Comment on government: How should I be interacting?

I’ve just been reading the commentable version of  the Coalition: our programme for government document, and, given some of the content, I couldn’t help but head for the comment box to drop in some reflections on different aspects of the proposed policies.

However, as I started to type in a comment or two, I quickly found I wasn’t certain what sort of interaction was being invited. The front page of the site states “This website gives you the opportunity to enter public discussion on the programme. We’ll take all your comments and suggestions on board and publish the Government’s response to those policy areas receiving the most feedback”, but it goes no further to explain who will be reading the comments, what sort of feedback to expect, and whether the goal is discussion between members of the public, or dialogue between the public and government.

Which makes writing a comment difficult.

Should I be constructively unpicking policy and pointing to useful resources that, in the hands of a Minister or policy official would be useful? Should I be replying to other posters, engaging in debate with them on the strengths or weakness of their argument? If so, are they getting e-mail updates about my replies, or can threaded discussions emerge? Should I be gaming the system and getting as many people to post on the topics I feel post passionate about, given the statement that only the “policy areas receiving the most feedback” are to get a response from the Government? Will track-backs to posts (so I can write a more considered comment on policy areas on this blog) be picked up and fed into the dialogue?

All these things affect the sort of dialogue that can take place – and the nature of relationship between citizen and government that can be established. Whilst it’s positive that the new government have opted for opening up comments on the coalition plan, and Simon Dickson’s work to turnaround a basic site for such comments in a short space of time is impressive, comment boxes alone do not a dialogue make. There are bit techno-social challenges to be solved to effective online participation, and we all need to get a lot smarter in solving them.

As the Government team behind this online document, and, hopefully future online documents, iterate the development of such spaces, it would be good to see a lot more attention paid to the forms of interaction between citizen and state that are to be facilitated. Personally, I’d like to see a clear statement about exactly who will be reading and summarising the comments; how that will take place; and who the summary will be shared with. And it would be good to have something more nuanced than simply a numbers game for knowing what will get considered.

What would you like to see to encourage effective dialogue on government hosted spaces around documents like the coalition agreement?

P.S. There’s one more big problem with the current commentable coalition agreement: the moderation policy suggests wants 16s to have parental consent before posting. There is no legal basis for this and its outrageous age discrimination. By all means encourage young people to discuss issues with parents before posting – but to exclude young people who are  from posting without parental consent cannot be justified.

17 thoughts on “Comment on government: How should I be interacting?”

  1. Excellent points, Tim. It’s a classic problem with commentable documents and a common bear trap I’ve fallen into many times. The challenge with many of these strategy documents is that the authoring team will be disbanded after publication so the real answer to ‘who will read my comments?’ is ‘we don’t know, but some enthuiastic policy official might do in future’.

    On the sub-16 year olds point, as a former market researcher I use the ‘parental consent’ line as a lazy convention and have tended to assume that inciting someone under 16 to interact online and give you contact details (email, IP address etc) is a no-no without consent. What’s the actual legal and good practice position?

  2. Definitely a useful reminder than interaction does not begin an end with a comment form.

    Not sure if it is useful, but I’ve had a look at some of the academic research into factors which affect the quality of online discussion here and here.

  3. (Immediate disclaimer: I’m speaking in a personal capacity here, not as a representative of the government or civil service.)

    Whilst I’m inclined to agree with your points here, we can’t lose sight of the specific circumstances of this particular exercise.

    The timeframe was insanely short: by way of example, I don’t think the client saw a design proposal until I’d finished coding it. There certainly wasn’t lengthy discussion on excluding under-16s, or anything like that.

    And the reality is, it’s not a green paper: it’s a statement of the outcome of the Con-LD negotiations. The rules of engagement may not be as clear as one might like: but the fact is, so many of the rules of political engagement have been called into question by the new governing arrangement. I note, for example, the point raised in the Commons yesterday: should a LibDem MP refer to a Conservative MP as ‘my honourable Friend’?

    This exercise has at least demonstrated a desire to maintain the momentum of the past couple of years. There are issues to resolve around the whole notion of commentable documents, and engagement in general. But last Wednesday afternoon wasn’t the time to resolve them.

  4. @Richard Those are very useful links indeed. Getting the balance between modelling Dahlberg’s factors for ideal public discussion and accessible online processes in a dialogue space/platform is an interesting challenge. I’ve got a few projects coming up where I’ll use that list as a bit of a theoretical test against the proposed spaces for dialogue.

