It’s not uncommon to want to consult on a refreshed strategy or policy – just last year a County Council in the East of England did so when considering a new charging regime for Adult Social Care. But is there a way of consulting on a draft set of words directly, such as draft legislation?
Well, there was a promise to create a ‘public reading stage’ in the UK which resulted in a neat online platform to allow citizens to comment directly on the Small Charitable Donations Bill in 2012. But it didn’t last the test of time. However, in other parts of the world this is a new norm.
For example, drafts.dc.gov is a tool to help residents collaborate with government on draft legislation, regulation, and policy. It’s run in partnership between the DC Council, the Executive Office of the Mayor, OCTO, and The OpenGov Foundation. Similarly, the New York State Senate’s recently redesigned website has incorporated participatory features allowing the general public to vote in favour or against bills, leave comments, and sign up for email updates on bills of interest. In-fact, there are similar platforms in more obscure places such as Croatia and China.
So when will this type of technique be adopted by smaller scale, issues based consultations? The General Medical Council have already set the standard in the UK – generating a commendable draft report on ‘Good Doctors’ and hosting a commendable Osteopathic Practice Standards review, resulting in over 360 submissions.
There are some great local authority examples too, albeit a little further away. For example, Ada County in Idaho are using online commenting to consult on their new ‘comprehensive plan’.
In my view it is only a matter of time that this sort of technology will be more widely embraced. The solution market is still thin but there is great appeal. Yet there is a risk of missing the essence of consultation when presented in this form – that feedback starts to build on the technicalities of the wording and not on the merits of what is being said. For now it seems like a convenient way to build consensus around a piece of text but context is key and a dialogue around a document as a whole cannot be ignored.