Search This Blog


Thursday, 20 October 2016

95. Five more public engagement ideas for scrutiny from the National Assembly for Wales

photo credit

Here are some more great ideas that I have picked up from the National Assembly for Wales.  Thanks to the fantastic Kevin Davies for sharing these in what was a sort of unofficial fringe event we had just before GovCampCymru (by the way, big thanks to all at Satori Lab who made govcampcymru possible and to all the sponsors and supporters and to Ben and Lou from Delib who really know their public engagement stuff).

Our scrutiny team have spent time with the Assembly before talking about public engagement.  You can read about that here.

Anyhow, here are five ideas for engaging the public that scrutiny can borrow from the National Assembly.

1.  Support your scrutiny connectors

I have already blogged about this in more detail here.
Essentially the idea is that scrutiny committees could do more to support and reward the wide range of people who help them to gather evidence.  Recognition, information and networking opportunities are all simple things that could be done to strengthen the double doughnut of democracy.

2.  Involve the public in inquiry planning

Planning in depth inquiries tends to be done in house.  But why not invite the public in to co-design inquiries?  Perhaps a workshop involving some of the people most affected by the issue in question?  This should help scrutiny councillors get some really good insights about who they need to talk to and how.

3.  Delegate parts of an inquiry

One interesting suggestion was that some evidence gathering could be delegated.  This might mean asking one committee member to take responsibility for an aspect of an inquiry and report back.  It might even mean asking a interested co-optee to do something like this – a kind of special agent for scrutiny.

4.  Facebook Live

The Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee of the National Assembly for Wales used facebook live as part of asking the public what topics they should be looking at and it worked really well.  Of course it helps if you have an active facebook page that you can add this to but most councils have that right?

5.  Give the public a shortlist of topics to choose from

The other neat thing that the Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee did as part of their public engagement was ask the public to pick from one of five topics that the committee had come up with.  Typically, I think, scrutiny tends to ask people an open question about what they would like scrutiny to look at and it can be difficult for people to follow what the outcome was.  This way is much cleaner I think and has a very straightforward outcome – the most popular topic gets scrutinised!

It also got some interest from the media - as you can see here.

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

94. Support your scrutiny connectors

Scrutiny committees at the national and the local level depend on a wide range of people when gathering evidence.  Most of the time people contribute for free but should we do more to support, recognise and reward them?  This was a question asked by Kevin Davies for The Welsh Assembly Outreach Team before and after Govcampcymru.  Having reflected on Kevin's ideas as well as some handy input from Ben and Lou from Delib here are some suggestions about how we might build this into practice.

This (of course!) links back to the Double Doughnut of democracy idea I raised a couple of years ago (after Govcampcymru as well as it happens).  The key point being that government is not great at engaging directly and needs others to help it share and get feedback.

Currently engagement tends to take place on an issue by issue basis but wouldn't it be better to think about the people that contribute to scrutiny work as single group that we work in partnership with?

Of course this is a diverse group and includes:

  1. Communicators such as journalists, community reports and bloggers
  2. Citizens who want to share their views and opinions about the issues that affect them
  3. Service users who can share their experiences
  4. Representers who speak for a particular group, campaign or issue
  5. Experts such as academics or leading practitioners

It's not easy coming up with a name for this disparate group (sharers? friends of? co-optees? partners? associates? engagers? nodes?!?) but I'm going to suggest 'connectors' as a starting point - people willing to connect with scrutiny and people who can connect scrutiny to others that they might not otherwise easily reach.

The idea of the 'connector' also preserves the independence of those who engage - after all they are not working for scrutiny but working with scrutiny - they need to be able to be critical when they need to be.

Here are some ideas of how the connectors can be better supported:

Recognition: Does the committee do enough to thank the connectors? How could their contribution be  better publicised?  How about inviting the connectors to a thank you event at the end of the year?  A letter of thanks? Some other token? Are they mentioned in annual report? Did you tell them?

Information:  Connectors thrive on being 'in the know' - do you ensure they have access to the information that they need?  A special email for connectors? Press releases?

Networks:  Having contacts is useful for connectors - committee members and officers can be useful contacts and this can be offered in an informal way - "let us know if we can help you with anything and we will if we can".  Events for connectors can also give them the opportunity to network with each other and this might also strengthen civic society around scrutiny.

I don't think this needs to be too formal but doing more for those that volunteer their time should be a win win for scrutiny and those who get involved.  It might also just strengthen citizenship and democracy.

Friday, 16 September 2016

93. Design government and democracy around citizens not services

Photo credit

OK, so this is the pitch I am thinking about for govcampcymru. It's taking place on the 24 September in Cardiff.

What might government and democracy in Wales look like if we designed around what people need as citizens rather than what they need as service users?

There is a big reform agenda around local government in Wales at the moment.  One map has been scrapped and we wait to see what the next proposal will be.

The driving force for change is efficiency and reductions in funding for public services - but I'm wondering what if we designed democracy and government institutions around the needs of citizens rather than services?

Would things be very different? Or not?

Do we actually have a clear idea of what citizens actually need? Do we have ways of finding out? Have we ever really tried?

As I have argued before, designing for citizens if different to designing for customers.  Citizens are users sure, but they use 'democracy services' (elections, consultations, representatives etc etc) and have rights rather than customer needs.

It's also quite hard to think about this without thinking about the 'solutions' that already exist such as local councils, elections and MPs.

So, how should we capture citizen needs? How should we find out what they are?

In my session I want to start with the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

It includes three rights particularly relevant to citizenship:

  • Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. (Article 19)
  • Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association. (Article 20.1)
  • Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives. (Article 21.1)

This leads to three questions we can ask about what government for citizens in Wales might look like:

What do citizens need so they can share their opinions with other people?

