The second part of an interview I did with the team behind the Scottish Government’s  remarkable crowdsourcing exercise that informed Scotland’s approach to lockdown.

In May, the Scottish Government ran a national conversation on one of Delib’s platforms, Dialogue, about easing lockdown in Scotland. It proved extremely popular, with roughly 4,000 ideas posted and nearly 20,000 comments in the space of a week.

In the first part of the interview, the team discussed with me how they ran the exercise itself.

In this part, we discuss the exercise’s impacts on policy and the wider context of the Scottish Government’s approach to public participation.

I spoke to a group of people, all with different roles, who were involved in the delivery of this project. For the purposes of these pieces I’ll refer to them collectively as Scottish Government (SG).

Thanks for reading – hope you enjoy.

A familiar story to anyone who has run or taken part in a consultation is how long it can take to give or receive feedback. The Scottish Government tend to feed back the results of a consultation about 12 weeks after the close date, which is pretty standard for many organisations, but there are many that take much longer.

But this is a weird time to be alive and laws change within days or even hours. 12 weeks ago at time of publishing, Leicester had just gone into the UK’s first local lockdown and there was still a five-mile travel ban in place across Scotland. Abiding by usual timelines for feedback in this instance would have rendered the whole exercise effectively useless.

So it was with this in mind that the analysts, already working in shifts and having had to pull in all their reserve troops just to keep on top of the workload, managed to produce a full report just two weeks after the Dialogue challenge closed. Not only this, but they blogged about their findings and presented some initial analysis to the public while the engagement was still live. The first post was published three days in, with a second follow-up post published three days after that.

One of the seeded ideas, title 'Test, Trace, Isolate, Support' on the Scottish Government's Dialogue challenge
One of the seeded ideas on the Scottish Government’s Dialogue challenge

In addition to this, analysts provided daily internal briefings to ministers and interested parties.

SG: Initially we thought we’d write a briefing for ministers a few days after the site closed, and then we’d provide a research findings document after that. But we didn’t do that in the end! There was a sense that we wanted to reflect back what people had said, and it was a fast turnaround – but because we had so many people on it and we already had quite a lot of raw material, it was…I won’t say it wasn’t pressured, but it was easier to bring together.

The analyst team blogged the feedback early on, and the report came out within two weeks. Why was it important to publicly feed back so quickly rather than just feeding back what you had discovered to ministers and policy teams?

SG: Because of the timescales and when the route map was being published, which was about a week after the close of the Dialogue, it was vital to demonstrate that we were listening to people and that their input was being used to inform how the government was making decisions. When we go to have the next phase of this conversation it means we can show that we did listen and it wasn’t just something that went into a black hole. Otherwise I think it would be disingenuous that we didn’t report back sooner rather than later.

It was vital to demonstrate that we were listening to people and that their input was being used to inform how the government was making decisions. We want to keep doing this, and to do that we need people’s good will, and we need their trust that we take them seriously.

SG: Absolutely. Also, we were keeping in mind the idea of consultation fatigue, and people thinking, ‘well what’s the point of contributing if they a) don’t act on what I’ve told them or b) even express that they’ve heard what I’ve said?’ It was important in that regard just to say, ‘we didn’t take everyone’s ideas on board because it’s not possible to do that, but we did listen to them all, here’s a report so you can see the process, and thank you so much for taking part.’ I think it makes people feel much more valued and more likely to participate in the future. We want to keep doing this, and to do that we need people’s good will, and we need their trust that we do listen to them and take them seriously.

SG: Everything was moving so quickly – the responses had to inform the route map which was published just over a week after the Dialogue closed, and then golf courses opened before we knew it, so I think the pace of this was just extremely different to normal operation. Quite often we don’t get things published for a long time after!

SG: This – it’s not consultation and it can’t be treated the same way with the same timescales. I think if we’d run it any longer we would’ve run into problems with the changing environment. Every day is a new day in the COVID-19 world, so relevance would be lost if it ran for a month because comments from day one would be of a very different nature than those from day 30.

And how were you feeding back internally – how was the data used and how did the public’s responses tie into the policy decisions that were made?

SG: We put together a daily briefing from our findings. There was a circulation list for that briefing to different people and departments within ScotGov. Then off the back of those we got requests for different specific topic briefs from different departments, which was more of a deep dive into the work – for example, people asking ‘there are people posting about recycling centres a lot, can you summarise that?’ Or, ‘what’s being said about schools?’
Between that process and then what that might then induce from policy clients, there were about four or five topic briefs produced during the course of the work, and there were some specific asks from people with interest, so we did something on test and trace, and then something on shielding, and something on technology. Then it was identified post platform that there were some key options being worked on by policy teams that seemed to adhere quite nicely to what the public were saying –  like more outdoor exercise, no solitary sports, that kind of stuff. So were then asked to go back in to the data and confirm what was said.

Every day is a new day in the COVID-19 world, so relevance would be lost if it ran for a month because comments from day one would be of a very different nature than those from day 30.

Something that pops up again and again while I speak with them is how collaborative the project was, not just within the digital engagement team and between the analysts and moderators, but between policy teams and different departments. Anyone who’s worked in, with or adjacent to any form of government has probably experienced inter-departmental disconnect and frustrating silos, so this project is a real testament to what can be achieved when communication channels are opened, even if you’re all working remotely. SG agree that this collaboration was essential to the success of the project.           

