Engagement isn’t just for Christmas

It feels like many public sector organisations are making some headway in adopting a digital approach to open policy making.

You can find examples on this blog and elsewhere, in which clever platforms and dashboards have helped policy teams to listen to relevant web conversations and get their target audiences to respond to consultations more easily.

But that’s only half the story. As Steph Gray noted in his comment on my previous blog post:

…there’s still a lot to be done on the basics of asking for feedback in intelligent ways. This means…the way questions are written: assuming sensible amounts of prior knowledge and a lay person’s experience of an issue (assuming it’s a non-technical consultation)

Using clear language and encouraging policy makers to see that it’s not just those with detailed policy knowledge who will have a valid contribution to make to the debate are challenges that still need to be tackled more widely. We did this well in the recent Consumer Bill of Rights consultation, for which we developed content of varying levels of detail (aimed at different audience segments) – a traditional (very detailed) consultation document; a shorter and more accessible theme-based version; and a ministerial video which provided a useful “bare bones” introduction to the issues, for those with little knowledge of the policy area. But that doesn’t mean that we should be complacent – we can and should take this approach further. The issue of active engagement also needs to be addressed.

At BIS there is definitely an appetite for listening to the web, to find out what real people are saying about our policies. And we’ve got some (nice) examples where the digital team have set people up with dashboards in Netvibes through which they can actively monitor policy-related conversations and content from across the web. Those policy makers use these in ways that suit their own needs, and champion their use. One policymaker who’s just moved to another post plans to take the dashboard approach with him . But if we are to get the most value from these policy-related discussions and content, we probably need to be doing more active engagement- publicly encouraging individuals to have their say, acknowledging specific comments and drawing out more information from others. All this should happen in the online spaces that stakeholders are most comfortable with (and this is rarely a BIS platform).

Lately we’ve had another little breakthrough, thanks to Marilyn, our digital engagement adviser, who spent time with our Labour Markets policy team during their Employee Owner Status consultation. As part of a previous Red Tape Challenge strand of work on Disruptive Business Models, a LinkedIn group was created. The group had remained active beyond the original engagement exercise and the policy team decided to get feedback from this and other online forums, as part of the consultation. This may not sound like much, but it’s given us some useful insights and yielded some “easy wins”:

  • It gave us the opportunity to experiment with engaging an existing community with an interest in the issues.
  • The LinkedIn group was already engaged and had a level of prior knowledge which helped them grasp a complex policy area without the team having to create customised content explaining the policy, so it wasn’t a labour-intensive exercise.
  • Although the ‘engagement’ involved little more than a few responses to contributors, it helped take the fear out of putting finger to keyboard, for the policy team.
  • It set a precedent for using more social media channels in the future to deliver direct policy feedback.

We didn’t have to do much to encourage the team to listen to what was being said online – they were acutely aware that their proposals were generating a lot discussion. They were also really willing to take on board the detailed commentary out there. It turned out that some of the team were already doing so in very simple ways. Interestingly, some of this listening was being driven by Ministers wanting to know what was being said.

Our policy team was keen to engage – albeit in a controlled way- and through this exercise, they’ve made a start that we can build on.

Of course, this isn’t the first time that this has happened in a BIS consultation – we know that policy colleagues in other consultations such as that for HE White Paper – actively engaged in forums like The Student Room. Our focus now is to make engagement more of an ongoing process – not just something that happens when we’re seeking information or people’s views.

And in BIS we are lucky to have a growing number of people beyond the digital communications team who are doing just that, with work-focussed Twitter accounts and LinkedIn groups like that run by our Queens Awards Office. It’s leading to longer term relationships with stakeholders.

We need to get colleagues thinking beyond Twitter, but it’s a start.