Category Archives: Local Government

Javelin Park: What’s in the Information Tribunal ruling?

[Summary: exploring on a local open contracting campaign victory and it’s implications for contract transparency]

On Friday, the Information Rights Tribunal ruled on the appeal by Gloucestershire County Council against an earlier ruling by the Information Commissioner that the contract for a large PFI (Public Private Partnership) project to build an waste incinerator at Javelin Park near Stroud should be substantially published.

Campaigners have been fighting for access to the contract since 2015, when their first Freedom of Information Request was refused. Although we discovered earlier this year that the contract text had been accidentally put into the public domain by the Council failing to properly apply all the redactions they have been arguing for to an earlier FOI response, the Information Tribunal ruling is important in that it:

  • Sets out clearly the Tribunal’s view on the sections of the contract and it’s schedules that should be in the public domain (almost all of it);
  • Sets out clear reasoning applicable to other UK contracts – supporting the idea that there is a strong public interest in the text of contracts, and that exceptions for commercial confidentiality should be minimal;
  • Provides support for the idea that contract text should be proactively published.

You can find a copy of the ruling here, but, as it runs to 67 pages I’ve pulled out a few of the key points below.

(A) The basics

In paragraph 6 – 21 the Tribunal helpfully describe the background of the case – which involves a 25-year Public Private Partnership contract involving the build and operation of a Waste Incinerator, with an estimated overall contract value of £500m, and annual capacity of up to 190,000 tonnes.

The original request for an unredacted copy of the contract was made under the Environmental Information Regulations (EIR) – and was fought by the council on the grounds of Intellectual Property Rights, and Commercial Confidentiality.

(B) The arguments

Below is a non-exhaustive summary of arguments explored in the tribunal report (from the perspective of a non-lawyer trying to sense-make):

(1) Environment Information Regulations vs FOI? The council argued that sections of the contract should be considered under FOI (slightly weaker access rights) instead of Environment Information Regulations. The Tribunal ruled that the contract, as a whole, fell under EIRs (Para 39 & 40) as it, as a whole, represents a measure with substantial environmental implications.

(2) Commercial confidentiality? The council argued that large sections of the contract, including pricing and volume information, were commercially sensitive and their disclosure could pose a risk to both the private contractor, and the council, in terms of impacts on any future tendering activity.

In paragraph 44 the tribunal provide a useful discussion of EIR Regulation 12(5)(e) and the difficulty of working out to what extent an adverse effect of disclosure on economic interests of parties need to be established to justify confidentiality. However, the arguments of the Tribunal hinge much more on Schedule 23 of the contract itself, which was headed “Commercial sensitive contractual provisions”, and which was cited in the contract (§84.1) as the list of items that should be kept confidential by the parties.

A large quantity of the redactions sought by the Council, and which they appears to have spent over £200,000 fighting for (based on transactions to their lawyers in the Spending over £500 data), are not contained in this schedule.

Whilst it therefore appears the contract did follow good practice of agreeing from the outset any sections that could be subject to confidentiality, the Council did not follow this in actually applying redactions.

(3) Public interests in disclosure? The Tribunal evaluated each of the redactions sought by the council, and tested (a) whether confidentiality could be reasonably expected under the contract clause and schedules referring to this; and (b) whether there was, in any case, a public interest in disclosure.

Paragraphs 57 – 59 discuss the basis of public interest are worth quoting at length:

“§57. …Concerns have been expressed about the EfW technology chosen by the Council, which those against it say may involve harmful emissions and toxic waste left over from the scrubbing process. Planning concerns have been expressed about the height, mass and design of the plant and the increase in heavy road traffic which will be caused along with consequential air pollution. Although we are not in any position to assess the merits of these concerns, they are clearly genuine and not frivolous.

§58. The Contract itself is a PFI contract involving the expenditure of a great deal of public money over many years;… We can, we think, take judicial note of the fact that the PFI model is itself controversial, with legitimate concerns expressed about bad value for money, opacity and the tendency to load expenditure on future generations. Further, it is said that the structure of the Contract, by requiring the Council to pay for a certain amount of waste to be incinerated (the so-called “take or pay” arrangement) may have tied the Council in to supply a quantity of waste which is not viable in future and may have negative environmental effect of discouraging recycling…

§59. Given those considerations, in our view there was a significant public interest in the disclosure of the entire contract, in the interests both of transparency and accountability, ie the enable the public to be informed as to exactly what the Council had agreed on their behalf and its long-term consequences and to hold it properly to account, in particular through Council elections.”

