Participation Now

Engaging EU citizens in policy making

As part of our series of interviews with practitioners involved in public participation initiatives, Participation Now researcher Hilde C. Stephansen spoke to Deirdre Lee at Insight-NUI Galway, about Puzzled by Policy, a European Commission funded project that aimed to engage citizens in the policy making process.

Hilde C. Stephansen Deirdre Lee
3 April 2014

Hilde:  Could you briefly tell me what Puzzled by Policy is?

Deirdre: Puzzled by Policy was a three year project that came to an end at the end of 2013.  Throughout the project we explored the challenge of how to engage citizens in the policy-making process. We have built an online e-participation platform to facilitate that and to help our approach, but really Puzzled by Policy is more of a holistic view of participation. 

It’s trying to utilise modern and innovative technologies for the benefits that they bring to accessibility, transparency, openness, and archiving, but also to tie the process into existing approaches that we know work as well, such as face to face meetings and surveys. We want to combine the best of these worlds.  That’s our general approach.  The project focused on immigration policy, just so that we could trial it in a specific domain.  We worked in four partner countries – Hungary, Italy, Spain and Greece – where we had particular communities using our approach and platform and contributing to specific debates. This involved civil society organisations but also the policymakers themselves – politicians, civil servants, and public bodies.

Hilde: What tools exactly did you develop?

Deirdre: The platform consists of a few components. One of these is the Policy Profiler, a great way to hook people in and let them know a little bit about the policy area. We ask our user a series of questions that are really simple to understand but have their foundations in actual policy, and based on that we say where they stand in relation to others – other citizens, political parties or civil society organisations – on a policy topic, in this case immigration. In that way we got people thinking about the policy domain itself and the issues that are related to it. 

The second component is uDebate, a discussion forum that allows people to interact a little bit more, to also contribute their own opinions, and to see discussions that are going on that perhaps elaborate on the initial questions in the profiler and maybe relate to personal experiences. This is more interactive in that there’s direct contribution from the citizens and the users themselves. 

The third part was a widget and the aim of that was to go to existing communities. It’s very difficult to get users to come to a new platform to start to engage and communicate, so we wanted to go to where the communities already were. The widget can be embedded in any website or blog. We had a social media element to it as well, which we found very useful for reaching out to existing groups. 

All these tools were focused on engaging the citizen, but we also wanted to involve the policymakers. We summarised the results of the profiler participation and the content of the uDebate discussions, and passed on a report to policymakers. This was necessary because although they were very enthusiastic about the idea and the whole project, realistically they had limited time and resources for becoming involved.  While warmly invited to post directly onto uDebate, in most cases that just wasn’t possible. So this was our compromise.  We passed on the summary reports and asked them for feedback,  which they all provided, and this was great.  In turn we posted their feedback back onto the platform, so in that way we had a kind of a feedback loop.

Hilde: What were you aiming for with this project? 

Deirdre: We had a few different aims. We looked at quantitative metrics on users, return usage, how many people registered, how many completed a profiler, things like that.

But also at a qualitative level we wanted to see some impact. We had a very comprehensive evaluation strategy to find out how users liked the platform, how they used it, whether they saw it as a useful tool. We also wanted to know where it actually fitted into the policymaking process, because that was our original aim, to really have some impact on policy. 

At the beginning of the project we thought of impact in terms of direct policies coming out of the discussions we facilitated, but as we progressed through the project we saw that there were a lot of other levels where impact could be measured. Actually developing a policy is a very long term process. 

But gradually we saw different kinds of success stories at various levels. For example, in a trial in Tenerife, Spain, they worked very closely with a lot of their municipalities around the topic of inclusion of immigrants, because that was an issue there. Through using the platform itself and through face-to-face meetings, as trust and relationships developed over time, they developed ideas about what to do to help inclusion. One idea that was proposed was an intercultural faith event or ceremony, which then took place, and it was the first time such an event took place in Tenerife. This was a direct result of the work that had been done within Puzzled by Policy. Those kinds of things we see as powerful results, with a real impact. 

Hilde:  Who were you seeking to involve with this initiative? 

Deirdre:  We wanted to involve all people, but especially hard-to-reach users who may not traditionally participate in consultations, e.g. young people, old people, and immigrants.  We also wanted to actively involve policymakers. A good way to engage people is to go to the communities where people are already getting together or discussing particular issues: civil society groups, NGOs, community organisations, charities. These are all great places where people are already discussing a lot of topical policy issues.

So we usually found working directly with the NGOs beneficial. They already had a level of trust and a relationship with the end user, in our case maybe immigrants or people working with immigrants, but this would be applicable in any domain.

Using a platform like Puzzled by Policy or any other participation programme or initiative takes time and effort to build up. What we did towards the end of the project was to offer small grants to a couple of NGOs to work with us and Puzzled by Policy really saw a huge benefit from this in that it just gave the NGO the freedom to progress and to promote the platform and to invest the time in engaging participants.  So that was one of the lessons learnt coming out of the project, to really try and support the NGOs themselves so that they can become more involved.

