On balance, today was a good day for more progressive approaches to online consultation by government.

sauce jars

The BIS team were out of the blocks early with a nice little consultation site for the proposed changes to parental leave which explains the issue through video vox pops and a simple visualisation. It breaks a still rather meaty document up into chunks using Scribd and handles responses via SurveyMonkey as well as offering the opportunity for microparticipation for people passing by in a hurry. It’s not super-slick, but it’s a great basis for digital engagement, built at low cost (disclaimer: based on the reusable Commentariat2 platform I helped the team to develop). Most importantly, it has an eye on making the process of responding more engaging by explaining the issues and providing different ways to respond.

DCMS kicked off their review of the regulatory framework around the UK’s communications sector, with an open letter from Jeremy Hunt. Will Perrin isn’t a fan:


For my part, I rather like the DCMS site, and there’s clearly some thought gone into the web presentation of this consultation, including the online response form, hashtag, video intro and, helpfully, a timeline of what happens next. It’s not rocket science, and not terribly social, but it’s what the baseline for high profile policy consultations should be but so often isn’t.

But maybe that’s going to change. This morning, at Google Zeitgest, the Chancellor announced the appointment of Beth Noveck, former US Deputy CTO for Open Government to a role working on similar issues over here (whether that’s open data or public participation isn’t 100% clear yet). He also set the kind of tone that implied that more, not less, of this kind of thing is coming:

If the first impact of the internet age on government has been to change accountability, the second has been to change the nature of policy making itself.

Just as the old asymmetries of information have been eroded, so too have the perceived asymmetries of wisdom.

I genuinely believe that in almost all areas of government, we do a better job when we open up policy making and open ourselves up to the ideas of the crowd.


Instead of government deciding whether or not to listen to the public, we’re forcing it to listen.

We want to remain at the cutting edge of open source policy making.

It’s not the first time George Osborne has talked about open source policymaking. And he’s rumoured to enjoy biking in his Firefox t-shirt too.

To be honest, I’m not sure the examples he cites – the Spending Challenge and Your Freedom – are really such shining lights. Large volumes of comments does not a crowdsourced policy make. Don’t get me wrong: it’s great so many people took part. But to me, true open source policymaking implies:

  • projects led by communities: where the destination is decided by the group, the areas of work are put up, debated, prioritised and advanced or ignored – like the WordPress Trac
  • discussion and delivery of solutions, not just ideas: where people do the grunt work of coming up with, and maybe running, workable systems, not just commenting on them
  • platforms on which others can build: at least 12,000 people make a living from WordPress, goodness knows how many from Apache or Linux; an open source policy should often be one which lets people build businesses and non-profit projects around it, and which is in turn shaped by them (with some democratic oversight)

This film of Andy Gibson talking about the social web reminded me of Clay Shirky’s comment about “organising without organisations”. That’s the real challenge that open source policymaking poses to governments and politicians. There are some fields, and some issues at least, where the tools and community and processes are mature enough in these straitened times to say: “Over to you. Review the evidence and discuss the trade-offs. Come up with rules that work, and respect Rawlsian fairness. Decide things, change things, deliver things as a community. We’re elected to voice people’s values and facilitate their implementation, not be infallible management consultants.”

That would take a generation of Big Society politicians indeed.

Photo credit: Matt DeTurck

p.s. there’s a great round-up on the latest e-democracy and consultation thinking over on Richard Parson’s blog – definitely worth a look.

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