At CPI, we often ask ourselves what role digital government plays in strengthening legitimacy. In the government of Victoria, Australia, they are not just providing a platform for consultation but thinking about how people experience and judge government and its services through their portal. Engage Victoria was recognised as highly commendable finalists in BCG’s GovCX awards to honour excellence in the digital citizen experience.
We spoke to Jeremi Moule Deputy Secretary, Governance Policy and Coordination, at the Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet about how the platform is working.
We’re very interested in your engagement portal, Jeremi, because it ties in very well with our study of legitimacy. What started the idea?
First thing I would say is that Engage Victoria is not just a portal. It’s service delivered through three distinct digital products and a supporting governance and capability framework.
The three digital products are the frontend portal and consultation services that are the most visible part of the service, a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) capability that allows Victorians to subscribe to be kept informed of consultations they may be interested in and a range of structured and unstructured data analysis tools.
The governance and capability framework is, I think the real game changer is this product offering, by providing our departments with an authorising environment to push for better quality engagements and simple tools to help their staff plan consultations.
To make this happen a few things intersected. Firstly, we were looking to deliver our public sector reform agenda and seeking to improve our engagement with citizens in Victoria. Secondly, we had observed that there were pockets of good activity within our own state’s departments, in civic society across citizen platforms, and in private companies in Victoria, but there was no aggregated site. The data that could have been gleaned from these forms of public engagement was either lost or siloed. Finally technology was also a factor, making it easier to develop modular services and do more with unstructured data.
We recognised that the ways that government interacted with citizens were beginning to look different, and there were a few new drivers involved. The Department of the Premier and Cabinet had discussions about venturing into this space and saw that it could be highly beneficial. South Australia had already ventured successfully into the citizen engagement space, so we knew there was an opportunity to centralise the digital capability.
How long ago did you start thinking about developing a portal in this way?
We started about three years ago, with some initial discovery and prototyping work.
And how long did it take from that idea to delivery, to going live?
It took twelve months in all. First, we considered how it could be funded, and so we examined the various funding options and developed a co-contribution model across the different departments. Then we established the principles, staffing and software requirements including testing.
I think it’s also important to note that we are treating Engage Vic as an ongoing service. The funding model we have put in place enables internal users to help drive development based on their needs.
The great thing about the portal, which has led to its being praised so highly, is its simplicity. How did you achieve that?
A great deal of effort goes into making a tech platform appear so simple! It’s evident when you use it – it’s intuitive. And the best platforms are easy to use. We also have an ongoing review of how people are using the platform, and this feeds into enhancements for users. Our team take a user-first approach to the way we design and deliver all our products and services. So when we started work on Engage Vic one of the first things we did was ask both consultation managers and those contributing to government consultations about what where the services they wanted and needed.
And how much did it cost?
The overall licensing, custom development and staff cost in the first year was $1.17 million. To deliver the frontend components of the service, we licensed an existing product developed by Harvest Digital Planning, a Melbourne based company specialising in online community engagement. We entered into an agreement with them where we would fund a product roadmap taking their service and uplift it to an enterprise level solution. This includes all the backend smarts allowing departments and agencies to manage their individual consultations as well as building out the frontend look and feel of the service.
We took this approach because we knew that by working with Harvest we would benefit from their overall roadmap improvements while selectively developing functionality that would meet our specific needs. We think this is a great win-win relationship for both Harvest and us.
Outside of the work we do with Harvest on the frontend, we also have product roadmaps for our CRM capability, data analytics and dashboards. Some of this is done in-house using our own development teams and some in partnership. We are actually starting to explore how machine learning and artificial intelligence could be used to improve unstructured data analytics coming out of the service, so if someone reading this is playing in that space we would be happy to chat.
You talk about the portal with a degree of passion that suggests this is very important to you.
It is important, and you have to communicate that passion. A consultation is a legal requirement on some aspects of policy, and this can lead governments to make the process a very narrow one-way street. But participants in an online platform can work out fairly quickly how legitimate that citizen journey actually is. If it’s not, then it’s pretty quickly seen through.
What happens after people submit their responses? What and when do they hear back?
As part of the platform we provide integrated tools so staff can notify participants on project progress. The number of updates depends on the timelines and key milestones for a project.
The Department of Education and Training are very effective at keeping their community in the loop, sending regular updates including consultation summary reports, next steps and decision-making outcomes. Consultation progress is also clearly shown on their school projects, using infographics, videos, slides and even virtual tours to step people through how their feedback is shaping school designs.
What happens in the usual consultation process?
That depends on the consultation. We’re not trying to provide a cookie-cutter or tick a box approach. We look at the consultation in its entirety, including how the digital tools on the platform best complement the face-to-face processes that are needed to reach the right stakeholders.
We realise that policy development of this kind is in its infancy. It’s legislatively required, but this is not the whole story, there’s much more to the citizen journey than that. When you go into a consultation, you create a timeline, a set of milestones, identify where this consultation fits in the broader policy process, through to reporting back on the project outcomes.
