Transforming engagement in the democratic process

Written by Sam Hartley, Secretary to the Boundary Commission for England

You’d normally expect citizen engagement in democratic activities to be measured by voter turnout at general elections, but an important activity that potentially affects millions of citizens goes on even before you get to the polling station. And it’s one that depends on engaging and communicating with, and seeking the views of, the public around the country. The Parliamentary boundary review, which changes the areas MPs represent and is designed to make fairer the democratic process, is currently being conducted by the independent Boundary Commission for England, and we’ve just reached the penultimate stage of the process and published our latest map of the country for consultation.

Boundary review consultations have historically been conducted on paper – with thousands of pages of reports and maps being physically produced at every stage, distributed around the country, and hundreds of letters being sent to the Commission in response. This was expensive, environmentally unsustainable and, crucially, limited the transparency and accessibility of what should be an open and consultative process. So at the start of this current review, the Commission was convinced things needed to change.

Working in collaboration with the Cabinet Office, the Commission engaged SME Informed Solutions to build a new interactive consultation website that would allow people to easily see visually where their proposed new constituency would be, access electoral and geographic data, and submit their views on what was planned.

Based on extensive user research, uses interactive, scalable mapping to deliver a simple, innovative experience that makes it easy for citizens to review and comment on proposed changes using any device. Designed using Open Source technologies, the cloud-­based platform was designed to manage loads like the peak of over 210,000 sessions that the Commission experienced when we published our first set of proposals back in September 2016.

When I joined the Commission at the start of this review in late 2015, the target for online engagement using the new service was 50% – i.e. half of all people making comments on our proposals throughout the review would do so using our online consultation website; the rest we’d expect through the traditional means of pen and paper or, at best, email. A conservative aim I thought, compared to the previous boundary review’s figure of 39%. I was determined that the digital product that Informed Solutions was building, coupled with a canny public information campaign, could yield better results, and so we raised this ambition to 70% online engagement. There was no excuse, in this day and age and with the right product, not to get over two-thirds of respondents using our website as the first port of call.

And I’m delighted that we have exceeded even that expectation. After two rounds of public consultation, nearly 90% of the 25,000 public comments we have received about our proposals have been submitted through the website. Over half the visitors to the site have been on mobile devices, driven by the strong social media campaign activity we’ve run. Page views, click through rate and bounce rate are all significantly better than government averages. And as well as simply higher levels of online engagement, this digital first approach is also bringing participation in democracy to entirely new audiences, including a significantly higher proportion of young adults than ever before. We’ve been able to target increased participation from hard to reach groups; in what is normally a niche area of interest, our digital strategy has allowed for a more inclusive and accessible approach to consultation and increased the diversity of community views we’ve considered.

When you’re responsible for spending tax-payers’ money, there’s always a balance to be struck between ensuring that what you end up with is fit for purpose, efficient and effective but doesn’t gild the lily or provide unnecessary trappings. I’m convinced strikes that balance. Given the take-up, response rate and the sheer quality of the comments we have received during this process, I’m more convinced than ever that using the digital first approach to even something as traditionally analogue as boundary reviews is the only way forward. Lots of people have had their say on shaping the new Parliamentary constituencies. You’ve got until 11 December to make sure you have yours too.

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