This is the first of a 3-part series in which I speak to David Porteous, Strategy Manager at Edinburgh City Council, on their use of Delib’s digital engagement tools. 

b&w portrait of david porteous, strategy & insight manager at edinburgh city council
David Porteous, Strategy & Insight Manager, Edinburgh City Council

Between 2014 and the present, Edinburgh City Council have, at some point or another, used all three of the tools that Delib offers. They initially procured Citizen Space and Simulator, and have used Dialogue twice since then, as well as using Simulator twice more. Their use of Citizen Space has remained a steady constant throughout.

In this part, we talk about Edinburgh’s use of Simulator and how it’s helped them tackle some very specific issues surrounding the very general topic of engagement.

“When we started thinking about a Budget Simulator we were starting to understand – and this is still the case – that the average person does not know anything about how a local authority spends money. Even in terms of understanding the scope of services. We found that people don’t necessarily know that their local authority provides schools, for example. They don’t necessarily know that their local authority provides libraries, or care services, so there’s a kind of blurring together in public understanding of national government, the NHS, and lots of other things. And they certainly have no idea how much each of these things costs. 

“Being able to articulate that is an ongoing problem, I think, for democracy. Simulator worked on two levels: it allowed people to see what that amount of money was relative to all other services, and then it allowed them to vary that and get feedback from it immediately. Seeing that they can change that amount, and then get feedback on what their change actually means for that service. Having a solution that works on both levels is incredibly important.”

screenshot of edinburgh city council's budget simulator
Edinburgh’s four-year Budget Simulator

Public understanding of authority can be a touchy subject, especially working in a sector that seeks to improve the process of public engagement with authority. It can feel counterintuitive to say that the public don’t know all the ins and outs of services that affect them when asking for their opinion on those same services. But at the end of the day, it’s the same with anything: unless you’re directly involved with, or work in, a complex system, chances are you’re not going to know much about it. I, for example, haven’t the foggiest understanding of many of the processes involved with developing Delib’s tools, even though it’s an open plan office and our developers sit literally 10 feet away from me. I can, of course, tell you how site administrators and the public interact with them, and it’s the same with public services: people interact with the public-facing side of their libraries, their care services, their bin collections. A lot of the time, they don’t know much about the systems that create or provide those services because there is no need to.

Simulator worked on two levels: it allowed people to see what that amount of money was relative to all other services, and then it allowed them to vary that and get feedback from it immediately… Having a solution that works on both levels is incredibly important.”

Which is why, when asking for public opinion, it’s essential to do so in a way that educates as well as engages.

“Frankly – and I’m not by any means recommending this, merely saying – you could take a million pounds out of primary school education in Edinburgh, and would anyone notice [what effect it had on the school service]? The answer is probably not,” David says. Edinburgh Council’s spending on education services is projected to be more than £380m in 2019/20. “But it’s very emotive – it’s a big figure, and it’s a really important service. If you took a million pounds out of trading standards in Edinburgh, people would think, ‘well, how important is trading standards?’ but that’s a third of their budget, and that would be incredibly impactful on their service. Having a mechanism that allows people to compare in some way between those two very different types of services is important.”

So Edinburgh Council was using Simulator as an educational tool as much as an engagement tool?

“Communication and engagement, I would say. It’s both us being able to broadcast and raise awareness of [how council budgets work], and get feedback from people of what their priorities are. And that’s actually the feedback that we got, that a lot of people were specifically saying that they were surprised by how much different things cost; they’d no idea what scale of savings were necessary and what the impact would be on services.”

On the whole – and more on this in part two of this series – Edinburgh City Council are very proactive and responsive to citizen feedback. An excellent example of this is the most recent time they used Simulator to engage with the public on their budget, which was in 2018. Rather than running a Simulator asking for priorities on a one-year budget, they asked citizens to plan for four years’ worth of savings.

“Most recently, the four-year [budget] was our initial target, so that would’ve been something like £105m worth of savings from a budget which people could influence, which is about £700m. That’s a big ask, first of all, and we set restrictions on it so that people couldn’t reduce any individual service by more than 20%, and couldn’t increase a service by more than 10%. And that’s where we got the feedback that, within those restrictions, that’s too difficult…We got so much negative feedback at the difficulty, that we basically just said ‘we’ll set a one-year target for you instead, see how you go with that’. And we got a much better response.” 

screenshot of edinburgh city council's four-year budget simulator, online engagement tool
Edinburgh’s four-year Budget Simulator

Simulator is a tool that’s inherently flexible. During the process of participation, respondents can add feedback and comments at any stage. So when Edinburgh City Council saw that they were getting feedback that the task they’d set their citizens was too difficult, they were able to go back in and relax the submission requirements without having to take the whole thing offline and start again.

“Because we’d applied a fixed target from the beginning – you had to clear that 4-year target to be able to submit your budget – we then relaxed that and said as long as you make at least one year’s worth of savings, so at least £25m, something like that, then we’ll allow you to submit any amount. We then got people who submitted at various different levels – one year, two years, three years, and even the four years after that. Giving people a little bit more flexibility in there allowed them to make it still a reasonably engaging, and… ‘fun’ is not quite the word for it, but you understand that there’s positive feedback and there’s a puzzle that people are solving, so there are the game elements which were present, which we’d kind of eradicated by making it a four-year thing.”

Citizens’ responses were, of course, carefully considered and factored into the final Council’s budget plan; in a general sense, they were found to align with the Council’s own plans and priorities. 

David and the engagement team ran other consultation activity alongside the Simulator, including in-person sessions. A takeaway from all of the different activities, as outlined in the final report, was that participants were “often surprised and sometimes dismayed” at the difficult decisions councillors had to make. So while having to make millions of pounds of savings will never be an easy decision to implement, exercises like Simulator show that involving the public in these complex decisions can shift the narrative away from resentment to one of more mutual understanding.

This piece forms part of a longer conversation I had with David – see below links to read parts two and three. To find out more about Simulator, you can read this post here and check out the Aggregator, which lists open and closed Simulators. Or, you can jump right in and book a free demo.

Read part two: Public participation and the policy cycle

Read part three: Great expectations: how Citizen Space stood the test of time for Edinburgh

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