change needed in policy development skills should be developed by Government Skills by end 2009, with a concomitant training plan from the National School for Government.

The Government’s Code of Practice on consultation was recently updated.  It provides the right hooks for online consultation but the code is generic to all forms of consulting people.

‘Thought should also be given to alternative versions of consultation documents which could be used to reach a wider audience…and to alternative methods of consultation. Guidance on methods to support formal consultation exercises to help reach specific groups and sectors (regional, public meetings, online tools, focus groups, etc.) is available.

‘Consultation exercises that allow consultees to answer questions directly online can help reduce the burden of consultation for those with the technology to participate. However, the bureaucracy involved in registering (e.g. to obtain a username and password) should be kept to a minimum.’

Guidance reflecting the Taskforce’s views and signposts to help could either be added to the code or placed alongside it.  The Taskforce is encouraged that this is an area that the Central Office of Information is examining in some detail.


To take advantage of the potential of new online techniques to open up the policy dialogue online the government needs to do the following:

  • Clear and mandatory standards on accurate tagging and metadata which would allow consultations to be found by the subjects, interests and places they affect as well as by the policy issue
  • Breaking down consultation papers from monolithic documents into navigable, searchable, separate points which can be commented upon individually
  • Implementing the tools – readily available elsewhere on the internet – which allow people to comment on individual items, to comment on other’s comments and to collaborate in developing and improving the content (perhaps through the sort of collective authorship we see on Wikipedia); the publication by DIUS of the Innovation White Paper and the Cabinet Office New Opportunities White Paper in this way are good example of what can be done without major investment
  • Participation by officials in the process in line with the Government’s recently published code of practice on social media, so that the consultation period is one of active dialogue
  • Use of the same tools to explain at the end of the consultation period, in the same level of detail, what the Government had decided and why
  • Mandatory publication of consultation materials in open, semantic, electronic formats that not only allow the relevant government website to host the material but also allow others to take the material, present it, gather views and feed those back to government in innovative ways.

The government should update the Code of Practice on Consultation maintained by the Better Regulation Executive in BERR to reflect these principles.

A plan for supporting the change needed in policy development skills to make the most of online participation should be developed by Government Skills by end 2009, with a concomitant training plan from the National School for Government.

RSS feed of comments 24 Responses to “Opening up an online policy dialogue”

  1. Jon Bounds says:

    “These technical developments could improve the effectiveness of policy development in consultation, but will require new skills amongst policy makers and communicators.”

    Indeed, the greatest problem of the Big City Talk project (after the actual translation and the politicing to get it accepted) has been how to feed comments back to Birmingham City Council — comments of this nature are a discussion and as such can’t be separated out and stored separately.

  2. David Brake says:

    I would add two recommendations. First (at least in the short term) to highlight in press releases, in public discussion and on relevant websites the fact that a given policy document is “web 2.0 enabled” – otherwise people will not expect that they will be able to comment. Secondly, the parameters of consultation should be clearly set out – ie what status will online comments have in decision making? Who in government will see them?

  3. This is exactly what I hoped the report would say. The BRE guidelines are well-respected and embedded into policy-making processes and, as such, provide an ideal lever for introducing substantive and sustainable change.

  4. [...] Allan should be proud of where they are at.  Secretly Brum can also be. Why? Because it includes a complimentary reference to the Big City Talk work done by volunteer bloggers here in [...]

  5. Owen Ambur says:

    You’re on the right track with these recommendations. It would be good to include strategic plans (i.e., missions, goals and objectives) in the corpus of documents on which consultations are facilitated, preferably leveraging the emerging Strategy Markup Language (StratML) standard.

  6. Tony Hirst says:

    Getting consultation resources online in “friendly formats” is a great thing to be doing; but there is still the problem of engagement? Should SEO of content be a consideration?

  7. Owen Ambur says:

    Yes, SEO, is certainly worthy of consideration as things now stand: However, by definition, any full-text indexing “optimization” algorithm will favor certain factors over others. Thus, a better, longer-term strategy is to leverage the structure and semantics of the documents themselves, as metadata for usage in specialized search services for myriad communities of interest.

  8. I think it is worth linking consultation to the wider issue of transparency because (as you suggest) both for citizens and for the government focusing on a formal 12-week period of consultation may well leave both parties frustrated. I would encourage you to strengthen your encouragement to departments to try other things between formal consultations. I think it would also be worth encouraging departments to experiment with feedback that is not always and only textual comments, i.e. tools that let citizens vote or prioritise or suggest resource allocations or map the issues etc.

  9. Points two, three and six above are what we’ve started to try and fix with ConsultationXML:

    I know it’s a bit ambitious, but I think that this recommendation should also include something like:

    - Explore ways to reform the process of formal consultation, making effective use of the web a core part of the process. Citizens should be able to explore the background to a policy area, contribute to the debate and follow the results of a consultation through to their implementation. At all stages, consultation teams should facilitate, take notice of and involve themselves in, ongoing public debate.

    Making information about consultations more available and reusable is limited in its usefulness if the process itself is so stifled and opaque that the vast majority of people feel no impetus to contribute.

