Hackney Council are becoming renowned for their digital efforts; from winning best council of the past 20 years at the 2016 LGC Awards, to launching their online blog in 2017, the council has been experiencing great digital transformation. As part of that, they have been using Citizen Space for a number of years to run their online consultations. I recently got to chat with Florence Obinna, Consultation Manager, about how Citizen Space has helped them to reach more people and increase efficiency in their work…

KO: I was looking at the Hackney Council blog, how Hackney Council is doing so much around digital transformation and putting things online, which is really great. What did you guys use for consultation before Citizen Space?

FO: Before we used Citizen Space, we used a platform called Consultation Finder which was really was just a repository for all our online consultations. But what was really lacking with that platform is that we didn’t have survey software aligned to it. All we really did with it was upload our online consultations, linking up to Survey Monkey. The two weren’t combined, and what we really wanted was an integrated platform that has the analysis, data collection, and survey design as well. That’s why we really liked Citizen Space.

KO: Of course, it can be tricky if you’re a participant, to go on to one website, and then get sent somewhere else; for it to be all broken up like that. With Citizen Space it’s not as many steps and I imagine the ability to brand it up to look like your own website must help too?

FO: Exactly. I think historically Consultation Finder was a particular platform that quite a lot of local authorities seemed to be using, and it really wasn’t fit for purpose the way we were using it. A lot more is online now, whereas 10/15 years ago you didn’t have that – most of the consultations were very traditional, sent out via paper copies to households. So, how people respond and engage has changed, and we needed something that could keep up with current digital trends. From a user point of view it has to be something that’s very easy to use. I think we were losing quite a lot of people from having so many click through steps. I think that was really affecting response rates.

On GDPR compliance

FO: What I really like about Citizen Space is that everybody has those individual logins, and you can pretty much lock it down to individual access, or departmental access, and then admin access. People only view what’s relevant to them; from a data protection point of view, that’s really great. I remember when I had just joined the council, I was involved in a really controversial consultation on the night time economy, a big thing in an area like Hackney: there was a time we had something close to 2,000 responses in a period of weeks and that was one of my first major consultations to analyse. I remember waking up in the middle of the night, about 12 o’clock, one Saturday, in a cold sweat, and I just had this dream (or nightmare) that somebody had gone onto the survey platform, and deleted all the responses. I genuinely logged on, in the middle of the night, and changed the password.

KO: Yes, because if someone in another team saw it and thought ‘oh that’s not important, I’ll just get rid of that’ that would be a real issue for you?

FO: Yes. And I just panicked. And I thought that’s it, this has to change. This is the moment. How would I explain to people that 2000 responses had disappeared?! All these things that consultation engagement managers have to worry about! I think for me, I just knew then that we need something that’s fit for purpose.

KO: So I imagine the different admin levels on Citizen Space work really well in that case?

FO: Yes, that works brilliantly. Knowing that we’re able to actually see what different service areas are working on is great. Within my role I manage the consultation engagement team, and I’ve got key officers that have responsibility across different areas in the council. We work with service areas to scope and develop the consultations and ensure that we’ve trained up all key officers so they can upload consultations themselves. We hold the rights to publish all consultations as administrators so that we can check and approve all consultations before they are live. That has really helped us with forward planning in that no online consultation can go live without us having sight of it first. It’s been adopted as a corporate platform and nobody is allowed to use anything else meaning that we’ll always have sight of everything that goes out which really helps from a reputational point of view, as well as in terms of coordinating consultations. It gives us a good awareness of what’s going on corporately, rather than people working within silos. Having the different levels of access, from a security and data protection standpoint, was a really big positive for us.

KO: Did you notice an uptake in participation when you started using Citizen Space? Did you have any way of measuring that?

FO: I’d say we did; there’s a more concerted effort to make sure that everything we have in a traditional format is online as well. We have to ensure that people have the choice to respond online. Having trained people in different service areas using the platform means that we have a lot more going on there. I’d say we’ve definitely had an increased number of responses, compared to before. It helps that we are able to track that, whereas previously we couldn’t, or if we could it was more of a laborious process. Citizen Space has given us more of an evaluation tool and we’ve been able to see where the responses have changed over several years on, for example, three different licensing consultations. That sort of thing was difficult to do before. It’s all in one place and you don’t have to jump between different platforms.

KO: How does Citizen Space fit into Hackney’s wider digital strategy? I’ve seen that the council is very public and proud about the fact it is putting lots of stuff online. Does Citizen Space fit in with that?

FO: Yes. One of the things that we have to ensure that we’re doing is giving people the option to decide how they want to respond to consultations. Some people will still want the traditional means of a response, and that’s available to them. I think in the age of being really transparent, and having stuff that’s there, almost as a repository as well, it works really well. People can check what was happening three years ago, which could then influence their response to something that we’re consulting on in future. We want to ensure that all that information is there and accessible for residents which fits in really well with the council’s digital strategy.