The milestones are great. How do you move from people giving you their thoughts and ideas to the policymaking process itself?
Obviously, there’s a fair bit of work involved, especially in the data analytics space. There’s a range of different responses to analyse: a yes/no series of questions and answers, text boxes to make comments and share your story, and a place where people can upload written submission documents in response to any given topic.
The vital point is that people can see which part of the consultation was reflected in the final decision. People need to understand what their expectations are, what influence they have over the policymaking process, and what the feedback mechanisms are. You can’t be disingenuous about the amount of influence they have on specific decisions. They mustn’t feel that they fired their response into the ether and never heard back.
With citizens’ consultations, they can be asked about too many things. How do you avoid that? We call this consultationitis.
This is where the governance and capability components of the service come into play. Along with the digital tools to deliver the consultation, the governance structure we have put in place allows consultation leaders within departments to work with staff to ensure quality, coordinate activities and as a result, reduce duplication and engagement fatigue in the community.
Additionally, to avoid over-asking online, we ask ourselves: what other pieces of consultation are taking place? Is this more effective face to face? What stakeholders have we spoken to before? The policymakers then bring all these processes together. I’m not suggesting that this is the be-all and end-all. An online consultation might not be the right answer for that particular policy or that community. And not all policies are suited to the public space. But it is a great opportunity for people to participate if they choose to.
To help drive quality outcomes, we have developed a template that consultation managers complete to help them design their consultation. This covers topics including audience, language, content, channel and structure of the consultation. This is supported through training and development provided by the Engage Victoria team to help with an overall skills uplift and finally through what we call the “Engagement Champions Network” which is a network of community engagement practitioners from across the state whose role is to keep improving our engagement capability.
As part of your online consultations, there is a section where you can share your view on anything at all, this strikes me as a good way to avoid people feeling you only engage on your terms – what happens to those comments?
Community feedback is provided to specific project owners which they can use to inform policy development. The Engage Victoria team also use this feedback to help identify platform usability issues and improvements.
How do you connect with people who aren’t engaged, the hard-to-reach groups?
We are continuing to grow our internal capability to engage with those who are less easily heard, whether because they’re voiceless or because they’re apathetic. For example, this year we’ve created a dedicated multicultural communications team that provides conduct research, build networks and provide advice on how to best reach culturally and linguistically diverse groups across Victoria.
In terms of Engage Vic, usability and accessibility are integral to the platform design – you don’t have to learn how to use it. We’ve made the user environment a very friendly one, and we work to remove any impediments to people’s participation. We also get consultation owners to think about who they need to connect with and what channels they should use to achieve this.
So, we are supporting the government in getting to those hard-to-reach people. We haven’t cracked the nut on how to reach everyone, but are continuing to build the capability to better reach Victorians.
How do you explain when the way things end up is not as people expected, or people are split 50/50?
The great thing about the portal is that you can see what others have said too and that not everyone agrees with you. That is deliberate and important so that when decisions are made, people will know that others views were considered, even if they are not entirely pleased with the result. This helps people understand the complexity of the decision.
When you have that 50/50 split of very diametrically opposed views, it is a very difficult thing for government to handle. And the online consultation helps you see the complexity.
How do you explain that trust is at an all-time low in government nationally with so much progress on engagement activity? This applies to trust more broadly and to trustworthiness.
Despite all the efforts that governments in Australia are making, trust is at an all-time low. Most advanced democracies are experiencing this issue globally at the moment. The decision-makers of the day are active online and through the media. And through engagement activity like this, we do gain a better understanding of the opportunities at hand. It does have some influence over decision-making. But citizen engagement is just one pillar of what we can do to restore the trust in government that has been eroded.
What other ways do you strive to improve trust on the engagement side?
By undertaking more engagement to improve legitimacy. There has to be transparency about why you are engaging with citizens. In some ways, it’s like reading online reactions to news stories. People have a range of different views and perspectives, which give me a broader view of the world. Maybe, as a result, I’ll discard some of my own views and achieve a more well-rounded view of the problem.
That’s very positive – few people want to hear other people’s views who don’t agree with them but at CPI we say diversity of opinion in your team as well as outside the team are important.
This kind of platform – it’s about government listening to the community, but it’s also giving citizens an opportunity to see what others are thinking. It’s not just “I send my letter in, I don’t hear what anyone else has to say”.
Would you add anything at all about legitimacy-building?
We’re proud of the site that we’ve built. It doesn’t cure everything that ails us, but we’re helping assist people in their decision-making and the operating model we have put together around the service allows us continually improve the service.
Ultimately the service gives citizens a better sense of why government lands where it does.
Thank you very much, Jeremi, you’ve been a great person to interview. It’s very refreshing to hear this degree of honesty and open-mindedness.
Legitimacy is one of the three Public Impact Fundamentals and a topic we are exploring to find out what it means and how it can be strengthened to help make government more effective.
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