BIS Consumer Rights site

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What public consultation can look like

I’ve been a bit grumpy lately that use of digital tools to engage the public creatively around policy consultations has stalled. Sure, there’s some good tweeting, and some creative ministerial webchats, but not much that tackles the showstopping barriers of impenetrable language, lengthy response forms and boring or loaded questions.

What BIS has done with the consultation on the Consumer Rights Bill is magnificent, and I hope they get a response to reflect that.

They’ve created a mini-site on their existing discussion platform, to enable people to explore the key themes of the proposal, organised around questions that a real person might have. They’ve translated the Bill proposals into straightforward English:

Consumer rights - plain english

 

They recognise consultations are about horses for courses: if you’re in a hurry, you can vote in a quick poll, but if you want the full text of all the documents (15 I counted) so you can consult the members of your representative organisation, then go knock yourself out (on GOV.UK).

They’ve taken the discussion out into other platforms, with a minister who was clearly well up for some digital and media engagement, on BBC radio, the MoneySavingExpert¬†forum, and – brilliantly – Wired magazine, since the proposals cover rights over digital content purchases:

Screen Shot 2013-09-10 at 08.39.42

 

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Not every consultation needs this amount of effort and creativity in forming partnerships and creating accessible content. But when something comes along with a clear consumer focus, it’s great to see an in-house team with the skills and confidence to really make something of it as a digital product:

  1. Writing questions and background material to explain the issue which ordinary people can relate to
  2. Taking the consultation out into places where people are interested in the issues
  3. Providing several routes to respond, for people with different levels of time and interest in the issue (I’d argue maybe some free-form comments on each issue might have worked well as a way of collecting stories and first-hand testimony for the policy team)
  4. Combining GOV.UK for the official content with other channels, Government-owned and third-party, where the discussion can happen

It’s going into our training courses as an example of online consultation being done right.

UPDATE: even more brilliantly, the team had already, of course, blogged at length about the project and their lessons learned from it.

  1. Steph – I agree with you that it is a brilliant example of public engagement and absolutely the sort of thing that departments should do. However, how much is it about informing and how much about consulting, i.e. seeking comments/feedback? Obviously any engagement exercise will (often whether you like it or not!) generate feedback and so help you improve what you are doing or even potentially reconsider some aspects, but to me this exercise does seem to be primarily about excellent and interactive ways of getting the message out there and much less about letting the public influence the policy process. Perhaps this reflects the fact that the proposals seem essentially to be in a post-consultation phase which would make things more understandable but your headline perhaps a tad misleading :-) Paul

  2. Interesting example, I certainly like how they are helping people make informed decisions by presenting the arguments in an easy way. The poll is a bit tokenistic but useful to frame the ‘mood’ of the masses.

    I suspect, like most consultations, they only got a 1% (of population) response – which is always disappointing…? The future challenge for me is to make digital consultation more timely and use high penetration technologies such as SMS – not more elaborate online platforms. Rather than a blanket marketing approach, I wonder if they created a stakeholder map and reviewed engagement levels half way through?

    I certainly endorse the guidance of The Consultation Institute in that a clear consultation mandate should be set-out explaining what ‘has’ and what ‘has not’ already been decided. In essence, I worry that too much effort is going into stimulating dialogue and not enough to ensure that departments are making consultation meaningful.

    • They’re a smart bunch, and I suspect some good thought went into who they’d try and reach and how they’d reach them.

      The penetration doesn’t strike me as a big deal: consultation is an opt-in process, where representations are made by those who show up – and that’s fine. For representative data, there’s opinion research (my old domain).

      Being up-front about scope, as you say, is vital. If there were one thing government consultations could do as standard to improve things, being clear and honest about the scope for change and the parameters of the discussion would probably have the greatest impact on confidence in the process and quality of the feedback.

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