Edward Andersson discusses what digital technology means for engagement and what the strengths and weaknesses are of engaging online. A week ago I gave a talk at Government Digital Services on Digital and face to face engagement. This post is a summary of what I said.
First of all I acknowledge that Involve is different from many others in the digital engagement field; we’re not software producers, we’re not trying to sell software and we focus on engagement as whole rather than digital engagement. Our mission is to make the public sector into better commissioners of dialogue and engagement. I’ll start with the question to what degree digital technology represents a breakthrough?
Two quotes illustrate how differently new technology is interpreted:
“The world is poised on the cusp of an economic and cultural shift as dramatic as that of the Industrial Revolution.”
Steven Levy (Wired journalist)
“The Internet is a telephone system that’s gotten uppity.”
Clifford Stoll (US Author and astronomer)
My view is that both quotes are true, in their own ways. We tend to overestimate changes in the short term (where many people hype up relatively mundane technologies) and underestimate the shifts in the longer term.
There is a tendency among consultants to create artificial distinctions between digital/online engagement and face to face engagement. Human nature is the same in both settings and of course a badly designed online consultation without a clear purpose is just as much a waste of time as a face to face process without a purpose.
I think people get excited about digital for the wrong reasons.
People often think that the key defining characteristics of digital are:
Speed –The internet is making things go faster, but the obvious question is ‘so what?’. The really big qualitative differences in terms of speed of sending messages happened in the 1860s. Nowadays the speed of communication is already faster than human beings can react to.
Scale –The internet does allow a larger number of people to take part than was possible before. It is a great thing but it can also lead people to focus too much on the number of people taking part. Many of the websites or articles which have attracted the most number of hits do so for the wrong reasons; scandals are great for hit rates but not for much else.
Cost–The Internet does have the possibility of reducing the costs of engagement; while this is true it is often oversold by consultants.
There are also very good reasons for shifting to Digital which are often overlooked:
Enabling -Digital technologies allows the third sector and individuals to self-organise and do things that in the past the council would have to do. This opens up tremendous opportunities (if we are willing to give up some control).
Networking –the Internet opens up possibilities of networking people who wouldn’t normally meet, for reasons of time, space and who they are.
Flexible -finally the nature of digital information allows comparison, aggregation, mashing up data, and ability to make it easily accessible. And to make lots of different sorts of outputs which would not be possible using pen and paper.
There are of course areas were online engagement doesn’t work as well as face to face, for example:
But of course it is not an either/or. In many cases face to face and online complement each other; and of course let’s not forget that digital technology can be used in face to face meetings as well.
Adding digital technology to face to face engagement allows:
The award winning Geraldton 2029 process in Western Australia has made use of a wide array of face to face and digital processes in determining the future of the town. 4000 people have been actively involved through world cafés, online surveys, online moderated deliberation, 21st century town hall meetings™, community events to celebrate milestones including BBQs. They have also used the local Newspaper facebook page heavily. What I like about the Geraldton process is how they have understood the strengths of face to face and online and worked with both.
- The Crowdsourced Icelandic constitution has been in the news a lot over the last few months. The Constitutional council has drafted and posted clauses each week open for public comment, and has live streamed their proceedings. The focus has often been on the online elements but it was made possible by in depth face to face deliberation, both from the elected Constitutional Council and a randomly selected national forum.
So to sum up my key points from my presentation:
In this economic climate, the value of public engagement needs to be articulated in economic terms. Involve’s toolkit demonstrates that you don’t need specialist skills or knowledge to make the business case for engagement.
Today Involve and Consumer Focus launch our long awaited toolkit for how to make the case for engagement using monetary terms. We’ve had over a hundred people email and ask us for copies before the launch and so we hope that it will be well received. Thank you all for waiting so patiently!
Involve started thinking about the costs and benefits of engagement way back in 2005 (Here’s the original report). Back then there was limited interest; people felt there was little need to justify engagement and participation on economic grounds. Things are very different now. The public sector faces massive cuts across the board. Engagement and consultation are certainly not immune . I know of many posts that have been cut, projects scrapped and organisations that have lost their funding in the field. Making the case for engagement in this environment is difficult. In the past non-monetary benefits were the main arguments for this way of working. Community development workers, youth workers and consultation officers would point out that engagement was good for democracy, good for the self-esteem of the participants and good for social cohesion. Using monetary savings or efficiencies as an argument for a more democratic approach felt wrong. Clearly things have changed. When people are looking high and low for places to cut we cannot shy away from the economic arguments for participation.
The guidebook we launch today is a practical tool for you to make the case for engagement and determine how to measure the value of a project. The document consists of the main report and two excel sheets. One sheet tracks the costs and benefits of a single project and one compares the costs and benefits of two projects with each other.
The toolkit cannot and should not be used to create a false justifcation for projects that do not wokr. What the toolkit allows you to do is to articulate the benefits that you have seen but have lacked the language to speak about in the past.
I’ve had some emails from people who have welcomed the toolkit but worried that it would be difficult and not the toolkit for them. They assume they need specialised education, skills and skills to make this work. I believe that they are wrong and here are my five top tips for how to make the most of the toolkit:
Last week Involve and Sciencewise held a joint workshop on how to measure the costs and benefits of engagement. We brought together around 30 people from a diverse range of organisations with interest in the issue for an afternoon's discussion.
One of the most interesting discussions of the afternoon was on why different people want to measure the costs and benefits of engagement. Some people at the event were focussed on building a business case for engagement in order to convince sceptical managers and budget holders while others were interested carrying out objective research into what works and building hard evidence into cost-effectiveness. In short, is this research or promotion?
This is a vital question; there is a real danger of confusion and mistrust if the two get mixed up; in the end I think we need both.
On one hand I think we need hard nosed evaluation of engagement. We need to know what works and what doesn't, especially in a time of unprecedented pressure on the public sector. To except engagement from cuts as a matter of principle is unrealistic. There is a lot of wasteful engagement going on that doesn't meet the needs of the funders or citizens; if we can find the evidence needed to convince people to stop doing this - then great! However rigorous evaluation won't be enough on its own.
Full-blown economic evaluation is expensive and time consuming (not to mention skills intensive). A lot of practitioners are delivering worthwhile engagement projects but have only anecdotal evidence to support this. They are unlikely to get resources to do a full academic evaluation. Instead, as the spending review bites, their budgets are likely to be slashed unless they have access to simple tools that help them articulate the costs and benefits of their work to their managers and budget holders. A lot of good work risks getting cut in a false economy, simply because people are unable to explain the benefits in language that managers can relate to.
Maybe we need a two tier system for measuring the costs and benefits of engagement: on the one hand high end, academic controlled studies and trials to build a water tight evidence base, probably limited to a small number of selected significant programmes. On the other hand there will also be a need for very practical tools for practitioners and advocates to build the business case for engagement.
There were many additional key points raised at the workshop and for those who couldn't make it there is an event report due out soon with a summary of the discussion points.
Involve is also developing a practical framework on measuring costs and benefits with Consumer Focus. The report has not yet been officially launched. Get in touch if you want a copy of either document: Edward@involve.org.uk
If you can't wait here are some other resources on measuring costs and benefits:
Involve's 2005 report on costs and benefits of engagement
Making a difference -Involve/Shared Practice Evaluation framework which include aspects of costs and benefits.
Local Government Improvement and Development -Business case tool for community empowerment
CDF -Art of Influence: How to make the case for community development
This blog is a repository for posts I have made over the years at Involve as well as more personal reflections.