Tag Archives: online engagement

A Quick Comparison of Several Recent Online Consultations

Several online consultation and review documents that engaged my interest were published recently, so I thought it might be useful to quickly compare how they’re presented and what they have to offer.

Public Data Corporation
Firstly, the Plans for the Public Data Corporation consultation. The consultation is presented as a WordPress blog (with some untidy default widgets left in the right hand sidebar) with a brief summary and list of ten (10) consultation questions listed on the front page, and then a separate page to solicit responses for each particular question:

The comments are captured using Disqus and a pre-moderation policy:

It is hard to see at a glance the extent to which people have engaged with the questions across the consultation. The premoderation policy means that there is a delay (and uncertainty) in publishing comments – so for example, the comments I posted on a Saturday morning (#bigsociety time?!;-) presumably won’t be released (if at all) until Monday morning at the earliest… meaning no on-site discussion in the comment thread over the weekend.

(See also SImon Dickson’s take on this consultation: Another Cabinet Office WP consultation.)

Where WordPress is used as a platform, single page RSS feeds and comment feeds per page are available, although it is up to the publisher to decide whether full or summary feeds are published for each page. The following Netvibes dashboard demonstrates an aggregation of single page and page level comment feeds for the PDC consultation:

This suggests that it may be possible to increase the surface area of a consultation using dashboard services, as well as developing dashboards to support the management and reactive moderation of a consultation.

Commons Committee Inquiry on Peer Review
The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee have just called for a new Inquiry into Peer Review.

. Eight (8) separate issues are identified and up to 3,000 word submissions in Word format with numbered paragraphs are requested by email, with a paper copy submitted as well.

In terms of online engagement, I guess this sets the minimum possible baseline?!

“Protection of Freedom Bill” Public Reading Stage
The Cabinet Office recently released a public reading stage for the Protection of Freedom Bill using a themed WordPress site. This site offers front page navigation with the number of public comments received through the platform to date identified for each page.

Comments are supported at a page level, with partial feeds supported at the page level (using ?feed=rss2&withoutcomments=1) along with full comment feeds.

WordPress comment threads enabled.

Top level navigation across the document is preserved at the page level by means of the left-hand navigation sidebar.

Despite the legalistic nature of the Bill, paragraph level commenting is not directly supported.

(See also Simon Dickson’s response to this consultation: Can Cabinet Office’s WordPress-based commentable bills make a difference?.)

Department of Health Online Consultations
The Department of Health Online Consultations Hub provides a single home for current and recently closed consultations from the DoH. Consultations are split over several pages with clearly marked out text entry forms on at the bottom of pages where feedback is requested.(That is, page level structured commenting is supported.) By providing email credentials, users can obtain a link that allows them to return to their submission to the consultation at a later date.

Resource Discovery Taskforce Request for Comments on Metadata Guidelines on JISCPress
The JISC Resource Discovery Taskforce (RDTF) request for comments on UK Metadata Guidelines was published as a multipage document on JISCPress, a WordPress installation running the digress.it theme.

Front page sidebar navigation allows access to all areas of the document and summarises the number of comments per page. Mousing over a page link on the front page loads a preview of the page in the central pane. Following a link leads to a page with floating comment box that supports threaded commenting at the paragraph level:

Each paragraph is also given a unique URI allowing it to be uniquely referenced in posts on third party sites.

Along with comments by section, comments are viewable by commenter:

[Disclaimer: I was part of the project team that proposed JISCPress and the use of the digress.it WordPress plugin and am also a member of the RDTF technical advisory group associated with this RFC.]

Wordpress appears to be gaining traction as a consultation publishing platform, with either vanilla themes (e.g. Public Data Corporation proposal) or custom commentable document themes (JISC RDTF guidelines). WordPress native comments as well as third party commenting support using Disqus are demonstrated (it would be interesting to hear the rationale behind the choice of Disqus and an evaluation of how well it was deemed to have worked). Reactive and pre-moderation strategies are in evidence.

PS One more, that I should have included the first time round, on @lesteph’s ReadAndComment platform – LG Group Transparency Programme.

Whole document navigation is available from the front page as well as from the right hand sidebar on document pages (though it’s not clear if there would be a count of comments per page?) Comments are at page level via a WordPress comment entry form at the bottom of the page:

Steph hinted I won’t like the feeds… dare I look?!;-)


Other Consultation Platforms in the Wild: The Department for International Development

Last week we caught a tweet from @simond (Simon Dickson) about the launch of DFID’s new online consultation site.

