In a new blog from our Making Sense of Parliaments conference Nicole Nisbett and Cristina Leston-Bandeira discuss how digital public engagement is organised across different departments within the UK Parliament.
This blog investigates how digital public engagement is organised across different departments within the UK Parliament. We explore why it is important to consider which services deliver public engagement and how they relate to each other when researching digital engagement, and how understanding the organisational structure can shed light on future effectiveness measures.
Section 1 – Public Engagement Spectrum
It is widely recognised in the literature that engagement entails varying dimensions (Coleman 2004; Leston-Bandeira 2007; Leston-Bandeira and Walker 2018; Rowe and Frewer 2005). This can be sequential (Arnstein 1969) or dependent on who is initiating the conversation or which medium it is held on (Lenihan 2008). In this blog, we employ a new spectrum of public engagement (Figure 1), developed to summarise and combine these scholarly contributions, to conceptualise different dimensions of public engagement.
The spectrum considers not only the flow and source of information, but whether the activity requires the public’s input or not. As Figure 1 illustrates, it is made up of two overarching branches: the one on the right whose activities rely on input from the public, and the one on the left where the information flows one-way from Parliament. Each of these leads to more specific dimensions (3rd tier) and possible activities (4th tier), such as the website, within the left branch, or surveys, within the right. Along the left branch, the primary aim is to inform the public of anything to do with Parliament, whereas the right branch’s dimensions and activities aim to not only provide information to the public but also enable the public to inform Parliament. Furthermore, as a single activity may transcend different dimensions of engagement, the two branches are at equal levels in the spectrum, rather than as a hierarchy.
Section 2 – Organigram
Determining the success of a particular public engagement activity relies on many different factors. The previous section identified different dimensions entailed in public engagement and what they aim to achieve. On a practical level, this means that different services may have differing objectives for the engagement activities they lead on. Understanding which teams lead on which engagement activities can provide clues therefore on differing performance indicators. We outline the current structure of the teams across the UK Parliament that are responsible for online public engagement (Figure 2), thanks to research developed from October 2017 to September 2018.
As Figure 2 shows, the principal teams responsible for online engagement are based primarily in the House of Commons (HoC) with the exception of Parliamentary Digital Service (PDS) which is bicameral. PDS has over 400 employees, split into several sectors and sub teams. The Digital Development section includes five sub-teams, two of which are Data and Search and Content. These two teams handle the development of the new website, creating new content for the current website, and introducing new analytics tools to name a few. Moving to the unicameral departments, the Chamber and Committees department includes the Web & Publication Unit (WPU) which sits under the HoC Committee Office team, and includes Select Committees. In parallel to this, the Participation department consists of three teams: Digital Outreach, Public Enquiries, and Resources & Content Development.
Section 3 – Engagement Activities and Inter-Team Collaboration
In section 1 we introduced our spectrum of public engagement and briefly explained how it incorporated the source and flow of information. Tying this into the organisational structure in section 2, we can connect teams to areas of the spectrum based on the activities they undertake the most. Table 1 shows firstly that the theory behind the spectrum can be applied in practice to categorise the activities of the teams; secondly, that the teams can greatly vary in terms of the types of engagement they carry out; and thirdly provides clues on which teams could best work together and how they could be assessed based on the types of activities they undertake.
Teams with duties lying in the Information dimension are Digital Outreach and Public Enquiries. Both sit under the umbrella of Participation and use @HouseofCommons twitter account and the parliament.uk website to disseminate information to the public. The Public Enquiries team is the first port-of-call for enquiries from the public and the first engagement opportunity many will have with the institution besides the website. They receive around 15,000 enquiries a year with 2/3rds of these being over the phone. The team also maintain some of the parliament.uk webpages and produce short public publications for the House of Commons. Resources and Content Development team and the Content team both lie under the Education dimension and are the only two teams (Figure 2) which are bicameral, suggesting this particular dimension covers the whole of parliament more than any other dimension. These teams produce online resources for teachers, as well as online courses which have proved extremely popular with the public, especially when disseminated through Facebook. Data analysed from Facebook shows the ‘Introduction to Parliament’ MOOC was one of the most popular posts posted by the HoC account between April 2017 and May 2018.