On the issue of whether sections of the contract can be selectively disclosed, the Tribunal state:

§59. “… We make clear that we are not suggesting that the exercise is an ‘all or nothing’ one all we are doing is recognising that the provisions which the Council seeks to withhold are part of a greater interlocking whole and must inevitably be seen in that context.”

They also draw attention to the Local Government Transparency Code 2014 and the presumption in there of proactive disclosure – something I cover in this post.

They further draw attention to the fact that, when the original request was made in March 2015:

“§61…”the controversy was particularly intense and there was a danger that the whole Contract would have to be terminated at a cost, according to the Council of up to £100 million. At that stage, in our view, the Council’s obligation to act transparency was particularly strong as was the public interest in the exact position in relation to the compensation payable in so far as the Contract contained relevant provisions.”

They also argue that what matters is not how much of the text of a contract is in the public domain (the council argued that 95% of the text was public from the 1000+ pages of documents), but the substantives of that text. The tribunal state:

“In our view, the fact that the public authority has disclosed some information in the past cannot be relevant to the issue of whether they should have disclosed more.”

On the majority of individual redactions evaluated, the Tribunal find the public interest overwhelmingly supports publication. Paragraphs 74 – 216 go through the contract redaction-by-redaction, schedule by schedule, providing the reasoning for each decision. Where redactions are upheld, this is down to their information being included in the schedule of confidential information, and the Tribunal finding no substantial public interest in disclosure (though in some cases they still express puzzlement as to why redaction might be required).

(4) Impact on future procurement? In paragraph 72 the Tribunal consider arguments from the Council and UBB that disclosure would prejudice future procurements, and prevent the Council getting the best deal. They state:

“§72… We cannot accept such a case. Any potential contractor seeking to do business throughout the EU must be well aware of the duties of public authorities in relation to environmental information. We do not accept that they would (or should) complain or change their behaviour in response to a disclosure of information by the Council or any other public authority which was required by the EIR (or indeed FOIA)…”

(5) Intellectual property protection? The council invoked a separate argument for Schedule 33 which covers the sale of electricity generated from the plant. The mechanism by which this is to happen is fairly opaque, and appears to involve as-yet untested deals for ‘power off-take’. The Tribunal note that they were not “…given a very clear explanation of how this was all going to work…” (§212), but that “…Mr Mawdsley [(the council officer responsible)] [hoped] to sell the contents of Schedule 33 to other local authorities.”

The council argued that the Schedule was their IP, “based on copyright , database rights and the law relating to trade secrets.”.

The tribunal dismiss this, and in a damning paragraph note:

“§216. So far as the public interest is concerned, we agree with the Commissioner that, if relevant, it favours the disclosure of Schedule 33. The Council expressly accepts that there is a public interest in transparency about its plans to sell electricity for wider use; in our view it is a weighty public interest. On the other hand, we remain unclear as to how the Council’s or UBB’s negotiating position with third parties will be damaged. As to the wish to protect the confidentiality of legal and technical details that are novel in order to sell them on to other local authorities, even assuming that Mr Mawdsley is not being overoptimistic about the potential for the Council to make money in this way, we do not think that there is a particularly great public interest in the Council being able to commercially exploit a scheme which is apparently designed to avoid the normal regulatory regime.”

Overall

I’m not sure to what extend Tribunal decisions set precedents for others – but it seems to me there are strong arguments here that supports the positions that:

  • Where contracts are made that commit public money – the public have a right to know the detail of those contracts;
  • Contracts need to be treated as a whole, and redactions kept to a minimum;
  • Only redactions agreed in advance, and set out transparently in a clear schedule should be allowed;
  • A public party cannot claim intellectual property over a negotiated contract text;

Now that we have official access to the substantial majority of the Gloucestershire Incinerator contract, the challenge ahead is to work our what of the damage done by the Council Cabinet and contractors unaccountable actions over the last 18 months can be challenged, and undone. Access to documents is ultimately just one part of a wider open contracting journey.

(C) Other things of note

There are a few other elements of note I jotted down whilst reading through the judgement.

  • The claim made to council on 18th Feb 2015 that it could cost £60m – £100m to cancel the contract appears to be based on calculations from officers, and/or Ernst and Young which have not been published by the authority (perhaps another EIR or FOIA request will be needed here…). The Tribunal ruling refers in Paragraph 27 to a document from Ernst and Young presented to Cabinet in November 2015. However campaigners reading the unredacted contract cannot find the substantiation for the cancellation costs being so high before the facility is operational. It appears breakage before the plant is in operation could cost substantially less than the break-points once it is up and running – and possibly even lower than the £30m the Council has subsequently committed from reserves to cover shortfalls in the project.

