Using the internet to make government more accessible

When I tell people that I am the Digital Engagement Manager for the Scottish Government they either furrow their brow or roll their eyes.

It’s either ‘what’s that?’, or a knowing cynicism about a job title that sounds made up. Digital engagement, I explain, means helping civil servants and ministers use the internet to talk to citizens to make better policies.

What it means in practice is delivering consultations that are digital by default, experimenting with different online tools to engage with the public, and helping civil servants build the skills and the confidence to use them every day in order to make government more accessible.

‘Public appetite for participation’

We live in a dizzyingly exciting time. Wearable tech, the internet of things, smart homes – the internet has come a long way since Netscape and Ask Jeeves. If you’re a digital native you might be young enough to have only read about these, those marginally older might have used them before Google became a verb.

In Scotland the public appetite for participation has never been higher, spurred on by a highly engaged online community during 2014’s independence referendum debate and the general election in May last year.

Making government more accessible

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is very clear about her vision for the Scottish Government. In her foreword to the 2015-16 Programme for Government she said: “I am committed to leading the most accessible Government this country has ever had and I want to ensure that we build on the sense of engagement and enthusiasm that we saw – from both sides of the debate – during last year’s referendum. So we will help people to have a bigger say in the decisions that affect them most.”

Teams across the Scottish Government are working to realise this ambition, whether it’s looking at the reform of public services, empowering communities or the creation of a more open government.

We are at the beginning of a journey and being innovative is key. The only way to find out what will work and what won’t is to try them out.

Using tech to facilitate discussions

What we don’t want to do is build expensive digital products when existing tools, often free or at little or no cost, already fit the bill. Whether that’s using Tumblr to source stories about what people are doing to create a greener Scotland, or using Periscope to quickly live-stream an event using a smartphone. As Facebook and Twitter become the primary gateways to the internet for many (especially on mobile devices), we have to have solid presences there too.

It’s not about technology, it’s about discussion. Getting the views and expertise from those who government policies directly affect. For example, a recent discussion about salmon fishing, while relatively niche to those involved, produced a lot of great feedback.

Being open and accessible means lifting the lid on the work that we do. Our corporate website provides the official record of what we are doing (as well as how well we are doing it), but blogging gives us the opportunity to dig a little deeper.  A number of teams have embraced this: Marine Scotland, Marketing, and our Environmental Management Team to name just a few.

Space for big questions

While we extol the virtues of the small and manageable, there is also a place for bigger, weightier discussions online. The ‘Fairer Scotland’ national conversation seeks to ask the question ‘what does a fairer Scotland look like?’. Questions don’t get much bigger than that. Events hosted across Scotland are being supported by digital engagement, including a blog, Facebook, Twitter, Eventbrite, Instagram, idea generation, and Facebook Q&As.

Six years ago naysayers said Twitter was a fad. Since then countless news stories have been broken there, as well as the occasional faux pas that once-upon-a-time would have had PR teams watching the fallout through their fingers. Now, the occasional errant Tweet is met with barely a glance and a dismissive shrug as we make our way to a Buzzfeed list.

Getting everyone involved

It goes without saying that digital is only a part of the puzzle. Often the people we are most keen to hear from are not ‘digital natives’. And while digital platforms are incredibly useful, nothing beats face to face. Being accessible means giving everyone the opportunity to add their voice.

Making this all happen is not going to be easy. As the man said, ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’. New tools are great, but far more important is developing the skills, the space and the confidence for ‘ordinary’ civil servants to do this work themselves.

You can follow our work via our blog and on Twitter.