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.