On Friday 18th January, some of the Delib team headed to sunny London for our first user group of the year, held at Southwark Council’s office, a stone’s throw away from the Thames. A brilliant location set the tone for a brilliant day with lots of our lovely customers coming along to chat about their online consultations.

Each user group presents a great chance for people to share best practice, ideas and concerns around the work they are doing in community engagement and working with citizens. Our hosts, Southwark Council, introduced the day noting that they have been using Citizen Space since 2015 and it has become an essential part of their consultation work, alongside traditional offline efforts.

Reasons to be cheerful

To kick off, one of Delib’s Account Managers, Katherine, highlighted the fact that there is quite a lot of ‘noise’ in politics right now but that it’s important to remember the people who are working everyday to get stuff done. We were all encouraged to think about the reasons we have to be cheerful throughout the day and celebrate the positives in our work. Reasons included “ScotGov’s beautiful Trello board” for tracking their consultations and what is left to do on each one; GDPR becoming business-as-usual and the fact that I got to walk over Tower Bridge in the sun that morning, amongst others.

We heard from a few of the Delib team with updates about Dialogue, Simulator and our Practical Democracy Project events series, but the day was mostly about hearing from the people doing great, at-the-coalface work on real-time consultation covering a whole spectrum of issues.

Digital engagement with Scottish Government

Christian Storstein from Scottish Government came along to tell us about the amazing work of their Digital Engagement team. They have been using Citizen Space since the 2011 Scottish Independence referendum and consult on a huge range of issues from hate crime to prisoners’ rights to vote, forestry to civil partnerships.

Christian told us a bit about how they build their consultations, using Trello to help track things and YouTube videos to help people who aren’t so familiar with the tool. He also spoke about the importance of making consultations accessible for everyone and for that, promotion is key. ScotGov are using Twitter polls, Facebook Chatbots and in-person meetings to engage people with their consultations.

Managing expectations

An emerging theme throughout the day was the need for transparency and openness in democratic processes and also the difficulties that can be apparent when trying to please lots of different people at once. Juggling the needs of different audiences can pose a problem for people who manage consultations and the chance to discuss these issues together is always invaluable.

The consultation team from Richmond and Wandsworth councils found this a challenge with their Public Spaces Protection Order consultation for the Rosslyn Road area. PSPOs allow councils to put measures in place to to deter behaviours which can have detrimental effects on an area and its residents. The consultation was contentious as it centred around a pregnancy clinic and the protests/vigils surrounding it from pro-life organisations.

The team had to balance the needs and responses from each side; both protecting the women who may use the clinic but also taking into account the views of pro-life campaigners. Someone pointed out that consultation isn’t the same as voting and that even if some people’s opinions are particularly biased one way, they still need to be considered in decision-making for it to be meaningful and balanced democracy.

Bringing Greater Manchester together

Rachel and Claire from Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) made the journey down to London to share with us how their first few months of using Citizen Space has been. Greater Manchester is a huge area covering both urban and rural spaces. Claire spoke of the difficulties that the authority can face in bringing all of the different towns together, working with councillors, the mayor Andy Burnham and citizens alike on consultations that cover a wide range of topics.

They would previously receive a lot of paper-based responses and moving to Citizen Space has transformed the way people submit responses and how the authority can analyse the data, making the process more efficient and open.

GMCA’s police funding consultation

Sharing best practice

A great thing about user groups, and something which we really pulled from the day, was how useful it can be to share ideas with each other. GMCA have taken inspiration from ScotGov and Defra are now keen for Christian to share their YouTube videos to show people how to build good consultations. Cathy from East Sussex County Council presented on this theme too, talking about how best to work across teams and share information to ensure consultations are of a good standard.

Even across organisations, with different teams managing consultation outputs, it’s vital for people to share good practice with each other. Across all of the user groups I’ve attended this is a clear benefit and makes them so worth doing. People coming together from a range of organisations – councils, combined authorities, the Post Office and TfL – to discuss ways of improving the good work they’re already doing is always a great thing to see and ultimately helps people with the everyday work of online consultation.

A big thanks to Southwark Council for hosting us and we’ll keep you posted about the next user group – watch this space!