What gov webbies can do to improve awareness of their published consultations

I had the good fortune to meet Harry Metcalfe recently. Harry told me that he was building a web service that would aggregating information about all government consultations published online. By pulling the information into his site, he was going to be able to generate email alerts and RSS feeds for either user defined search phrases or individual organisations.

“Why are you doing this?”, I asked. ‘Because I can,” he replied, “and because its not always easy for people to find government consultations online.” I took a look at the early iteration of his site and immediately subscribed to a feed for consultations published by my employer. It worked very nicely.

I’d love for us to publish our own RSS feed for consultations we release. I know its not that hard, its just that other things always get in the way of feature development and they inevitably take a back seat when the pressure is on.

Now Harry’s pride and joy is live in beta and working rather nicely. You should take a look around, its really good.

I bumped into Harry again a few weeks after our first encounter. He said to me, “If you made a few small changes to the way you present information about consultations on your site, it will make it much easier for me to extract the data for mine.” So he came in and talked to my editorial and technical colleagues about making this happen.

Why are we doing this? Not to make Harry’s site better. At least not only for that reason. We’re improving the way we create the pages – tagging relevant items of data like the consultation name, opening and closing dates, contact details etc – for a number of really good reasons that we hadn’t thought of before Harry suggested it:

  • It will make it easier for anyone to screen scrape the data if they so wish and republish it elsewhere
  • It makes the content on, and behind, the page more appetising for search engines, thus increasing the visibility of the consultations in search results
  • We can learn from this small in itself exercise and apply the same rigour to other classes of content published on our site
  • When we are in a position to implement more syndication tools on the site (e.g. fixed and user-defined RSS feeds) the content will already be in a format that makes the process work easier.

Why is this all important? Because we cannot rely on people coming to our websites to find out what we are doing. By making the content more attractive for syndication, we can increase our potential reach substantially and automatically update interested parties when consultations relevant to them are published. The Power of Information review touched on this, and its regularly a subject of conversation around Whitehall.

TellThemWhatYouThink is in its early days. But its already received plenty of coverage inside and outside Whitehall. It doesn’t (yet?) apply itself to the more difficult issue of making participation in online consultation easier. But maybe that’s not far away.

When we’ve finished improving our own consultation pages, I’ll let you know. I’m also hoping that Harry can come along to the next Whitehall heads of e-communications meeting so that we can sell the benefit of our approach. Its a small thing in itself to implement, but if we all do it the consequences could be much bigger.

Talking to energetic volunteers like Harry can produce all sorts of unexpected results. I never realised that by making a few tweaks to our page templates we could really improve how people can use and re-broadcast important government information. The barcamp and subsequent events are really starting to bear fruit…

  1. Harry’s done a great job with this. I’ve been playing with screenscraping myself recently, and it’s a pain in the backside. He’s either really talented or really stubborn. Both, most likely.

    But ultimately it’s just a signpost, pointing to existing ‘same old same old’ consultations. And we’ve tried that before. Did it work?

    Fundamentally, the current notion of ‘consultation’ isn’t working. It needs reinventing. Somehow. How? Er, I’ll get back to you.

  2. Can’t disagree Simon, but its the potential of making the information syndicatable and where it might end up. As for Consultation online (note the capital C) that is a much bigger, and more complicated, issue. But not insurmountable.

  3. Simon:

    FWIW, I completely agree. Online consultation does need to be reinvented. I’d love to do that, but I (along with, it seems, everyone else) don’t really know how yet!

    I do think that a good first step is to get more people involved. The more minds that are working to solve the problem, the more likely it’ll get done, and having more people involved in consultation in the first place can only help.

  4. Couldn’t agree more. Plenty of people have good ideas, as you’ve proved, just got to harness the thoughts into something workable.

  5. I’ve dug up the details of the old consultations signposting site: more details in my post at puffbox.com

    • Alex Butler
    • February 27th, 2008

    I think we are doing this to make Harry’s site better. If his site is works better and we can point people at it, we’d have made good progress on the ‘findability’ score! And when we spoke to him, it struck me how some very simple things could make such a big difference. I thought, perhaps, that we could get a template with all the fields that Harry needs us to fill in and get that higher up our digital people agenda. Waddyathink?

  6. Aargh! Simon you hurt my eyes!

  7. If only it were that easy Alex. For some sites it will be difficult and take time to implement if they don’t have control over template design. For others it will be easier. And there is more than one way of doing this – the best thing is to give people options.
    Its got to be more holistic than helping one site to become the destination for consultations – after all government tried that before and it didn’t work (see Simon’s link). What’s more important than that is creating the content in a way that makes it easier for us, or for others, to syndicate it as widely as possible. Otherwise, there seems to me to be little point in doing it.

  8. The key word here is syndication – be it XML, RSS, API, whatever. The ability for a motivated, willing individual or organisation to get at the raw data, and mash it into something better than it was before. It has to be automated. ‘Yet another form to fill in’ cannot be the solution.

  9. Amen to that

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