I think we’ve done something quite interesting.
Yesterday the Department of Health published the care and supprt white paper, and a draft care and support bill. It’s a big deal for the Department, and the country. And it presented an interesting challenge and opportunity for the digital team in DH.
The first challenge was how to explain the ideas in the white paper to a range of different audiences online. We’ve used a dedicated engagement site to help do this, using graphics, videos and summaries for different audience groups to help explain complex ideas. Creating something like this takes a bit of doing, but it follows an approach we use elsewhere, so we know how to do it. The site sits at the centre of our policy engagement effort, and it provides the department with material to help market ideas elsewhere.
The draft bill provided an opportunity to do something we hadn’t done before. We’ve published it in a commentable format, enabling users to post public comments on each clause, as well as more general comments. The aim is to encourage the kind of micro-comment that will be useful in the drafting and scrutiny process. And to do it publicly so that the bill benefits from the kind of open collaboration that can work so well online.
I think this is pretty exciting. It’s digital engagement, but it’s some way removed from a Twitter Q and A or a webchat. With a public commitment to feed the comments that we receive directly into the process of parliamentary scrutiny via the team working on the bill, we’re effectively enabling people to publicly contribute to the drafting of law.
There’s not much precedent for inviting public comments like this at this stage of a bill. There was the pilot of the Public Reading Stage for the Freedoms Bill a little while back, which we’ve tried to learn from. But most draft bills are published as PDF, with an email address for comments.
So what have we done, and what have we learned so far?
- We published 83 clauses as individual pages on a dedicated sub-site. There’s no technical innovation. The site uses our existing HealthPress theme – it’s pages and comments, and not much else.
- We wanted the site to feel a bit different from our engagement or campaign sites, and more like the source document we were working from. So we’ve washed out all the colour, and we’ve avoided the temptation to cross-promote content from elsewhere.
- Turning a draft bill into navigable content that works in a way that a user might expect it to is tricky. The text is full of headings, parts, chapters, and clauses. I think we’ve ended up with something that just about works, and remains true to the format and structure of the bill text.
- The language in the text of a draft bill can be pretty impenetrable – we know that there’s a pretty niche audience for some of this. And it doesn’t always lend itself to a web treatment (there’s a section of the bill called “Chapter 3 – Miscellaneous and General”)
- We’ve spent no money on this. But we’ve needed a factory operation within the team just to get all the text into the site in time. We’ve benefited from a big collaborative effort over a very short period, making decisions as we’ve worked. We didn’t underestimate the work involved, but it took a big effort from Claire, Anna, Francis, Liz, Raj and Alice in the last day or so to get the thing ready. By Tuesday we were on 3 team huddles a day to check we were on track to push the button on time.
- We’ve found a nice way to present explanatory notes alongside the clauses they refer to by using a lightbox approach to include the notes within the pages that contain the clauses (eg view notes on this clause). This made the task of presenting related content together a bit easier. And we’ve find a nicer way to show the full contents of the site than we’ve used before. Necessity leads to creativity.
- If we were doing this again, we’d certainly follow up on our initial conversations with people at legislation.gov.uk and elsewhere, to learn from and properly integrate this with their approach. We compromised on some of the cleverer things we could have done with this in order to make sure that we could meet our main objective – public comments by clause – in the time we had.
I don’t know how this will go, but it feels like it’s worth the effort. If we’re able to reach a few people that wouldn’t otherwise have felt they had an opportunity to contribute to this, and their comments feed directly into the scrutiny of the draft bill, and we get better law as a result, then we’ll have done our job.
I’d really welcome comments.