On consultation

On Thursday night I was lucky enough to be invited to Number 11 for a few drinks with various online luminaries, including a bunch of guys who went on Web Mission 08 and lots of lovely government webbies too, courtesy of Tom Watson, the Minister for Doing Fun Things with the Web. William Heath describes some of the oddities of the evening on the Ideal Government blog.

One of the cool people I got to hang out with was Harry Metcalfe, who I met very briefly at BarcampUKGovWeb, and who is the guy behind Tell Them What You Think, a MySociety sponsored hosted project to bring government consultations to the masses through the web.

Essentially, Tell Them What You Think scrapes consultations that are published on various government websites, and sticks them in one place. The potential consultee can then browse or search for stuff that interests them, and respond as appropriate. Screen scraping isn’t ideal, and is a bit of a brutish way of doing things, but is entirely necessary when data is published in a way that isn’t easily reused. As always, Wikipedia is your friend.

This chatter with Harry coincided neatly with an item that popped up in my RSS feeds last week, from my local authority, Kettering Borough Council (yes! They publish news in RSS!). This stated:

The Borough Council would like to gain the public’s views on the East Kettering Strategic Design Supplementary Planning Document. This draft document will form a key part of the Local Development Framework for the Borough, a suite of documents that contain planning policies and will guide future development. The Supplementary Planning Document aims to proactively promote high quality design within the Urban Extension.

The Council is taking people’s views in through three different methods:

  • Face to face events in various different locations throughout the affected areas
  • By taking postal responses to the consultation documents which have been published online
  • By using the online consultation facility called ‘Limehouse’

Limehouse does sound rather interesting, and a quick google shows that plenty of other authorities are using it too. Would be interested to hear any reports on how well it works in the comments.

Even if Limehouse is lame, at least Kettering are trying, and also blending off and online methods to ensure as many people can get involved as possible.

My concern though is that we shouldn’t be thinking about consultation any more, and instead the word we should be using is ‘participation’. This ties in with my post a little while back on taking the boringness out of engagement. Tell Them What You Think is great, a brilliantly put together service, but I wonder whether having a place for people to go to is really the answer to this stuff.

Shouldn’t we be using the power of the social web to deliver interesting stuff to the people who might be interested in it? Do we really want everyone to be engaged on every issue, or just those that have an interest and an understanding of it?

This is why the identification and engagement with existing community groups is so vital in this area. These are people who could actually be bothered to organise themselves around an issue of shared interest or concern. The social web has a tremendous abiity to aggregate people together, but first the issues must be disaggregated until they are small enough for people to be able to get to grips with them in a meaningful way. They then need to be delivered to those people directly, and be able to receive responses in a number of formats to fit with the way the people, or groups, like to work themselves.

6 thoughts on “On consultation”

  1. Hey Dave

    Really good post.

    I was struck by the line:

    My concern though is that we shouldn’t be thinking about consultation any more, and instead the word we should be using is ‘participation’.

    Mostly given the few seconds before seeing your tweet pointing to this post I’d just been writing a presentation slide about moving beyond participation into ‘open innovation’ and collaboration with citizens and service users…

    We often get into terminology round-abouts (I’ve lost track of the number of articles that try to move the debate on from ‘youth empowerment’, to ‘youth voice’, to ‘youth participation’, to ‘youth involvement’ and back round to ‘youth empowerment again’) when it comes to engagement/participation/empowerment/democratisation* (*take your pick).

    Part of the answer may be to look at (and critique) first the power involved and who holds it, then the process being used (participation process/consultation process etc.) then at the terminology.

    In wider comment – I’m not sure I wholly agree with the idea of disaggregating issues till they are bite-size enough to deal with. A lot of issues are aggregated for a reason – not least because of the necessary trade-offs arising from limited resources of essential contested view points, and from the need to control for the emergent effects of many small disaggregated decisions. Perhaps rather than chunking the issues up – we need to provide different pathways into the more detailed policy making process that start from the smaller issues presented in a way that makes them, and by proxy the wider policy process, accessible to people…

  2. Yes, Yes, Yes, Dave !
    Particularly agree with your point about disaggregating into “bite size chunks”.
    We (should) all care about the streets immediately around where we live, the community facilities in our neighbourhood (for young, old and others) and about planning processes that will affect green space etc nearby.

    As citizens we generally only engage with people and processes one stage above where we are – decisions we think we can meaningfully put input to.

    The POI team (http://www.showusabetterway.com/call/data.html) also have the right idea. Make public / government information interesting and USEFUL, make consultation (NO, collaboration) have a purpose, have goals that you, me, Joe (and Joanne) Bloggs can see will make a difference.

  3. Just to say TellThemWhatYou think isn’t mySociety sponsored, or even a mySociety project, it’s just hosted by us. The project’s 100% harry’s.

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