Last Thursday the second iteration of a tool to allow comments on Bills passing through the House of Commons process went live. Steph Gray from Helpful Technology explains why a second iteration was needed and how putting users needs first shaped his approach.
In the Coalition Agreement, the Government committed to introduce “a new ‘public reading stage’ for bills to give the public an opportunity to comment on proposed legislation online". The first pilot of this entirely new consultative concept launched last summer, putting the Protection of Freedoms Bill online for comment clause-by-clause.
The idea of getting input on the shaping of legislation, as well as policy, is clearly gaining some traction. Last Wednesday, the Department of Health launched the draft Care and Support Bill in 'commentable' form alongside a site aimed at more wide-ranging engagement with the issues it covers. Stephen Hale, head of Digital at the Department, explains the approach they've taken on his official blog.
So it was great to be asked about 4 weeks ago by the Innovation team at GDS to help with the second iteration of the Public Reading Stage concept, this time with the Small Charitable Donations Bill. The tool we've developed went live last Thursday at http://publicreadingstage.cabinetoffice.gov.uk.
Minister for the Cabinet Office Francis Maude has welcomed the launch of the improved online Public Reading Stage tool. He said:
“This is just the sort of innovative, citizen-focused technology that GDS was set up for – helping to open a door into the business of government.
Traditional consultations on legislation have tended to be narrow and exclusive. This online channel makes it easier for ordinary people to scrutinise government plans and put their own ideas, thoughts and concerns into the legislative process and influence parliamentary debate.
The first version of the tool allowed us to test the technology. For this second iteration, GDS have listened to the feedback from users and developers to make it even easier to use.”
Building on foundations
Enabling public commenting on documents has been around in government for at least three years now, including commentable versions of the Power of Information Task Force report in 2009 and the Digital Britain report set up by Joss Winn and Tony Hirst from WriteToReply.
We've learned a few things about how users engage with these sorts of sites:
- it's important to set expectations and define the scope clearly: so people understand what the site is about, what feedback is being asked for and how it will be used.
- the user experience of commenting has to be smooth: reading through a document, accompanying notes and previous comments needs to feel uncluttered and natural.
- it's important to be able to work with and link to specific sections of documents: not so granular that they don't make sense, but not so large that it's hard to understand what comments relate to.
- the analysis at the end of the process needs to be made easy too: providing exports of comments and their context in ways which the end users of the feedback can work with.
- users work in different ways and should facilitate that: amongst the fairly niche audience likely to use this site, some will prefer the offline benefits of reading long documents as PDFs to print off and or scroll through on a train; others will want to make private submissions rather than public comments; some will hopefully work through the site or sections of it, leaving comments as they go.
Putting users first
For this project, we started from some user stories developed by the Office of the Leader of the Commons working with the GDS Innovation team, and developed an initial wireframe to address them. Perhaps unusually, one of our key stories was to direct users to other ways they might influence Parliament or Government on this issue, since the language of Bills is inevitably technical and other channels - writing to your MP, starting an e-Petition, responding to a policy consultation - might be more effective and accessible for some users. It's not an accident that the site looks quite similar to its initial wireframe: though all contributions are welcome, the audience most likely to find participation on this site rewarding are specialists comfortable with legal and policy texts.
In the short time available, the platform we've developed aims to improve the user experience of commenting on documents and hopefully enable that feedback to be used more effectively. We opted to use WordPress for this project. This keeps costs down, effectively giving us a community-supported, open source, lightweight publishing and commenting system on top of which we've created quite a lot of new content types and functionality.
It's been great to have the advice and support throughout of engagement and online legislation specialists including John Sheridan and Jeni Tennison from legislation.gov.uk, Antony Zacharzewski from the Democratic Society, and Richard Parsons from eDemocracyblog.com - thanks to all of them, as well as Ben Sneddon from the Office of the Leader of the House of Commons and Roo, Alex and Ade from the GDS Innovation team.
We'd like to hear what you think about this way of presenting long, technical documents for online comment, so please use the feedback form on the site to help us improve it. If you're a developer, feel free to take a look at the project code on Github, and suggest your own improvements.
Comment by lesteph posted on
You're not wrong. I meant to underline in the post that the platform is only a small part of the success of any digital engagement project, dwarfed in significance by the quality of the content, the supporting promotion and community management, and the alignment of the various internal and external stakeholders. So you're absolutely right to raise the issue of how accessible legislation is to read and discuss. As I say in the post, this is a site for specialists on the whole, though it's open to anyone.
But I'd argue this is interesting in terms of GDS technology choices - a lot of the high-profile launches the in-house team has delivered have been bespoke, albeit open source, boxes of tricks. This isn't one of those: it's just a WordPress theme built in under a week, shared on Github, for anyone to pick up and use, and improve. Its predecessor - Commentariat - got a lot of use here and overseas for document commenting, and was improved and adapted by others.
Starting from WordPress gave us the ability to improve the user experience and accessibility quite a bit over existing tools, and control more of the branding, comment handling and hosting/support, which were priorities for the team. But it also meant we could contribute back to an active community, and build complex functionality quickly and cheaply. I've looked at things like Co-ment and perhaps an alternative closer to what we need - Digress.it - in the past, but they weren't quite right for this project.
I agree that it's a good rule of thumb to try out low cost technology and learn from the experience - that's what this iteration is all about.
Comment by Fraser posted on
Look, what you've done here is nice but I can't help feeling that GDS is going around reinventing the wheel. First it was ePetitions, then this….what next…..a GDS eConsultation tool?
My point is that I don’t think that a policy of creating bespoke technology is always necessary when there’s some excellent and proven ‘off the shelf’ tools for the job which can ‘plug in’ to your framework. Take a look at ‘co-ment’ - you can find an example of the same text here: https://lite.co-ment.com/text/6QyirHkgVAJ/view/
Why is it better in my view? Well, for starters you can highlight and comment any particular piece of text (not just blocks). You get a heat map which highlights where there has been most contention, you can automatically upload and convert texts into the collaborative format and there is a full audit trail.
The other thing you have to remember about this sort of tool is that the language of legislation is gobbledygook for most of us and subsequently informed comments are going to be an upward struggle. Better, perhaps, to provide author notes in addition to explanatory notes. Even better to provide an "easy read" version of any new legislation for commenting.
If you want to dig deeper into tools that also help in the process of drafting legislation then I suggest you take a look at some of the European Parliament pilots (e.g. http://www.ep-momentum.eu/eParticipationProjects/DALOS/tabid/61/Default.aspx). I suspect that the process and markup at the authoring stage will affect how this sort of thing is later digested.