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I should clarify I was talking about formal government consultation processes, not 'consultation' per se which can of course take many forms.
Be great is a consultation policy expert read this and joined the conversation. I'd love to know the thinking about how government formal consultation might develop.

In making the distinction between formal and informal consultations, I think we overlook the fact that informal consultations are still restricted in breadth and depth by traditional behaviour in government.

Policy Analysts have regular contacts with think tanks, NGOs, professors, fellow civil servants. They phone the same people, and consult the same networks when collecting information and developing new ideas. Even in local issues, you can usually identify the nutters or citizens motivated by NIMBY that will participate.

The real nub here is: how do we involve people outside those traditional networks? With or without net access, how can interested citizens begin or join a conversation with policy experts inside and outside government?

And for those of us inside government: how do we determine and accord authority and expertise to these "non-traditional" participants?

Rather than focusing on the mechanics of the process for consultations, would we do better to spreading the existing dialogue about authority and representation more widely within the civil service?

Or, more simply, do we wait five years until there are enough Generation Y staffers in the civil service to force the issue?

Fundamentally, good online consultation is not a question of technology; its about content, interaction and skills. Good design isn't always a feature of online consultation, but at a basic level: design is not difficult, it's well-informed. You've got to think about why you want to use an online method of consultation in the first place, who the intended users are, how you are going to manage the process and what's going to happen as a result of the interaction? Only with unambiguous answers to these questions, should you start bringing in technology.

I agree that online methods should be used strategically. There are circumstances in which ICT-based methods of consultation are the right - even the best - choice; there are others when they are not - when new media is just a distraction, or a PR stunt. There are times when it is best to lead with the ICT; and others when it is best used as a supporting resource. Mapping exactly when these conditions present themselves is our present challenge.

Some opportunities might be easy to spot. Parliament's use of an online forum on the Communications Bill in 2001 was a straightforward option because Parliament wanted to engage switched on media practitioners and policy types who were keen on the net. Some might be less obvious. A forum for service personnel on medical care might seem to play against the way the military deals with its problems, but it was exactly right because it encouraged an open and structured deliberation, encouraged new voices to step forward and created a sense of momentum around a policy area deemed in need of reform by a select committee. Other seemingly obvious opportunities are in fact mirages. The DCA wanted children and young people to talk to them about their experiences of family courts proceedings - a very public online forum was not the right platform, despite the fact that young people are regular and confident users of the internet.

(Sorry David - this is a long post and a rework of a rushed comment on Jeremy's blog. I should really get my own blog.)

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