  • Fighting disclosure has potentially cost the council much more than the hundreds of thousands spent on legal fees. Now that the contract model can be scrutinised, and alternatives explored, it may turn out that delays have led to potential cancellation of the contract

  • Mr Mawdsley, the council officer who has been pushing the Incinerator contract, comes in for criticism from the Tribunal. In paragraph 73 they note “Mr Peiro’s [UBB staff member] evidence was inevitably likely to be rather partisan, and, although he is an official and was giving evidence on behalf of a public authority, we are afraid we reached the view that Mr Mawdsley’s evidence on behalf of the Council was also rather partisan. We were surprised at the failure of each to attach any great importance to clause 84 and Schedule 23 or to the Transparency Code… We accept the submission of Mr West at para 78 of his final submissions that Mr Mawdsley’s evidence was ‘…so far-reaching as to be unconvincing, in particular in relation to matters such as Access Road Disruption Events”.

What next?

I’ve tried, at least in section A and B above to summarise rather than analyse. But, as I’m posting this on a personal blog, if I might here be forgiven a personal and partisan point…

If you are in Gloucestershire and concerned about this – the Tribunal made a good point: elections are a key mechanism to hold the Council to account – and all the Councillors who voted for the Incinerator on the basis of bad information, or secrets known only to Cabinet, are up for re-election on May 4th.

I only discovered this local case when my wife, Rachel, started getting involved in local Green Party conversations, and pointed out the work our Green County Councillor Sarah Lunnon was doing to push for open contracting, and to challenge the secrecy of the Incinerator contract. We were both astonished to see the County Council being so reckless with public resources and our local environment – and to see them so opposed to transparent and accountable politics.

It spurred me into reading as much as I could of the information that was available on the contract – but Rachel has taken it a step further – and is standing as Green Party candidate for Minchinhampton Division in the upcoming County Council elections.

There is ultimately the chance that we could change the balance of power in Gloucestershire – voting out the Tory administration that’s made these reckless decisions – and getting in a progressive coalition who can work to undo the damage. So – if you happen to be local to Minchinhampton, Thrupp or Chalford: please support Rachel. If you live elsewhere in Gloucestershire: make sure you get out and vote on May 4th, and use your vote for a progressive candidate who will commit to open contracting, and to stopping this one wasteful incinerator deal.

And if this is all too parochial… think about the contracts your local authority has signed you up to. Have you looked to see that they really work in the public interest?


[Note – typos in transcription from the original judgement are my own. I’m working from a printed copy, awaiting access to digital copy from the Tribunal website]

What should a UK Open Government Partnership Forum look like?

[Summary: Open spaces events across that whole UK that provide access for all ages are key to an effective UK OGP forum]

A key step in a countries participation in the Open Government Partnership (OGP) involves establishing ongoing public consultation between government, citizens, civil society organisations and the private sector on the development and implementation of OGP action plans. Given the UK is currently co-chair of OGP, and will be hosting the next OGP plenary meeting in London in March next year, establishing an effective, credible and dynamic forum for ongoing multi-stakeholder participation in OGP should be a top priority.

 

Members of the informal network of UK-based Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) engaging with the OGP process have been thinking about what such a forum could look like, and in this post I want to offer one possible take, based on my experience of taking part in a range of open space and unConference events over recent years.

Proposal: At the heart of the UK OGP forum should be a series of regular open space events, taking place across the UK, with a focus on getting out of London. Events should be open to anyone to take part – from active citizens and community groups, to social entrepreneurs, private sector firms, national and local government representatives and  local and international CSOs.
Simple principles of inclusion should  be established to ensure the events provide a welcoming environment for all, including for children and young people, and older people .

What is an open space or unConference?

Open space events are created by their participants. Rather than having a set agenda, the discussion agenda for an open space event is set on the day by participants announcing sessions and discussions they would like to take part in. Participants then self-select to take part in the sessions they have the most interest in. Simple principles encourage participants, wherever they come from, to take shared ownership of the discussions and the outcomes of the day. Open space events and unConferences can have a focussed theme to guide the focus of the specific sessions that take place.