DFID consultation platfrom - http://consultation.dfid.gov.uk/

The platform is a WPMU (WordPress MultiUser) site running an evolution of DIUS’ original Commentariat theme [UPDATE: apparently it’s not an update of Commentariat, it’s a custom theme that just shares a lot of the features of Commentariat; it’d be really useful to see a comparison of the two… I also wonder if the DFID theme is available under an open license?]. You can read more about the DFID platform on Puffbox. It’s really good to see WPMU embedded in government as a platform for consultations. Did WriteToReply have anything to do with that, we wonder? 🙂 [UPDATE: apparently not – see the comments]

(Just as an aside: if you are, or are thinking of, running more than two WordPress sites under the same domain (actually, even different domains), then WPMU is a much better solution than a proliferation of single WordPress sites; as users of both, we can assure you that the step from WordPress to WPMU is tiny. It’ll take you just a half a day to understand how the WPMU platform works. Seriously… DISCLAIMER: errr, none; WordPress and WPMU are both free downloads, and we’re not on any sort of commission or payback!)

At some point, we need to do a side-by-side comparison of the CommentPress and Commentariat themes, not least so that we can provide a checklist for helping people decide which commenting theme best suits their document; but in the meantime, Steph Gray pointed out a few of the original Commentariat features in Introducing Commentariat & the POI Taskforce Report. If reading that post is still too much effort, the major difference to users is that CommentPress supports paragraph level comments, whereas Commentariat offers page level comments, and an arguably nicer navigation scheme.

Through working on JISCPress, an enhanced version of the CommentPress theme, we’ve started to tease out some principles that will guide our future work on the WriteToReply platform.

  • Support paragraph-level commenting. Consultation documents are generally pithy, carefully worded documents. Allow readers the option of directing comments at specific points in the section rather than at the section as a whole.  The Institute for the Future of the Book have done research into online engagement with texts. It’s worth building on as Steph Gray did by including the scrolling comment box in the Commentariat theme.
  • Document amplification: A government consultation document is not a destination site. By using a platform that is already syndicating chunked document sections on the web (e.g. through RSS syndication), exploit the fact that they’re no longer monolithic documents. Support ‘remote publishing’ through the use of embedded quotes sourced from your original consultation document. Leverage the web to allow people to take ‘ownership’ of the pieces of the consultation that matter to them. Most sites seeking widespread public engagement provide a means for embedding content elsewhere. Work being carried out as part of our open source JISCPress project will provide tools to republish paragraph level content in a variety of formats from a family of structured, unique URIs.
  • Allow search engines to index your consultations: ‘robots, noindex, nofollow’ has no place in a public web-based consultation document.
  • Remote commenting: Pulling in discussions from elsewhere on the web can be done by publishing a unique URI for each separate paragraph in a republished document. These unique URIs can be linked to from third party blog posts and microblog posts (e.g on Twitter) allowing remote conversations to refer to very particular parts of a document, and support the generation of linkbacks and remote comments back to an individual paragraph.
  • Platform-wide benefits: There is no doubt that there are organisational benefits for institutions or government departments running their own consultation platform, as Simon outlines in his post. However, we also believe that there is a public benefit in hosting documents from multiple agencies on the same WPMU platform arising from platform-wide search, browsing, cross-linked related documents, thematic navigation and semantic tagging. By publishing government consultations on an open, web standards-based platform, the documents become open data.  One key feature of our work is to explore the extent to which content analysis and automated semantic tagging of documents hosted on the same platform can be used to automatically generate crosslinks between related documents. For certain document ecosystems, this feature may be used to support automated content discovery or recommendations about related content in other documents.
  • Strength in re-use: We built WriteToReply on the CommentPress theme, in the same way that the DFID platform is built on the Commentariat theme. Our JISCPress project (another public-funded project) has in turn extended the CommentPress theme, not least in exploring the opportunities for content re-publication and third party quoting/embedding. We set up a JISCPress group to discuss our proposed extensions, and solicit further ones, so if there’s anything you like to see us working on over the next couple of months, please post your suggestions there. Remember, it’s an open source project so it’s code you can use for your own projects.