Public engagement in policy-making - Public Administration Committee Contents

5  The role of digital technology

44.  The Government's Digital Strategy outlines the intention for Government to become "Digital by Default", which it explains as "digital services that are so straightforward and convenient that all those who can use them will choose to do so whilst those who can't are not excluded".[61] The Civil Service Reform Plan refers specifically to the role of technology and social media in delivering open policy-making, and the Digital Strategy itself states that:

Transactional services and information are the primary focus of our digital by default approach, but digital also provides ways to improve the broader policy making process, through better engagement and consultation. It has the potential to transform democratic participation in the policy process, and improve the design of policy itself. The Civil Service Reform Plan states "Open policy making will become the default" and we will use digital to achieve that outcome.[62]

According to the Government's Digital Strategy departments will also "incorporate plans in their departmental digital strategies to listen to and understand conversations in social media, use the insight gained to inform the policy-making process and to collaborate more effectively with partners".[63]

45.  The evidence we received highlighted the benefits of harnessing digital technology for the purposes of policy development. Sciencewise stated, for example, that technological developments provided "the opportunity of greater levels of dialogue and involvement of more members of the public and other stakeholders". Catarina Tully suggested that "web-based forms of engagement create great opportunities: facilitating input into decision-making, enhancing oversight, and making community ownership of public assets possible".[64]

Making the most of digital technology

46.  We were particularly impressed by two examples of digital engagement, which are summarised below. The benefits of the form of engagement undertaken by the London Borough of Redbridge, who consulted the public on their budget, is that the public has to engage with the consequences of their preferences, as well as confronting political leaders with their aspirations. The Peer-to-Patent model also provides an interesting and innovate approach to engagement. In our view, this success rests on the fact that the process is contained and the objectives and limitations are well defined and understood by those of the public who are participating.

Examples of digital engagement with decision makers

YouChoose (London Borough of Redbridge)

Used as an alternative to paper based consultation, the London Borough of Redbridge developed a web based tool in conjunction with YouGov and the Local Government Association which presented users, principally Redbridge residents, with a simplified version of the Council's budget areas and a series of graphical "sliders". Users could adjust the budget with the sliders, but had to always achieve a balanced budget. The information produced was analysed and presented to elected Councillors, who retained the responsibility for making final decisions. In its written submission, the Council explained that "the consultation results and the final budget decisions about savings were broadly similar" but, had they not been, "politicians would have had to change their policy or explain why an unpopular decision was the right one".[65]

Open policy-making: Peer to Patent (US Patent Office)

Professor Beth Noveck, former US Deputy Chief Technology officer and author of Wiki-Government, was responsible for the creation of Peer-to-Patent, a pilot project with the US Patent Office that enabled interested members of the public to expand the resources of the Patent Office in finding examples of "prior art" (public information that might be used to decide a patent's claims of originality). To tackle the backlog of certain types of patent, those applying for patents were incentivised to take part by the possibility of faster consideration of their own application, but they had to bear the risk that it might be seen by competitors. Small groups of users worked on each patent application, and members of the group could indicate or vote on each other's contributions according to whether they found them useful and constructive. This enabled the Patent Examiner, who retained responsibility for making the final decision, to sift the highest quality contributions from the rest, and to keep the amount of information supplied manageable. It also enabled the group to police itself and, for example, identify any attempts by the applicant's competitors posing as reviewers to undermine the application. Splitting the jobs of researching, commenting and comparing prior art also kept the workload for any one individual manageable, and reduced the risk of one person or group acting together to "capture" the process.[66]

47.  When asked whether the use of digital technology within Government was delivering better and genuine engagement, Mike Bracken, Executive Director of the Government Digital Service, suggested that developments such as the GOV.UK website meant that "for the first time, users do not have to know the inner workings of Government to engage with government. You do not have to know all the details about how Government is structured to petition Government or to find government information". He also suggested, however, that more needed to be done in the use of the internet to change policy and public perception, saying that he hoped "to see a much higher level of ambition statement in the departmental digital strategies, so we should see a higher level of radical ambition, I hope, for our core services by the end of the year".[67]