KO: And putting stuff online isn’t taking away from the people who don’t want to go online, it’s just additional to the more traditional offline efforts.

FO: Yes, exactly. With consultation and engagement, we always make sure that we’re providing different ways for people to get involved. We don’t try and shoehorn people into ‘this is what you should be doing.’ And for those who are time-poor and might not necessarily have lots of opportunity to complete an offline consultation, put it in an envelope, get it to the post box, all the effort that comes with that, we have to ensure that it’s online and available to submit there and then.

KO: How has Citizen Space been adopted internally? You’ve been using it for a while now, is it properly embedded now?

FO: Yes. It has embedded really well. We initially had a training course with Louise [Delib Delivery Director] where I invited all members of my team, as well as key people across the council; people that work in parking services, people that work within our public realm (making changes to the roads, speed humps, junctions). We ensured that the people who carry out a lot of consultations were trained up and that we had key advocates within the departments who would be uploading everything for service areas. Having a key admin person who would be the specialist, or ‘super user’ for Citizen Space who could then train up others if need. It saved my team from spending a lot of time doing admin, particularly with parking; they’re running hundreds of consultations a year, resource-wise we would struggle to manage that. Training those key people really helped.

In terms of the promotion of Citizen Space, we did quite a lot of using our internal engagement channels. We have a weekly e-newsletter called Staff Headlines, and made sure we had information in that. I gave a period of about two or three months, to make sure that people weren’t using the old platform. Of course if something was live, we had to allow for that and give time for them to close the consultation, because we didn’t want to change it mid-consultation. It allowed that time to adapt. I think people like the fact that they go to one platform and everything is done there, they see the benefit of that. That has been really positive; everyone is using the same thing, so everyone understands how it works. And the admin side of Citizen Space is really simple to use, once you know how to.

KO: Having those few months of training must have helped, and having Louise there to train you and those key people up? Once you’ve got that, it’s done, and you can all just carry on using it.

FO: Exactly. And it’s quite intuitive as well. And one thing we always say is ultimately you cannot break it. That’s one thing you have to think about. We made it so that individuals can’t publish without certain admin rights, which makes it easier for people to use without worrying they’ll get it wrong. We said ‘whatever you do, we’re going to check it; we’d rather you’re confident in using it.’ We’re better able to impart some of that survey design knowledge and recognise which service areas need the additional support, through having that final checkpoint before things are published.

I think at the moment it has worked quite well, and I think a lot of it is down to training. It really helps us in terms of seeing the issues service areas are consulting on and being able to challenge and question, and really be that critical friend.

KO: Citizen Space is accessible – is that quite important for you guys?

FO: Yes. I think that’s really, really important. Like anything else, we want to ensure that any of our consultations are easy for people to respond to, irrespective of what their key challenges are. We don’t want the case to be that certain people can’t take part because things are too complicated. If it’s something that’s really easy to click through it means more people can participate so accessibility is very important for us.

KO: Is the feedback you get from surveys then used directly to impact decision making? What’s the process, once a consultation is closed?

FO: Yes definitely. The data comes back through and we can then work with it and use Citizen Space to do the analysis. Once that’s done, a report is written and there’s a process where we work with the service area just to see, as a result of this feedback, how are you reflecting the results in your decision-making process? And a lot of that is ensuring that the report is well written, that actually it’s a true reflection of the feedback that has come back from residents.

Obviously, we’re a political organisation and it’s our responsibility to ensure that elected members are fully aware of what the consultation report and consultation data says, so that when they make a decision they’re aware of what residents want.

KO: And responses gathered on Citizen Space are genuinely feeding into that?

FO: Exactly. One of the things that can be a challenge at times, for residents and commuters within the borough, is the fact that our consultations aren’t referendums. I think sometimes people respond to a consultation, and might not necessarily want something that has been proposed near their home, or in their local park but elected members have to make that decision, because it’s for the better good. Sometimes it’s a case of saying ‘yes you’ve told us this, but the risk assessment tells us this’, or ‘the additional evidence in terms of air pollution tells us this.’ Our role is to ensure that they’re fully aware of what the resident voice says, and when they make that decision, that’s taken into account. It might not necessarily be the decision the resident wants, but it has been listened to.

KO: Is the fact that it’s available on different devices (mobile, tablet) a positive?

FO: Absolutely, we just want to make it as easy as possible for the respondent. I know I use my phone a lot to respond to my local authority, because I live about an hour and a half away from here, so I spend a lot of time on the train. I have my work iPad that I take everywhere, and then use my phone too. I will respond to a lot of local consultations online, because I can do that within that time. So I think for people that are time-poor, being able to respond on different devices is incredibly important.

KO: Well thanks for your time Florence, any other shout outs?

FO: Definitely to Louise and her team. The level of support we get with Citizen Space is amazing. Knowing that I can always speak to someone on the phone quickly if anything comes up is great and really puts us at ease. And the face-to-face meetings too are great, it’s always nice when you can put a face to a name.

If you’d like to hear more about Citizen Space or see it in action, get in touch.