Final Digital Dialogues report

The third – and final – report from the Hansard Society‘s Digital Dialogues new media experiments emerged on Tuesday, although I very nearly missed it in all the excitement around Downing Street. The press release offers ‘a few simple rules’ for those wanting to use the internet for engagement and consultation, based on the experience of its 25 case studies:

  • Government departments must be adaptable and willing to take risks
  • Transparency and timely feedback to participants is essential
  • Government departments must be clear about the purpose of the consultation and the ways that participants’ contributions will be used
  • The right people – ministers and senior policy makers – must be involved
  • Evaluation is essential to ensure that departments learn and improve on the basis of experience.

Clarity, commitment, reciprocity – fairly predictable stuff. But as Andy Williamson notes: ‘I hope it will allay some of the fears and concerns and encourage more government departments to take up the online challenge.’ The report, and its predecessors, give us a portfolio of specific, real-life examples – some successes, some flops – to reflect on. And we need that.
I’m not at all surprised to see the Food Standards Agency’s blog and FCO Bloggers platform faring best in the reviews. At heart these were both straightforward blogs: personal expression, steady running commentary, nothing too clever. The projects which tried too hard haven’t done nearly so well; nor did projects which attempted to force artificial timeframes or tight restrictions. The report doesn’t shy away from its criticism.
For me, the most important single message comes in the core guidance:

Online engagement exercises require time to gather momentum; simply setting up a website in the hope that people will come to it achieves little. Sites might initially spark interest, but this is not sustainable enough to enhance public engagement and political efficacy.

Point your manager to the executive summary, which concludes:

  • ‘Moderators were not required to manage as large a volume of traffic as many had initially feared.’
  • ‘Distrust was overcome when moderators facilitated open discussion and provided information to website users. […] Some websites failed to gain traction because users did not believe that anyone was listening or responding to their perspectives; in such cases, departments were paralysed by a sense of risk and failed to harness the range of engagement opportunities at their disposal – responding only on topics deemed safe.’
  • ‘Websites that were disconnected from their policy or ministerial brief, or constrained by a long chain of command, engendered less user satisfaction (both among participants and the government officials running the exercise).’
  • ‘Where government departments were too fixed in their approach, they failed to capitalise on their investment; those with a reflexive and experimental approach were able to adapt to meet the challenges posed by online engagement.’

If that’s the last time we hear of Digital Dialogues: farewell, and thanks.