Google Wave as the future of citizen consultation

I’ve been looking around at quite a few emerging ideas and practise for public engagement recently. At the moment consultation processes in local government are generally still fairly archaic and ‘having your say’ might mean filling out a survey or attending a public meeting, exhibition or focus group.

The Power of Information report highlighted a few good examples of online consultations and made a sound recommendation as follows:

Implementing the tools – readily available elsewhere on the internet – which allow people to comment on individual items, to comment on other’s comments and to collaborate in developing and improving the content (perhaps through the sort of collective authorship we see on Wikipedia); the publication by DIUS of the Innovation White Paper and the Cabinet Office New Opportunities White Paper in this way are good examples of what can be done without major investment

I really liked the concept of Big City Talk in Birmingham, which was developed by a group of volunteers using WordPress, and allowed the public to read a lengthy planning consultation document in Plain English and add comments.

But even as Councils are getting themselves up to speed with the idea of responding to (and moderating) online comments within a couple of hours, a new tool is about to appear which demands realtime interaction. Google is due to launch its much anticipated communications tool Google Wave on September 30th and (apparently) it might just change how we communicate online completely.

Now I haven’t actually given Google Wave a go, but I have read lots of hype. So I was thinking about how the future of online consultation in 3-5 years could be a very different ball game indeed. Imagine this scenario…

You are invited to attend an online consultation about the local Council’s plans to build a major new housing development, which will provide affordable housing. The meeting is going to be relatively short, about 45 minutes.You start by viewing a short video about the development proposal and you look at interactive maps of the plans. You read associated snippets of documents. Then as the online consultation really gets underway, you join in discussions in realtime, along with other citizens, councillors, council officers and the developers. During the discussions further snippets of document, images and video are added by the participants relating to the points that are discussed.  The facilitators focus the discussions on key themes. The discussions are fairly open and the facilitators invite you to take part in opinion polls as the discussions progress. The facilitator brings the meeting to a close and thanks the participants for taking part. After the meeting you replay some of the discussions that took place and read through some of the threads that you missed during the meeting. A couple of days later the Council post a formal response to all the points which couldn’t be addressed in the meeting, in context within the original discussions.

Well I might be naive in thinking this type of consultation might actually happen, in such an open and transparent way. Plus it could be a facilitators nightmare! But I can dream a little.

Update 07/09:

I wanted to add an addendum to this post. A friend who recently did an interesting talk on Google Wave at UXCampLondon suggested to me on Twitter “discussion could be hosted on council’s website, so people who are not on #googlewave could also read and comment“. I thought this was a great idea, so wanted to add it to this post.


A new era for IT skills training?

A few weeks back I posted about the Google localgov event. My thoughts on whether Councils would adopt cloud computing went something like this:

I have no doubt that the migration to the cloud won’t be driven so much by business strategy so much as by social needs and expectations. As time goes by our experiences of computing in our personal lives will be drastically mis-matched with our computing experiences at work.

Well that’s all very well if you have a degree of competency with IT. Anway, where’s this all heading? Following Portsmouth City Council’s move to block staff access to Facebook which has been in the news and causing a stir on Twitter (thanks to Sharon and  Dave for excellent posts on the subject), I had an interesting chat with some colleagues on the subject of IT skills in the organisation.

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LocalGovCamb – local gov innovation in Cambridgeshire

It seems like my best bet at making it to a barcamp this year (having missed a few already) is to help organise one on home turf. So I’m helping Dave Briggs to get LocalGovCamb together.


At the moment there are no hard and fast details to speak of, but as soon as we have a date and venue we’ll let you know.

The theme is going to be local gov innovation, which could cover everything from the web and social media, GIS and mapping, to use of data, community engagement and remote working.

If you’re interested in participating please register your interest at And if you’d like to get more involved in organising the event, join the LocalGovCamb Google Group.

For the latest updates use the Twitter hashtag #localgovcamb.


Evaluating online engagement – effect of the long tail?

