Challenges and strategies for collaboration and engagement

opengovHere is the text from a speech I’m giving today at the opengov conference as part of a panel discussion. (Update – my co-panelist Steph Gray has posted his outline here).

The text below includes links to articles elsewhere that flesh out the relevant points in more detail.

Most political scientists are still agreed that highly participative policy processes can often result in a poor quality of policymaking. 

Let’s think about what kinds of participation are useful. Opinions can be useful if they are

  • not held fanatically
  • based on evidence
  • don’t lead to a pre-prepared conclusion. 

Often when you hear people quickly get to their conclusions, you suspect that their evidence isn’t great. The less useful opinions are often…

  • argumentative
  • self-interested
  • based upon coercive arguments – ridicule, populist appeal, political threats.

This brings us to the problem of ‘the usual suspects’ 

Active citizens

Passive citizens

  • Busy, working long hours, no agenda, little access or energy, more likely to be conversational and equivocal.


They probably won’t have time to come to your website and answer your questions in the first place

One group has more research time but you may not trust their conclusions. The other may have valuable practical experiences but it’s hard to get them down in a useful way.

It’s a bit like talking about politics and policy. One is a ritualised shouting match, the other can be worth listening to.

So, what can we do?

Firstly we have to go to the places where people are. It may mean putting questions on the end of people’s tax forms, or their shopping experience. This may mean social networks. 

We have to find something that they have to, or want to do anyway, and ask them manageable questions while they’re there.

The trick is almost to find a way of eavesdropping on unselfconscious conversation – and how to do this without being big-brotherish!

The two online applications that I’ve seen that I think need to be used a lot more than they are:

Debategraph: It’s about getting people to break down what the issues in a debate are. Once you do that, you can get them to apply their judgements to weighting and priorities. You end up with a very nice bit of javascript that illustrates the arguments. When politicians – or the organisations that you work for – publish your responses, you have to address all of the issues that people have raised and weighed.

Mixed Ink: This a way of getting a lot of people to prepare a persuasive bit of text. There’s a bit of gaming involved in getting your bit of the statement in the final draft. Slate Magazine used it to get 400+ people to jointly draft a statement for President Obama’s inaugural address – and it wasn’t bad.

So in conclusion:

  1. Telling people that they can have a direct input into policy may not work – and it’s probably a lie anyway
  2. Crowdsourcing opinion may be less useful than Crowdsourcing judgement, conversation, evidence and proposals
  3. Perhaps the most effective way of consulting people is involving them in modelling the problem, encouraging them to collaborate towards an agreed solution.

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