One of the aims for the GOV.UK roadmap this year was to understand more about how digital tools could improve consultations. In Q3 of this year we hired The Democratic Society and Snook to carry out a 6 week discovery. This work was also part of our commitment to the Open Government National Action Plan.
Consultations on GOV.UK
GOV.UK is currently home to 3,600 consultations with more being added everyday. We have already done a lot to make consultations easier to find and more consistent. We brought all government consultations into one place for the first time, with filters to view them by their state, published date, subject matter and by which organisation published them. Users can subscribe to be notified by email when consultations are added, based on their interests.
There is a dedicated format for consultations, with custom-built features which reflect the lifecycle of a consultation as it moves from being open, to closed, to conclusion. GOV.UK also supports the use of varied tools government organisations can choose to build or buy, to host discussion or collect feedback online, by linking out to separate platforms (like Delib’s CitizenSpace for example).
But we haven't iterated consultations on GOV.UK much since it was first built. In the meantime, the practice of consultation has moved on, with more options available. The consultation principles were updated, leading us to ask whether the current tool on GOV.UK was consistent with the updated principles.
We needed to look into it again, and find out what the opportunities might be to improve the effectiveness of government consultations - both for respondents and policy teams - through digital tools.
Talking to users
Over 60 people were interviewed to help understand the user needs of digital consultations. This included a range of users from government departments, non-departmental public bodies, expert respondents and the general public. By speaking to different user groups, it was possible to map the full end to end experience for a consultation from the viewpoint of both creators and the people who respond to them. It’s clear that there’s a wide range of user needs with no single best practice for consultations.
There are no fixed requirements for how to carry out a consultation, and government approaches them in a variety of ways. The most common approach is a simple question and answer format. While this is the common way of doing it, this format doesn’t work as a one-size-fits-all solution for all consultations. The survey-based method of consultation only allows for a single type of interaction to take place, namely for a respondent to reply to predefined questions, and for that interaction to take place in a single direction, from the user to the person who created it.
The discovery did some desk research to look into alternative ways of carrying out consultations around the world. Many governments choose to use third party tools to add value to consultations. The Scottish government published responses with names attached to increase transparency in who was responding. The Department for Health helped engage respondents with videos and tailored information for each consultation. The government of Ontario focused on the analytics of consultations by publishing the demographic of respondents in easy to read visuals. We even saw the New Zealand government engage respondents using Loomio and Github for feedback and discussions.
The most significant trend in the digital consultation landscape is the broad uptake of a variety of different tools that enable options of interactions beyond a simple series of questions and answers.
Looking to the future
The discovery gave us pointers to focus on for the future. Some small changes could be made to improve the current GOV.UK consultations page. For example, we could add extra headings to the page template, and reorder it to make it easier to read and understand.
More broadly, departments should continue to use the expertise currently available from third party developers. It is clear that there is no evidence for GDS to build a standalone consultations platform, instead given the range of tools already out there, departments are able to choose one which best fits their needs. Following an approach that supports the innovation already in this sector will allow for new and emerging consultation tools to be incorporated quickly into government practice. We'll be writing up some guidance on using third-party tools to host your consultations to clarify how you can do it.
If you would like to know more about consultations current practice please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Charles is a policy and engagement manager on GOV.UK.
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