The Department of Health digital team were very pleased to be asked to lead the digital policy engagement session at Sprint 13, the recent showcase for the best in digital across government.
You can watch the video of the full session below, or read a summary of what we said.
You can find out more about Sprint 13 and watch some of the other sessions on the GDS blog.
(this is a summary rather than an transcript)
Digital by default isn't just about transactions and services.
For a policymaking department of state digital by default means using digital techniques at every stage of the policymaking process.
Different departments have their own ways of describing the policymaking process. But the stages go something like this:
- Defining the problem
- Talking to people
- Analysing feedback
- Delivering policy.
You’ll be familiar with a version of this process.
Digital doesn't replace other methods used during the policy cycle. But it can help:
- Reach people beyond those that Whitehall normally talks to - experts, and service users who have a useful contribution to make to the policy process, but who wouldn't be on our lists of stakeholders
- Gather, filter and analyse comments from stakeholders in ways that increase the quality and usefulness of feedback
- Work more efficiently, saving policymakers time and money
- Explain our work more effectively
The Department of Health and the Foreign Office use similar approaches to digital policy engagement, even though the subject matter may be very different.
We're going to show you examples of digital policymaking at each stage of the policy cycle, using examples from our recent work on social care policy in DH, and recent foreign policy issues.
A) Defining the problem
The stages of the policymaking process aren’t necessarily sequential, but the first stage for policymakers is usually deciding what to tackle, and how to do it.
Digital can be useful at this stage to help gather evidence, understand what people think, and collect ideas in order to help design the work.
Case study: Influencer mapping
In DH one of the things we use digital for throughout the policymaking process - but particularly at this stage - is to listen to what people are saying online, identifying influential voices, and people talking with credibility about a policy area.
Influencer mapping like this helps the policymakers to understand who is talking, which channels they use, and how they are influencing opinion. This helps policymakers to understand the context for their work, and target their stakeholder engagement.
The people we identify through this work are often not on our lists of stakeholders, but they may nevertheless have an important role to play in the policy process.
Case study Libya & the Arab spring
In early 2011 it quickly became clear that the FCO needed to understand how Libyans were using social media, and what different groups and individuals were saying as the Arab Spring developed.
We used social media to listen to and identify key voices, and to report on how the NATO intervention was perceived by Libyans.
We identified the most important platforms, identified influencers and credible, relevant accounts, and drew up lists to monitor.
This regular and detailed monitoring gave us early warning of developments and helped us identify influencers previously unknown to diplomats. We monitored how people were reacting to our messages, and used our knowledge to increase UK credibility and build trust.
We got to know online multipliers, and in some cases invited them to meet with us in person.
B) Talking to people
At this stage, policymakers are building relationships with people who are affected by or involved with a policy.
Digital methods can help policymakers consult the views of others, alongside more typical methods of consultation such as focus groups, or formal 12 week consultations.
Case study: Caring for our future
As part of our work on social care, the department ran an 11 week engagement exercise on the reform of the care and support system.
The engagement included 260 physical events with stakeholders. But alongside the more traditional stakeholder engagement work, we also enabled people to join the discussion online.
We used a temporary engagement site to publish content about the issues, with the emphasis on content from people with things to say, including webchats with David Behan, the Director General for social care, blogs and articles, and voxpops from the events, to help reflect the conversation in public.
And we posed some direct questions online, which people could respond to openly. We received hundreds of useful comments online and they fed directly into the policy process, and were analysed in exactly the same way as comments from events.
You can read the comments, and the MORI analysis of the comments, and the response to the comments alongside the White Paper on care and support, which was published last July.
Case study: Ministerial & Ambassador social media Q&As
Aside from more formal consultations, the FCO has used Q&As on social media channels to enable us to informally and openly discuss UK actions in on high profile issues on Afghanistan and Pakistan, Libya, Syria as well as such as our prosperity agenda.
These Q&As – which we often run live – enable Ministers and policy officials to see in real time how these issues are being perceived as well as giving access to global audiences.
By using digital channels we can help dispel myths and misunderstanding around our policy.
C) Analysing evidence
At this stage policymakers look at all the evidence, and begin to formulate policy.
Digital can help by providing efficient methods for collecting, organising and analysing feedback.
Case study: Draft care and support bill
Following the engagement on care and support, we published a draft care and support bill.
A draft bill isn’t a typical subject for digital engagement. The structure and the legal language doesn’t lend itself to inviting public comment.
So in some ways this is the most niche, specialist and difficult piece of digital engagement we could do, but it comes with the biggest prize – which is to influence the law as it’s developed.
We published the whole thing, enabling people to post public comments against each clause.
Despite the complexity of the task, stakeholders, care users, and people working in care homes posted hundreds of comments, about the drafting, and about the likely impact on care users.
The comments were moderated, responded to, and analysed by the team working on the bill, and are now being used to help create better law, as part of the parliamentary scrutiny process.
Case study Overseas Territories Consultation
Ahead of the publication of the Overseas Territories White paper we set up a consultation website to gather a variety of views on UK relations with the OTs.
This was done in addition to asking for comments by post or email.
Responses were analysed and we published the results and shared with key stakeholders.
The consultation highlighted issues around corruption and government transparency which were subsequently addressed in the White Paper.
Officials drew directly on feedback from the consultation when drafting the White Paper.
D) Delivering policy
At this stage policymakers establish how the policy will work in practice, and explain the policy, considering how audiences and stakeholders will respond.
Case study: Care and support white paper
Explaining policy is typically regarded as being at the end of a process, and government publishes a lot of documents explaining policy, usually as PDFs.
But actually, there is rarely an end to a policy process. And when we published the care and support white paper last year, we needed to publish something that would retain its usefulness long after we published it. And we needed to respond to a diverse set of audience groups, many of whom had already contributed to the process.
So we published the white paper as a digital product, with cuts of the white paper for different audience groups. So we had versions for service users, carers, support workers, families of care users, care providers and local authorities.
And we used graphics to visualise some of the data in the White paper, setting out the issues at a glance.
This approach helped us to explain some complex ideas, and gave us materials that we could keep using as part of our work of social care policy engagement.
We still publish lots of PDFs, but in the Department of Health we publish all major policies in this way now, as digital products.
Case study: Engaging with Iranians
When our Embassy in Tehran closed at the end of 2011 we set up a Farsi website and when that was blocked, social media channels, to continue our engagement with the Iranian people.
One of our objectives was to publicise details of new EU sanctions on Iranian human rights abusers.
We used our networks to promote the names and deeds of the individuals concerned within Iran, getting around censorship in the Iranian media to help ensure sanctions had an impact within Iran itself.
To follow up, we did presentations on our digital diplomacy work with EU colleagues in Brussels and Iran, urging them to do similar coverage of further rounds of sanctions. This resulted in other embassies in Tehran also publicising details of human rights offenders.