Authors: Michael Sani*, Ben Pook*, Elena Prieto Sulleiro* and Jeremy Large**
*Play Verto Global Ltd & **St Hugh's College, University of Oxford.
As passionate advocates for democratic participation by the most digitally literate sectors of our population, we are motivated to respond to the Call for Evidence issued by the House of Lords Select Committee on Democracy and Digital Technologies.
Recommendations and background
Drawing on the material below, we recommend that British institutions:
● build digital consultation deeply into the norms of the UK’s policy-making processes;
● support and foster UK civil society organisations which are natively online; and
● have confidence in the possibility of positive and productive engagement about politics in the online space.
Play Verto, and its sister organisation Bite The Ballot, (‘We’, throughout this submission) are examples of the civil society organisations mentioned in Question 12 of the Call. We are natively online: so, we use technology to facilitate engagement in democratic processes. In this submission we want to stress the positives of digital in democracy, so we will treat Question 12, along with Questions 13 and 14. In doing so, we hope to offer some counter-ballast to the legitimate and pressing negative concerns alluded to in other parts of the Call for Evidence.
Our position is that technology can assist the public in exploring the questions of the day on their own terms. For example, our platform, Play Verto, helps people of all ages to discover their views, by expressing their opinions and feelings in the context and structure of a trusted web-based application. The Play Verto platform synthesises and reports back participants’ responses to its prompts and questions, thereby helping them to introspect and critique their ideas, and to compare their views with the views of others.
This acts as a digital catalyst, preparing people to participate in the democratic process: be that via vote, petition, opinion poll, submission of evidence or, crucially, in face-to-face conversation with other members of the community. By helping people to articulate their feelings, Play Verto also takes soundings of public wellbeing. Thus, it itself can gather data for policy research, which resemble an opinion poll.
We illustrate this with a recent example of Play Verto in Action, named 'My Ex'.
We can disentangle our proposals into two broad themes: assisting the public to participate confidently in our democracy, particularly in formulating their views on policy; and assisting policymakers, both politicians and civil servants, as they go about their work. In the first of these areas we can share our recent lived experience; while in the second, around policy-making, we share what we believe to be an essential vision for the future.
Assisting the Public to Participate Confidently in our Democracy
According to recent research by the Oxford Internet Institute, almost all British people under the age of 50 use the internet. Other work finds that average daily online time for this group is around 3 hours. Further information is available from the ONS.
This has implications for government and for civil society: it implies that the internet is a Forum where we must now go and be active, to serve British democracy.
We want to demonstrate that Play Verto and other parts of civil society can thrive in that Forum, earning and achieving a level of accountable trust and intimacy, which can transform our politics for the better, igniting active citizenship where there is a democratic deficit.
We illustrate this with simple findings from a recent pilot campaign launched by Play Verto, named 'My Ex'. In this work, we released thought-provoking content via social media, which presented calls-to-action to click through and participate in an online game. The game helped players to shape and express their views on social issues close to them. We draw the Committee’s attention to a striking infographic assembling some of My Ex’s results.
If, as a member of the public, you try My Ex, then once you have completed a series of gamified questions - and made an informed decision to release your data - you get a chance to introspect. ‘My Ex’ mirrors your views back to you, offering the chance to really look at them and consider, “Why do I think that way?”, “How is my opinion formed?”, “What does that look like in reality?”, and crucially “How do I play a role in making that reality if I so desire it that much?”.
‘Clickbait for the general good’.
We titled our campaign pilot game ‘My Ex’, as a lure for engagement. It suggests to players that they may be discussing their ex-lover, partner, boyfriend or girlfriend.
But in fact, “Ex” will stand for “Experience” - as they will discover when they reach the game.
To prepare this experience, our first step was to bring one hundred diverse 14 - 26 year olds together, using play-based experiences as a catalyst to draw out qualitative insights around issues and solutions close to them. This resulted in 300 pages of transcripts which we distilled into key trends.
We then used the Play Verto gamified platform to reach larger numbers of people around those key trends. We had almost 7,500 players, with an 82% completion rate.
With My Ex, we set out to use social media in order to assist the public in new ways. In the following section we will go on to argue that this medium must also become a resource for government and civil servants. It can enable them to draw direct research from ‘those deemed most affected’ by a particular policy under review or design. A crucial benefit of this is to give meaning for the respondent, and to demonstrate their ability to have an impact.
Assisting Policy-makers as they Go about their Work
Policy-makers engage in detailed strategic analysis of issues for society, in order to find, design, and implement solutions for all our benefit. Some governments set out best practices for this work. For example, in its Green Book, HM Treasury provides widely-applicable guidance, highlighting tools such as Social Cost Benefit Analysis.
We propose that HM Government guidance be updated, to embed online consultation in its toolkit for assessing policies. This is now timely because both our know-how, and the public's familiarity with digital, have grown - both at Play Verto and elsewhere. We now know how to reach into our large, digitally-literate population; and how to make answering our questions convenient, enlightening, freely volunteered, and enjoyable.
In our case, we find we can produce information which, although unlikely to have the balanced-sampling qualities of an opinion poll, gains in depth and insight because of a high level of engagement. When measured against other surveying methods, we can evidence, for example, impressive survey-completion rates.
There are several advantages to this: giving affected people a way to contribute to its design is more likely to deliver an adaptive and effective policy, which is more likely to be popular. Once established, this practice can help cement trust in government and politics. In cases where the results of such consultations are returned to citizens, we can give them a rough idea of how many others support or share their ideas, bolstering their confidence to express their views. Finally, all this supports democratic activity, and motivates continued civic engagement, during the lulls away from spikes in the democratic cycle.
We conclude by applying our ideas to a topical example. In the Spring Statement of 13 March 2019, the Government announced that it will support a new scheme to provide free sanitary products in secondary schools and further education colleges.
The announcement will be followed by a design and implementation phase. In this phase, offerings such as Play Verto present Parliament and civil servants with a new opportunity to consult directly with those most affected. We know that by using technology to gather the insights of young people - of young women in this case - we can provide them with a much better practical implementation. Here this may mean greater comfort, confidence, privacy and ease. Authorities can earn greater trust; and this paves the way for success to be attributed to all involved, most notably to citizens and political leaders.