I first encountered open space on a large scale in the UKGovCamp unconferences, which, as it turns out, are in many ways a paradigmatic example of key aspects of digital open government in action. At the annual UKGovCamp events (and their spin off LocalGovCamp events around the UK), civil servants, citizens, CSOs, social innovators, business people, and event a few politicians, spend a day in practical conversation about how to make government work better – sharing knowledge, developing plans and deepening shared commitment to shared problems.

See the Wikipedia article on Open-space technology for more on open space, and links to examples of open space events in action.

Why should open space events be part of the UK OGP forum?

Open Government is about more than a few action plan commitments to better ICT systems or increasing access to data. It involves active rethinking the relationship between citizen and state both as democracy continues to evolve, and as technologies, globalisation and other social forces reconfigure the capabilities of both citizens and governments. Open Government needs mass participation – and open space events are one way to develop action-focussed dialogues that support large-scale participation.

  • A UK OGP Forum needs to be not only about feeding demands up to government, but also about disseminating OGP ideas and commitments across the whole of the public sector. For many people, it is open local government which will have most impact on their lives, and taking the OGP conversation on the road to events that can include all tiers of government provides an opportunity to join up open government practice across government.
  • Open space events are also very cost-effective. You need a room, some refreshments, some flip-chart paper – and, well, that’s about it.
  • Open space events are powerful network building opportunities – helping develop both civil society open government networks, and build new connections between civil society and government (and even across different parts of government)
  • With social media and a few social reporters, open space events can also become largely self-documenting, and with good facilitation it is possible to include remote participation, using the Internet to make sure anyone with a contribution to make to a topic under discussion can input into the dialogue.
  • Most of all, open space events embody principles of openness, collaboration and innovation – and so are an ideal vehicle for developing a dynamic UK OGP forum.

How could it work in practice?

Well, there’s nothing to stop anyone organising their own Open Government unConference, inviting civil servants and a whole range of other stakeholders, recording the key outcomes of the discussions, and then sending that all to the Cabinet Office team working on the UK’s OGP participation. However, to make open space a core part of the UK OGP process a number of elements may be worth considering. Here’s one sketch of how that could work:

  • In partnership with the OGP team in government, planning a series of quarterly OGP open space events, which central civil servants commit to take part in. These would take place in each of the nations of the United Kingdom, and should have as their core theme the commitments of the UK Action Plan. Events should issue and open invite, and should be designed to ensure maximum diversity of participants from across all sectors.
  • In addition, government, CSOs and other stakeholders should agree to providing sponsorship for thematic OGP open space meetings. Anyone could organise a thematic meeting, providing they apply key principles of inclusiveness, open participation and transparency in the organisation of the events.
  • The OpenGovernment.org.uk site becomes a platform to collate notes from all the discussion sessions, drawing on social media content and notes captured by facilitators and rapporteurs at the events.
  • Each individual open space discussion within the events does not have to reach a consensus on its topic, but would have the option of producing a 1/2 page summary of discussions that can be shared online. Government commit to reading all these notes when reviewing the action plan.
  • Existing open space events (e.g. UKGovCamp) could choose to add an OGP track of discussions, feeding in as any thematic event would.

What about formal representation and accountability? How do decisions get made?

Some of the other ideas for a UK OGP Forum are far more focussed on formal structures and procedures. I don’t reject the value of formal structures where questions of accountability and representation are in play. However, unless actual authority to decide what does into country action plans is shared with an OGP forum, then as a consultative body, a more open model would seem more appropriate.

Established CSOs have existing channels through which they are talking with government. A forum should  help them co-ordinate their asks and offers on open government issues through existing channels, rather than add another narrow channel of communication.

Open processes are not immune from their problems: they can suffer from those who shout loudest being those who are heard most, or from those in power being able to pick and choose which voices they engage with. However, finding ways to deal with these issues in the open is an important challenge and learning journey for us to go on if we truly want to find inclusive models of open governance and open government that work…

A realistic proposal?

I’ve written this outline sketch up as a contribution to the debate on what an OGP forum should look like. Government tendencies to control processes, and manage engagement in neat boxes can be strong. But to an extent open government has to be about challenging that – and as a process that will involve a shared learning journey for both government, civil society and citizens, I hope this does make for a realistic proposal…

Generation Y and Digital Participation: RIGP 2011

[Summary: Notes for a presentation on ‘Generation-Y’ and public services hosted by Institut de la Gestion Publique (Institute for Public Management), delivered on 27th June 2011, Paris]

Below is a copy of the draft I wrote for a round-table discussion starter at today’s ‘Generation-Y and public services’ conference hosted at the Institut de la Gestion Publique in Paris. Whilst most of the conference had explored issues around ‘Generation Y’ as employees in public service (disappointingly without, I must add, any other members of ‘Generation Y’ taking part!), the round table I took part in looked at how government can engage ‘Generation Y’ in policy making. I promised to share this draft, and to add a few links to further resources, which I’ve done below. You can find a write-up of many of the other sessions in Andrew Krzmarzick‘s excellent live-blog on the GovLoop site

Generation Y and Digital Participation: RIGP 2011

“It is a pleasure to be speaking with you at today’s conference.

