A Toolkit Approach to Supporting e-Participation

Local Authorities (LAs) have, since April 2009, a statutory duty to involve “representatives of local persons” (RLPs) with the aim “to embed a culture of engagement and empowerment”, as explained in the DCLG publication “Creating Strong, Safe and Prosperous Communities”, published in July 2008. The publication defines “representatives of local persons” as a “mix of “local persons”, i.e. a balanced selection of the individuals, groups, businesses or organisations the authority considers likely to be affected by, or have an interest in the authority function.” Finally, it states that “‘Involvement’ will be the most interactive form of engagement, giving representatives of local persons greater influence over decisions or delivery.” Digital inclusion, in a wider sense, is also a key element of the interim Digital Britain report.

Although the DCLG document includes guidance about who and when and why to “involve”, the only official guidance available on how to consult seems to be the Audit Commission wall chart “Summary of some of the available consultation methodologies” which is now ten years old and has only one reference to “Virtual consultation”, considering only authority Web sites and email. In the ten years since the wall chart was published, the use of the Web has grown dramatically and new forms of engagement and communications have emerged, such as Social Networking and sites that rely entirely on user-generated content. Work is under way to prepare a new version of the wall chart to help LAs implement their duty to involve. The EURIM PSD group is considering how e-Participation can be part of that implementation process.

What is e-Participation?

Three definitions are:

• “ICT-supported participation in processes involved in government and governance” (Wikipedia).
• “the use of ICT for enabling and strengthening citizen participation in democratic decision-making processes” (UNDP)
• “reconnecting ordinary people with politics and policy-making and making the decision-making processes easier to understand and follow through the use of new Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs)” (European Union).

e-Participation is clearly about more than just consultation – it is an aspect of e-Democracy and may include goals such as increasing transparency, supporting direct involvement, improving opinion gathering and allowing horizontal contact and co-ordination. Key questions include:

• To what extent can e-Participation techniques satisfy the statutory duty to involve?
• When and for whom are e-Participation techniques not appropriate?
• Where it satisfactory and appropriate, how can e-Participation best be implemented?

Discussion

Some guidance on community engagement is available from the IDEA website, under the topic “Practical ways to engage with you community”, which references the information on online consultation methods on the ICELE “People and Participation” website. The ICELE website describes 39 participatory methods, both offline and online. The report currently under preparation for the Audit Commission is reported to have looked at more than 50 techniques. Covering such a wide range of tools and techniques is more likely to increase confusion than bring clarity and reduces the opportunity for LA communities of expertise to form.

It is also important to make clear that online techniques are part of the wider topic of community engagement and, in most cases, will supplement face-to-face meetings, not replace them. Physical meetings are a long-standing tradition of local politics and are likely to continue to be so but online techniques can bring their own benefits.

Devising new recommendations for LAs on online consultation methods – and other online techniques – that will last for another ten years is obviously going to be difficult. Web sites and online resources, especially those used by the young, are changing very fast and many of these sites are more about fashion than functionality. Many of them have exhibited a “popularity half-life”, typically of around 18 months. Because of these characteristics, using them for serious matters like e-consultation in particular or political and government processes in general runs the risk of trivializing the subject. The more trivial the tool, the less likely it is that serious thought will be given to issues – recreation and reflection are very different things. Chasing the youth generation via YouTube, SecondLife, Twitter or FaceBook can turn out to be a double-edged sword.

Accordingly, it may be appropriate to focus on function, rather than form, and to make recommendations that distinguish between tools and techniques for providing functionality and popular but fashionable channels which may be better suited to informing specific audiences of the availability of the real functionality.

Functions

The following broad activities or functions are suggested for consideration:

• Inform (G2C) – LAs informing RLPs of new topics
• Comment (C2G and G2C) – RLPs commenting on LA proposals, actions, etc
• Enquire/Raise issue (C2G) – RLPs asking questions or raising an issue for consideration
• Decide (C2C and C2G) – RLPs collaborating to prepare responses; citizens deciding
• Consult (G2C) – LAs seeking views from RLPs on specific issues
• Complain (C2G) – RLPs and citizens complaining about any of the above, or other issues

Specifically omitted is “organize” as it is assumed that citizens will find their own ways of doing such horizontal activities, using the tools and techniques with which they are familiar and which are popular amongst their peers. It may also be considered inappropriate for LAs to provide such facilities. However, the “decide” activity is assumed to include horizontal C2C activities so as to provide aggregation or refining activities to prepare more representative submissions, so helping to reduce the “input overload” for LAs.

Toolkit Approach

Even a cursory search will reveal many different tools and techniques that have been developed to address these issues. However, many of them are “spot fixes”, addressing only one topic or shortcoming. Some seem to have been done just because they could be done. Complexity, overlapping scope and academic bias are amongst other problems. Few, if any, have achieved critical mass.

Some of the functions required may be satisfied by a “Local Issues Forum”, as suggested in the Local E-Democracy National Project run a few years ago by ODPM. However, forums are not suitable for all of the above functions and can require significant time and effort to maintain, e.g. to monitor for inappropriate content. Experience has shown that forums tend to suffer from a significant percentage of “off-topic” posts where people vent their feelings about all kinds of national and international issues, so adding to the monitoring workload.

What is needed are simple, general-purpose toolkits which may not be the best at any one specific activity but which are able to support all or most of them and are flexible enough to allow the implementation of new ideas. Furthermore, the tools should be readily available, mature, widely used and with a significant user community to turn to for information, help and advice.

Examples of such general purpose toolkits are Wordpress and Drupal. Both are very widely used systems (tens of thousands of sites), have large user communities (hundreds of thousands) and regularly win industry and media awards, alongside the popular commercial sites such as Twitter, MySpace and FaceBook. Both are Open Source Software (OSS) and free of charge.

Wordpress began as a tool for publishing and maintaining blogs (Weblogs) but has evolved significantly over the years because of development work by its large user base and is now widely used for publishing Web content and creating forums. (The Digital Britain forum is implemented using Wordpress).

Drupal started as yet another Web content management system (CMS), similar to a number of other systems available at the time, but has also evolved far beyond that, thanks to its very large user community, and is now used by a large and growing number of companies, NGOs and individuals for a very wide range of activities.

Although their respective supporters strongly defend the capabilities of both systems, broadly speaking, Wordpress is easier to set up and use but Drupal is more flexible in terms of function and appearance.

Technically, it would be a straightforward matter to provide pre-configured versions of both systems for download, with the appropriate plugins and modules included, and with a simple set of instructions to allow LAs with the appropriate system and staff resources to set them up easily. Contracting one or more commercial organizations to provide hosted versions of both systems could help those LAs with smaller ICT capacities.

Encouraging a focus on a few already widely popular tools, such as Wordpress and Drupal, not only capitalizes on the knowledge and experience of their large existing user communities but also promotes the evolution of a UK LA user community to help each other with the specific issue of meeting their statutory “Duty to involve”.

References

Creating Strong, Safe and Prosperous Communities - Statutory Guidance (DCLG):
http://www.communities.gov.uk/documents/localgovernment/pdf/885397.pdf

Digital Britain – Interim Report (DCMS):
http://www.culture.gov.uk/what_we_do/broadcasting/5944.aspx

IDEA Practical Ways to Engage with your Community:
http://www.idea.gov.uk/idk/core/page.do?pageId=9274731

“People and Participation” Online Consultation methods:
http://www.peopleandparticipation.net/display/Methods/Online%20Consultations

Wordpress – http://wordpress.org

Drupal – http://drupal.org


Presented and debated at the EURIM Public Service Delivery Working Group on 10 November 2009