I’ve found some really useful information recently on evaluating online engagement including Dave Brigg’s suggestion for a common framework, Alice Casey’s excellent presentation on evaluating online participation and the Digital Dialogues report. As I’ve been setting up various e-engagement projects at work I have been thinking about methods for both quantitative and qualitative evaluation, in particular the type of metrics and measures we might use for quantitative evaluation.

I’ve also recently been reading what Clay Shirky has to say on the “power law” distribution in social media, based on an article from 2oo3 and his fascinating book Here Comes Everybody. Shirky outlines that the majority of user activity such as blog posts, photo uploads or wiki edits on social media sites  is done by a relatively small percentage of the total number of contributors. So if you measure the amount of activity per person (e.g. blog posts or photo uploads) and represent the results on a graph, you will find a particular distribution known as a power law distribution, or long tail. This phenomena is also sometimes referred to as the 80/20 rule (Pareto principle) where 80% of the activity is done by 20% of the people.

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Search or browse?

This evening I checked out the new Lancashire County Council website which has adopted a ‘Google’ style home page – just a search box and little other navigation. Unless of course you go to the ‘classic view’, which is a link on the relatively discreet navigation bar at the top (highlighted with blue elipse below).

Lancashire County Council - new home page

Although it’s a bold move and I applaud any Council willing to step away from the category style navigation enforced by the Local Government Navigation List (LGNL) for many years, I am really not sure this is a good decision. I think Lancashire could find that a significant number of their users find the site much harder to use. I may well be wrong, but  it will be very interesting to find out what user testing results they get and what their website analytics show. But I have a hunch based on my experience of moderating user tests and what I’ve learnt about how different users behave.

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Google LocalGov

Yesterday I attended an event for LocalGov people at Google’s very plush offices in London. The day was put together by the Google LocalGov team and Dave Briggs helped coordinate arrangements and publicity. The event covered a broad range of Google’s products, some of the new innovations at Google and offered a wealth of advice and insight. I can’t cover all the topics in this post in depth, so I’ll focus on a few that interested me personally.

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User testing (embedding usability in local government – part 2)

Last week I did a session for the web teams on usability testing. Unfortunately I only had one laptop and the room was too small to get people sat in groups of 2 or 3 to try out moderating a usability test first hand. So instead I gave an overview of user testing including:

  • Why, when and what to user test;
  • The different types of user testing and their pro’s and con’s;
  • What’s involved in planning and carrying out user testing;
  • Measuring usability;
  • Analysing the data.

I’m particularly interested in what user testing methods we can use to effectively benchmark user tasks on our website, before and after we make improvements. I’m also interested in what testing methods might be suitable given some of the challenges we face as a local authority web team, for example:

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Embedding usability in local government – part 1

Having recently finished the taught part of a Masters degree in Human Computer Interaction at UCLIC, I am finally finding the time to formally pass on some of my knowledge and skills to colleagues at work.

Since I started in my current role in local government in 2006 we have used some user centred design (UCD) methods with varying degrees of success. But we we are now aiming to use a UCD approach for all web development projects. This is a significant step forward and represents a real commitment within the team to improving customer experience on our web channels. We are about to start a series of projects to improve the customer experience on our corporate website (long overdue!) so I am really pleased to be starting out on the right foot.

So what do I mean by a user centred design approach? I like the UPA definition:

User-centered design (UCD) is an approach to design that grounds the process in information about the people who will use the product. UCD processes focus on users through the planning, design and development of a product.

But in essence, in my interpretation, it is about the process of designing technology that is useful, easy to use and pleasant to use.

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My new blog

So here I am. I finally got round to starting a blog after finishing my MSc modules in May 2009. For the last 3 years I’ve been studying a part-time MSc in Human Computer Interaction whilst working full-time, so spare time has been in short supply!

Over the next year I’ll be working on my MSc research project which is closely related to my day job as Web Development Manager in local government.

I’m hoping that I can use this space to explore some thoughts and ideas on gov 2.0, social media, online engagement, user centred design and participatory design.