I get involved in a number of different youth policy related events and activities – and having just turned 26, I often have to check the definition of ‘youth’ being used to see whether I quality as part of the ‘youth caucus’, or whether I’m really there solely as a contributor or facilitator. Fortunately, when people define ‘Generation Y’, the usually pick either 1980 or 1985 as the years when technology started to become ubiquitous. These years are used to pick out the birth of a generation who came of age with the Internet, mobile phones, multi-channel and interactive media all around: so fortunately, with a 1985 birth date, I don’t need to always check whether or not I’m ‘in’ Generation-Y. And yet, defining a generation: drawing a boundary around it and assuming that there is more similarity between children, young people and young adults born over a particular span of years, than there is similarity between certain sections of that group and other age groups; or emphasizing the commonality of the generation over it’s diversity, can be dangerous and misleading.

The digital platforms that particular groups of teenagers or young adults choose to use, and how they choose to use them, will be affected not only by their age, but by their socio-economic status, by the pressing concerns at particular stages of their lives, and by ‘network effects’. As an aside: understanding networks and network effects is really important to understanding contemporary communication. If, for example, the thing that is most important to you right now is communicating with friends, you will choose the communication tools that best allow you to do that. That’s why we saw students adopt Facebook on campus when it first emerged; and why we now have lots of anecdotal accounts of young people in the UK, particularly teenage girls, turning to the Blackberry phone and BBM, Blackberry Messenger, as their communication platform of choice: it offers low-cost instant messaging, with the important advantage that you can control who is on your friends list and retain some privacy – something increasingly important as Facebook has shifted it’s privacy settings to a more public default and become a place where parents are increasingly joining the network.

Even when we understand that Generation-Y is diverse in itself, and that no-one approach will engage a whole generation, we also have to also recognise that communication technologies, whilst often adopted and explored en-masse first by young people, diffuse throughout society over time. New communication technologies create new possibilities for all of us. The pioneers of new approaches to policy making come from all age groups. Just over a week ago I was at Local Gov Camp – a Saturday gathering of committed local government technologists in Birmingham, giving up their own time to talk about digital possibilities for government practice. I looked around the room, and it wasn’t age that defined the community: it was a commitment to improving public services, and an interest in how communication technologies could help us do that.

So, I’m not going to talk much about Generation-Y in what follows. But I will talk about two things: (1) how technology creates new opportunities for public participation in policy making; and (2) how it creates new ways to include young people – not as generation-Y, but as a group who have consistently been excluded from policy making.

Identifying the gap

There is undoubtedly a gap between the way public services communicate, and the way many citizens want to communicate with their government. And that gap has been created, to a significant extend, by communication technologies.

But we can understand that gap in two different ways. Firstly, we could understand it as a channel gap. Government is not communicating through the right channels. It’s still using letters, leaflets, posters and broadcast channels as it’s default mode of communication. Where government is online, which is almost always now is, it creates static websites with limited opportunities for interaction. The channel gap analysis highlights the need for government to be present where citizens are – taking government onto YouTube, to Twitter and to Facebook – providing services on digital TV and mobile phones – and being more dynamic in how government information is presented. However, the gap is not just about the channels through which government communicates. Having a Facebook page isn’t digital government. Digital technology has also created an expectations gap.

The expectations gap is far harder to bridge: but much more important to address than just the channel gap. It involves far deeper organisational and cultural change in the way we do government. What new expectations have we got to meet?

1) An expectation of open information – with the cost of publishing brought near to zero – the expectation is that all content should be available just a search query away. Yet much public sector information remains hard to find. And whilst some areas of the public sector are embracing open data, data on what government is doing remains hard to find. And there is an expectation of personal information too: when I order a product from an online retailer, I can track it’s progress to me – yet when I recently had to order a form from the UK Tax Office which I was promised would be sent out by the next post, I had a frustrating wait of two weeks with no way of checking whether it had been sent and lost in the post, or simply not despatched yet.

