Open up the policy dialogue online


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. The Taskforce recognises that digital technologies allow for many innovative forms of engagement beyond web-based commentable formats but believes that getting the web formats right is an important next step.

There is excellent practice in opening up the policy dialogue in the UK upon which to build, such as Downing Street ePetitions, CommentOnThis, 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 was presented in ‘beta’ mode for comment and review by the online community before being finalised, generating hundreds of comments which were reflected in the final version.

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 methods 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.

Recommendation 5

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 examples 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.

Recommendation 6

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.