Wanted: consultation platform, £1m reward

I’m glad my former Microsoft colleague John McGarvey reminded me of Conservative shadow culture secretary Jeremy Hunt’s proposal of a £1m prize to develop ‘the best new technology platform that helps people come together to solve the problems that matter to them’. That’s what happens when you announce things over the Christmas holidays.
The plan is for a future Conservative government to use it ‘to throw open the policy making process to the public, and harness the wisdom of the crowd so that the public can collaborate to improve government policy. For example, a Conservative government would publish all government Green Papers on this platform, so that everyone can have their say on government policies, and feed in their ideas to make them better.’ Why does that sound so familiar? ‘There are currently no technological platforms that enable in-depth online collaboration on the scale required by Government,’ says Mr Hunt; ‘this prize is a good and cost-effective way of getting one.’
Now I don’t know what kind of ‘scale’ or ‘depth’ Mr Hunt thinks he requires. If there’s a formal brief, I’ve yet to find it – and I’d be delighted if someone could point me in the right direction.
Because I’ve been building websites allowing the public to input their views on government green and white papers for some time now. Steph Gray’s Commentariat theme kickstarted the process: and I’ve since gone on to build reusable WordPress MU-based platforms for two Whitehall departments, for a few grand each. We’ve proven WordPress can handle (literally) thousands of responses – and in the only case so far where it’s wobbled, that was because of ISP throttling rather than the ability of WordPress to handle it.
Then on the academic side, you’ve got the work that’s been done by Joss Winn and Tony Hirst et al on JISCPress / digress.it / writetoreply.org. Their focus has been on the technical side, including some early steps towards community-building. It’s a bit lacking in terms of aesthetics, and it hasn’t yet been tested with huge volumes, but it’s doing some very interesting things.
And of course, barely a month ago, you had Mr Hunt’s own people at Tory central office proving the point by turning the government’s draft IT strategy into a consultation document using WordPress. Cheap and quick, showing signs of inexperience with the platform – but good enough to receive nearly 400 contributions.
So you have several independent operations in the (wide) UK public sector, already proving in the real world that WordPress is perfectly capable of supporting such ‘user feedback’ websites, and delivering some pretty sophisticated functionality and user experience. BuddyPress, meanwhile, continues to improve, and could certainly form the bedrock of a government-backed policy development community.
There’s no doubt in my mind that the technology is ready. And there are enough good people who have built up enough experience to collaborate on building something pretty special. For a slice of that £1m, I’m sure I could find time in my own schedule.
But the big question is… is Mr Hunt ready? What does it mean to receive large volumes of contributions from the general public? When do you ask for them? How do you deal with them? How do you ensure they’re representative? And what if you don’t like the consensus of the opinions expressed?
I’m all for the kind of revolution in policy development he seems to be proposing; and I’d be happy to play a part in it. But it isn’t the lack of a technical platform that will hold this vision back. If anything, that’s the easiest part.
PS Just a thought… whither Tom Steinberg?

6 thoughts on “Wanted: consultation platform, £1m reward”

  1. I’d noticed the call when it came out too via some of the press coverage it raised, but being offline over the holiday couldn’t dig much further.
    A full copy of the original press release appears to have been posted at http://blog.localdemocracy.org.uk/2010/01/04/the-conservatives-1-million-prize-for-a-public-policy-website/ but a more detailed brief is still lacking (maybe they should have posted a wiki to let the crowds develop the brief? 😉 – it seems like we’ll have to wait till after the election – and presumably a Tory victory? – before that appears, if this quote is anything to go by: “the specifications that we will be publishing alongside the official opening of the competition following the election”
    As to the vague mention of “an online platform that enables large scale collaboration”, I’m not sure what that means either, in several different senses?
    Technically, would a WordPress extension or WordPress/Mediawiki configuration count, that could be deployed across departments, local councils and/or initiatives, maybe automatically generating related links between then? Or “to win” would a hosted 1-click WPMU installation that could launch a pre-extended/pre-configured site be the sort of submission that’s required?
    Benefits wise, what would a successful community collaboration result in? A popular idea floating to the top of a voting pile (but how would that feed into the policy development or consultation process?) A flexible data powered platform (like Geocommons or Many Eyes) that provided people with access to data that could inform, support or deny the ideas that are put forward on a suggestions part of the platform? (An loosely coupled system of independent apps might suit that approach better? In which case, might a particular orchestration of independent systems/APIs qualify as a prizewinning entry, (though it would probably require a shiny interface to win!;-)
    One of the things we tried (albeit largely unsuccessfully) around the Digital Britain Interim Report was the Fake Report on a wiki [ http://wiki.writetoreply.org/wiki/The_Fake_Digital_Britain_Report ] Wikipedia has shown that it is possible to collaboratively author documents, with each wiki content page showing a consensus NPOV view (sometimes!) and the related Talk page capturing elements of the discussion and rationale for why the content page is as it is. It may be that for developing policy documents, this diptych/dual view approach would capture a an argument in a more convenient way than a list of comments?
    (One thing I’d like to explore is whether a Commentpress style theme could be used to pull wiki talk elements in to a wiki page as comments/discussion at a section level. As well as working for policy document formulation, a similar approach might also be useful as an authoring tool for closed communities, such as standards authoring (e.g. http://drafts.bsigroup.com/ ) or drafting Government bills [ http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/parliamentarycounsel.aspx ].)
    Votes are another way of compressing opinion, as is sentiment analysis, in order to summarise a large body of comment in order for it to be usable by the poor sod charged with the task of taking on board the opinions of the masses!
    Or maybe you need a platform that can offer something to, and draw from, a wide range of visitor types: folk who might cast a vote but not comment, or comment but engage in discussion?