Hilde: Would you say that Puzzled by Policy is underpinned by any particular ideals or values?

Deirdre: The platform was experimenting with e-participation and how online and new technologies can help participation, but Puzzled by Policy is concerned with participation in general, and participation is about developing an inclusive and representative society that can become involved in politics and the democratic state itself, to foster the involvement of citizens when there’s such a low level of trust. 

Ideally citizens should be more involved in policy-making, but how do you really go about that in the best way?  We found in a lot of cases that policy makers did want to hear feedback from the citizens, but when they’re met with a lot of data, a lot of feedback, how can they handle that? How can they manage it, where does it fit into the more traditional policymaking process based on experts’ opinions and their own experience?  Projects like this hope to contribute to knowledge and learning around that.


Hilde: Why did you choose these particular tools and methods?

Deirdre:  We built on our own experience, what we had seen worked and didn’t work in previous projects.  With anything like this we want it to be as sustainable and adaptable as possible. The profiler was a proven technology, which we saw that users liked. It was very easy to use, they got instant results back from it, and they liked that quick and visual element of it.  With the discussion forum, we tried to improve on more flat discussion forums where there’s just a post and comments on it, to have a more structured debate so that people can say, “Well here’s an argument for this, an argument against, an alternative,” and in that way build up maybe a more comprehensive discussion,  avoiding repetition.

Something that we looked at very closely towards the end of the project was the reusability not only of the platform    itself but also the content within it: the data that’s been generated through discussions and the profiler results. This links to initiatives that are quite popular at the minute around Open Data.  Although we don’t strive for the data to be representative per se, there’s still a lot of really valuable content that we wanted to be able to reuse, so that’s something that we looked at closely. 

The widget was great for going to communities and being able to be embedded in websites but still we were lacking that tight integration with social media content.  Towards the end of the project we were moving technically towards integrating discussions from different platforms. We used Linked Data techniques to combine data from social media and the Puzzled by Policy platform, which could of course then be extended by other data sources. 

Hilde: So it’s not about representation per se but in some way making visible people’s opinions and ideas about particular topics?

Deirdre: Representation is very important and there are different tools and techniques to do that. It’s just not something that we focus on with this platform. We are more focused on inclusiveness and making every effort to reach users, people who wouldn’t traditionally participate in such initiatives. 

Hilde: How do you see Puzzled by Policy as positioned in relation to more mainstream ways of doing politics or in relation to established institutions?

Deirdre: Approaches like Puzzled by Policy are going to be part of traditional politics, there’s no other way about it. In the same way that citizens are interacting with all other aspects of their life, shopping, banking and so on, it will come to be expected in politics as well that more public services are available online and that there’s more interaction. So we’re in a changeover period where there are initial programmes and initiatives going on. I really do think that for policymakers and for democracy in general, it’s the natural next step – the approach towards a more interactive and inclusive democracy.

Hilde:  And is Puzzled by Policy itself aimed at getting people to interact with established political institutions?

Deirdre: Yes. In some cases there was direct interaction, especially in a lot of our face to face events, and some online, but in some cases Puzzled by Policy could act as a mediator as well. It can be very good to have a mediatory role. So often policymakers and politicians and citizens speak a different language making it really difficult to have open discussions and debates, and to translate people’s experience and issues into policy at the other end.  A mediatory role can facilitate that and help to relate very high level policy to people’s lives on the ground. The role of NGOs and civil society organisations is very important as well: because that's what they’re doing all of the time.

Hilde: Can you say a bit about the main challenges you faced in the project and what would be needed to overcome those challenges?

Deirdre: There were a lot of challenges.  The main one was trying to involve the policymakers.

We found this quite difficult; it took a lot of time and effort to make initial contact, explain what the project was and really try and get them involved.  Over time, as we grew as a project, we saw the increasing participation of policymakers; I suppose our reputation and brand became more familiar.  So just building up that level of trust did take some time. 

Then there were also the more unavoidable time restrictions: but we found that if we located the person or the particular department within an organisation that was really relevant for the discussions we were having, that helped a lot.  It could be one particular person within the body, a local authority or a regional or national or even a European authority. If they became engaged, that really helped to get participants more involved.  It’s a little chicken and egg problem: we needed the policymakers to be involved to have a real impact and to add legitimacy to the initiative, but also from the other side we needed a critical mass of users for the policymakers to become interested in committing their time. A lot of the feedback from the policymakers that were involved was that they would like to have more results, more feedback, and that just takes time to build up.

In this project as in all European Commission funded projects there really is an emphasis on sustainability. How can we really make sure that the results and the impacts, the lessons learnt, best practices, and the platform itself, are utilised beyond the scope and the funding of the project itself.  We’ve dedicated a lot of effort to this and developed a sustainability package, which is linked from our website []. On it you can find all of our documentation with more detail about some of the questions that we’ve discussed here as well about the challenges that we faced, the lessons that we learnt, recommended best practices, also links to download the Open Source Puzzled by Policy platform for free.  The platform can be used as it is as well. It will be online, and new discussions can be added to it. So, just try it out for yourself. 

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