Archive for the ‘ online consultation ’ Category

Enabling staff conversations online

Last Wednesday we ran our first online staff webchat, allowing anyone in the organisation to put questions to representatives from the senior management team (including our permanent secretary).

Hardly revolutionary you may say, after all webchats aren’t exactly new and in the current ‘social media’ excitement in government, where everyone is trying to be the first to do something cutting edge, webchats look decidely old hat.

But there were very good business reasons why we did what we did and didn’t get diverted by something more vogueish.

Depending how you count them, we have between 80,000 and 100,000 staff, making us the third largest government department.

Reaching out to the them is difficult. We are a mish-mash of organisations that have come together, all with different cultures, different ways of working, different ways of communicating, and – crucially in this case – different IT systems.

Attempting to use web engagement tools across our intranets couldn’t be guaranteed to work. So we took a gamble and ran the webchat on the public internet. Unsurprisingly some people were very nervous about this, but you know what? People behaved themselves and the discussion went well without any technological or conversational difficulties.

Because of the variability of kit on people’s desks we went for a lowest common demoninator solution that performed nicely on older browsers and without any need for plug-ins or cool ajax-y functionality.

This wasn’t about the tools, it was about the need to communicate and the opportunity to use technology to attempt to solve the problem.

Its difficult from an initial look at the stats to know exactly how many staff participated in the webchat, partly because of the way our IT firewalls tend to use a small number of IP addresses for each physical location. But we know it was well over 1000 people, and maybe significantly more (we’re still working on digging into the data). That might sound like a small number but many of our staff across the country don’t have ready access to PCs and internet access

We had over 40 pre-submitted questions and 130+ asked during the one hour chat. 52 got answered on the day (not bad going in one hour!), with the rest being published on the intranet shortly.

All in all, a good first crack at reaching staff online. Proof of the pudding – we’ve been asked to run one each month from now on.

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Governance of Britain – an update

There is so much going on at the moment that I completely forgot to point you to the fact that we have updated the Governance of Britain campaign site that we launched last December. I say we, but I have personally had very little to do with it this time round.

Luckily Simon Dickson is still involved and the refreshed site looks much more like the kind of thing we envisioned first time round (when we only had a few days to lash it together). Well done Simon for making it happen.

We’ve now got two new elements on the site designed to engage users – prominent use of video and a deliberative discussion area. The idea is that both will be updated regularly and will feed off each other, video representing the real world conversations and events, the site for online. Be interesting to see how it works out.

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…

Governance of Britain site launches

If you read Simon’s blog, you’ll know that we launched our newest project yesterday – a campaign site to support the Governance of Britain.

This is a wide ranging programme of activity, events and consultations designed to re-establish the relationship between the State and citizens: it covers everything from when the Union flag should fly above government buildings through whether we should vote at weekends to who should decide when the country goes to war.

The site was created in WordPress to take advantage of the functionality that the platform offers out of the box – such as strong syndication options, and the ease in which it can be maintained and updated. It has four main functions:

  • aggregate news, speeches, publications etc published elsewhere on the government web estate (the programme has over 60 work strands so quite a few departments have an interest in this), what I’ve been describing as ‘signpost, don’t host’ (sure I’m not the first to come up with that…)
  • Provide notifications of future events, and publish content from previous events – we’re hoping to use video, stills, audio and written feedback here
  • A led discussion space covering a variety of subjects related to the programme (this isn’t live yet, but will be visible in the new year when other elements of the programme begin)
  • Acknowledge, highlight and signpost articles, conversations etc elsewhere on the web around the programme’s themes.

The last one is the most interesting part of the site for me. We really hope that this recognition of conversations will in turn encourage and stimulate debate around the various themes. Because its using Delicious to deliver the content, it means that users can easily contribute content to the debate and can also view the full feed (we’ll only publish a representative sample of the many feeds and news alerts we have set up due to time and space considerations).

I’m really pleased with the site – it looks (as) good (as it could given the design constraints), it was devised and built at breakneck speed,  and it works.

There are still a few tweaks we want to make to the site, and hopefully it will develop functionality as the progamme itself develops. Let me know if you have any comments on the site, either below or by email if you’re shy.

Ross Ferguson is back! (sort of, virtually…)

For those of you who can’t quite place the name, Ross was until recently the director of edemocracy at the Hansard Society. Amongst other things, he was responsible for the excellent digital dialogues initiative which explored online ways of engaging citizens with the democratic system (disclaimer: funded by my department, though not out of my budget or in my influence).

Unfortunately, the lure of north of the border was too much for Ross and he has returned to Scotland, now working as a senior development manager at Dog Digital. He’s also just started blogging. I look forward to reading what he has to say, and suspect we haven’t seen the last of him in Whitehall.

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: Continue reading