Gefion Thuermer is a PhD candidate at the University of Southampton. Her research investigates how the introduction of online participation methods changes the engagement of party members in the Green Party Germany. She was seconded to the Open Innovation Team between April and June 2018. In that period, she supported the development of the Open Government National Action Plan with an introduction and literature review around online participation, highlighting the opportunities and challenges technology poses to democratic participation.
Government’s commitment in the National Action Plan
The UK is a founding member of the Open Government Partnership (OGP), a network of more than seventy countries who commit to the shared values of openness and transparency. Every two years, each country develops an Open Government National Action Plan (OGNAP) which sets out how they will deliver on those commitments. The 2016-2018 OGNAP can be found here.
One of the key OGP values is participation. This is done in a variety of ways. Our sister team, PolicyLab, has done some amazing work in engaging citizens locally. The new action plan will include some online elements.
How government engages citizens online
Governments use of the internet to engage citizens has mostly been centered around:
- Service delivery e.g. applying for a driving license
- Providing data e.g. providing data to boost innovation on data.gov.uk
- Petitions through parliaments’ online petition platform
- Consultations, which can be viewed and responded to online.
Government has experimented with other forms of online engagement in the past. The Womenspeak forum allowed victims of domestic abuse to feed into the development of policy. The ‘Workload Challenge’ invited ideas from teachers on how to reduce their workload, and received over 40,000 submissions.
The challenges of online participation and how to get it right
Online participation is a great way to engage citizens. It can help reach people who would not usually engage e.g. rural populations, those who are less mobile and younger generations. However, online participation can be exclusive and the benefits are not shared across all demographics.
There is no golden rule for successful online participation. Instead, online participation should be seen as one part of a wider participation programme. When planning such a programme you should ask the below key questions:
- what is the purpose of the engagement?
- what type of engagement is best suited to achieve that goal?
- what groups should be engaged, and how can they best be approached?
- which, if any, online tool is best suitable to support this process?