What public consultation can look like

BIS Consumer Rights site

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:

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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.

Fixing consultation

Interesting news today from the Cabinet Office, who issued their three-page Consultation Principles (embedded below), with the accompanying explanation:

The Government is improving the way it consults by adopting a more proportionate and targeted approach, so that the type and scale of engagement is proportional to the potential impacts of the proposal. The emphasis is on understanding the effects of a proposal and focussing on real engagement with key groups rather than following a set process.

The key Consultation Principles are:

  • departments will follow a range of timescales rather than defaulting to a 12-week period, particularly where extensive engagement has occurred before;
  • departments will need to give more thought to how they engage with and consult with those who are affected;
  • consultation should be ‘digital by default’, but other forms should be used where these are needed to reach the groups affected by a policy; and
  • the principles of the Compact between government and the voluntary and community sector will continue to be respected.

The new Consultation Principles will be promoted within Whitehall now, and the public will begin to see the new guidance take effect in early autumn 2012.

Overall, I’d say it’s quite an encouraging document – with a focus on sensible timescales, more thought applied to making the consultation materials accessible, considering whether informal online engagement might substitute for formal processes in some cases, and being more transparent about how the feedback is used. I worry though that civil servants may read the document simply as meaning that ’12 weeks doesn’t apply any more’ – perhaps the one bit of the Consultation Code which has been familiar to every civil servant working on a consultation. Similarly, ‘digital by default’ is at risk of becoming a weasel phrase akin to ‘evidence based policymaking’ or ‘social marketing’ which can be met with a nod to a SurveyMonkey response form or a tweeted launch.

I’ve always quite liked the simplicity of the Participation Principles written by Participation Cymru for the Welsh Government (especially the poster version [PDF]), which are a bit of aide-memoire for teams in a hurry.

With that in mind, here’s some of the principles I’d like to see adopted here:

  1. Be clear about what’s for debate: explain clearly what policy is already decided, or what the constraints on options may be
  2. Write fewer, better questions people can and want to answer: use clear language, not dumbing down material for specialists, but consider summarising for other groups. Don’t simply ask people if they agree with the proposed solution on X.
  3. Ask different audiences different questions: don’t expect all service users to comment on econometric models; welcome simple indications of priorities, patient or customer stories, comments and ideas alongside traditional submissions from lobby groups.
  4. Use market research, operational and analytical data alongside consultation data: representative opinion data isn’t marketing spin, and behavioural data is sorely underused too. Don’t shape policy simply according to the voices of those who showed up the consultation.
  5. Join the conversation in places where people discuss these issues: take the consultation into online communities, shopping centres, staff canteens and email lists. Have the courage and personality to become an active member, empathise and engage.
  6. Help people to stay informed (and tell them if you haven’t yet decided something): some people will want to know where this came from, where it’s going, and what happened as a consequence. Use simple tools like email, blogs and social media to tell the story of the consultation and its outcomes.
  7. Analyse responses intelligently: plan your analysis before the consultation launch, including how you will process and report on responses. Consultations aren’t votes: weight responses intelligently but with an open mind.

Principle five has clear roots in the excellent Government Digital Service social media guidance for civil servants. For me though, principles 1 to 3 above are the ones I’d make red lines. My own experience consulting online has taught me that unless you do all three, you are bound to fail (and I often have).

What would you make mandatory for government consultations?


Embedded document is Crown Copyright, reproduced here under the Open Government Licence.

ConsultationXML goes open source

ConsultationXML screenshot

As Harry’s explained over on The Dextrous Web, we’ve just open sourced the code behind ConsultationXML, the tool we’ve been working on which turns consultation PDF files into XML. It’s a 0.1 release so still full of bugs, but at least it’s out there.

You can download the (documented) code, and/or have a play with the sandbox version first.

Open sourcing our code is the kind of thing the new Open Source Action Plan incites government to do more. But it’s generally low down the list and – frankly – documenting and hosting proper code repositories is beyond the humble skills of most clients (including me) and even a good many developers (but happily, not Harry).

