Online consultation – parliament takes a lead

Back from a few days rest, away from work stuff, to good news from the Hansard Society – parliament has launched an online consultation website to support the work of select committees. This is the result of a great deal of effort from the Hansard Society over a number of years (some of the background can be found here).

Online consultation across government is patchy and this development should set a good example to the rest of us to up our game. But there are a number of problems with this:

  • Select committees call witnesses and take evidence from experts in their investigations, online consultation extends this questioning to a wider potential audience.
  • Government departments, on the other hand, have a specific process to follow when engaging in consultation exercises (note on the following – I’m not a consultation expert) – a detailed published document with a series of set questions, a three month period for replies to be sent in, later on a published collation of the responses to the consultation.
  • This latter procedure is optimised for the printed word, its quite formal in its approach and doesn’t translate well to the online world. Some have tried, with varying degrees of success, but fundamentally it doesn’t make best use of the medium (for the record, we offer the consultation documents as .pdf files and the list of questions as a MS Word document that can be emailed back to the consultation team). I understand that there is a piece of work across government working to modernise the regulations on formal consultation. But I don’t know how digital communication is being considered as part of that work.
  • Although there have been some initiatives to improve the use of online tools in government consultation (in particular, Hansard Society’s Digital Dialogues programme) they seem to my mind flawed. Piggybacking a formal offline process doesn’t bring out the best in online – the consultation period is too long, the requested responses are too structured, and the choices often too limited to encourage genuine debate and discussion.
  • A perennial problem of government digital communications – lack of resource and expertise – sometimes hampers online consultation. In my experience, moderation causes difficulties for consultation teams who seriously underestimate the time and effort this will require.

Maybe government consultation, in its current form, can’t be successfully replicated online. Instead, perhaps we should look to the stage that precedes formal consultation – development of options to be put to consultation – as the opportunity to make best use of the digital tools available to us. We could call it something like online deliberation and provide a space to encourage genuine debate.

As long a significant proportion of the population do not/cannot engage online, and a more formal offline consultation process is required, then the less likely that we will be able to crack online consultation.

Anyone got good or bad experiences/examples to share?

P.s. note to self. just been zinging through RSS feeds to discover that William beat me to it on this story. Apologies for not linking further up this post.

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  1. Just FYI, the reason that mySociety has never got into the online consultation game is the belief that it is a Really Really Hard design problem. The sort of design problem so hard it’ll probaly take several million pounds and a lot of gritty interaction experiments, most of which will fail to get even half right. Those odds didn’t look good to us, so we stuck to stuff that seemed soluble on our small budgets.

  2. I agree, its not easy and attempts to solve it have been variable in their execution. but thats precisely because they have been attempts to recreate an offline experience online.

  3. I agree with much of what you say, Jeremy, and where you are coming from. But you believe the approach of Digital Dialogues to be ‘flawed’. But I think that to see it this way is to mistake the tactic for the play.

    What we did was right under the circumstances. Government’s door was shut to online consultation; Digital Dialogues opened it by creating a space for experimentation. We did it on the cheap, we provided training and ongoing support. But the crucial factor in getting any government department on board was piloting innovative [online] methods alongside the conventional processes and tools they were already comfortable with. This didn’t take out the ‘risk’ but it did increase confidence. As a result we were able to get the sorts of case studies data together, which are central to our informed debate here.

    I agree that online methods should be used strategically. There are circumstances in which ICT-based methods of consultation are the right – even the best – choice; there are others when they are not – when new media is just a distraction, or a PR stunt. There are times when it is best to lead with the ICT; and others when it is best used as a supporting resource. Mapping exactly when these conditions present themselves is our present challenge.

    Some opportunities might be easy to spot. Parliament’s use of an online forum on the Communications Bill in 2001 was a straightforward option because Parliament wanted to engage switched on media practitioners and policy types who were keen on the net. Some might be less obvious. A forum for service personnel on medical care might seem to play against the way the military deals with its problems, but it was exactly right because it encouraged an open and structured deliberation, encouraged new voices to step forward and created a sense of momentum around a policy area deemed in need of reform by a select committee. Other seemingly obvious opportunities are in fact mirages. The DCA wanted children and young people to talk to them about their family courts proceedings – a very public online forum was not the right platform.

    Fundamentally, good online consultation is not a question of technology; its about content, interaction and skills. Good design doesn’t isn’t always a feature of online consultation. But at a basic level: design is not difficult, it’s well-informed. You’ve got to think about why you want to use an online method of consultation in the first place, who the intended users are, how you are going to manage the process and what’s going to happen as a result of the interaction? Only with unambiguous answers to these questions, should you start bringing in technology.

  4. Yeah, didn’t put that very well did I? Unintentional slur on Digital Dialogues which I happen to think is an excellent piece of work.

    I agree with everything you say Ross.

    The point I was trying to make is that the current formal consultation process is difficult to support or replicate online because of its format – rather than officials thinking wider about the particular merits of the medium or indeed the intended audience. I firmly believe that online consultation has a place in government policy development but as long as officials don’t confuse consultation and creating spaces for conversations with ‘consultation’ as it is currently carried out.

    Apologies for the unintended slight on your good work and look forward to the next report.

  5. No offence taken, Jeremy. No worries there at all.

    I’d like you to expand on Bullet 5 – either here or in conversation sometime. It’s a short bullet but I think we need to pick it apart a bit more because I think it contains the burning questions government wants the answers to, now that it is ready to move from an experimental to embedding phase.

    Exactly what resources are needed for a successful online consultation exercise by a government department (that’s to say when there’s not a Hansard Society or similar involved). Can we put some numbers on it? It might just be for the sake of debate, but it might be close to the mark too.

    How much budget? How should it be divided? How many weeks or months lead-in time? How many staff? Staff from which grade? How many hours of moderation? Important questions for DD3 perhaps.

    Thanks for the nudge on the DD2 report 🙂

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