Published on June 1, 2011

Don’t (just) focus on citizens

By Simon Burall

Simon Burall is the Director of Involve. He has extensive experience in the fields of democratic reform, governance, public participation, stakeholder engagement, and accountability and transparency.

Out of focus group of people by 'the camera is a toy'Citizen consultation requires as much work inside government as it does developing ways to make it easier for citizens to engage.

Last week the AlphaGov’s blog explored what the government should do online to consult, engage and involve people more openly in its work. I responded positively to this and highlighted four things that the government will have to consider if it is really going to change the way it relates to citizens.

One of the points I made was that government needs to give itself more time to consult internally before involving citizens. Here I expand on this point to argue that any platform built for consulting with citizens must also enable, or even force, this internal consultation.

AlphaGov’s consultation post is, understandably, very focused on getting it right for the citizen. It is focused both on getting information to the citizen and getting response back. Key to the vision is the notion of ‘closing the feedback loop’ in order to make sure that citizens get what they need to respond, can respond easily, and that they hear back from government regularly.

It’s hard not to get the impression that the team responsible for developing the AlphaGov consultation vision are all people used to focusing externally. I think this might be a weakness as the vision is developed.

Getting the architecture right for citizens to engage with government policies, ideas and services is clearly a necessary condition for improving consultation. However, it isn’t sufficient. The slides below form part of many of the presentations I give. They try to make the point that starting with the process that is going to be used to consult with citizens is the wrong thing to do. The purpose of the consultation must lead everything else.

This simple idea is at the heart of everything that Involve does; we lose count of the number of times decision makers are unable to clearly answer why they want to consult the public about a decision.

Yet process is exactly where the AlphaGov vision for consultation focuses. The – very clear, simple and useful – flow diagram on slide 3 of the AlphaGov presentation can easily be transposed onto the idealised version of the policy cycle. The risk is that this outward facing view will be the dominant framework within which this vision for consultation is fleshed out.

This vision for effective public consultation will only work if there is some way for government, across departments, to develop a clear and shared purpose for each consultation. It’s not enough for someone to pull a consultation specification together with some quickly drafted objectives and seek internal agreement by email before it goes live. Different departments, even different people within departments, will read these objectives in different ways. They may think they share the same objective, but bitter experience suggests that they rarely will.

This is important because shared objectives are needed at the end of the consultation; at the point when the views of citizens are synthesised. It is only at the point at which different departments start to argue about what the views of citizens mean that people will begin to realise that they actually had very different questions in mind when they went into the consultation. The views of citizens will therefore be difficult to interpret and integrate into the emerging consensus. They will therefore be ignored and the bond of trust between citizen and state will be further weakened.

So, AlphaGov also needs to focus on developing an intra-Whitehall platform for making sure that civil servants and politicians develop a shared sense of purpose for any consultation. This means that AlphaGov will need to focus less on citizens and more on government – or at least as much on government as on citizens.

If it doesn’t do this we will end up with a shiny new platform, Alphaconsult perhaps, that generates consultations without proper foundations. This shiny new platform will then collapse under the weight of citizen expectations – even before it really gets going.

Picture credit: The camera is a toy


3 Responses to “Don’t (just) focus on citizens”

  1. June 1, 2011 at 1:57 pm

    Thanks Simon, for this and the previous post. As with the Alphagov project itself, the thinking here is there for people to pick holes in, and you’ve picked some good ones.

    I vividly remember the discussions with policy teams about purpose and scope (scope in particular I think government often gets wrong) which turned projects in completely different directions often, and certainly altered the mix of tools we suggested as a digital engagement team. Sometimes, those conversations even started after the formal consultation period had begun.

    Tucked away on slide 10 of the Alphagov slides is what I think is arguably the most important element of the vision. There is plenty of good practice around the public sector, both in terms of strategic thinking and practical implementation, but this rarely reaches individual teams planning their own policy engagement. It’s been a long-running frustration: http://www.helpfultechnology.com/helpful-blog/2008/12/making-participation-a-participation-sport/

    So on that slide, there’s a suggestion of a cross-government engagement catalogue of tools, processes, stories, experiences and contacts. As teams shrink and time pressures increase, it’s going to be harder and harder to go through the essential thought processes you describe here. We need something that takes the best of People and Participation or the ParticipateDB (http://participatedb.com/), adds a more vibrant sense of community and helps overcome the procurement and resourcing issues people face in public sector organisations. Ultimately, we need to encourage people to contribute to, and seek advice from, a collective memory as well as help those individuals and forward-thinking policy officials within organisations to explain and visualise suitable approaches they could use.

    A clear and communicable purpose is absolutely vital, and as you say, varies by audience and point in the policy process. And those on the inside should be honest about when that purpose includes legitimate awareness-raising about government action, as well as seeking input. From my experience, the challenge for digital engagement is often about the limited horizons and expectations of colleagues, and delivering effective outputs to tight timescales. Broadening awareness of what works and who can help explain and deliver it is key to getting better digital engagement across the board.

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