Towards a digital engagement standard

mrhenderson Uncategorized Leave a Comment


So, this post is about a piece of work I’ve been contemplating for some time. I’ve been working with the excellent Sciencewise project for some months now – their aim is to “enable better policy making by fostering capacity within the policy-making community to commission and use excellent public dialogue”. They do this by engaging with government departments (policymakers) on a range of science & technology issues and hire contractors to run public dialogue projects around them.

An emerging theme is that some of the contractors are behind the curve when it comes to digital engagement. Some of the projects have no aspect of digital at-all and there is a risk that others will be badly designed. While corrective measures are in-hand, I thought that it would be a good idea to set minimum standards (and elevated ones) for the digital engagement aspects of public dialogue projects in the future.

The idea is simple. Not all public dialogue projects need a digital engagement emphasis but at the same time the digital channel cannot be ignored. This premise applies for most public facing projects.  So, what are the basic / intermediate and advanced requirements?


The thinking begins

Firstly, I want to start with a number of desired objectives. I want these to be pinned to the public sector and rotate around engagement. For example:-

  • Engage a specific audience
  • Increase trust in the process
  • Encourage quality interactions
  • Enhance citizen knowledge of issues
  • Prevent the spread of misinformation
  • Gather input on policy development
  • Increase public support for decisions already taken
  • Obtain better informed opinions
  • Stimulate involvement
  • Provide project feedback
  • Broaden dialogue
  • Deepen dialogue
  • Extend dialogue


Next, I have been looking at the various existing models. These are quite bland, and I’m no fan of Arnsteins ladder of citizen participation (partly because it’s soooo old).

Then I came across a much groovier model from the US Department of Transport (2013). They list four levels of involvement in an increasing capacity:-

  1. SHARE (information and data)
  2. GATHER (collect insights, knowledge, expertise and experiments)
  3. INVITE (input into issues including policy)
  4. BUILD (collaborating and co-ordination)

I quite like this as it uses activity centric words instead of citizen centric ones (e.g. empower and inform)



Next, a little adaptation. While the DOT model is good it doesn’t account for the ‘connecting’ facets of digital engagement. For example, the ability for citizen to contact an expert or the project co-ordinators. So, I’ve simply substituted GATHER for CONNECT. Secondly, I don’t really like ‘invite’ as it sounds like a closed process so I’ve substituted this for INCLUDE. Finally I’ve swapped out BUILD for INTERACT – this seemed to make more sense in the scope of digital dialogue.

  1. SHARE (a digital channel presence)
  2. CONNECT (a means of digital contact)
  3. INCLUDE (a means of being officially involved using the digital channel or medium)
  4. INTERACT (using the digital channel to host the dialogue)

So, there you have it. Now to decide what really should be a minimum for any digital component of a public policy project. Well, it really goes without saying that there shouldn’t be a level zero.

Levels 1 & 2 feel like they can be easily joined. After all, it would be a poor show to have a project website if there was no Twitter presence or email contact for that presence. Levels 3&4 feel more discrete – so I’ve kept them alone.   You end up with this:-

  1. SHARE & CONNECT (basic)
  2. INCLUDE (intermediate)
  3. INTERACT (advanced)


Flesh on the bones

So, what do these levels mean? Well, this is where I need your help. I’m pulling together a list of features which I feel are representative of each. Bear in mind some of these items are public facing and others are about the way that the hosts behave or treat communications.

Here is my interpretation:-


  • A web (mobile responsive) web presence and unique URL
  • Dynamic and up-to-date content
  • Searchable, digital archive of all paper based information
  • A manned, unique email address
  • A manned, unique Twitter handle that is capable of being conversational
  • Contact details of the experts or authorities involved
  • The ability to freely comment on published thought pieces in a flat yet transparent way
  • Social integration (e.g. Share, Like buttons)
  • Syndication options (e.g. RSS)
  • Email newsletter and subscribe feature
  • Collect Analytics
  • Basic SEO


 INCLUDE (the above and…)

  • The ability to officially record a viewpoint which can be treated in equal weight to an offline participant. For example, online survey or poll.
  • A means of capturing, classifying and analysing all qualitative feedback on the official digital space
  • A means of monitoring and considering on-topic conversations outside of the official digital space
  • A manned, unique Twitter handle that is capable of being conversational
  • Evidence of digital marketing to ensure that participation has been invited / adequate visibility
  • The use of rich media to recycle information and evidence – to enhance knowledge or act as a stimulus


 INTERACT (the above and…)

  • Actively responding or signposting the public in ‘unofficial’ digital spaces
  • Hosting of structured two-way dialogues in the digital domain (e.g. online forum)
  • Digital back-channel for public events


The result

So, how does this map back to the original desired objectives?


  • Provide project feedback
  • Increase public support for decisions already taken
  • Enhance citizen knowledge of issues
  • Increase trust in the process
  • Broaden dialogue (increase reach)



  • Stimulate involvement
  • Gather input on policy development
  • Obtain better informed opinions
  • Encourage quality interactions
  • Elongate dialogue around issues



  • Prevent the spread of misinformation
  • Engage a specific audience
  • Deepen dialogue around issues


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