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Online Engagement Musings: Part I

February 4th, 2009 by Mitch

This past weekend’s UK GovWeb BarCamp was a huge success, and it was an honour to be one of the supporters. While I could wax lyrical about the diversity of conversations and the general sense of empowerment conveyed through the day, I’d like to focus on the one topic which has been consuming my mind both prior to, and since, the big event:

Evolving from “consultation” to “engagement”

As luck would have it, it was the first session of the day to which I was most excited, proved to be the most meaningful for me. Roughly titled “Online Engagement and Consultation”, it was ostensibly chaired by Steph Gray of DIUS and Paul Johnston of Cisco/Connected Republic.

Steph gave an excellent, brief overview of the challenges of online consultation, and provided a few examples of how DIUS has experimented in this space of late. This approach echoed Paul’s blog post prior to the event, in which he suggested what I might call a “scenario” approach — i.e. looking at the different phases or scenarios of consultation/engagement, and considering these individually.

It occurred to me following the discussion, that there are essentially two dimensions by which we might consider online engagement: the stage of engagement, and the type of engagement.

The stages of engagement

There are a number of ways to describe or outline the policy lifecycle. The Home Office has their own “Policy Wheel” with five key stages, if I recall. A popular model in the US is the “Eight-Fold Path“, created by Prof. Gene Bardach. In general, though, the policy process can be abstracted out to the following (Prof. Bardach, please forgive me):

  1. Define issue and outcomes
  2. Understand system
  3. Identify alternatives
  4. Analyse alternatives
  5. Deliver
  6. Evaluate

I’ve long argued that although “consultation” tends to take place at only point of this process (usually 4. Analyse), true engagement can and should occur throughout the policy lifecycle. However, doing this is not only difficult in and of itself, but frequently forces the stakeholder to think in terms of the language of the policy-maker. If we instead think of this in plain english, we can envision the following ‘phases’ of public engagement (which may or may not happen in a linear manner):

  • Identifying the issues – identifying problems or potential areas for policy intervention
  • Identifying the outcomes – describing the vision or objective, or rather, what is trying to be achieved
  • Providing context – contributing detailed information on the current issue, environment, stakeholders, and forces
  • Identifying policy ideas for addressing issues – suggesting potential policy interventions, perhaps based upon examples seen elsewhere
  • Generating evidence or feedback – contributing specific perspectives, observations, or data related to proposed or existing policies
  • Participating in the delivery of a policy – Contributing resources to the actual delivery of a policy intervention

A range of ways to participate

For each of the above, one can envision different degrees of input, ranging from low-effort to high-effort. Consider this my twist on classic “ladder of citizen participation“:

  1. Vote – Providing a yes/no or Likert-scale response to a posed statement.
  2. Multi-dimensional vote – A more nuanced version of a vote. This could include allocating some set of units or £s across a set of alternatives, to embed some notion of resource constraints. It could also include evaluating options against different criteria (impact, resources required, time limitations, etc.)
  3. Comment – Providing a short item of input, usually in response to something posed. This could be a perspective, a rebuttal, or a piece of evidence.
  4. Idea – Providing a unique or standalone item of input. This could be a suggestion for an issue, a policy proposal, or an independent observation which might be used as context for other deliberation.
  5. Deliberation – Providing detailed input or content to an item or discussion (e.g. fleshing out a wiki outline).
  6. Execution – Participating in the actual delivery of a policy intervention.

In subsequent posts, I will try to analyse the challenges to online engagement, and to aggregate and evaluate some of the tools being applied along these two dimensions (stage of engagement, and type of engagement). Finally, I will try to marry all of this up describing polyWonk’s own development of a platform for online policy collaboration/consultation/engagement/involvement/participation.

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