Civic tech: Now with added culture change

Talking about civic tech and culture change

Central and local governments are making increasing use of digital tools to improve the way they engage with the public. While many of these tools are effective in their own right, what’s interesting is the way that this type of civic tech leads to change in the organisations that bring them in. This was my main takeaway from a recent Delib user group I attended.

The event in question was for people using Delib public consultation and engagement tools — a kind of show and tell, with outside speakers as well. We heard from two government departments (Health and BEIS), two local councils (West Sussex and Camden), Network Rail, Democratic Society and members of the The Delib Team itself.

The event had a really nice format and kudos to Delib for inviting outside speakers and for letting folks tell their own stories.

Thanks to Ben for inviting me and Louise Cato for arranging and to the Department of Health for the room. By the way, Delib have been developing and refining the same products for years and, to be fair, these are very strong products (I’m not on commission — honest). You can find out more here if you want.

For me, the interesting thing about the day was not so much the tools themselves, but how the tools led to changes for the organisations that brought them in — both for the internal and the public conversation. Let me try and illustrate what I mean.

Changing the internal conversation

I written before about why democracy needs more hackers and this event was a nice example of that.

We heard about better arrangments between policy and comms people, about rewards/sanctions being introduced for good/bad engagement practices, about departmental champions, new training courses, about analysis being done on all consultation activity and the insights being widely shared and we heard about consultation work being pulled into the centre where it hadn’t been before.

Sure, culture change is needed to make the tech work effectively in an organisation, but it seems to me that these ripples of culture change go much beyond that.

Changing the public conversation

Often civic tech is brought in for organisational reasons; better use of resources, better internal user experience, better reputation. But it’s great to see how this tech can also start to change the conversation with the public.

We heard examples of people taking their public engagement upstream and using the tech to generate ideas and set agedas — not just consult at the end of the policy process.

There are some really interesting advantages to this. These include being able to undertake some real discovery work at the beginning of a policy process and to engage the people using services in the design of those services at an early stage.

It was also interesting to hear from Michelle at Demsoc about some of the other ways in which this public conversation is being hacked through, for example, data visualisation, deiberative discussion or the use of line by line commenting.

Hacking the tools

It was also great to hear how people were using the tools for purposes other than the ones they were originally intended for. And why not? If you have bought a consultation platform then why not use it for registering pension accounts or managing competitions?

Never underestimate the power of people on the ground, with limited resources, to make the most of what they have. More power to them.

What came first?

Of course you may be asking ‘how do you know that it was the tech that led to the change and not the other way round?’

To be honest I don’t really, although I suspect it’s a combintaion of the two.

More than that I suspect that you get the biggest change when you put the tools in the hands of the keen beans (more about them here).

In fact, it was probably a keen bean that pursuaded the organisation to get the tech in the first place.