2) An expectation of comment research by Consumer Focus found that “UK consumers are leaving well over 100 million comments a year” on the web about services they have received. A chunk of those will be about public services. Consumer Focus also found people are far more likely to trust what other consumers are saying about a service than what the company (or government) are saying. Just about everything on the modern web has a comment feature, or a ‘like’ button, or some way to leave your mark on it or share it with your network. How often is that the case with government spaces?

3) An expectation of interactivity. Getting good information online and making space for citizens to leave comments as feedback, or as peer-support for others, is relatively easy. Meeting expectations of interactivity requires more attention. More than once I’ve posted comments on Twitter mentioning particular companies and problems I’m having with their services, and within minutes I’ve had replies from those companies offering to help solve the problem. The expectation of responsiveness created by instant communication highlights the slow replies I get when I contact my local council, or the even slower replies (if there is any feedback or reply at all) when I engage in a public consultation.

4) An expectation of collaboration. When communication was slow it made sense to to package problems up into processes based on a limited number of communication transactions. I fill in a form or respond to a survey; government thinks about it; maybe a request for more information comes out; I reply; a decision is made. A slow process, and one of interaction rather than collaboration. But when tools like Google Documents hold out the promise of collaborating together instantly on documents and plans; when I realize that I can input better into the policy process by joining online discussions rather than filling in consultation forms; and when digital technologies allow communities to self-organise and take ownership of their own problems, the need is for government able to collaborate through new communication tools, not just use some new channels for old processes.

These are by no means universal expectations. Many of the most excluded in our societies have learnt to expect very little from governments when it comes to participation and policy making – and we must pay attention to managing expectations – both by helping the most demanding to understand (and engage with) the challenges of government, and by working to raise the expectations of the most disadvantaged. However, these expectations, perhaps more common amongst younger demographics who don’t have other expectations to replace them, but expectations found across society, present challenges for governments to meet.

A mix of approaches – engaging children and young people

I want to turn now to look at a number of quick case studies of online engagement, and to talk about how they offer opportunities to challenge age-discrimination by involving young people in decision making. When I talk about young people I’m interested not only in young adult employees, but also children and teenagers. I believe that children, young people and young adults are all key stakeholders in policy-making and should have say in decisions that affect them, and affect society as a whole. I also believe children, young people and young adults all bring particular contributions to policy making and are an asset to be drawn upon.

I’ve got three brief case studies: one of individual engagement; one of policy opened up for comment; and one of collaborative policy discussions.

Firstly, three years ago I was working with youth workers (I think the French term for this group of professionals may be ‘social pedagogue’) who wanted to involve excluded teenagers in decision making. They found that, with young people living across a wide geographical area, it was expensive to get groups together to talk about issues face-to-face: and the inconsistency of the groups who could get together at meetings made developing conversations difficult. Based on feedback from young people, they started to explore using social network sites like Facebook as a low-cost tool for holding discussions and engaging (PDF). It involved the youth workers switching to a new channel to engage with young people, and to support them to identify how to get their views into the policy process. Some of that work feeding into the policy process still involved writing reports and making presentations – but it was facilitated online. But more than a new channel, it involved youth workers finding new ways of working and developing their skills and working practices in order to operate in a new environment: checking in regularly with young people. The choice of Facebook worked because the workers understood it was a space based on relationships. There are many different ways to be present in Facebook, from using it as a broadcast channel, through to engaging in participative conversations. The workers had to identify the right approaches for their participation project. (Useful links: See www.youthworkonline.org.uk for a wealth of sharing learning around youth work engagement with digital communication. See also other posts here on ‘Youth Work 2.0’)

Secondly, and this was specifically mentioned in some of the conference literature, the UK Government has experimented with a number of initiatives to get citizens to comment directly during the policy making process. These started at least under the last government, with some great projects exploring ways of publishing draft government reports for paragraph-by-paragraph commenting. One of the high-profile initiatives of the current government though was to ‘crowd-source’ ideas for public spending cuts in an initiative called the Spending Challenge. Citizens were asked to submit proposals for areas where the government could save money. Submissions were published online, and visitors to the site could vote for those proposals they thought most interesting. Whether or not the initiative was a success depends on who you talk to. Whilst some have objected that many of the comments were abusive, racist or otherwise offensive, it had 1000s of serious submissions, and similar exercises have been tried with suggesting laws to be removed, and a currently regulation-focussed exercise, the ‘Red Tape Challenge’, is ongoing. The team behind the initiative also worked hard to turn it from commenting into conversation – posting regular blog posts updates highlighting the way they were analyzing the input, and what themes they were identifying to take forward into future discussions. (Useful links: See this page for a government analysis of the initiative outcomes and costs; and these posts from delib who built the platform. For examples of different approaches to comment-able policy documents, see the community run WriteToReply, or the Read and Comment platform increasingly used by government departments, and initially developed based on pilot projects within the civil service)

