Earlier this month, Matt Hancock, the UK’s Minister for Culture, Media and Sport uploaded himself to the internet.
On Matt Hancock, an app available to download on Android and IoS, constituents of Hancock’s West Suffolk constituency can post photos and text, communicate with each other and stay up-to-date on news from the man himself. For the platform’s creators, Disciple Media, the app is a “new form of digital democracy”.
The app won attention on both social and mainstream media, with probably as many journalists as constituents applying for profiles. But using new forms of digital technology for interaction between government and citizens is nothing new.
From chatbots designed to respond to nuances of language to online platforms that allow citizens to suggest ideas, more and more policymakers are experimenting with digital tools. Many of the designers behind these techniques hope that they can be used as a means of improving waning trust in our political systems.
Consultation by chatbot
Chatbots were first designed as customer service tools. When governments use artificial intelligence to respond to queries and direct people to the information they need at any time of day, there is no need for citizens to wait to speak to a customer service agent.
Now governments are using the technology to run public consultations. By automating the process, civil servants cut out the time needed to send out, collect and analyse thousands of paper surveys. They can reach more citizens, who can fill out the forms more quickly.
“We have 3,270 users – that’s over 3% of Jersey’s population – and they can be engaged immediately”
Since mid-2017, the government of Jersey, an island in the English Channel, has been trialling a chatbot to assess public opinion on topics ranging from the balance between the built and natural environment to reform of the island’s divorce law. Developed by apptivism, a UK tech startup, the chatbot directs users through a consultation which can be completed in minutes. Users respond to a series of questions posed by the bot on Facebook Messenger. The simulated conversation allows for a mixture of defined as well as free text responses.
“We really appreciate the way you can get instant re-engagement with quite a large user base,” said Tom McMinigal, a policy and research officer with Jersey’s government. “We have 3,270 users. That’s over 3% of Jersey’s population, and they can be engaged immediately. When a new chat is launched all of those people who’ve responded are messaged and prompted to respond.”
Over the six “conversations” the government of Jersey has run so far, 54% of users have contributed to more than one. It’s strong in comparison to other forms of engagement: on average, just 3.62% of recipients click on links in government emails.
An average of 996 people responded to each of the conversations, close to 1% of Jersey’s total population. One particular success was the type of people the chatbot reached: the average age of respondents was 33, and 57% of all respondents were women.
“We recognised initially that Facebook Messenger was a good way of getting professional, young and middle-aged people onto the platform,” said McMinigal. “In previous consultations, we tended to get the people who are maybe retired and have more spare time, or people with particularly strong views. We’ve struggled to get those people who want to have a say but who don’t have the time to go to a parish hall meeting or fill out a long paper or web survey.”
“We want to make participation super simple, so that people can do it in five minutes”
The chatbot platform outputs data which can be analysed straightaway, without policy officers having to manually read and analyse responses. By automating consultations in this way, government frees up the time to act on them. “Traditionally, with consultations here, the officers themselves have ended up doing all the data analytics, which is often a very manual and time-consuming process,” said McMinigal. “With this platform, the majority of it is automated.”
Elsewhere, some governments are inviting citizens to suggest policy via online platforms. Better Reykjavik is an online policy network started in 2010 in Iceland. Following a series of political corruption scandals, a non-profit, the Icelandic Citizens Foundation, set up the platform as a means to increase engagement and reconnect Icelandic politics to the people.
Citizens submit policy ideas via the platform, which are then debated and up-voted or down-voted. Policy ideas are forwarded to Reykjavik’s council, which votes on them. Around 10-15 are considered each month. The platform has had over 70,000 users overall – more than half of the city’s population.
For the designers of such systems, these platforms aim to foster more conversation between citizens and government prior to policy decisions.
“We don’t want to make participation something hard; we want to make it something super simple so that people can do it in five minutes,” said Heloise Le Masne, a manager at Civocracy, a public participation platform working in cities and regions across Europe and in French departments in the Caribbean.
Similarly to Better Reykjavik, Civocracy’s platform allows users to propose ideas and follow the responses of their representatives. Citizens receive notifications when one of their posts on a topic has been seen by a member of government.
“It’s a social media forum,” said Emily McDonnell, a communications lead at Civocracy. “We want to be far more constructive, rather than just encouraging throwaway comments. We want it to lead to actual things that can be implemented, and policy and projects that are co-created together.”
“One thing that happens a lot in participation: that public meetings always have the same people coming, and always to complain,” said Le Masne. By increasing the opportunity for communication, the platform allows citizens to suggest policies, widening government’s perspective and building trust. It allows citizens can make suggestions and weigh up government’s response for themselves, faster and more transparently than with a traditional public consultation.
How does it affect policy?
In the same vein as other forms of consultation and participation, digital tools don’t influence policymaking in a straightforward way. While online platforms and chatbots can close the gap between governments and their citizens, they can also raise expectations: governments still need to show that contributions and interactions have an effect, and set out the terms of what participation means.
In Jersey, the chatbot is used to better inform policymakers about the views of the people they serve. In an evaluation of the project so far, seen by Apolitical, policy officers stated that the chatbot consultation attracted a younger demographic than they expected. They also said it provided better, more relevant information than they otherwise would have received.
“We’ve recognised that it’s not entirely representative”
The government of Lyon used the Civocracy platform to collect suggestions on a redevelopment of the Clos Jouve district. According to an elected official in the city’s fourth arrondissement, the consultation through the platform led to local government abandoning plans they had made that were too expensive or not deemed relevant or consistent with the spirit of the space.
With all of these platforms, there is an issue with representativeness. While they can redress the balance towards youth or professionals, digital forms of consultation can’t provide governments with a magical cross-section of all of their citizens.
“We’ve recognised that it’s not entirely representative,” said McMinigal. “That’s why we see Apptivism as one of a suite of wide-ranging consultation tools.” The next step Jersey will take is to create a version of the chatbot accessible via the site’s web page, rather than just through Facebook Messenger, in order to draw in those who are not already on the platform.
“We don’t necessarily strive to be completely representative because it always depends on the consultation,” said Le Masne. “If you have a city that solely wants to engage entrepreneurs in the field of dentistry, then you don’t necessarily want a 17-year-old history student to participate.”
Digital tools allow public servants and politicians to engage the public in ways that allow people to see the results of their suggestions quickly and directly. This could build trust in government, and support the best ideas from the people most affected by the big issues. They cannot, however, provide a direct link between the will of the people and government: to work well, they must be used in combination with other methods of consultation and participation to capture all voices.
(Picture credit: Flickr/hiva sharifi)