David Miliband has returned to blogging in his new job as Foreign Secretary.  Much more interestingly, he is not the only one – the FCO blog page has six shiny new blogs, four by officials and two by ministers.  It’s early days – so far the only one of the six with more than one post is Miliband’s own – but it will be a fascinating test of how government adapts to conversational communications.

Buried in an about page, it turns out that this is part of a wider initiative being evaluated as part of Digital Dialogues – "an independent review of ways in which central government can use
information and communication technology (ICT) to enable and enhance
public engagement", commissioned by the Ministry of Justice and carried out by the Hansard Society. 

The second phase report has just been published.  There’s 160 pages of it which I haven’t had a chance to read yet.  The conclusions are a bit anodyne, but the recommendations make up a useful looking set of principles:

1. Innovate… Government needs a culture of
innovation in lots of areas of its work, but particularly in relation
to how it engages with the public. Investing in innovation will help
government to learn, make informed decisions and motivate the public to
interact with its agencies, departments and representatives;

2. Be scalable…
Launch exercises as pilots (or betas), and keep the conditions of the
exercise limited. Carry out evaluations and if the demand exists, and
an ability to supply is in place, release more budget and resources to
support expansion. Conversely, scale-down and reallocate resources if
evaluation demonstrates little return or a need to start afresh;

3. Observe the rules of engagement…
If government is to convince citizens that it is serious about engaging
online, it must build up an understanding of how people currently
interact with one another and other public and private sector bodies
online. Government must not colonise online spaces and avoid the
temptation to impose its way of doing things;

4. Design with users…
Before launching an online engagement exercise, government should
consult with the intended users: ask them what sort of engagement
exercise they want, what manner of discussion should be had, and on
what kind of platform. Balancing this user input with the needs of
policy makers will result in a more engaging and productive exercise
than would otherwise be achieved;

5. Train staff…
Successful online engagement is more about content, interactivity and
skills than it is about technology, which means it needs people. In
some cases this may mean that government needs to recruit, but it
should also invest in the staff currently in place. Take advantage of
transferable experience and skills, provide training and design
refresher courses to plug the online engagement skills gap;

6. Be strategic…
The best online engagement exercises will be those that make the most
strategic choices: about who to target, which offline methods to
combine the online with, and at what points around the policy cycle.
The advice is to make use of a ‘mixed-economy’ approach, so as to avoid
dependence on any one method;

7. Be interactive…
It is not enough for government to convene online engagement at arm’s
length; it needs to be an active, enthusiastic and visible participant.
Asking people for their views and then ignoring them risks the loss of
their confidence in both the process and the sponsoring institution;

8. Show your working…
In some exams marks are awarded for explaining how you came to an
answer. A similar approach should be taken to demonstrating what
happened with the input arising from an online engagement exercise. If
the input was not especially useful, explain why; do the same where it
had an influence on the decision making process.

9. Evaluate…
Government should ask difficult questions of its online engagement
activity. It should keep a constant review of exercises, carry out its
own evaluations but also invite the assistance of independent outside
bodies. Government should share its experiences and evaluations. This
means that departments would learn from one another’s success and
failures; but also that the public would be able to follow government
activity and make its own judgements about what is working well.

10. Team up…
There are a number of different government networks and funding streams
specialising in discrete engagement fields. This fragmentation is
leading to replication and inefficiency. Government should establish a
cross-departmental ‘community of practice’ to provide leadership,
coordination and resources in order to maximise the effectiveness and
sustainability of on- and offline engagement activity.