Alphagov consultation vision

It’s taken me far too long to get my thoughts down on the AlphaGov vision for consultation, which came out a few weeks ago. That’s mostly because, like Delib, I don’t see much wrong with it – kudos to Simon, Steph, Neil and the rest of the team for a great piece of work.

If there is an area where I think the vision might collide with reality, it’s around the issue picked up by Annie at Involve – the difference between citizens, consultation respondents and consumers.  Consumerist interactions involve people who have had experience of a service or issue, want to get a few points across and suggest improvements, and probably aren’t too bothered if their response is acknowledged, considered and then rejected, as long as they’re told about it.

Consultation responses often fall into the same category – you know that you’re only going to get answers from the interested, and the aim is, by information and ease of use, to increase the number of interested and improve the quality of their answers.

Citizen interactions are different – they take place in a field crowded with overlapping groups of interests – people who start from their tribal loyalty (“I’m a Conservative, so I don’t agree with…”); people who have a personal stake in the outcome (service users, civil servants, taxpayers, etc); policy wonks and other experts; and – much larger than all those groups combined – a vast mass of the public who have at most a mild preference and no real interest in the issue until poked with a stick.

It’s the presence of the last group that makes citizen action different from consumerist responses or consultations. It’s really excellent to see Alphagov thinking about the issue, as Steph Gray sets out, but combining the citizen and consumer role is a bigger and more intractable problem than even the most brilliant digital platform can solve.

Digital can:

  • provide information in ways that are easy to understand, but still give access to the complexity
  • hold on to audiences between consultations (“you responded to that, you might be interested in this”)
  • allow people to understand their political preferences (“people who agreed with you on that said this”)

Digital can’t (at least on its own):

  • Create the desire for engagement
  • Make organisations ready for proper participation and open policy-making
  • Surface the mild preferences of the majority rather than the strong preferences of the minority
  • Create a broad shared space where trade-offs can be made
  • Unify threads of discussion and comment going on in numerous different places

So I think the AlphaGov vision is very good, and it’s great to have bits of Government pulling on the elephant’s lead alongside us. It doesn’t mean, though, that the rest of us can let go.

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Published by Anthony Zacharzewski

Anthony Zacharzewski was one of the founders of Demsoc in 2006. Before starting work for Demsoc in 2010, he was a Whitehall civil servant and a local government officer.

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