Author: Tom Longley

What NEED does this meet?

“The government asks us questions all the time, but doesn’t make it easy for us to answer.”

Government consultation is a massive process. Right now, government departments have over 225 “open consultations” on issues like the impact of Crossrail, the independence of national statistics and how to increase skills for lifelong learning.

To get at them, or even find out about them, you have to visit nearly 30 different government websites. Each with different styles and varying quality in terms of useability. Some consultation documents come in formats such as .doc and .pdf; some have summaries, and plain text versions, but not all. All consultations have a civil servant facilitating the process though. The means of answering also vary, but usually involve submitting your comment by Royal Mail or email to a contact point in the department.

Yet, not a single site allows an interested party to submit comments online and view the comments of others. Not a single site has a feed or email sign-up to tell you when there are new consultations, or (perhaps more importantly), remind you to check back to see the results.

What is the APPROACH?

Features of could include:

i) Poolling the “active consultations” data into a feed or email alert service containing a link to the consultation document and the contact point/means of submitting comments. Allow users to sign up – customise alerts by keyword, department or topic.

ii) Building on “Comment on Power” or the BBC Charter Review site. Start parsing all the .pdfs/.docs into straight text and add the ability to comment at some meaningful level, such as by paragraph, chapter. Even use spanky widgetry allowing users the ability to add comments anywhere on the document.

iii) The single, most accessible history of modern government consultation and public engagement therein. Erm, not sure what to add.

What are the BENEFITS to people?

i) Reduce sense of powerlessness. Even the smallest obstacles to getting involved in civic life can fuel the cynical view that government is remote, inaccessible and uninterested in our opinions. Enable comment and let people feel connected.

ii) Create a superb platform for group action., like could be a great tool and focal point for groups to leverage opinons and help their supporters remain connected to a campaign.

iii) Give government what it asks for. Statutory obligations aside, departments genuinely seek to learn about the impact and dimensions of their decision-making. By widening the scope for comment, consultations become more democratic, their integrity and potential value increased dramatically.

iv) A source of revenue for MySociety. More advanced features could be sold as a service to the department running the consultation. These could include provision of the raw data for analysis by geographical location, or simply the collation of all comments into a standalone document of some sort.

What is the COMPETITION?

No top predators, as far I can tell – happy to be proved wrong though.

The Cabinet Office sits on the site, which leads to a page of links to other departmental consultation sites.

Specific interest groups, associations and networking organisations link to consultations and make their members/users aware of the fact of consultations. They also publish their responses. Wouldn’t it be easier for such groups simply to refer their members/users to rather than track the issue themselves?

What BUDGETS & LOGISTICS are required?

The challenge seems to be maintaining a single repository of metadata about all consultations, but it seems unlikely to me that somewhere like the Cabinet Office does not do this already. Time to make some calls, Tom!


  1. I think this is a great idea. There are many “consultations” that us average citizens do not get to hear about until after the fact – when the so-called results are being talked about. This means special interest lobbies can often hijack such “wide-ranging consultations” and then point back at them to support their position.

    As Tom, the proposer, says, having feeds available making people aware of these things could be really useful, so that you can actually participate in these and help to influence governemnt position papers and new laws to be drafted. This is where government comes from.

    I would even expect the BBC to provide a link to this site as part of its public service remit.

  2. Good comments, one and all. I also found this ODPM service which appears to provide email notifications of new central government department consultations:

    It’s a functional but limited service, and is geared to local government users; it doesn’t enable or have the potential for the extent of involvement proposed with

  3. Shane, yes it would be lovely if central government built this. But it would also have been lovely if parliament had made FaxYourMP. The cross-departmental coordination required for the government to make would be very hard.

    Tom, it’s a good idea. Email alerts are vital (which search the text of the consultation documents as well). The hard bit is screen scraping the consultations. But there aren’t that many departmental websites to do, and we could skip local government to start with (or hope everyone is using Consultation Finder!).

  4. I didn’t see it listed on the proposal, but is the intention to make it easy to respond to the civil servant easily (probably via a WriteToThem style form) as well as providing information about the campaign. The benefits would be those offered by WriteToThem – someone writes on the web and it gets delivered to the right person by fax or e-mail, and stats would be fairly easy to collect (15 people responded to the “Save Burnam Wood” consultation, 1500 to the “Ban the BNP” consultation) and might give some insight into the government response figures, which tend to class 1000 identikit responses as a single response.

