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Published on June 3, 2011

AlphaGov: Engaging with citizens or consumers?

By Annie Quick

Annie Quick is Researcher and Team Coordinator. She has a background in different methods of deliberation and participation and in youth democracy.

AlphaGov hopes to encourage participation by consulting with people on policy at the point where they use public services. To do this, however, they must ensure that they are engaging people as citizens, not just consumers.

I want to focus on one aspect of the conversation around AlphaGov’s approach to government engagement; peoples’ dual role as citizens and consumers.

Steph Gray surfaced the issue in his recent blog, suggesting that public sector organisations should:

Combine customer and citizen roles: boost participation and improve public services by asking people for ideas when it’s relevant, connecting a public service experience with feedback on the policy behind it.

This is in idea which comes up a number of times throughout the AlphaGov slides and blog. As AlphaGov have realised, people are generally more ready to engage as consumers. They are happy to give feedback after having applied for a temporary licence (an example from the AlphaGov slides) because it takes 2 minutes and doesn’t require taking in any more information than they already have. Their feedback is of course valuable in itself, and it is also right that government should capitalise on these opportunities to ask people to consider the policies behind these decisions. AlphaGov provides a particularly good opportunity for this because much of the rest of the site focusses on providing a better, more integrated approach to service users.

However, getting user feedback on a service and opinions on the policies behind it are, and should be, distinct activities. Indeed, as Steph implies, people respond to them in different roles. When consultation notches up a level, that shift from consumer to citizen needs to take place. Otherwise, the integration of service user feedback and citizen consultation is in danger of turning all government engagement into market research.

Why is this difference so important? Because the answers people give will depend on it. For example, if I am asked how often I would like my rubbish to be collected I will say every day. However, if I am asked to put myself in the shoes of a policy maker, consider the overall budget for my area, the needs of my neighbours, and the cuts in other services which would be necessary for my daily collection, my answer will be very different.

This dichotomy is oversimplified of course; our opinions as citizens are informed largely by our experiences and individual needs and people aren’t blindly selfish consumers when giving feedback on a service. However, when I’ve worked in the past with groups deliberating about a policy issue the shift in roles is evident; you can almost see them take a step back, begin to think critically about problem-solving and become much more willing to compromise and build solutions. It’s then, for me, that democracy starts to happen.

If government is engaging people on different levels, as citizens and consumers, within the same platforms or potentially as part of the same processes, that needs to be clear. If government wants to benefit from the opinions of citizens they need to ask appropriate questions and provide the right tools and information. In particular, they need to enable people to:

  • Weigh up trade-offs. Although consultations need a focus, it’s hard to have a well-considered opinion about one issue without thinking through it’s implications on another. This is particularly true where budget is involved. A great online example of trade-offs is DECC’s My2050 in which people have to weigh up different options to create a viable energy pathway to 2050 and avoid runaway climate change.
  • Engage in a process of shared decision-making. One experiment in online ‘consensus voting’ asked citizens to consider the issue of party funding, suggest solutions, debate the issues, amend the solutions and eventually vote to find the option which came closest to consensus. Even where people can’t be involved to this degree, a process which makes people aware of themselves as part of a larger decision encourages the give and take, compromise and deliberation of good citizenship.
  • Consider other peoples’ opinions. There are a number of online tools which map different sides of an argument. Debategraph maps arguments and a comment on the AlphaGov blog points to the New York Times’ visualisation of peoples’ reactions to Bin Laden’s death, where people plot their opinion on a graph, along with a comment. As well as these attempts to broadly map out arguments, polarised issues require that people take a moment to put themselves into other peoples’ shoes (something which is recognised, for example by Citizens UK in their campaign for personal encounters with asylum seekers, but which could be easily imitated in short youtube videos).

If all government was about was acting on peoples’ aggregate preferences as consumers, then there’d be no worry about these things. But one of the great things about AlphaGov so far is that citizens are seen as much more than consumers of public services. While the actions on slide 2 of ‘Tell’ and ‘Feedback’ can perhaps be done in the same way that Starbucks might try to improve its coffee and counter services, the actions of ‘Review’ and ‘Inspire’ require that shift to citizen to take place. Designing processes which tap into this doesn’t need to be difficult but, I would argue, it does need to be different.

Image by Omar_MK

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