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Report of the Digital Government Review

Digital consultation: helping everyone participate

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Complex policy decisions follow a more formal consultation process than those addressed in the section above [103].

Government is making greater use of open policy making [104]. We would support this move. Open policy is a close cousin of co-production. Used in the right place it introduces agility to the process and it openly brings in expertise and thoughts from outside of government. It can allow more people to participate. Open policy’s use of digital tools such as websites and online collaboration environments can let people participate when it suits them, rather than when it suits the government.

But we need to be careful not to move so fast that we leave people behind, or that we end up excluding people as a result.

This is a particular risk with open policy making as it can focus on digital means of communication, at the expense of other means of communication. Given the current issue with digital inclusion this will reduce some people’s opportunity to participate in the democratic process.

Another issue that came to light in our analysis was that some open policy processes are not being communicated through normal Government online channels at all. Instead they are being presented through relatively specialist, separate portals.

For example we noted earlier that the Data Sharing open policy process is not present on the GOV.UK consultation page and is instead promoted on an external website to a limited audience. The Data Sharing open policy process held all of its face-to-face meetings in London – hardly an inclusive approach.

On a similar note the department for Business Innovation and Skills is using an external page to host some (even all?) of its policy consultations. Are these the same consultations listed on GOV.UK [105]? And how does this approach align with Government encouraging people to start with GOV.UK to reduce the number of people entering sensitive data into fraudulent sites?

Again, after the Deputy Prime Minister launched an open policy process to develop ideas to grow the North of England [106] the launch was covered in a press release on GOV.UK but the consultation page is hosted on a separate website. At first there were to be no face-to-face meetings; then there were eight meetings that were spread across the North, but all on the same (working) day. It is unclear what promotions took place about these meetings outside of digital channels. Will they have reached a sufficiently representative group of people?

If we can address these issues then open policy making does have great potential. When coupled with an open approach to presenting data, information and methodologies then it can place citizens on a more equal footing when providing their opinions to government. This can increase engagement and produce better outcomes.

For example, the Open Data Institute worked with Telefonica Dynamic Insights to develop a tool to allow people to understand and explore the impact of fire station closures in London [107]. The City of Chicago took this approach a step further when it was faced with a policy decision to cut schools. It released open data sets and supported a community group that built a tool to let citizens understand comparative school performance, geographic proximity and hence provide more informed feedback to the City’s detailed consultation on how to implement the policy [108]. Such approaches build on open policy and provide a way for more citizens to participate.

We would thus encourage a revisit of the open policy process to consider:

  1. Whether communications should follow the same process as more formal consultations
  2. How to include all citizens, not just those who currently have digital skills or are able to attend a limited number of face-to-face meetings
  3. Whether all open policy development processes should be hosted on GOV.UK
  4. How more use can be made of open data, information and methodologies to create a more level playing field between government and citizens.

“There needs to be the ability to engage with government (at all levels) in a way that is most effective for the person or organisation, rather than the most effective for government.” – Large Company

Recommendation 16

Priority: Low

Ensure that open policy processes provide open data and equal opportunity for people and communities across the country to contribute.


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