What do citizens need so they can work with other people to bring about change?

What do citizens need so they can take part in decision making?

And those are the questions I'm planning to ask.

Make sense?

Friday, 1 July 2016

92. Design experiments for local democracy

Photo credit

The notwestminster work we have been doing is seriously great and the folks involved have achieved a lot.  There have been two brilliant events, many ideas generated and lots of new connections made.  From the stuff done so far we have settled on a set of local democracy design challenges to work on - a list of things we want to change.

While this is all good, the next step is to do something practical; to make some stuff.  We had a brilliant Maker Day in February but we need to take it up a notch.

The method I'm suggesting is design experiments.  Here are some notes and first thoughts.

Design Experiments

Recently I have been reading ‘Nudge, Nudge, Think, Think’ by Peter John and others.  A fascinating book - you should read it!  It’s primarily about techniques to encourage behaviour change (e.g. nudge, think) in areas of civic concern such as recycling or volunteering.  It is also about how you test and develop innovations in public service settings.  Specifically it looks at how randomised control trials and design experiments can be used to explore new ways of engaging with citizens.

Stoker and John describe a design experiment like this:
‘…researchers work with practitioners over a period of time to design, implement, evaluate, and redesign an innovative intervention. The group receiving treatment is compared to a comparison group. The aim is to perfect the intervention over several iterative cycles until it is the best it can be [1].
One example in the book is of a video being used to get the voices of the ‘seldom heard’ into the debates at a council's area committee meetings.  The research team asked local practitioners to produce a video that was then shown to different area committees.  Observations at each meeting led to changes to the video and, at the end of the experiment, conclusions were reached about the effectiveness of the approach and how it could be made more effective in future (turns out that the context of the meeting was as important as the video itself).

Along similar lines are some of the experiments being done by Nick Taylor.  See this simple voting machine to encourage community engagement, for example.  Again, a small intervention designed to test the idea that lowering the bar to access improves community consultations (it does).

The design experiment method comes from education where classrooms - a relatively controllable environment - serve as laboratories for experiments.

In the same way the formal process of local democracy in local councils can provide a great laboratory for democracy experiments.  It is a relatively stable and controllable environment and, where you have multiple meetings of the same type, it can support comparisons between interventions and non-interventions.

Design experiments of this type can only tell us what works (or doesn't work) in a particular context and it is important to recognise this limitation. What they can provide, however, is the starting point for experiments on a wider scale in in different settings that might point to more general conclusions.


I think there are some real advantages to using design experiments to take forward the #notwestminster design challenges.

1.  It is a manageable approach  
Of course councils don’t have extra resources to dedicate to this type of work but, given that the experiments would be small and hopefully fit with local work that might have been done anyway, I think design experiments are a reasonable proposition.

2.  It will test our assumptions
In our design challenges we have a number of assumptions about how people will behave if different aspects of local democracy are redesigned (people would be better informed if we did this…, people would get more involved if we did that…).  Wouldn't it be great to have some evidence to back this up?  Design experiments, if done robustly, could provide evidence to support our assumptions (or force us to think again).

3.  We can make the most of our network
One of the things I love about Notwestminster is the way it brings together councillors, practitioners, academics, techies and citizens.  Design experiments are a great was to bring people together in small teams to make something new.  We can also share experiments in progress across the network getting valuable input as we go along.

4.  It will give us something to share
By reporting experiments and their outcomes we can contribute to a growing body of knowledge about civic innovations that will be of use to practitioners and researchers alike.  What’s not to like about that?

5.  We can make something worthwhile
Last, but not least, wouldn't it be great to actually make something that makes a difference to a local council and its citizens?  Wouldn't it?


In developing the method and approach there are also some challenges to be overcome.  Sarah Cotterill and Liz Richardson [3] have highlighted some of these as they relate to working with local government and a couple are particularly relevant here:

1.  Measuring the difference
If we are serious about research we need to be clear about what ‘outcome measures’ will tell us what we need to know.  Ideally we will want ‘objective’ measures (e.g. voter turnout) but sometimes we will need to rely on people’s perceptions.  The classic concerns about validity and reliability apply.

2.  Mixed methods
If we want a rich picture about what is happening around a particular experiment we will need to invest in a range of sources of evidence.  What research techniques should be used? Do we need a 'tool kit'?

3.  Organisational commitment
Cotterill and Richardson point to organisational difficulties as a reason why many experiments in local government fail.  How can we ensure that experiments won’t get neglected when other pressures and priorities come into play?

Design experiments also require a different way of working and participants need to be clear about that at the start.  As John et al suggest:
'Design experiments favour small-scale innovation, in a relatively controlled environment, where the dialogue can take place with a small range of policy-makers and workers, all of whom have signed up to a new way of doing business and to intense researcher-practitioner interactions.' [2] 
But what should this commitment look like and how can we make sure that it sticks?

4.  Good governance
Design experiments in councils would be managed by ‘design teams’ involving councillors, practitioners, researchers, practice advisors and others.  Being clear about roles and how decisions are made will be important – but how should this look exactly? How should the different experiments be linked together and managed as a whole (if at all)?

So, some initial thoughts.  Let’s see what can be done with them.

[1] Stoker, G and John, P (2008) Design Experiments: Engaging Policy Makers in the Search for Evidence about What Works, Political Studies, Vol 57 (2).
[2] John, P et al (2013) Nudge, Nudge, Think, Think, Experimenting with Ways to Change Civic Behaviour, Bloomsbury, London.
[3]  Cotterill, S and Richardson, L (2010) Expanding the Use of Experiments on Civic Behavior: Experiments with Local Government as a Research Partner, the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol 628