A Quick Comparison of Several Recent Online Consultations

Several online consultation and review documents that engaged my interest were published recently, so I thought it might be useful to quickly compare how they’re presented and what they have to offer.

Public Data Corporation
Firstly, the Plans for the Public Data Corporation consultation. The consultation is presented as a WordPress blog (with some untidy default widgets left in the right hand sidebar) with a brief summary and list of ten (10) consultation questions listed on the front page, and then a separate page to solicit responses for each particular question:

The comments are captured using Disqus and a pre-moderation policy:

It is hard to see at a glance the extent to which people have engaged with the questions across the consultation. The premoderation policy means that there is a delay (and uncertainty) in publishing comments – so for example, the comments I posted on a Saturday morning (#bigsociety time?!;-) presumably won’t be released (if at all) until Monday morning at the earliest… meaning no on-site discussion in the comment thread over the weekend.

(See also SImon Dickson’s take on this consultation: Another Cabinet Office WP consultation.)

Where WordPress is used as a platform, single page RSS feeds and comment feeds per page are available, although it is up to the publisher to decide whether full or summary feeds are published for each page. The following Netvibes dashboard demonstrates an aggregation of single page and page level comment feeds for the PDC consultation:

This suggests that it may be possible to increase the surface area of a consultation using dashboard services, as well as developing dashboards to support the management and reactive moderation of a consultation.

Commons Committee Inquiry on Peer Review
The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee have just called for a new Inquiry into Peer Review.

. Eight (8) separate issues are identified and up to 3,000 word submissions in Word format with numbered paragraphs are requested by email, with a paper copy submitted as well.

In terms of online engagement, I guess this sets the minimum possible baseline?!

“Protection of Freedom Bill” Public Reading Stage
The Cabinet Office recently released a public reading stage for the Protection of Freedom Bill using a themed WordPress site. This site offers front page navigation with the number of public comments received through the platform to date identified for each page.

Comments are supported at a page level, with partial feeds supported at the page level (using ?feed=rss2&withoutcomments=1) along with full comment feeds.

WordPress comment threads enabled.

Top level navigation across the document is preserved at the page level by means of the left-hand navigation sidebar.

Despite the legalistic nature of the Bill, paragraph level commenting is not directly supported.

(See also Simon Dickson’s response to this consultation: Can Cabinet Office’s WordPress-based commentable bills make a difference?.)

Department of Health Online Consultations
The Department of Health Online Consultations Hub provides a single home for current and recently closed consultations from the DoH. Consultations are split over several pages with clearly marked out text entry forms on at the bottom of pages where feedback is requested.(That is, page level structured commenting is supported.) By providing email credentials, users can obtain a link that allows them to return to their submission to the consultation at a later date.

Resource Discovery Taskforce Request for Comments on Metadata Guidelines on JISCPress
The JISC Resource Discovery Taskforce (RDTF) request for comments on UK Metadata Guidelines was published as a multipage document on JISCPress, a WordPress installation running the digress.it theme.

Front page sidebar navigation allows access to all areas of the document and summarises the number of comments per page. Mousing over a page link on the front page loads a preview of the page in the central pane. Following a link leads to a page with floating comment box that supports threaded commenting at the paragraph level:

Each paragraph is also given a unique URI allowing it to be uniquely referenced in posts on third party sites.

Along with comments by section, comments are viewable by commenter:

[Disclaimer: I was part of the project team that proposed JISCPress and the use of the digress.it WordPress plugin and am also a member of the RDTF technical advisory group associated with this RFC.]

Wordpress appears to be gaining traction as a consultation publishing platform, with either vanilla themes (e.g. Public Data Corporation proposal) or custom commentable document themes (JISC RDTF guidelines). WordPress native comments as well as third party commenting support using Disqus are demonstrated (it would be interesting to hear the rationale behind the choice of Disqus and an evaluation of how well it was deemed to have worked). Reactive and pre-moderation strategies are in evidence.

PS One more, that I should have included the first time round, on @lesteph’s ReadAndComment platform – LG Group Transparency Programme.

Whole document navigation is available from the front page as well as from the right hand sidebar on document pages (though it’s not clear if there would be a count of comments per page?) Comments are at page level via a WordPress comment entry form at the bottom of the page:

Steph hinted I won’t like the feeds… dare I look?!;-)

Tracking Down Local Government Consultation Web Pages

One of the things I have on my to do list for this year is to try to get a joint paper out with Danilo Rothberg on public consultation platforms at local, national and European level.

In the UK, many local councils have an area of their website dedicated to local consultations, so my first hacky thought for a way to track them down was to scrape something together around a Google search of the form: site:gov.uk intitle:consultation intitle:council.

By chance, I stumbled across page on OpenlyLocal linking to the services offered by a particular council, which made me wonder if I could actually pull down a list of the URLs of consulation pages by council directly from OpenlyLocal.

