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.

Social Obamedia

Great post this morning by Emma Mulqueeny on a recent report on Obama’s social media strategy. My reaction to the Social Obamedia phenomenon has been one of contradictions: pride that the campaign’s application of key social media principles has been successful, optimism that it has generated such an avalanche of interest from the mainstream, and frustration

Perhaps my greatest frustration, to echo some of your sentiments, is that things have not advanced more rapidly here in the UK. As an American living here and devoted to the Govt Social Media realm, I can’t help but point out that for a while, the UK was further ahead . Given the size of the country, the centralised nature of its government, and the reasonably collegial nature of regional governments (so I am lead to believe), I believe that the UK has, and is, particularly well placed to innovate and scale approaches to Govt 2.0/eParticipation/etc. The eDemocracy movement has been strong here for some time. Folks like Emma and Jeremy Gould have been doing this stuff for ages and have insights aplenty. And for some time now, we have a spectacular minister at the cabinet level intensely devoted to this subject. The US has no such thing (although given the way that the West Wing operates, Macon Phillips is well positioned to play one). When I started the idea of polyWonk a year ago, I had the naive notion that I’d be able to easily arrange to get 20K out of some department to develop and run a pilot project around ‘open-sourcing policy’ (as we called it then). The government would get a tangible product and demonstration of its democratic agenda, and a strong start-up in a growing space, to boot. Alas, despite the rhetoric within government, this proved significantly harder than I had predicted, and I have had to turn to private individuals for development capital.

Let me finish on a note of optimism, however. Based upon my recent investigations across the pond, the US hasn’t cracked this nut yet. At all. As you can tell by this report, much of the discussion re: social media and govt is still focused on the political side – i.e. running campaigns, mobilising people, and communications. They still need to make the same leap to incorporating not just the tools, but the *principles* of social media into government: active collaboration and engagement, and user-contributed/generated content. The same goes for Europe, Asia, and elsewhere. There are many experiments and a growing hunger, creating great opportunity for innovation and the sharing of ideas. There are still no household names in this realm, no trade magazines for govt 2.0, no simple primer for the vast number of civil servants out there who are struggling to understand social media and their implcations. The social and commercial potential are still great. But we must act, once again allow the US to take lead in an area in which the UK has no shortage whatsoever of great ideas, and great people.