Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Governments are still very backwards in most of their online engagement - and it's not due to a shortage of tools

I've been reading about a new entrant in the government online consultation market - Balancing Act, a simulation tool for involving the public in government budget consultations.

It joins a range of other tools for this type of 'trade-off' consulting online - including Budget Allocator from Bang The Table and, my favourite, Budget Simulator from Delib (which I used to run in Australia).

These are only a few of the advanced online consultation tools available for government - of which there are many kinds, from surveys and geospatial mapping through to forums and blogs.

Many vendors have years of experience, having run thousands of consultations with hundreds of clients internationally (particularly Delib and Bang The Table).

However most governments are still very backwards and inconsistent in their online engagement - with many consultations still just having an email 'black box' for submissions, or employing expensive market research firms to do work that can be done by specialist public sector online consulting companies for a fraction of the cost.

I've seen agencies charged tens of thousands for basic SurveyMonkey surveys, or mistakenly use forums to capture a few dozen comments for quantitative consultations that would receive far more and higher quality responses and outcomes using specialist budget or survey tools.

I've had agencies so 'no thanks, we'll build rather than buy' when presented with tools that have been used by hundreds of agencies over many years, and have had millions invested in their development and refinement to make them work well - and seen the outcomes where they invested tens or hundreds of thousands (far more than the cost of buying in the capability) and ended up with a consultation system that didn't do what they needed it to do.

Even today most local councils and governments, when they engage online, buy or build a capability just for a specific consultation, then 'throw it away' afterwards - only to reinvest the next time they need to consult.

And that's in an environment where agencies know that they'll be consulting stakeholders or the community tens of times throughout a year.

So why do government agencies not take a pragmatic and sensible approach to consultation, invest in sound capability and use it repeatedly across all appropriate engagements, providing a consistent and managed experience at a very low amortised cost?

After years of running consultations and leading Delib Australia, I've come to the following conclusion.

I believe that fundamentally agencies and councils don't think of consultation as a critical step in policy and service design.

Instead consultation is usually either a 'sop' to their Minister, or to affected groups in the community, to provide necessary cover for whatever decisions they choose to make.

In my experience, while policy specialists and senior public servants are always interested in reviewing the synopsis of what consultation respondents say, they often suffer from the 'expert issue', where they already know the right solution, and simply don't believe that the public would have anything useful to add.

This bias is often reinforced during consultations. Due to the ways in which agencies consult it's common for many responses to be brief and poorly considered, or reflect ideas an agency has already investigated and rejected, or tried.

When experts, interest groups, companies and lobbyists respond to consultations, their responses are given a little more attention - partly because they are written formally in language that public servants respond to, and partially because they may be groups that can derail a government's goals.

However even these responses are often largely disregarded as the bias or slant of a particular group seeking advantage. Or they may be =taken as gospel - a mandated approach that already has the support of the group purported to be represented (even where this may not be evidentially the case).

Of course there are exceptions to the cases above and I've been fortunate enough to work with a number of agencies, councils and individuals who truly value and respect community input and understand how it can effectively inform and improve policy and service outcomes.

However until governments think more like start-ups, recognising the immense value that consultations have in uncovering policy issues and new ideas as a critical part of a design process, I expect we'll continue to see the poor use of online consultation tools even though many of the tools available today are superbly well-developed and tested.

Agencies and councils don't need to wait for or design better tools - they need to improve their thinking, or consultation will continue to be a weakness and a risk for them and their political masters.


  1. Thank you, Craig for mentioning Balancing Act. I work with their team to share their news and we were delighted to see your post.Today a library district announced its proposed budget on Balancing Act. Check it out, from Meridian, Idaho:

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