The Civil Service Reform (CSR) plan talks a lot about the need for open policy making – a more inclusive approach to developing government policy that engages people who have simply not had the opportunity to participate in policy discussions in the past. Louise Kidney, Digital Engagement Lead at the Government Digital Service (GDS) explains how to find your digital stakeholders, but more importantly perhaps, why you should bother to.

Digital is key to making open policy making happen and the plan highlighted the need for “web-based tools, platforms, and new media to widen access to policy debates to individuals and organisations not normally involved”. But while recognising the growing popularity of social media for discussing and providing feedback, it also acknowledged the current digital skills gap within the Civil Service.

So it isn’t surprising that GDS is getting more and more enquiries and requests for help from departments. One of the ways we’ve responded has been the launch of a ‘consultation on consultations’ exercise aimed at:

  • creating a usable “matrix” of digital engagement tools for departments that will help them to identify the right platforms and tools to engage more effectively, and
  • the joint production of a set of guidelines on effective consultation practice.

We’d like to hear from you if you have an interest in how policy making can be opened up and how this can help to support better service delivery. Please get in touch.

When talking to people about how to make policy making more open, the question of how to identify relevant digital stakeholders has repeatedly come up. So we decided to develop some additional guidance to help the many folks around government grappling with this. Here it is - ‘Finding digital stakeholders’ (PDF version).

What will ‘finding digital stakeholders’ tell me?

‘Finding digital stakeholders’ is a step-by-step ‘how to’ guide. It walks you through how to use Twitter, Facebook and other social media to find the right people to talk to – whether they are stakeholders in the traditional sense or influencers and opinion shapers on the different networks.

Why should I bother to read it?

If you want to find out where you should be looking online to gauge sentiment, track conversations, participate in discussions, find influencers and build relationships then this document is for you. But be warned, you will need to invest some time to get the most out of these networks. Build in at least 4-6 weeks to start contributing to discussions, establishing your voice and building relationships.

If you don’t have the time to do this, for example if you have been asked to gather some intelligence on a specific policy area to a tighter deadline, it’s better just to use search engines like Google and use keyword searches to find recent comments and reports. If you do not have any relationships within a network, you will find that asking for assistance from others in the digital space gives you limited feedback.

The value of networks

Imagine you’ve been asked to do some research on how nurses feel about a proposal that they will only be allowed to wear the colour black to work (by the way, this is a purely imaginary example!).

If you’re already embedded in a digital network of health practitioners and experts, you will:

  • have a network of practitioners who trust you and who you can bounce ideas off (this won’t work if you only engage when you want to announce or discuss your policy interests!)
  • be able to tap into the discussions nurses are likely to be having already about the proposed change and potentially enter into those discussions yourself
  • have online relationships with nurses who may be geographically distant, so you can gather opinions from across the UK
  • be able to quickly and easily identify “quick wins” as well as likely pitfalls
  • be able, if you choose, to be seen to be actively listening to and discussing the topic – encouraging others to join in. This will help to establish an authoritative voice in the space and allow you to be demonstrably transparent in your discussions.

If you are not part of the digital network, you will miss out on the opportunity to do pretty much all of the above.

The need for trust

It’s not enough to simply to be ‘in’ a network – you need to be an active part of it. Think about standing at a conference, listening to the conversations and comments of those you meet in the coffee break but not saying anything. The best chance you have of creating value and relationships is to engage in ‘chat’ – and its often informal. That’s the best approach to take online too.

Engaging in small talk face-to-face or online might seem frivolous, but it can be really valuable. Remember you are establishing a relationship with a user of your services, an opinion holder and potential policy contributor. A known and trusted voice will get a response when an apparently faceless organisation often won’t.

But what does ‘stakeholder’ actually mean?

You need to be clear about who your stakeholders might be in the digital space. In the above example, nurses are obvious stakeholders but there will be other interested parties that you will want to reach, for example:

  • bloggers who are interested in (but don’t work in) nursing and might openly criticise or support the policy and engage in political commentary
  • anonymous bloggers who do work in nursing or health care and are highly influential for their honesty and integrity
  • patient groups who have access to research which says the colour black is a very bad choice and blue or yellow would be better!

If you’re not linked into the relevant digital networks a lot of insight like this will be hidden from you, though it is likely to be known to others including the specialist media.

Opening up the road map

Word version of ‘How to find your digital stakeholders’

PDF version of ‘How to find your digital stakeholders’

Our guide isn’t exhaustive but we hope it’s a good starting point for people venturing into this territory, possibly for the first time.  As with everything we do in GDS, we want to revise and iterate this document based on your feedback. So please let us know what you think.


This post has also been published on the GDS blog

Image used under Creative Commons from Dani Hydes.