My own experiences of an earlier, similar project*, inviting comments on the coalition agreement, also highlighted some very positive interactive government when I noticed that the terms and conditions prohibited anyone under 18 commenting on the site without parental consent. Under 18s can join the army, have sex, drive a car, pay tax – and many other things, without parents consent – so to need parental consent before you can engage in public policy making seemed wrong. I wrote a brief blog post to that effect. And very soon after the Central Office of Information, who were responsible for the terms and conditions, got in touch asking for more details of why the should, and how they could, update them. As I understand, through a brief collaboration, started on a blog and by Twitter, and continued by e-mail and phone-calls, this ‘accidental’ exclusion of young people through the selection of terms of conditions was removed, and the default terms and conditions for future projects updated.

More work is still needed to make sure the language of initiatives like the spending challenge is accessible to young people, and to equip intermediaries to support young people to engage with them, but at the very least removing artificial barriers to young peoples’ involvement is important.

Thirdly, I want to mention two recent experiences using collaborative online documents in policy-focussed discussions with teenagers and young adults. With the Dynamic Youth Coalition at the Internet Governance Forum in Vilnius last year, and the Youth Forum of the Commonwealth Local Government Forum in Cardiff this year, we’ve used online documents allowing anyone present at the event (or participating from home online) to collaboratively draft the outcome statements. Everyone was editing the same text from their own laptops – and common power dynamics that mean those with the loudest voices shape the text most of all – were challenged. To often in participation processes we find authorities gate-keep the shaping of the policy itself – preferring to ask people for their views, and then go away and remain in control of final texts and documents. Yet with digital technology the chance for real collaborative drafting arises – and in some contexts has a lot to offer.

Of course, these different approaches introduce their own power dynamics – but they also offer great opportunities for improved participation.

If I had longer I would sketch out for you how different digital approaches to participation can fit together – offering young people a range of choices about how to get involved in civic life, and creating a ‘pathway of participation’ that allows both broad and deep engagement through digital media. But for now I will close with some very brief remarks on moving from where we are now to being ready for this digital world.

Addressing the barriers

When your analysis is based on the idea of a channel gap, it’s natural to think the solution lies in investment in new platforms or channels for communication. The real investment needs to be in culture change and skills. I’ve been asked before what is the biggest barrier to government engaging with ‘generation Y’, and I’ve not been able to point to one big barrier. Rather, there are 100s of small ones. Some are technical: for example, if you can’t get a picture of yourself loaded from a digital camera onto your office computer, you can’t have a picture next to your online profile, and that changes the nature of engagement you will have in an online forum. Others are organisational: it takes too long to get sign off to be able to hold a digital conversation. Others are cultural: a fear of failure, when being allowed to, in safe circumstances, fail and learn from failure is a key part of collaborative conversation.

If there has been one big omission however, by the advocates, of all ages, calling for us to take advantage of digital technologies to improve government, it is that they have neglected established models of organizational change and have assumed that others will simply follow their lead. Connecting digital possibilities, with established processes and strategies for managing change: ensuring all of government is able to engage with new tools and ways of working; and making sure citizens and civil servants in all generations can understand this as an opportunity, not a threat; is one of our biggest challenges.”

 

(*Note, in the talk I incorrectly suggested that the conversation around T&Cs took place in relation to the spending challenge. In reviewing blog posts I’ve realised I was incorrect on that assertion).

Blended services: bringing digital and face-to-face together

[Summary: Instead of funding new ‘online’ services, what happens when we fund ‘blended’ services: can we get realistic cost-savings, and enhanced provision – rather than inefficient pseudo-savings and restricted services]

Each face-to-face contact in the delivery of service is expensive. On online contact can be a lot cheaper. Plus, quite a lot of service users are asking to be able to access services online. It might be a support group for carers; careers advice for young people; mentoring and counseling, or any number of other services that I could be talking about. I’ve seen a number of cases where services take note of the above, and quickly decide that what they need is an online service. Perhaps to replace their current provision, or perhaps as a pilot in addition to it. But generally as a distinct service from existing offerings, and more often than not, with plans to build some new platform for delivering their online service – with a very linear process of consult->build->use.

