Public Administration CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by London Borough of Redbridge (PE 9)

Executive Summary

1. Redbridge Council, in partnership with the YouGov online market research agency, and the Local Government Association, has developed a web-based budget consultation tool called YouChoose which has been used by around 50 other councils. YouChoose simplifies council budgets to enable most people to take part, while confronting people with the difficult choices and implications of budget decisions.

2. YouChoose is an example of mass collaboration, or crowdsourcing. It is a “forced choice” tool, with participants required to balance the budget before they can submit their responses.

3. Redbridge Council secured more than 4000 responses to its revenue budget consultation in 2010 before implementing a major savings programme—twice as many responses as a previous paper-based consultation. Around 19,000 people have taken part in YouChoose consultations across England.

4. Redbridge conducted a major outreach programme to ensure a wide range of views were represented, including sessions in community centres and day care centres. Around 10% of responses came from the outreach programme, which helped to overcome concerns about the “digital divide” excluding participants.

5. Independent analysis of the data by YouGov concluded that once the responses had been weighted, the 2010 consultation was representative of the population.

6. Respondents tend to prefer to make “back office” savings rather than cut frontline services, and accept that statutory services need to be prioritised against non-statutory services.

7. YouChoose was presented as a consultation to gather public opinion, not “direct democracy”. The findings were provided to elected members as part of the budget-setting process.

About You Choose

8. YouChoose is a web-based budget collaboration tool developed by London Borough of Redbridge, as part of its continuing commitment to using its website (Redbridge i) to broaden and deepen its interactions with residents (information, transactions, consultations, online community forums).

9. Actual budget figures and savings options are loaded onto the tool and users can see the impact of different choices using simple on-screen controls (sliders, check boxes etc). Each change to a service budget reveals a “consequence” in a pop-up box eg reduced library opening hours, reduced level of care etc.

10. The tool was developed to provide residents with a real but simplified budget model, while enabling them to see the impact of difficult financial choices.

11. The results are based on mean averages of submissions which turn a range of response into a single figure representing the whole Borough’s view eg “Respondents chose, on average, to reduce council tax by nearly 2.5%”.

12. Redbridge Council has used YouChoose three times. The first, relatively simple version ran in 2008, for a consultation on capital spending and land sales ( The second more sophisticated version in 2010 in advance of making major savings in a three-year budget programme (, and again in 2012 to update the original three-year budget plan (

Key Results

13. More than 4200 submissions to Redbridge’s 2010 consultation over three-year savings programme, with 950 written comments provided alongside the submission.

14. There was a strong preference for reducing “back office” functions, and reducing officer pay and the number of managers.

15. When confronted with difficult choices about services, residents were more likely to choose to cut non-statutory services such as leisure rather than social care (adults and children) or educational support (ring-fenced schools budgets were excluded from the consultations). This reflects the decisions that many councils including Redbridge have made.

“Forced Choice” Tool

16. Historically Council budget consultations have asked about their priorities; with significantly reduced budgets meaningful consultation must involve people in savings options and making real trade-offs.

17. YouChoose requires residents to confront the fact that increased spending in one area means decreased spending in another, and they are unable to submit their response until they have balanced the budget by identifying savings.

18. Residents must balance a budget with multiple variables and no easy options—just like real budget setting. This shifts the conversation with residents from: “what do you want” to “how should we do this”. This helps residents feel they have made a contribution and are part of the process, rather than raising expectations about service delivery which may not be met.

19. Budgets can be adjusted at the top level—overall categories such as community safety or social care—down to the level of individual services. This is crucial because it enables people to engage with the bigger picture or the detail, while still being part of the same overall consultation.

Context for Consultation

20. The awareness campaign to encourage people to take part was called the Redbridge Conversation. The starting point for the conversation is always that the council has some unavoidable budget pressures that must be resolved.

21. YouChoose is a budget consultation tool, which enables residents to say how money should be spent. The results are therefore important, but so is the process. We believe that using YouChoose enables people to understand better the budget setting process, which creates a more informed climate of public opinion around budget-setting. The 2010 consultation had about 20,000 unique visitors to the consultation web pages.

Raising Awareness of Consultation

22. We used a self-selecting sample, with a major marketing exercise to raise awareness of the consultation.

23. The advantage of this is it enables everyone “to have their say”, which we believe leads to greater legitimacy of the findings. This reduces the representativeness of the base sample, but with weighting this problem can be overcome. However it is crucial that a wide range of people take part to enable effective weighting.

24. The campaign focused on the unavoidability of meeting a savings target of £25 million, with residents asked to put themselves in the shoes of councillors making the final budget decisions.

Representativeness of Response

25. Concerns were expressed locally that an online-only consultation would disadvantage some sections of the community—and that difficulty taking part in the survey might correlate with residents more likely to be heavy service users.