48.  In evidence, witnesses discussed the value of Government using existing social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, in engaging with the public. Mike Bracken told us that government services were beginning to use social media to have conversations and senior civil servants were beginning to use these types of digital platforms.[68] Both Catarina Tully and Professor Noveck endorsed the use of social media for certain purposes, but felt that its use for deliberation, which Sciencewise defined as responding to each other's views exchange learning and interpret responses, was limited.[69] Catarina Tully advised civil servants to "go to where the conversations are being held" to hear what people thought, rather than setting up new structures.[70] Professor Noveck agreed:

[...]the cost of using things like Facebook and Twitter, and building that into the daily work of press operations and whatnot, is relatively low. They are excellent ways of broadcasting out and reaching people in the same way we use television, radio, newspaper or other traditional media. For other kinds of collective action, or organising other kinds of processes, we do need some purpose-built tools.[71]

49.  However, evidence suggested that whilst digital technology represents an opportunity for successfully implementing greater levels of public engagement in policy-making, civil servants lack the skills to use it well. In considering the skills required to push forward innovation, Professor Nigel Shadbolt, of the University of Southampton, said that "The level of public technology skills across Government is simply not fit for purpose".[72] Mike Bracken agreed, saying that "some departments and some big agencies have outsourced so much of their capacity over the last decade that they have no one to define their own technology architecture and also their digital skills".[73] In considering digital skills and their link with policy, Simon Burrall, Director of Involve, summarised the main problem:

One of the issues and one of the big skills gaps is the people who understand how to engage the public do not necessarily really get digital, and the digital people do not necessarily get public engagement. There is a real need to begin to find ways to get teams to work together and to begin to train across those teams in different ways.[74]

50.  We share the view that digital technology has a significant role to play in opening up policy-making. It has the potential to allow those citizens who are digitally enabled to interact with the Government in new ways, as well as to allow the Government to expand its reach in a cost effective way. The Government is making progress in its approach to using digital technology, but we believe that digital engagement for the purposes of policy-making could go further and embrace radical and innovative approaches which support the genuine and continuing involvement of citizens in policy. The Peer-to-Patent project, in which experts collaborated on patent applications for the US patent office, is an excellent example of innovation which not only allowed citizens to contribute their knowledge, but also reduced the backlog of applications within the department. The lesson of this success appears to arise from the fact that the objectives and limitations of the process of engagement were clear and understood. We recommend that departments pilot a similar approach in order to test its effectiveness across different areas of policy and with different sections of the public.

51.  In order to use digital technology effectively in open policy-making, digital experts within the Civil Service and outside should work more closely with policy teams to explore opportunities for digital engagement and to provide support in carrying out digital engagement activity. For example, the Department of Energy and Climate Change could trial the use of eBay, Amazon and supermarket websites to open up the Green Deal and allow residents to access this offer through established retail channels. The same approach could be tried using the Right To Buy, and the Help To Buy programmes.

52.  A number of digital infrastructures, such as Twitter, are already well established and well used by citizens. In most circumstances, there may be no need to recreate systems such as these in order to carry out open policy-making activity. Wherever possible, the Government should use existing digital platforms to engage with citizens and to avoid "reinventing the wheel" or running costly parallel systems.