But, as some of the presentations and discussions at today’s imh2011 (internet & mental health) workshop suggested, that doesn’t really make much sense.

Firstly, evidence was presented from trials of online Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Broadly – it was only with a blend of online self-service CBT, and continued direct meetings with practitioners – that positive outcomes, equivalent to those from existing face-to-face services were maintained. Comparing the £50 per-contact cost of a face-to-face session, with the £5 cost of an online intervention, and supposing online offers a £45 saving* only makes sense if the two lead to equivalent outcomes. If what’s really needed is £25 worth of practitioner time, and £5 worth of online provision, including online in the mix can still lead to savings, and significant savings: but it’s important to have a realistic sense of what the savings can be.

Secondly, the challenge with delivering online services is widely acknowledged to be not so much to do with having the right tools, as with having skills and organisational culture to be able to work in new digital ways. So spending all the budget on building an online platform (and expecting that a £5k, £10k or £20k budget is going to deliver a platform to rival existing off-the-shelf offerings that have had £millions invested in them) doesn’t seem the most worthwhile investment. Investing time instead in exploring different ways that a service should communicate digitally – iteratively negotiating different platforms to find those that work for service users and staff – makes a lot more sense.

(There was some, in my opinion, unhelpful talk in a few presentations and workshops about ‘digital natives’ and presentation of statistics on particular technology platforms with the largest market penetration (SMS; Mobiles; Social Networks), with the implicit or explicit suggestion that, as these were the widest used platforms, these were the ones which services should be adopting as digital service-delivery channels. It’s far too easy to gloss over the subtleties of how different communication tools work in practice: and to miss the dynamics that mean how a tool works will change as different network effects kick in. Even if the majority of service users say they want access to services via mobile phone for example, it’s only when you pilot and take an ethnographic or grounded approach to researching how your service works over SMS or smart-phone channels that both you and service users can come to understand whether such a service really makes sense and will have enough uptake to justify more investment. And even then, chances are that changes in the market (e.g. when low-cost data plans on mobile become available to young people), the structure of the network (e.g. when parents started joining Facebook), or innovations (e.g. when the next platform comes along…) mean that you’ll need to take your service to new spaces within the next few years at most. The notion of ‘digital natives’ is particularly unhelpful when trying to understand how young people and adults with complex needs and different life-experiences use, adopts and appropriate technology. Finding low-cost experiments that can help staff teams and service users explore different potential communication tools (why not try holding a planning meeting via skype? take notes on an etherpad? or even try a field-trip to a virtual world or other online community?) and then reflect on their various merits may prove much more valuable than many meetings spent discussing statistics on popular platforms or drawing up specifications to build new platforms).

Thirdly, the culture change needed to engage effectively with digital service provision – a culture change involving being more agile in moving from platform-to-platform – needs to apply to ‘offline’ services as well. If you’re running an online support group, and it becomes apparent that members would find a face-to-face meeting useful too, can you easily find meeting space and resources to help that happen? Rather than booking rooms and times for regular sessions, and then worrying about making sure there are always people there: are there some groups who would prefer online engagement, with the option to organise face-to-face meetings on-demand – perhaps even choosing the coffee shop over the community centre as the meeting place. If the available budget is more transparent to service users, how can they negotiate the balance of how much of it gets spent on digital services, and how much is spent on enabling other provision? Some ‘blended services’ (blending online and offline) might be predominantly face-to-face, enhanced by a bit of online interaction (as simple as using Doodle.com to arrange meeting times, or Facebook to remind people about sessions); some ‘blended services’ might be predominantly digital enhanced by the occasional face-to-face meet up or service. Some blended services could turn out to have no face-to-face at all, but retaining it as an option.

Of course there are big challenges transforming services to work in these ways – but if the alternative is either seeing more services set up ‘online-only’ side-projects based on false cost-saving or demand assumptions, or seeing services fail to take advantage of opportunities to enhance practice, and find reasonable efficiencies through delivering some of what they do in digital ways – then the challenge is, I think, worth engaging with.

So, this post rather unexpectedly seems to have got me to three draft principles of blended provision:

  • Identify realistic cost-savings from going digital if you budget for a mix of online and face-to-face
  • Invest in skills, understanding and iterative development rather than platforms
  • Allow services to be agile in how the mix digital and face-to-face provision; engage service users in setting the balance.

What do you reckon?

(*Figures are illustrative only.)