  2. It does look like this is worth discussing further among those of us who want to contribute to a WPMU-based platform.
    Have you seen what Cornell are doing with the Whitehouse, using digress.it? http://www.regulationroom.org/
    Eddie Tejeda, the developer of digress.it, is working with them on this. I know he would be interested in getting involved, too. It’s worth looking at how the site is being run. There’s quite a lot of people involved in preparing content, engaging users, moderating discussion, etc. I think part of the £1m on offer needs to be used to establish a similar Team of Civil Servants who take responsibility for the sustainability of the platform. Documentation, training, incentives for the public to use the platform would all be an important part of the project, I think.
    On the technical side of things, Alex Bilbie, who also worked with us on JISCPress, sent Tony and I a few ideas over the Christmas period in response to the Press Release. I’ll see if he will post them publicly. Like you, he points out that more work could be done on the look and feel of the platform. I agree. He also offers some ideas around improving the accessibility of digress.it and polishing the work we did on JISCPress in general.
    I’m not that keen on Tony’s suggestion of MediaWiki integration. Maintaining the integration of two large pieces of software is a fools game. WordPress has a versioning system and can be ‘wikified’ if required through plugins (some already exist). I do think there is some mileage in exploring how those revisions might be surfaced to the public view, while at the same time maintaining the integrity of links between comments and paragraph versions. I’ve spoken to Eddie about this before and he’s interested in the idea. By the way, Eddie is also the lead developer on LittleSis, ‘an involuntary Facebook of powerful Americans’, so he would bring some good experience from that project, too. http://littlesis.org/
    Regarding Tony’s comments on the joining up of different software/services, I’m inclined to think that ensuring the data from the platform is open, standards-based and accessible is enough. Through RSS and the Linked Data work we did on JISCPress, there’s considerable potential for mashing up and analysing content on the platform. Documents RSS feeds could also include GeoRSS data by simply activating an existing plugin, for example.
    Voting and sentiment analysis all seem to be within reach, too. GD Star Rating for WordPress is a mature and highly configurable plugin with good reporting (we use it occasionally on WriteToReply).
    If the Tories win the election, I’d be interested in following this through with a meeting or two, though only as a contributing, rather than leading, member of a team. A bunch of us meeting for a day or two to look at existing platforms, pulling together what we’ve got, what we’d need to develop, etc. would be very productive, I think.
    Thanks for raising this possibility.

  3. Joss said: “I’m not that keen on Tony’s suggestion of MediaWiki integration.”
    What appeals to me is the possibility of having the ‘latest version’ of a piece of text/paragraph that can be hacked over and changed by the community (vn if it’s just to correct typos/grammar!) and that reflects the latest best take on an issue, as well as a discussion area that can be used to argue about that text.
    This may or may not require mediawiki – but it is a wiki like feature, as it is a version control like feature…?

  4. No no no, you have it all wrong. Stuff that’s been done cheaply for the wider public sector, the civil service and academia can’t be any good. Why? Because it’s not private sector and it didn’t cost a fortune. Private sector/expensive = good, public sector/cheap = bad. And hang the cost to the taxpayer.
    I think you should go and claim yourself a share of the million.

  5. Hmm, it’s starting to seem like we should maybe think seriously about putting a proper Team WordPress ‘bid’ together here. No time to think about it more deeply just now… but definitely one to come back to.

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