Across government, there’s an understanding that engagement with stakeholders is a good thing. It helps in the successful creation and implementation of policy, especially when it’s done at an early stage. However, this awareness hasn’t yet translated into consistently well-designed online engagement opportunities – though there has been an increase in the number of platforms that would help to make this possible.
So we all want to engage better. And now, more than ever, we can. We want to start a discussion about how to make this happen. There are lots of things to talk about so we’d like do this in phases or chunks.
What are we trying to achieve here?
We want to work with people within and outside of government to develop a “matrix” of digital engagement tools. Our aim is to help anyone looking to engage or consult to identify the platforms or tools that can help them do this more effectively. This opening phase of the discussion is a first step to getting there.
We’re pleased to be doing this alongside Demsoc, who are thinking more widely about how to make Open Policy Making a reality. It goes without saying that a large part of that is getting formal consultation and engagement right – though as Anthony says in his post, there’s more to Open Policy Making than just that.
Why does Government consult or engage?
A common characteristic of good engagement or consultation is that it is very “outcome-focused”. So we thought we’d start there too. We’ve identified six “outcomes” that policymakers and service delivery teams might be seeking to achieve when they engage with their stakeholders:
- I want to generate ideas: The aim here is to draw on the knowledge and expertise of a wide range of stakeholders to identify creative solutions to existing problems. This works best when no set ideas on a policy or its implementation have been developed, and / or there’s flexibility on the scope and direction of a discussion i.e. you’re happy to see where things take you. Stakeholders should be able to contribute quickly and easily and it can work particularly well when you’re able to incentivise the right people to participate. Examples involving government include Idea Street and Show Us A Better Way. While it is sometimes desirable for ideas generation to be an unstructured process, at other times it is desirable for it to be within a set scope. The Redbridge participatory budgeting exercise is a good example of the latter.
- I want to test out new ideas: The aim here is to sound out new ideas or possible policy directions on a representative sample of the target audience. This is a good way to gauge opinion on the current situation. It might also help to define scopes for new policy areas and to identify opinion-leaders and influencers.
- I want to create/design a document/service or deliver a project in collaboration with relevant stakeholders (examples: Idea Street, Solutions Exchange): This tends to be delivery-focused and works best when the consultation has the buy-in of delivery or operational teams and there is scope to incorporate respondents’ proposals and ideas. The focus on delivery also has implications for the audience type and size – knowledgeable (often heavy service users as well as practitioners and technical experts) and relatively small. You are most likely to succeed when you have an engaged community and this will take time to build.
- I want to draw on dispersed knowledge : The aim here is to gather dispersed information within a given, usually fairly large, population to help build an evidence base for setting policy or for identifying areas to which departmental resources should applied. A good example of this is the Red Tape Challenge. Successfully achieving this outcome often requires a low-effort means for respondents to provide their input and internal resources to analyse the feedback, coordinate action and communicate progress to respondents.
- I want to get detailed and focused feedback within a tightly defined framework: This outcome is most likely to be successful when stakeholders have already been engaged at an earlier stage or where there is already broad consensus about the justification or benefits of the policy. The primary stakeholders should be clearly identified and the scope for discussion should be well defined and properly communicated to respondents. This approach does not generally allow for respondents to propose radically different policies or implementation options. Two good examples are the Public Reading Stage consultation on the draft Small Charitable Donations bill and the consultation on the provisions in the draft Care and Support Bill (Note: the term ‘primary stakeholders’ is not synonymous with ‘large institutional stakeholders’).
- I want to address misconceptions and clarify objectives through discussion and engagement: The outcome here is to bust myths, persuade or explain the rationale for a policy or its implementation- usually a service. The approach is discursive and responsive. Often times, there is no scope for discussing alternative policy options and this is made clear.
We’d be very surprised if the outcomes we’ve identified above prove to be exhaustive, so this is the first thing we’d like to talk to you about: (1) Are there any other desired outcomes that you can think of? (2) Are the descriptions and examples we’ve provided for each outcome good enough? (3) Are any of these desired outcomes not appropriate for government digital engagement or consultations?
Next, we’d like to share and seek discussion with you on some successful approaches that have been taking by central and local government to achieve these outcomes. We’ll be presenting these as a series of case-studies and asking your views on what’s relevant Looking forward to the ensuing discussions!