    @Steph As far as I understand, there is no law that prevents taking comments from young people in the UK. The US COPPA regulation ( requires that US sites have parental consent to obtain personal data (names, contact details etc.) from under 13s and requires sites to collect no more information than is required for participation in the site’s activities. However, that doesn’t apply to UK sites.

    For market research, which is collecting a lot of personal data in most cases, best practice may be to obtain parental consent from under 16s, but in the case of exercising democratic voice and where only minor personal information is being collected, I’m not sure the same principles apply.

    In terms of child protection obligations, it may be appropriate to offer under 16s the option of using a pseudonym, and, if an individual posts as their URL in a comment a link to any personal data which could put them at risk in any way, then it may be appropriate to remove that link (but this should be a general non-age-specific principle).

    I can’t find anything more on this from the Information Commissioner website, but I’ll ask ARCH who’ve written most of the papers on children’s personal information if they can drop a comment here with a view too.

    @Simon Definitely no criticism of your work intended, or I hope implied here – and definitely no suggestion that all the questions above should have been answered last Wednesday. Definitely proposing these as questions for moving forward with…

  5. Hi Tim,

    You make a great point, one which has been valid for a decade since online consultation began to appear.

    For me, the value of consultations lies in the engagement of people in policy development and the political process. For people to be truly engaged they need to feel that their contributions are valued and have an impact.

    Because there is no physical interaction online it is vital to acknowledge the individual’s contribution before, during and after the process.

    This means being clear about the audience, process and expected outcomes before, making the experience of the consultation simple and clear and finally reporting back on the outcomes in a way that fits the audience.

    I appreciate the rapidity of this particular case (Simon, great job in achieving what you did), it does point to a wider cultural issue in government though which if resolved will have a wide and positive impact.


  6. I wanted a coalition Goverment. Three weeks into power and it looked like you were making all the right moves and changes with a positive attitude. This lastest news has shattered me to hear that you have a cabinet minister who is suddenly forced to leave. Now we are told he will be back at some point, WHY?
    If this happens you have let us all down as it is history being repeated again, So why ask us to vote for the same old system? You promised changes and now we have one blunder in three weeks, How many will you incur in the five years in office? Ask Mr Blunkett as an advisor to your future conduct.
    We all voted for a new way forward, so show us that this can happen, everyone in the Goverment should know the rules.
    We all have rules that we have to abide by. So you should all set a good example and abide by the rules if not pay the PENALTY and not just a holiday from the cabinet.

  7. Hey Gary

    It looks like your comment is directed to the government? This blog post is just discussing the commentable coalition plan which you can find and add comments to at:

    Unfortunately I don’t suppose comments left on my blog here will find their way direct to the ears of government…


  8. Hey Tim

    I’m just drafting some default moderation rules for commentable documents on my new platform. Based on your advice above, my line on under 16s now reads:

    “If you are aged 16 or under, you may wish to talk to your parent/guardian about your use of this website before submitting a comment. You should not provide identifiable personal details (apart from an email address, which will not be published in any case), and may consider using a neutral pseudonym in place of your real name.”

    How does that sound?

  9. I like those principles Steph… can i add a couple of things?

    Would someone under 16 know the word pseudonym? Maybe use ‘not your real name’ or some such phrasing?

    Maybe also change ‘your use of this website’ to ‘the ideas on this website and the opinions that you want to express’.

    Is it worth splitting this out from ur standard page with a seperate under-16s link? Wud someone that young look for advice in the middle of a moderation policy page?

    … just some random thoughts!

  10. Hey Steph

    Sounds good – though as Richard mentions, ‘neutral pseudonym’ may need an alternative phrasing (I’d tend to suggest ‘You may want to use your first or last name only, rather than your full name’)

    I’d keep this part of the main policy.

    If concerned that people won’t read the full policy then I’d consider whether it’s worth having some useful pop-up tips for everyone about commenting & moderation available near the comment box. (E.g. appearing when you hover over a ‘Before you comment…’ link and including a small Under 16? heading as part of the pop-up…

    (BTW: The service looks great!)

  11. I agree with your point that the strengths or weakness of their arguments should be debated in comments as a blog without any comments is not interactivee and devoid of any opinion. It gives a more balanced view. Great post.

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