Please help us demonstrate that this is important work worth investing time and effort in, by helping us to improve the tool with your feedback and ideas.

Freeing data, reducing pain

At Barcamp on Saturday, Harry Metcalfe of TellThemWhatYouThink and I presented some work we’ve been doing to build a web application which makes it easier to turn PDF versions of consultation documents into structured XML. Before you click on to something more interesting, give me a chance to explain in plain English why this matters.

Pile of papers

Image: lotyloty

As Harry says in his write up:

Typically, a formal consultation is a pretty tedious process: a department will write up a big PDF document, print it, send it to some people, stick it on their website and wait for people to respond. The whole process is pretty dated: it doesn’t really take advantage of the web, and is pretty inaccessible to most people.

We’re not going to get away soon from the reality that the final, definitive versions of these documents live in PDF (well InDesign/QuarkXPress, then PDF) formats. Somehow, they need to be turned into something which can ‘live’ online, stimulating a conversation and real two-way interaction about policy. They need to be documents which help people get into the issues, discuss and share them, relate them to their own situation and provide feedback on the aspects that concern them.

There are a couple of nice examples of this in practice right now:

  • In Birmingham, a group of Concerned Citizens took what they perceived to be a jargon-heavy consultation document from the local authority, translated it into plain English, and posted it in commentable form on a website, to help ensure that local people had a chance to meaningfully engage with the proposals. I imagine this took some laborious cutting and pasting and some hairy-chested technical skills, but what if the council had published its document in a way which any group could easily dissect and interpret in this way? What if all councils did so? Might the proposals and the ideas become more important than the jargon, and might the quality and extent of the debate improve as a result?
  • The Power of Information Taskforce Report, published in beta via a WordPress-based tool on Sunday, also publishes a parallel RSS feed of all the sections of the document, and all the contributed comments. Within 12 hours of appearing on the web, the document had already been converted – not by the publishers, but by interested third parties looking to widen the debate – into a wiki and a special XML dialect for strategy documents known as StratML.

Even without surrendering quite so much control over the words themselves, there is much that becomes easier to do once the core document is structured:

  • Convert it easily into HTML which can be loaded into a big enterprise CMS and published on the corporate site, linked to and/or read on mobile devices
  • Build a tool to attach a comment box to each paragraph or section, for people to comment in detail on the proposals
  • Automatically generate an online response form, which picks up all the questions asked in the document, and sends the results to a database, spreadsheet, analysis package, discussion forum or whatever
  • Generate ‘widgets’ or mini-questionnaires based on a few of the questions raised in the document, for bloggers and social networkers to embed in their sites and profiles, like we attempted for the Science and Society consultation
  • Publish out information about the consultation, like the closing date, summary and so on, to services like Directgov to aggregate across government, or to third party user-generated sites like TellThemWhatYouThink – like we’re doing at DIUS using a simple Atom feed.

The fact is, PDF files of consultations are a big soup of paragraphs, pictures, case studies and questions. To help build the kind of labour-saving tools which might encourage debate around them, we need to describe the content of the documents in ways which machines can work with (“this bit’s a question”,”that bit’s a case study”,”the consultation closes on date X” and so on). And that’s what Harry’s tool sets out to do. It’s a proof of concept for now, designed for a user community of quite knowledgable web publishing teams, and understandably still has some rough edges. But he’s overcome an impressive array of technical challenges to illustrate how investing some time in marking up a consultation document this way could open up an exciting world of potential applications. The next phase of the project is to start to build some of those applications.

Harry’s set up a sandbox environment so you’re welcome to have a look at the tool as it stands, and give us your thoughts and ideas on where we should take it next.

p.s. If you want to pick up some quick tips on how to structure website data from someone who knows what they’re talking about, read Jeni Tennison’s fantastic guide to what government should do to facilitate data reuse.