SG: We weren’t the team coordinating and writing the question around this – that was the policy team on exiting lockdown. They were responsible for the content of it, the communication of it, getting the sign-off around it.  And then it came to us in the communications department. It wasn’t just us leading a thing because we wanted to – it relied on so many interdependencies.

SG: That’s a really good point, it was work from all across the organisation. The content for the site had been drafted by policy with input from different aspects of government and then we got involved just to make sure it was fit for purpose. So we fed into the design and content, but didn’t draft it directly.

SG: It was turning point in the success of this. If we’d been sent a huge document at the 11th hour that had an excess of information and wanted us to ask all these really complex questions, by the time respondents scrolled down to read it all they would’ve given up and we’d have got no responses, so [the policy team’s] work really impacted the success of this. They accepted our recommendations really quickly and then we were ready to publish it. That for me felt really key – that’s nothing to do with technology, that’s just us knowing the platform, us knowing what works well when it comes to engagement because of the short questions you ask, and then our policy team being open to that and accepting our changes. If there’d been a massive to-and-fro it would’ve been very different.


Moving on to your engagement process in general: you have robust digital democracy structures in place which is essential at this time. What has COVID made you realise in terms of public participation, how has it affected engagement other than this one exercise?

SG: Primarily the inability to have face to face contact with stakeholders or other people just because of the nature of COVID. That’s changed how teams have had to look at approaching public participation and policy-making. We’ve seen a huge slowdown in the publication of consultations, I think because priorities have changed quite quickly.

Screenshot rom Scotland's 'Route Map through and out of the Coronavirus crisis', displaying a number of graphs comparing COVID infection rates by country.
Excerpt from Scotland’s Route Map through and out of the Coronavirus crisis

SG: Also there’s things like our stakeholders would potentially have been furloughed or have other priorities right now, so potentially wouldn’t be responding to consultations anyway. Also, reaching the people who aren’t online is going to be a lot more difficult now.

Yes, I saw that in the final report it was mentioned that you were aware of the limitations in that regard – i.e. that you weren’t able to reach people who weren’t online, and that those who did respond are those who were likely to respond anyway. What are your experiences with engaging with offline groups pre-COVID and now, and how do you plan to reach them in different ways?

SG: A lot of it is policy-dependent, so it would depend on the topic. But people aren’t really going to want to be gathering in a room and doing our normal way of working for a long time, so it does feel like our digital approach has to be bolstered in some way.

SG: Yes, definitely – we know we will have to think creatively about reaching those groups. But coming back to the idea of working across departments, it’ll be people who are on the policy teams who will have that relationship with the charity sector, and they will have that more direct contact with say older people, or disabled people.

What advice would you give to an organisation thinking about doing this kind of thing that might be put off by having this sort of open and accountable discussion?

SG: it’s not as scary as it seems! The community is pretty respectful and it does self-police. I would also highlight that this doesn’t happen organically, it requires resource to facilitate it and ensure that it’s a success. You can’t just publish something and wander off. The other thing, and we’d say this with consultation as well, is that your audience is a self-selecting opt-in audience and it isn’t reflective of the views of everyone, so you do need to balance that.

The Dialogue feature that asks ‘why is this idea important’ is great because it makes the respondent think twice about what they’re saying and then argue the case for their idea. If you look at some of the conversations that went on, that was a big part of why it was successful.

SG: Yes, that’s definitely true. Given that there were so many comments about golf, that highlighted to me that it was a very particular audience that was responding! But despite that, it’s a much easier and less scary way for people to contribute than a consultation. We had 11000+ registered users which shows it can be much less daunting than filling in a consultation response with potentially complicated questions. That’s one of the joys with crowdsourcing, you can have a simple question to gather a wider set of views. That said, the question does need to be really carefully formulated. It needs to be relevant for you the decision-makers, so you get what you want from it, as well as clear enough that people are able to answer it. It’s finding that balance between being just broad enough, but not so much that it’s not useful.

SG: Yeah. Ask a sensible question, get a sensible answer! This was something really close and personal to people so it was a case of framing the question but also asking the right question. That’s always the first thing that people throw at digital engagement, isn’t it? ‘Oh, but people will just troll or be stupid!’ I think this shows that people didn’t.

That brings me to my last question: was there a specific feature of Dialogue that made this easier or more efficient?

SG: Good question! I think that there’s something unique with the ability to comment on other people’s ideas, with the ability to facilitate a conversation. You can’t do that with consultation, you can’t see what people are saying, you can’t engage with that until after the fact, there’s no ability to promote or encourage people to have a conversation about some really really difficult things, as well. That’s a game changer and the fundamental difference between crowdsourcing vs. consultation.

SG: For me, the bit that asks ‘why is this idea important’ is great because it makes the respondent think twice about what they’re saying and then argue the case for their idea. It’s quite easy to say whatever your suggestion might be, but that ‘why it’s important’ is the bit that starts the next part of the conversation, that makes people comment. I think that’s a particularly good thing, and if you look at some of the conversations that went on, that was a big part of why it was successful.

The coronavirus has presented countries and governments around the world with some hugely complex problems, as well as starkly highlighted issues with existing structures. Running this exercise by no means presented solutions to all of these problems for the Scottish Government, but it demonstrated that an honest and transparent approach, which openly involved citizens, built a genuine consensus between people and government on the best way to move forward.

Read Part I of this interview and our post on the operational work Delib did on this project.

To find out more about Dialogue, book a free demo and we’ll talk you through it.

Follow the Scottish Government’s digital engagement team on Twitter and check out their Citizen Space site.

Follow Dani on Twitter.

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