  10. Owen Ambur says:

    Harry’s comment prompted me to convert DIUS’s mission statement to StratML format for inclusion in our collection at Statements of goals and objectives are great candidates for the application of ConsultationXML.

  11. Steph Gray says:

    This is a strong challenge to current practices, but absolutely right.

    Whilst the format the documents are published in is important, I think the points others have made about the surrounding engagement are probably more so. Government should think of consultation as an ongoing policy dialogue and emphasise the importance of community management, online PR and partnerships with communities of the citizens affected in order to widen and deepen participation with policymaking online.

  12. Sebastian Crump says:

    In the intro (previous page) it states that consultations should be on Departmental websites. Really? Shouldn’t they be on Directgov/BusinessLink?

    I’m not convinced that tagging schemes are adequate to allow for easy findability and previous attempts, such as IPSV, have not been universally successful. There is also the shared service/infrastructure argument that points to there being a central service/place they are hosted and then linked to from departmental sites and avoids the risks of reliance on decentralised tagging. etc.

    That said, however, I do recognise there is a need to continue innovation and not all consultations will suit the same technologies or presentation, which is a different challenge.

    This leads me on to my last point on this, that I do not think that the traditional consultation model is suitable for the policy formation model – they are very different activities for both the civil service and public/orgs being engaged. There are different processes and user journeys for each and they both have merits and will need to co-exist. There seems to be some conflation of them in this section, perhaps they could be semantically separated more?

  13. Owen Ambur says:

    With respect to Sebastian’s point about where consultations should be posted, the expectation should be that all of any agency’s public records are readily available on its Web site. On the other hand, citizens should not be expected to know where to look to find any public record of interest to them. Thus, all records should be posted in formats that are readily shareable and various aggregation services should automatically index and provide access to those of interest to specialized communities.

  14. Paul Walk says:

    Minor edit: “It provides the right hooks for online consultation but the code is generic to all forms of consulting people.”

    Not sure this says what you meant it to: “all forms of consulting people” – implies many different forms of people engage in consultation….?

  15. Lee Bryant says:

    I find this curiously unambitious. We were here five years ago. Getting more people to respond to official consultations is really not the goal here. We need to look at more effective engagement methods.

  16. I agree wholeheartedly with Lee Bryant here. This is too narrow and should perhaps be split into different sections.

    Although generally I think the Taskforce should focus on means of freeing up public sector information, and only reference the likes of policy dialogue as something that could be strengthened as a result of successfully enacting the recommednations.

  17. On the examples referenced in paragraph 3…

    It would be good to get a bit more detail on why these examples are of note – partly for the benefit of the ‘uninitiated’, and partly to be clearer that progress has been made but there is still work to be done.

    Downing Street ePetitions was very large scale and very visible, but very uncordinated and lacked the buy-in to truly make it worthwhile participation.

    Sam Smith’s CommentOnThis brought commentable documentation to the fore for government webbies but has had very little actual use.

    Hansard Society deserves recognition for delivering the ‘Digital Dialogues’ project and spreading the practical application of social media in government. But government departments derserve recognition for the work they have done to date too, particularly the MoJ which had the foresight to fund the project.

    Credit where credit is due but let’s not over-egg it. ‘Good practice’ rather than ‘excellent practice’?

  18. David Brake says:

    Let’s not have the best be the enemy of the good here. Sure getting more effective engagement in all sorts of ways is an important long-term goal, but in the mean time reports like this that reference policy dialogue can help move the debate forward. It’s important to encourage the government to see the internet as a tool for edemocracy (when correctly used) as well as a merely functional tool for egovernment.

  19. [...] pleased to say that it’s gone well and has (rather thrillingly) been mentioned in the Cabinet Office’s Power of Information report. After my brief introduction the assembled minds thoroughly dissected the book, and I think, found [...]

  20. [...] Opening up an online policy dialogue : Power of Information Taskforce Report The section on online dialogue with comments for the great and good. (tags: participation government policy report uk 2009) [...]

  21. [...] Opening up an online policy dialogue : Power of Information Taskforce Report The section of the draft Power of Information report on online dialogue with comments from the great and good in the field (tags: participation government policy report uk 2009) [...]

  22. David Price says:

    (1) Congratulations and thanks to the POIT team for exemplifying the changes you hope to see.

    (2) Have you thought about framing this section in terms of “Strengthening policy outcomes by opening up the policy dialogue online” rather than “Opening up the policy dialogue online” (and of being more explicit about the reasons why you believe that opening up the policy dialogue online will strengthen policy outcomes)?

    (3) The logic of opening up online policy dialogue speaks for enacting this process across whole policy development cycle. And, given that this is one of the qualities that the POIT process is exemplifying, it would be great to see this addressed more explicitly in the report. Openness at the outset, when the policy framework is more mutable, and the participants are less personally invested in particular positions, might have the greatest long-term pay-off. And maintaining the continuous openness during the initial implementation phase might help to identify quickly, and avert, cases in which policy outcomes are starting to diverge from expectations.

  23. [...] I think that the exercise was a success, it has been well received online, perhaps as expected, but also been mentioned in the Cabinet Office’s Power of Information report. [...]

  24. I could not agree more with David Price’s 3rd point – that early engagement in the policy process is key.

    But absolutely believe that open consultations – like this one – are the way forward.