  5. We started building this with consultation process dot org. In fact parsing the .PDF’s etc is a lot more complicated that you would think, each department has its own look and feel (DCMS is especially photo heavy).

    Its all on hold for the moment, but we should be doing some work on it again soon. I want to get some BBC documents up there.

    I was scraping the site and producing an RSS feed of new and recently closed consultations.


  6. Francis, the point I was making is that the software/site doesn’t need building. It can be done if Govt feel it is a good idea. The problem with FaxYourMp as I understand it is that the software didn’t exist and Govt was unlikely to build it.


  7. Some follow up on comments:


    Mark ->

    re: – thanks for letting us know about this. Did you just run out spare time or reach the limits of the toolset?


    Shane ->

    I’ve taken a little time to go through a couple of the consultations run using Consultancy Finder. It’s quite handy as a mini CMS for background documents, constituent surveys and follow-up documents. However, it might have been a good idea for CommunityPeople to have chosen a more impressive site to promote the product than the (parma violet themed!) Norfolk one ., as envisaged, would be far more freeflowing in nature, based on commentary and discussion between users of the site. This is perhaps a more appropriate format for the broadbrush policy issues that often form the body of central government consultations.

    The aim isn’t only to improve the quality of feedback, but also:
    – to raise awareness of the general process of consultation, not just specific consultations.
    – to increase overall general political and civic awareness
    – to get people to dip into and browse the documents by making them scannable and very easy to read.

    And from a technical perspective:
    – to keep costs down: I image that the sum a central government department would be charged by Capita to create and maintain such a site would be rather large.
    – to keep the service simple: the number of largely unnecessary widgets that would get grafted onto a groupthunk’d service?
    – to respond quickly to users: not something the government is known for.
    – to better capitalise on the most prevalent online habits, email and the humble comment, and not seek to change them
    – to use open-source software that can be improved upon, manipulated at low-cost and given to others for use.

    I think that it is these parts of the idea that can better be developed upon by some agile non-governmental footwork. To this end, Francis’ point remains sound.

  8. Really it was spare time. I have spoken briefly with the MySoc people and reckon I can re-start So if anyone wants to volunteer to help then swing on over, or email me at mark [at]

    I am going to brush out the old stuff on the site and archive it (most of it is not accessible at the moment for some server reason). Another thing to do is to look at the site which my friend Gavin Bell started. After I did the ID card bill he decided to do the EU Constitution and also coined the term ‘Social Documents’ that I think covers some of what we were trying to do.

    It might also be worth looking at the article he wrote for Oreilly Network ‘Encouraging Engagement on the Web’ which supported a presentation that we both gave at the Emerging Technology Conference last year (2005).

    We started experimenting with Blog engines and wiki’s.

    In fact I spoke to some members of Lewisham Local Council who where very much up for the idea of using wikis for local authority consultations and one of the Councillors put the consultation for the Blackheath Bylaws online in a blog.

    Having trawled through the wonderful world of consultation documents let me just say that they use PDF and word documents with abandon. They do not use semantic markup within these documents and I think it is our duty to :

    a. open these documents up even more (on a fundamental accessibility level, i spoke to a rep from the RNIB about PDF. They are technically accessible, but most people do not know how to read them with their screen reader etc.)

    b. record these documents somewhere neutral. The ID card document had issues about the PDF not being easy to cut and paste. Some blamed the Home Office for dirty tricks, others agreed that it was a cock up, but still having a history of document revision independantly monitored would be so nice.

    c. make a world readable record of the dicussions around these documents. They are consultations for **** sake, they are about dialogue and conversation and listening and adding your thoughts.

    There is plenty we can do to enable this, lets do it.



  9. ok, go to you will need to use the username consult and the password wiki to get in but I will get more notes and stuff there over the next couple of days.

    Also the Oreilly Hacks book, PDF Hacks is proving very interesting reading 🙂



  10. Aha! So TheyWant… etc was your doing. That was a real step up from the work before it, so nice one. I’ll have a gander at the wiki.

  11. This would be brilliant! I was initially saddened to note that the 2006 proposals round had long closed as I was going to suggest just this – then I was over-joyed to see this submission!