In Autumn 2012, the BIS Science and Society team started a review of our programme and objectives.
As a team, we spend around £13 million a year, part of an allocation set out in the Science and Research Budget, on a number of activities centred around increasing engagement with science and research.
The review was prompted by 2 things:
- a requirement from the Cabinet Office to review the small number of activities in the programme which fell within the remit of the ERG marketing controls
- a need to review the evidence for the programme in preparation for the next spending review
A decision was made to combine the 2 into a whole programme review to ensure the communications activities were assessed in context. In the review, we wanted to establish a clear vision and develop a new set of objectives/priorities in collaboration with the science and society community in the public, private and third sectors.
Referring back to the Cabinet Office/Demsoc key goals for online policy making, this project had 4 main objectives, namely to:
- clarify objectives
- generate ideas
- test out new ideas
- create and design a service with relevant stakeholders
How we went about it
We already had a WordPress-based microsite, which has been used (in gradually revised forms) since a 2008 consultation A Vision for Science and Society. That consultation was one of the first in government to be delivered in a commentable, online format.
It, in turn, led to the establishment of 5 externally-led expert groups – each tasked with developing an Action Plan on one of five key science and society themes. Each of those groups was active from mid 2009 and published their plans in early 2010. During that time, the microsite was used to enable comments on the work of the groups, to host publicly available minutes, to host completed action plans, and (in the case of some groups) report on progress towards those actions in 2011. During this 2010 to 2012 period, team members looked after the site themselves, with support from the BIS digital team.
As the structure and format of the site was well-established, it was decided, with the assistance of that digital team, to develop it further and use it as part of our 2012/2013 review process, to build on the existing stakeholder relationships generated through the site. The online part of the review had a number of stages:
- requests for comments were made within specific posts, including this one on the new vision and aims
- these were publicised through BIS corporate digital channels, including a blog from the Science & Universities Minister, David Willetts
- we were able to keep track of online commentary on the process through a Storify set up and maintained by the digital team
Stakeholders from the science and society community were active sharers of our content and requests for views, with a theoretical Twitter reach of more than 250,000 accounts achieved for the review. However, that did not translate into direct comments on the site or the vision, aims and objectives.
The digital element was only part of the whole process. We supplemented these activities through face to face contact with stakeholders, and later the digital element was replaced with more detailed face to face workshops with those stakeholders.
What worked well
Working with the digital team and making better use of complementary digital channels (micro-site, Twitter, other online networks) led to the potential to reach new audiences and gain insights beyond the usual suspects.
What worked less well
Despite the high reach referred to above, and general online conversation around the review there was a very low conversion rate to actual comments.
Our limited team resources meant that – this time round - there was less scope for responding to comments in real time, resulting in a scaling back in the ambition of digital engagement activity.
We were targeting stakeholders as part of an integrated engagement package, including face to face meetings and workshops and many of those stakeholders have greater familiarity and comfort with responding in non-digital ways.
How the policy was shaped (impact on policy)
The online comments (both on our microsite and elsewhere) had a direct impact on how our new vision was finalised and the aims and criteria for BIS support were shaped – there was some sharp online criticism which led the team to reframe all of these. For instance, it was clear that the objectives originally proposed were not smart enough and what was actually being defined were broader aims.
Ongoing impacts on the policy team
Working with the digital team has broadened our team’s appreciation of using an integrated suite of digital channels and the benefit of BIS’s increasing presence on a number of digital platforms to reach new audiences.
As a team – since that first consultation in 2008 – we have seen both the benefits and limitations of digital approaches.
New team members have been trained to update the micro-site which will allow continued engagement with the stakeholder community as the Science and Society programme is finalised. We envisage working with the digital team to use their channels in ongoing communication of the outcomes of the review.
Digital Team Takeaway
- Reach and general interest are no guarantee of actual engagement.
- An established online community is less likely to comment on a blog or microsite, but to carry on conversations with existing networks – eg on Twitter
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