Which tool to use when?

There are a near-limitless number of approaches and tools to help you at every stage of the policy-making process. As you move through a policy-making cycle, different methods will likely become more important or valuable at different phases — and each method will have an array of online services to support it.

So it’s no surprise that people sometimes feel a bit overwhelmed by the choices on offer. We see that reflected in a question we’ve been asked a fair few times recently, by a range of customers and government organisations: ‘which digital tool/response mechanism should I use in x situation?’

We always advocate a ‘horses for courses’ attitude (you’ll see in our Digital Consultation Playbook that we really emphasise the importance of appropriateness): that it’s all about finding the approach that best matches your purpose and situation, and then finding the tool that best matches that approach.

But if it’s a helpful starter for ten, here’s a really quick, top-line overview of some of the most common phases of policy-making and the type of approach we’d commonly recommend for each.

(We’ve also done a slightly more in-depth look at the difference between when to use a survey and when to use a Dialogue, which might also be useful.)

Idea generation

Early in the process, or when a decision is still at a formative stage, you may have opportunity to invite open-ended suggestions. Here you want to encourage imaginative and diverse thoughts (‘there’s no such thing as a bad idea’, as they say).

That’s a key part of what we built Dialogue to do. It’s great for setting a challenge and seeing what ideas people come up with in response.

Hackney Council use Dialogue to hear ideas from residents

Broad preferences

Once you’ve established some initial possibilities, you might want to gather people’s general preferences and opinions. Nothing too detailed at this stage but some high level positions and principles.

Depending on the tone and style of exercise you want to run, it could be well-suited to either Dialogue or a Citizen Space survey (should I use Dialogue or a survey?)


You may get to a stage where there are a number of fixed proposals or options — perhaps competing for a limited resource. That’s the time to start prioritising between the choices on the table and weighing up trade-offs.

That’s pretty much exactly what we built Budget Simulator to do — and it can be used more broadly than purely on spending decisions.

Austin, Texas asked people to set out their spending priorities for the city using Budget Simulator

Detailed feedback

At some point in almost every policy-making process, you’ll want people to choose from several presented options and provide you with quantitative feedback. You may also need people to specify their priorities or go through a process of deciding what to include and what to omit.

When your options have been narrowed down, it’s time to think about formal surveys. These give people an opportunity to provide in-depth feedback or comment on fine-grained details of a proposal.

This is Citizen Space’s speciality. Government organisations worldwide use the platform to run formal consultations and surveys (as you can see from the 13,000+ consultations tracked on Aggregator). We’re always confident recommending it for formal policy consultation — it’s purpose-built for exactly that.

Consensus building

When options start to crystallise, you may want to begin building consensus among respondents. It can be helpful to create a space for dialogue, to give people exposure to other views and encourage discussion.

Perhaps unsurprisingly (the clue’s in the name), we’d recommend Dialogue here. We’ve seen it used really well for building constructive conversations amongst groups of service users or stakeholders with a common interest in a topic under discussion.

Forestry Commission have often used Dialogue really well as a way of hosting consensus-building conversations between different groups of service users.

Reporting back

One of the most essential parts of a policy-making process is what happens after all the input has been gathered and weighed. It’s crucial to feedback to participants on your decisions and actions.

This should be possible no matter which platform you’re using (make sure to check there will be a way to show people that their involvement didn’t just fall into a black hole!) In particular, Citizen Space is a great overall system for this. You can use it to manage and report back on all of your involvement activity — online or off — and it comes packaged with things like ‘We Asked, You Said, We Did’ functionality and powerful response publishing options.

The Scottish Government used Citizen Space to publish (with appropriate redaction) thousands of responses to their consultation on a Draft Referendum Bill

We appreciate that’s a bit of a whistle-stop tour for what can be a very involved and nuanced decision to make! We’re always happy to talk through advice in more detail, though, and consider the specifics of your situation. You can drop us a line any time if that’d be helpful to you.