The limitations of digital: other forms of engagement

53.  Our evidence suggested that digital engagement tools should not be used to the detriment of other forms of engagement. Instead it was suggested that the place of digital technology should be considered within a particular engagement exercise. Simon Burrall suggested that the focus in the first instance should be on the problem in question and how digital could in turn support a solution:

What problem are you trying to solve? What is it the public have that will help you solve that problem, and then is the internet the way to do it? Is it the internet plus offline engagement? If you ask the question, "What can the internet do for us?" you risk getting it very badly wrong.[75]

He went on to say:

If you want deep engagement on quite a complex issue, say drugs policy, doing it by the internet would be a really bad way of doing it. What you would want to do is go offline. It comes back to my point that, if you think the internet is the tool that is going to solve your problems with public engagement, you are going to run into exactly the problems you are running into, because you are not thinking about what this tool allows you to do and what it does not allow you to do.[76]

54.  Those that were supportive of digital technology also warned against the dangers of relying too heavily on digital platforms to improve engagement. The National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE) stated in written evidence that "While digital platforms can help to achieve a greater volume of responses with fewer resources, many topics require longer-term engagement and the kind of deliberation that can be achieved through a well-managed public dialogue".[77] The UK Association for Science and Discovery Centres in their written submission agreed, stating that "social media is only part of the answer as it appeals to only a subset of people, with a subset of interests".[78] Involve suggested that:

While digital engagement has a number of benefits and should certainly play an integral role in public engagement in future, it also has a number of comparative weaknesses (e.g. deliberation, conflict and ownership) and should therefore not be used to the exclusion of other methods where they are more appropriate.[79]

55.  Evidence also suggested that some citizens might be excluded from engaging in the policy-making process if too much focus is given to digital means of engagement. According to figures published in the Government Digital Strategy, the percentage of UK adults who access government information or use government services online has been stable for the last five years at just over 50%. It also notes that:

Those in higher socio-economic groups (ABCs) are more likely to be online, with 92% regularly or occasionally accessing the internet. 28% of disabled people are not online (rarely access/have never used the internet), and older people are more likely to be offline than other age groups (however 59% of people aged over 65 are online). Geography doesn't appear to have too great an influence on whether people access the internet or not, as people are offline in urban, suburban and rural areas. [80]

56.  Professor Kathy Sykes suggested that "if digital platforms are the only way people can participate, some people will be left out. At times, some of those very people, whether the elderly, or disabled, will be some of the most important, valuable voices to hear".[81] In our evidence, the importance of face-to-face engagement was highlighted. Sciencewise wrote that "the choice between digital and face-to-face engagement needs to be made in each case based on the particular policy context. In some cases face-to-face engagement provides an irreplaceable function".[82] Research Councils UK (RCUK) promoted "policy which integrates digital technology and face-to-face dialogue to promote direct public participation".[83]

57.  We support the use of digital technology in open policy-making, but it should not be used to the detriment of other forms of engagement. The proposals within the Civil Service Reform Plan do not appear to give equal weight to other forms of engagement in open policy-making. We are concerned that given the proportion of some groups that do not use the internet, such as the disabled and elderly, the Government risks excluding many people from policy-making process. There are ways of compensating for this imbalance, but it is essential to use other forms of engagement as well. The Government should be able to demonstrate that digital methods used in engagement exercises are suited to the needs of those they are trying to engage. Concrete goals should be set, relative to the importance of digital platforms in peoples' lives. For example, if 50% of Britons have a Facebook account, Whitehall interactivity via Facebook should reflect this. Clear guidance should be set for the wider public sector.

61   Cabinet Office, Government Digital Strategy, 6 November 2012, page 5 Back

62   As above, page 37 Back

63   As above, page 37 Back

64   Ev 49 and Ev 79 Back

65   Ev 65 Back

66   Beth Noveck, Wiki-Government: How Technology Can Make Government Better, Democracy Stronger, and Citizens More Powerful (2009) Back

67   Q 116 Back

68   Q 141 Back

69   Ev 49 Back

70   Ev 79 Back

71   Q 79 Back

72   Q 111 Back

73   Q 109 Back

74   Q 111 Back

75   Q 116 Back

76   Q 118 Back

77   Ev 53 Back

78   Ev 48 Back

79   Ev 59 Back

80   Cabinet Office, Government Digital Strategy, 6 November 2012, page 12 Back

81   Ev 63 Back

82   Ev 49 Back

83   Ev 49 and Ev 57 Back

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Prepared 3 June 2013