26. To combat this, LBR ran a significant outreach programme with laptops taken to day centres and community spaces to encourage participation by those without internet access or computer skills. The outreach programme accounted for around 10% of the submissions.

27. As predicted, older people were under represented in the base sample. However the results were analysed by YouGov, who weighted the responses to ensure they reflected the Borough’s population by age and gender. 13% of respondents declared they were disabled.

28. YouChoose was used as an alternative to a paper-based consultation. Previously budget surveys were distributed to 95,000 households with the Council’s resident publications and for the last survey in 2009, around 2,100 responses were received—ie half the number of online responses.

How Consultation Results Informed the Budget-Setting Process

29. Throughout the consultation we made it clear that it was a way of gathering public opinion, not an exercise in “voting” on the budget. The results should be understood as an alternative to opinion polling to inform members’ decisions, not as direct democracy.

30. The results were provided to Cabinet before they put forward their initial budget proposals, and considered as part of a stakeholder consultation (ie voluntary groups, service users etc) on the proposals.

31. In setting the 201112, the consultation results and the final budget decisions about savings were broadly similar. This was partly members responding to the results, but also that different groups of people reached similar conclusions about the best way to tackle the savings challenge.

32. Had the consultation results and members’ proposals differed dramatically, politicians would have to change their policy or explain why an unpopular decision was the right one.

Scaling up the Consultation

33. Redbridge and YouGov promoted YouChoose nationally. The Local Government Association funded the initiative, which was therefore free at the point of use to other Councils. Around 50 of them have used YouChoose making a combined total of submissions of 19,000. This provides the opportunity for both national promotion of engagement in local budget setting, and some comparability of results.

34. An initial overview of the results of all YouChoose consultations shows the majority (41) resulted in submissions that included a decrease in Council Tax, with the remainder a freeze or small increase. Of those only one (Cambridgeshire) produced a result that would have a required a referendum for the size of increase proposed by the consultation respondents.

35. A version of YouChoose was also produced to show how a national government budget consultation could work. This was tested by YouGov on a sample of over 2,000 people. There was interest in this from No 10 both before and after the 2010 election, but the Treasury decided not to proceed. The demo version can be viewed here:


36. The self-selecting nature of the sample leaves open the risk that special interests will organise to skew the result. In the 2010 consultation there was some evidence that respondents were particularly focused on an issue of concern (reducing funding for the school music service). However this is no different to representative democracy where people are making voting decisions on a single issue. Furthermore “saving” the music service required alternative savings to be found, which provided valuable data about residents’ preferences. Steps were taken to prevent people submitting multiple responses from the same computer.

37. Anecdotal feedback from individuals suggested there was some frustration at the rigid framework of the consultation—some people wanted to “change the rules”. In part that rigidity reflects the reality of the budget-setting process—every change requires a counterbalance elsewhere, and unpalatable options have to be considered. We felt the free text comment section helped reduce the frustration, and the vast majority of responses were constructive (albeit unworkable, within the constraints of local government law and finances).

Lessons Learned

38. Based on our experience of response rates to paper and online consultations, the accessibility of online tools increases take-up of submissions significantly. The larger base sample improves the ability to weight responses to provide a more representative result.

39. Consultation need not be either online or offline—online tools can be used in facilitated discussions to enable a wider range of people to take part.

40. Any affordable methodology is likely to exclude some people on grounds of accessibility or capability—the “digital divide” is reducing and should not be used as a reason not to focus on the enormous benefits of online consultation tools.

41. The public is motivated to take part because they believe they have something to lose or gain, not because they want to help the democratic process. Therefore there has to be a compelling call to action, preferably with a “burning platform” issue—the loss of amenity or service. The benefit of the YouChoose tool is that respondents are required to confront a range of difficult choices making it harder to provide response solely related to one issue.

42. Securing personal information about participants is vital to ensure representativeness, which is critical in budget decisions where different interests are competing. But asking for too much data is a barrier to people taking part so the minimum amount needed to ensure representativeness should be gathered.

Looking Ahead

43. We believe that web-based tools make it easier for the public to engage with complex issues and in an accessible way, while enabling those who want to drill down more deeply to do so. Consultations can be big picture and detailed at the same time.

44. The ability to reach large numbers of people much more cheaply than is possible by conventionally polling methods means that many more decisions can be opened up to pre-decision scrutiny and consultations by public bodies.

45. The ability to see the impact of different budget decisions and for the tool to recalculate the budget requirement after every decision is only possible with a web-based tool—it is not possible on paper. This interactivity makes for a qualitatively different style of consultation, which links information on service priorities and the means to pay for them. The long-term structural change in public finances suggests this will become an increasingly important way to involve the public in budgetary decisions.

November 2012

Prepared 31st May 2013