The government says it wants to change the way it engages with, and consults, citizens online. There are signs that it might just manage to, but it’s got a hard job ahead of it…

Home page of showing warning, taken 27 May 2011

I’m going to stick my neck out and say that we may look back on May 2011 as the month when the Government’s approach to the internet changed.

The point of historic moment? The launch of AlphaGov, the self-styled prototype of what a single domain might look like. My claim is a fairly grand one for someone who has only the sketchiest grasp of web-tech, html5, APIs and the semantic web.

But it’s not on the basis of the tech that I’m making the claim. It doesn’t even rely on the fact that the prototype appears to work. It brings information together from disparate sources across government for a citizen who knows little, and cares less, about how government works.

My claim that this is a moment that All Has Changed is based on the openness with which AlphaGov is being developed. This openness extends way beyond the team blog, the full list of team members (plus their accessibility) working on the project, and even the humour with which they appear to have approached the task.

AlphaGov is avowedly a prototype; a prototype that won’t work properly and may even carry information that is out of date (as the warning bar on the screenshot above shows). Equally importantly, the team is also asking for feedback through a number of different channels and most importantly of all in a non-proscriptive way. It is responding to criticism thoughtfully and openly.

The government’s ambition for Alphagov clearly extends way beyond giving citizens a better way to access public services online though. As the team say in their latest blog, the ambition is to change the whole way that government consults with citizens:

Consultation is a big part of government. Doing it better online is a coalition commitment. Alphagov’s vision would be incomplete without addressing it head on.

This blog goes on to identify one of the key challenges to getting consultation right; that of institutional culture, democracy, trust and constitutional reform. I would heartily agree that dealing with this is one of the keys to changing government’s relationship to citizens.

A vision for online consultation and policy engagement

View more presentations from alphagov

Steph Gray of Helpful Technology has responded to this blog with some helpful pointers. I want to pick up his baton and offer some thoughts about what the Alphagov team will have to consider as they think about turning aspiration into meaningful consultation of citizens by government.

Specifically I’m going to highlight principles of engagement, challenge the notion of transparency (sort of), raise the spectre of mob-rule, and emphasise that time is needed. This is an immediate reaction in a post that has already grown quite long. Over the next few weeks we are hoping to post other thoughts.

Principles of engagement

Our Nine Principles for public engagement back-up Steph’s key points and go further. They, or principles like them (particularly those of Sciencewise), should sit at the heart of all that the government does to change the way it consults. It would be nice to see the next iteration of this work clearly state what principles are guiding it and how they will be embedded at the heart of government consultation.

The totem of transparency

Greater transparency of policy making is clearly one of the most important components of the AlphaGov team’s thinking; this is great and hard to argue with. However, there is a risk that it will become a totem that is unchallenged and dictates how things are done with perverse results.

The slides the team have produced place great emphasis on making draft strategies, draft policies and consultation documents more easily accessible. This is clearly right. But it isn’t the only aspect of transparency, and focusing on the policy making process risks leaving landmines for future decision-makers.

All but the most ardent of transparency advocates accept that government needs to be able to develop policy, float ideas and think unpalatable things in private as it searches for viable policy options. The danger of focusing on documents to be made public is that demands to get deeper into the policy-making process will grow.

I would argue that it isn’t transparency of documents the team needs to worry about, but transparency of the process – of which publication of documents is just one key aspect. Thinking in this way changes the frame of the transparency debate and will allow government to be very clear about how policy is being made, how and when citizens will be consulted, and when in the process documents will be made public.

Does the mob have to rule?

As the government discovered with the Spending Challenge and Your Freedom consultations last year, it can be very difficult to prevent respondents going off topic and raising issues that are important to them, but are irrelevant to the question government thought it was asking. I’ve written before about how the government could have avoided many of these problems, and I think my advice is relevant as AlphaGov rethinks digital consultation.

But I want to go one step further.

If the government wants to change the way it consults why doesn’t it engage the public in thinking through how it does this? I don’t mean right now; as AlphaGov clearly state, the thinking doesn’t have any form of ministerial sanction or steer yet. But soon, before the process gets totally taken over by Whitehall. I think there is a way to do this which goes way beyond consulting the public about which interface works best and other such (important) details.

In 2009 David Cameron proposed MyAid a chance for the public to vote on which aid projects should get public money. While many aid experts were up in arms about this, I think there is a way that you could design such a process that allows the public to engage thoughtfully, gets answers that would pleasantly surprise aid experts and could be used to build accountability to the tax payer right into the heart of the system. The engagement process I proposed in response to the fears of ‘experts’ could be adapted by the AlphaGov team as they think these issues through.

In (extremely sketchy) outline it looks like this:

  • Engage a small group of citizens to develop the principles and values which should underpin any government consultation;
  • Develop the generic ‘AlphaGov’ consultation process;
  • Report back to the original group of citizens and take on board their concerns;
  • Unleash government to use the process; and
  • Bring a group (perhaps the same, probably a different group) of citizens back in on a regular basis to do a spot check of how government is doing, to make suggestions for improvement and to publicly highlight where government is getting it right and wrong.

To be effective, a process such as this would have to be transparent, involve experts and be effectively communicated. It would not give citizens the final say over anything, but it would force the experts designing, and government officials implementing, the system to justify their choices.

Picking up on AlphaGov’s important point that Parliament must be involved in any system of consultation, the regular spot check by citizens could run in parallel to a Select Committee Inquiry, therefore informing rather than trumping Parliament.

Not only could running a process like this build real, meaningful citizen accountability into the consultation process. It could also be used to temper the risk of the mob taking a process over. If the rules have been developed in real partnership with the public, it is far more likely that the public will enforce them. They are more likely to believe in the process, trust that government will listen and therefore be less likely to walk away when the single issue zealots try to take over.

Meaningful consultation doesn’t happen without time

When I say that consultation needs time, I don’t mean that every consultation needs 12 weeks to give citizens time to respond. In fact, the 12 week standard consultation period that has developed over recent years misses the point that government needs to decide, on a case by case basis, how much time people need.

Here I’m talking about the time needed within government before the consultation even starts.

Specifically I’m talking about the time that government should, but rarely does, take to consult with other departments. This time is needed because all too often what happens is that a department starts to consult the public at the same time as it consults internally. By the time the public consultation has finished the question that was being asked has changed because of the nature of the political realities within Whitehall.

The minister, senior politician or civil servant needs time to knock heads together so that government as a whole shares the same view about the purpose of the consultation.

The AlphaGov team appear to have been given free rein to develop They’ve done it in a thoughtful, transparent and open way. If they can do the same with digital consultation then my grand claim at the start of this post stands a good chance of being fulfilled. It will be a huge job, and they need every critical friend they can get. Count Involve in.