Moving on to those services that focus on the public as their source of information, rather than Parliament, this includes the Petitions Committee, WPU, and Digital Outreach teams’ activities. Each of these reaches out to the public to gather their views on a certain matter and relay that information back to Members and officials. The WPU is responsible for the public engagement of all of the select committees in the House of Commons, and organises campaigns, surveys, or other activities committees may require to promote inquiries. A slight exception to this is the Petitions Committee, which has dedicated Public Engagement Specialists employed on their team to conduct their public engagement activities. These roles unique to this committee provide it with more expertise in terms of understanding of engagement, meaning they rely less on the WPU than other committees may do. For instance, they recognise that the majority of the internet traffic to the e-petitions website originates from Facebook and have used this insight to alter their strategies and focus more on Facebook than Twitter. This also opens an avenue for them to work closely with the Digital Outreach team who manage the House of Commons Facebook account, encouraging the sharing of approaches and data.
Digital Outreach conducts the Digital Debates on Facebook and uses other established online communities to gather opinions from the public. They liaise with different specialised charities around the country, so they have a ready-made community to turn to when an MP requests to have an online debate. Most consultation activities above are initiated by Parliament; if a Select Committee needs information for an inquiry they will themselves create and share a survey asking the public a set of questions, and when suitable topics arise, the Digital Outreach team creates a digital discussion card on Facebook asking for the public’s views.
Teams responsible for digital engagement derive therefore from different areas of Parliament, and where this has the possibility to hinder inter-team partnership there is evidence of collaboration. For example, the Petitions Committee and the Digital Engagement team have many joint activities especially in promoting upcoming debates of e-petitions through Facebook. Likewise, the Content team have been responsible for the roll-out of a new social media listening tool which will enable teams across Parliament to develop a better understanding of their social media data. There are also regular meetings between engagement officers in Digital Outreach, WPU and other teams to discuss upcoming campaigns.
However, silos also exist within the structure. As Parliament is taking steps to not only increase their role in including the public (Hansard Society 2017; Liaison Committee 2015; Walker 2012) but also use more digital tools (Digital Democracy Commission 2015), a clear understanding of precisely what types of data is held and by which teams could provide a valuable source of information for another team. Furthermore, when it comes to measuring the success of a particular activity or initiative, good channels of communication facilitate the sharing of any new analysis techniques.
Section 4 – Measuring Effectiveness
The previous section shows that one team is not restricted to one area of engagement. For example, inquiries have a gathering evidence stage (consultation) and then a launching/sharing the final report stage (information). A person’s engagement may progress from following a twitter account → signing an e-petition → watching a debate online → visiting Westminster in person to give evidence to an inquiry. In this case, the success lies in the cumulative result of the activities, not individual ones. However, it is difficult to definitively determine that one person has been through this process.
Within the Inform the Public dimension, traditional measures of effectiveness include analysing the reach of an activity; how many people viewed or downloaded particular material . In this context, research suggests that the more people view posts of this type, the more people will take in the information. Within the Encourage Participation dimension, the expectation is that quality trumps quantity in most cases. A small set of valuable informed comments is worth more to an inquiry than a large set of unhelpful comments. However, in the case of e-petitions, more signatures is the key to getting the issue raised in Parliament. Likewise, having a wealth of external communities – online or offline – whose members can be used as reference for a debate or inquiry allows a team to not only reach more members of the public, but access a higher quality of people (for the particular topic). For this reason, understanding both the team initiating the activity and the dimension of engagement it falls under is crucial to its accurate assessment.
In this blog we find that understanding public engagement does not only require an understanding of the different dimensions it entails, but also who is initiating those activities and what their priorities are. The UK Parliament draws on a range of expertise and areas of business to conduct its various public engagement strategies, ensuring that many dimensions of the engagement spectrum are being catered for. However this can still be improved by increased connectivity between teams as well as the sharing of data and analysis techniques as standard. In achieving this, the effectiveness of activities can be more confidently measured.
This research was funded by a Leeds Social Sciences Institute Impact Acceleration Award.
Nicole Nisbett is a postgraduate researcher at the University of Leeds. Her thesis ‘What makes for effective and meaningful parliamentary online public engagement?’ is a collaborative project working directly with the House of Commons and funded by the ESRC White Rose Doctoral Training Partnership. Follow Nicole on Twitter: @NicoleDNisbett