Online Democracy: Seven Questions for Government

This is my write up of the online democracy session at GovCampCymru (and some other linked conversations).  GovCampCymru was in fact a thoroughly excellent day organised by Satori Laband friends.  What? You couldn’t make it?  Then come to the next one. 

This particular session was about online democracy, in other words the minutes, agendas, reports etc etc that local, devolved and national government make available through their websites.  The idea was simply to start a conversation about how this stuff could be improved, who uses it, what they want and so on.  What I really liked was the opportunity to bring a mix of voices to the discussion; policy types, democracy types, technical types, community types etc.  Thank you so much for all the contributions on the day or otherwise. This is very much my take so please, if  I've got it wrong or missed anything - just add a comment.  Also – sorry if this a bit long.  I didn’t have time to make it shorter.

At the heart of our discussion were the following seven questions for government about their online democracy:

1. Is it readable?

Seems pretty basic but actually this stuff is hard.  The language of decision making is not the language that people use in the pub. Perhaps the process itself needs a more technical language but, when governments share, they need to make sure people know what they are saying.  We talked about the way that the Government Digital Service approach language and thought this was worth using.

2. Are you clear about the purpose? 

Have you thought about why you publish this stuff online?  For information? To ask for people’s views?  To ensure politicians are held to account?  Just because you have to?  Once this is clear you can design what you provide.  You can also tell people why you are providing it so they know what to expect.

3. Do you know what the users want?

‘Users’ here means the people who actually look at all of those online minutes, agendas and reports.  Do you know who they are and what their needs are?  Do you know how they come to your websites and what happens when they do?  In service design this is sometimes called mapping user journeys – putting the citizen at the centre of what you provide. As someone in the group put it: 'If we want people to get involved, we need to open up and work from bottom up. Need to ask people'

I did some initial twitter ‘research’ on who uses this stuff at local government level and why.  Here are a few of the suggestions:

  • Councillors to support their role and find out what is happening in their community
  • Council officers to help them do their jobs and to know what decisions have been made
  • Active Citizens / Citizen bloggers to hold politicians to account and to make sure people know how the democratic process is affecting their area
  • Charities and communities groups looking for anything that affects the people they work with and to support ‘lobbying’ of councillors if they need to
  • Journalists to find information about planning applications but also any policy related news stories
  • Local campaigners who want to know what is happening about their issue
  • People who just want to find out what is happening in their area
  • Students because they have to for their assignments
  • Auditors so they can check if the council is being run properly

It was great to hear that the Welsh Assembly have been talking to citizen bloggers about their needs – I’d love to learn more.

4. How will your content get to the non users?

Most people, of course, have nothing to do with online democracy and may never want to.  But the stuff going through the democratic process affects them so how are you going to reach them?  Have you thought about the mediators (many listed in the point above), the ‘civic sharers’ who can pass this stuff on?  Government is not very good at working with the ‘hard to reach’ (terrible phrase, I know) but other bodies are.  How are you going to make use of them?

5. Is you content shareable?

The advantage of social media is that it is easy to share.  But online democracy is not particularly shareable.  Content captured in lengthy pdfs is hardly likely to go viral. 
We talked about the short form / long form approach that many use in central government.  If every meeting item, every report was captured and published as a shareable summary it would be much more likely to get people engaged.  I also like the point that was made about making digital democracy digestible ‘like john Craven's Newsround’:)

6. How will you make your content relevant?

People want to know about the stuff that affects them yet government publishes only in a way that suits the process.  People in the group pointed out that:

  • The content of politics is generally vague and/or boring 
  • People shouldn't have to consume the whole damn process 
  • Our democratic content is nothing then everything i.e. There is no warm up
  • We need to work on how to get to the right people - digital democracy is not necessarily about getting lots of hits or likes 

There are lots of new platforms springing up (like vocaleyes) that might make the process more relevant and meaningful and relevant for people – how are you going to link with these?

7. How will you respond?

Finally, and perhaps the most difficult point is what are you going to do as a result of engagement?  If online democracy is just about informing then be honest and say so.  But if you tell people that you want to engage - then what does this mean?

The view in the group was that the culture of government is not a responsive one: 

  • The importance of having a responsive back end to go with any fancy front end for digital democracy
  • We need to create organisations / democratic structures that care about what people say in consultations because generally they don’t
  • There is a difference between disseminating information and starting a conversation

What can we do?

At the end of the session we identified two prices of work that would thought would really help:

  • A style guide for online democracy to help ensure it is readable and shareable
  • Research into what users want from online democracy – some user journey maps that government can learn from 

Ok, let’s get started then...

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Liz Copeland 5 Years Ago
Thanks for this Dave. This is so full of common sense, it's hard to believe it doesn't happen everywhere, all the time! I particularly like the idea of 'people shouldn't have to consume the whole damn process'. That really appeals. Life is lived at such speed that info like this needs to keep up with that - I want bullet points about what affects me, not reams and reams of stuff I need to try and unpick before I get involved with it. Great stuff!