The only difference between engaging someone in public consultation and engaging them in user testing is, as far as I can see, the type of reward they get for taking part.
With user testing it’s easy: the client pays a company an extortionate amount of money to test their product; or, if it’s being done on the cheap, buys lunch for a few folk and tests the product on them instead. People might even do the testing as a favour, but that requires them to have some level of emotional attachment to whoever’s doing the asking.
With public consultation the reward is harder to quantify, but it still needs to be there.
On Tuesday evening I was involved in giving some feedback on a local council web initiative. I wasn’t paid or fed, and I had no emotional attachment to the consultant (the council). I do, however, have an emotional attachment to the group that was being consulted and so I was quite happy to take part. But had I been consulted directly I would not have been happy when told that my suggestions would be ‘added to the log’ and ‘may or may not be used’. In fact I would have been angry: they’d taken up my evening and wouldn’t even be bothered to let me know if and how they used my suggestions. (And no, I see no reward in simply helping the council, as I have little faith in its ability to do things well.)
Many public consultations seem to treat their participants as free user testers, which seems something of a paradox. Some reward (which could be simply the satisfaction of doing someone a favour) is important. If there’s no payback – fee, lunch, feedback, satisfaction, etc – then the participant will probably feel used and alienated.
The same goes for ‘digital engagement’ initiatives; which tend, in essence, to be attempts at consultation.
Last night I went to a panel discussion on ‘Connecting with constituents: MPs and Digital Engagement’, chaired by Andy Williamson of the Hansard Society. On the panel were Jon Kingsbury of Nesta who talked about the new MyMP iPhone app (funded partly by Nesta and partly byPublic Zone), Tim Hood of Yoosk and Paul Hodgkin of Patient Opinion.
All three initiatives aim to listen to people and feed their input effectively into the public processes, while also making them a valued and engaged part of those processes. There are in fact lots of online initiatives trying to do this, but I’m not sure many of them have really grasped the importance of payback. MyMP doesn’t seem to have considered it (I may be wrong of course). When I posed the question to the panel last night, Yoosk appeared to put faith in the conversation developing to the point where the participants felt bonded enough in some way (as part of a network perhaps) for payback to occur naturally. Maybe that will happen, but it seems a bit of a gamble.
Patient Opinion was apparently the only of the three initiatives to have understood the importance of payback (feedback, in this case: they gather stories from people and are starting to post outcomes of those stories). It seems telling that Patient Opinion was set up by a doctor – not a politician, charity or think tank – and was the only initiative last night that didn’t claim to connect citizens directly with elected representatives or public figures.
The problem seems to be that perennial one of the Web: lots of people have great ideas for layering technology on top of society, and rush to deliver them. What doesn’t seem to happen is a questioning of the underlying processes; it’s all very well encouraging conversation, but what do you do with it?
Someone asked why on earth there were all these different tools available when there should simply be one in the obvious place: Parliament’s own website. One reply was that if people don’t trust a site or organisation (or they don’t have a connection with it) they won’t use its tools, and so these third-party tools are crucial to engagement. While I agree with that I also agree with an assertion made by Andy Williamson: people already have social tools (Facebook, Twitter, etc) that they use to talk about general stuff of interest to them, and when those conversations wander into politics it is in those spaces that they’re conducted; in general people won’t seek out a dedicated site or application for holding those conversations.
Last night the old adage seemed to ring truer than ever: meet people where they are. And having a voice is great up to a point, but feedback – or reward – is critical in the end.
Cross-posted from citizensheep.com.
Note: in this post I use the definition of ‘consultant’ as that of someone who asks questions, not someone who gives professional advice.