A quick Twitter exchange with that site’s maestro, Chris Taggart/@countculture, suggested that OpenlyLocal “[s]piders the Localgov redirect urls every week… …trick is knowing the LGD service id code, and then you can get all URLs for councils with URL for it”. In addition, “It’s the OL key you need (that maps to the ldg native uid). Something like this: http://openlylocal.com/services?ldg_service_id=370“.

So, decoding that, and with a bit of extra Googling, here’s where I’m at:

  • from the esd/effective service delivery toolkit (“Facilitated by the Local Government Association (LGA) working for local government improvement so councils can serve people and places better. esd-toolkit is owned and led by the local government sector”), we can find the LGD service ID codes for services relating to consultations:
    • Council – consultation – service delivery (867): All councils are expected to consult on specific areas of their service delivery. This allows service users and other interested parties to have to opportunities to be involved in planning, prioritising and monitoring of services. It also gives customers an opportunity to see all consultation activity, both current and in the past, and a mechanism for customers to research satisfaction with service delivery, opinions about specific projects and looks at lifestyle profiles which helps us design better local services.
    • Council – consultation and community engagement (366): The local authority uses various means to consult and engage with local communities including development of community and citizens’ forums and panels, consultation events, public events, young people’s participation.
    • Council – spending plans – consultation (658): Arrangement of public meetings or other means by which citizens can be consulted on budget plans for the forthcoming year. Previous consultations may be published or available for view on request.
    • Education – consultations (49): The education authority consult with all interested parties (schools, teachers, parents, pupils) on all issues concerning education provision and in particular on any proposed changes to education within schools run by the authority.
    • Equalities and diversity – assessment and consultation (861): The LA is responsible for ensuring that equality and diversity is considered at all times both in employment policy and in the provision of services. Every authority should assess, and consult on, the impact of policy in relation to equality and diversity within their community
    • Planning – consultation (855): The involvement of the public in the planning process. When planning applications are submitted there is a comprehensive system in place which ensures that proposals are publicised in order to invite comments from the local community.
  • To pull down the URL associated with each service for each council from OpenlyLocal (URLs of the form http://openlylocal.com/services?ldg_service_id=370), we need to know the mapping from Local Service ID codes shown above to the corresponding OpenlyLocal service codes (link???)
  • The DirectGov A-Z Directory of Local Services page links to alphabetical listings of service related pages presumably keyed on the Local Gov Service ID (LGSL= in the URL?), though on a quick skim through the listings I couldn’t find any consultation related services? [Ah, I should probably have tried from here: Directgov: Find out about local consultations]
  • From the Local Directgov on the Dept for Communities and Local Government website, I found a newsletter link to Local Directgov: open datasets
  • On data.gov.uk, there’s a handy CSV data file referred to as the Local directgov services list: “This dataset is held on the Local Directgov platform which provides the deep links into Local council websites for a number of services in Directgov. The Local Authority Service details holds the local council URLS for over 240 services where the customer can directly transfer to the appropriate service page on any council in England.” The CSV data is organised as follows:
    Authority Name,SNAC,LAid,Service Name,LGSL,LGIL,Service URL
    Adur District Council,45UB,1,Find out about local consultations,867,8,http://www.adur.gov.uk/consultation/index.htm

So, that’s where I’m at… I now have a CSV file from data.gov.uk with a list of deep link URLs in to local gov websites, and a set of Local Gov Service IDs from esd that allow me to identify the links corresponding to various sorts of consultation.

If I run those URLs through an RSS/Atom feed autodiscovery service, how many open/current consultation feeds do you think I’ll find?!

PS One of of the things OpenlyLocal is managing to do is provide an abstraction/normalisation layer over the myriad local council websites. It’s interesting to compare this with the JISC funded Linking You Toolkit that surveyed URL patterns across various UK university websites and made a series of recommendations about a normalised URL scheme that could potentially be used (via URL rewrites) to provide a common URL interface over common areas of UK HE websites (a simplification that I think also fits into the spirit of normalised data presentation approach being taken with the Key Information Sets). It strikes me that an alternative scheme, at least for the purposes of building services that can map from a central service to deep links related to particular services or content areas of a university website, would be to follow the Local Gov Service ID model and come up with a set of university related services or content areas (potentially reusing those identified by the Linking You project), and then request that universities publish site maps relating deeplink URLs to the appropriate identifier.

PPS as to why I bothered with this post: I’m just trying to document/model an example of the sort of search process I go through whenever I try to find anything out… Which as you can see, is still messed up and informal, starting with Google, then moving to tapping folk I suspect might know the answer to questions I’m trying to articulate, and finally ending up by checking out data.gov.uk…

PPPS Given the full list of government consultation websites for departmental and agency consultations, I wonder: is there a service/content area coding scheme used to identify common areas of central gov department websites?