Participation – Must we measure?

Very good piece by Emer Coleman on the GDS blog. Sometimes, she says, social media’s results aren’t measurable, and we should just accept that it has softer benefits (or is, increasingly, an indispensable route for communications).

It’s an argument I’ve often contemplated in relation to democratic engagement as well – is it not just morally right to provide democratic information and discussion opportunities? Shouldn’t we think that people having access to information is as important as people voting? Isn’t the provision of the democratic space enough to satisfy the requirement for participation, even if it isn’t well-used?

I think it isn’t (though it would make my life easier if it were).

Sometimes, as with a focus group or a technical consultation, a small intense engagement is what you want – but democracy is ultimately a set of trade-offs made by society or its representatives, and broad participation rather than passive acceptance is what we need. I take a civic republican view that says that the citizen’s participation in a decision is as important as the correctness of that decision – and that means, I think, that democracy has to measure even if social media doesn’t.

The act of engaging in the social sphere shifts the dynamic in other ways. Even where there is disagreement about a particular government policy or decision, being visible and taking part in dialogue builds trust in our ability to at least have a robust conversation.
In my experience, (trolling aside) most people have a strong sense of fair play. Though they may never agree with you they do respect you for stepping out of the shadows and making yourself visible to them. That’s really important in building trust with our users, something we hold dear at GDS. […] There’s still a lot of work to be done in showing people how engaging with social can yield substantial benefits, even though they can’t always result in traditional metrics. We are not yet in a space where reporting can become standardised (if it ever can). Not everyone is on the same page, and that’s something we need to acknowledge in a future iteration of our social media guidance.


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.

2 replies on “Participation – Must we measure?”

  1. I think I agree with you, Anthony. I recently read the post by Clay Shirky from 2009 (hang on, erm… here:, where he argues that the new media are so, well, new that what’s needed now is just loads of experimentation, and there aren’t any answers yet to what will replace journalistm. I think this applies for democratic mechanisms too.

    But whilst it would be tempting to throw up our hands and say that we shouldn’t worry about measuring success at all, instead we need to have lots of experiments in measuring and monitoring. Just because we don’t know how to measure success now doesn’t mean we can’t innovate and learn.

    Maybe one day, through all these experiments, we’ll get to a point where we are more sure about what to measure, and how. Until then, we need to try measuring things but with an acceptance that we’re still experimenting – otherwise there’s the danger that it will simply become a numbers game, with “game” being the operative word.

    1. Good points John. This discussion reminds me of some of the questions that were raised at the recent Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) inquiry into open policy making. I think, at the very least, we’re going to have to have a discussion about the outcomes we’re hoping for from social media and which indicators we might expect to *broadly* correlate with them because people are curious and asking questions about it. I also think such a discussion will have to cover the potential for perverse incentives that such measurements might introduce. But I digress, it would be good to hear your thoughts on what we should measure (as a startting point)?

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