Online Engagement Musings: Part I

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.

Opening up the policy process

The UK faces some big issues: climate change, an aging population, changing demographics, global competition, etc. Increasingly, these issues are defying the conventional mechanisms we have for developing and delivering the policy to address them. Policy-making roles within government entities tend to conform to rigid structures and internal cultural norms (i.e who can speak to whom, who can say what to the public, who needs to approve new ideas, etc.). Any others who might wish to participate in the process must first learn to conform to those norms and the oft-hidden pathways into the system.

Tackling, together

These problems can’t be solved with one particular skillset or within one particular department. They require interdisciplinary skills, and the combined efforts of many people working across government, the economy, and society. Those with knowledge might be in a national government agency, or in a local council. They might be experts in a think-tank, or a practitioner with years of experience delivering a service in their community. They might live in a city, a rural town, or even another country altogether. And all of them might have a key piece to the larger puzzle. Only with all of the pieces will we see the puzzle solved.

This is where Web 2.0, or the social web, comes in. Frequently, when we think of Web 2.0, we think of blogs, wikis, and social networks — and this is certainly the case. But Web 2.0 is more than than a collection of internet tools. It is a philosophy. One of collaboration and user-involvement. The idea that through the efforts and knowledge of many, we can tackle issues which far exceed the capacity of one.

Bottom-up and Top-down

In the policy and social arena, this philosophy is being born out in grassroots activity and experiments across society. has been building sites for public engagement since 2003. Involve is an exceptional organisation conducting research and experiments on public participation. Social Innovation Camp 2008 brought together dozens of social media mavens, social entrepreneurs, and practitioners to explore different uses of new tools to address social challenges.

Within the government, there are also signs of change. Minister and MP blogs, ePetititions, and community fora — while perhaps not prolific — are no longer unusual. In the beginning of the year, Jeremy Gould of the Ministry of Justice convened the UK’s first UKGovWeb BarCamp, drawing an impressive array of those within government eager to explore tools for engagement and collaboration. Dominic Campbell of FutureGov has recently been appointed [what is believed to be] the first Social Media Manager for a local council. Tom Watson, the West Bromwich MP and a political blogging pioneer, has recently taken up the post of Cabinet Office minister for bringing more web 2.0 principles into government. Within the opposition, George Osborne has long spoken of the potential for ‘open-source policy’, with the Tories using wiki-like tools to facilitate the collaborative development of the party’s numerous substantive white-papers. In the Americas, a term has even been coined to refer to all of this activity: Government 2.0.

A long hill to climb

However, despite these impressive and rapid developments, much remains to be done. Within the halls of government, a long-standing perception that “information is power” stands as a serious obstacle to collaboration and sharing of information. While the tools may exist to facilitate debate and discussion between masses of people, such debate is often seen to lack meaningful deliberation and balanced participation. Even when great ideas and content do emerge, it can be difficult to present these to policy-makers in a manner which is seen as credible and usable.

To explore some of these questions, polyWonk has recently been asked to lead the Policy 2.0 strand at the upcoming 2gether08 festival. At 2gether08 we’re looking to take on these issues, and do something about them. I encourage you to head over to the 2gether08 site, and comment, propose, challenge, collaborate, and debate. The only way we’re going to get better at working together, is by working together.

Note: This entry has (in essence) been cross-posted on