It’s all very well agreeing that policymaking should be open, but translating that commitment into real change involves at a least a few difficult, practical steps:

  • there needs to be some leadership and HR support for individuals who want to try new approaches online, which is where Sir Bob Kerslake and the GDS guidance on social media can help
  • there needs to be a model or framework and examples of others using the tools for their own policy engagement, which is where the case studies and matrix being built up on this site come in handy
  • there need to be skills and confidence within policy teams and the communications specialists who support them in departments and agencies, to choose the right tools and approaches, and put them into practice in the real world

And helping people to develop skills and confidence is a tricky thing to do.

To help with this, we’ve been working with the Government Communications Network for 18 months or so to deliver digital skills training to members of the Commmunications profession in government, including a specific course on ‘Involving People in Policymaking and Debate Online’, (aka ‘Digital Engagement’).

Tim Lloyd, head of digital at BIS and a contributor here, has been a guest star at one of our sessions, explaining how he thinks about digital engagement:

In sessions of around 12-15 participants each time, we cover the changing landscape for digital in government in the context of shifts in trust and media consumption. We look at how government has used social media in particular for listening to people, explaining policy, engaging people in consultation, curating discussion and convening community debate online. Of course, we look at the key social media platforms and how they’ve been used by some of the pioneers of digital engagement, and discuss how to put them together in a strategy which articulates meaningful goals, and matches the right tools to the job.

GCN - digital engagement game

Part of the session is the ‘digital engagement game‘, a process where the teams are forced to make decisions about which digital tools, activities and content (you can download a PDF of the game cards here) are best suited to a policymaking brief. It sounds silly, maybe even a bit dated, but it’s a great leveller between technology enthusiasts and sceptics, and gets people challenging some of their assumptions about what’s needed as the basis for a useful debate about policy. For instance, a cutting edge social networking tool is generally pointless if there isn’t a clear, concise description of the policy proposals people can refer to when they’re discussing them. Inviting an online community to debate a topic is great, but experience shows that people don’t share and discuss constructively without time invested in facilitation and moderation.

Ultimately, we hope people take away three things from the sessions:

  1. That there are a range of digital tools in the toolbox, they’re not hugely complicated, and that they’re appropriate for different things
  2. That what really matters is the stimulus for the online discussion: providing good summaries of proposals, concise and clear questions to answer, knowledgable experts or empathetic moderators to foster debate
  3. That open policymaking involves asking different people different things: inviting some to share their experiences or their values, while others can comment on feasibility of implementation, or on the wording of draft regulation.   It takes time, but thinking in these ‘layers’ delivers much more useful information for analysis

We’re hoping to make stronger links with colleagues on the other side of the fence, running training on open policymaking skills for policy teams, to link up the two areas of work.

If you’re interested in joining one of the courses, contact GCN to book – here’s a taster of just a handful of the material covered:

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