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What good digital consultation looks like

This popped into my timeline today, from the fabulous digital team at the Department of Health.

Stephen and Susy distill down to 37 minutes the conclusions from the experiments they’ve tried and sometimes tough lessons they’ve learned from iterating their organisation’s approach to online consultation over the last few years*.

It’s brilliant in its honesty, but the best bit is the six lessons they share at the end:

  1. Check that there is actually appetite to engage
  2. Make it as easy as possible for people to take an action
  3. Reach out to the people you want to take part
  4. Know how you’re going to analyse the response
  5. Say thank you, and then keep people who take part updated
  6. No amount of digital engagement expertise will make much difference to a 600 page consultation with 70 impenetrable questions

As the back catalogue of this blog attests, I used to be really into digital engagement around consultations, but I’ve lost my enthusiasm a bit in recent years, partly though getting more cynical about it all from the outside, and partly because my business has taken me in other directions. But I think Stephen and Susy absolutely nail it in their conclusions above. Do those things, and it will probably work. Miss out one or more, and it probably won’t.

I also think the crucial factor in all of this is a switched-on, in-house digital team who are close enough to policy officials to be able to educate and support them, and close enough to modern digital methods to know what tools to use and communities to approach. It’s the kind of thing I spotted the equally impressive BIS team of Fran, Gwenny and Marilyn doing the other day, working with Which?, Money Saving Expert and Citizens Advice to raise awareness of consumer rights.

If I were to suggest a seventh ambition to add to the list, it would be to make sure the digital consultation process leaves something behind with the policy officials involved too. Even more than most digital services, consultation is a field where non-technical colleagues can get really involved, make new connections and grow their awareness of the tools and methods available. A growing proportion of the people we’re working with now via our Digital Action Plan are not Comms or Digital specialists, as the ability to have conversations online – on your own initiative, using simple tools, an open mind and a thick skin – is something that can’t really be the sole preserve of a specialist team or be mandated via a central framework. It’s about learning to saying hello, excuse me, and thank you online.

* disclosure: I helped develop some of – as it happens, the less successful – platforms mentioned, and I do remember some of those midnight finishes. It sounds like things have got a bit more sophisticated since.