Other Consultation Platforms in the Wild: The Department for International Development

Last week we caught a tweet from @simond (Simon Dickson) about the launch of DFID’s new online consultation site.

DFID consultation platfrom - http://consultation.dfid.gov.uk/

The platform is a WPMU (WordPress MultiUser) site running an evolution of DIUS’ original Commentariat theme [UPDATE: apparently it's not an update of Commentariat, it's a custom theme that just shares a lot of the features of Commentariat; it'd be really useful to see a comparison of the two... I also wonder if the DFID theme is available under an open license?]. You can read more about the DFID platform on Puffbox. It’s really good to see WPMU embedded in government as a platform for consultations. Did WriteToReply have anything to do with that, we wonder? :-) [UPDATE: apparently not - see the comments]

(Just as an aside: if you are, or are thinking of, running more than two WordPress sites under the same domain (actually, even different domains), then WPMU is a much better solution than a proliferation of single WordPress sites; as users of both, we can assure you that the step from WordPress to WPMU is tiny. It’ll take you just a half a day to understand how the WPMU platform works. Seriously… DISCLAIMER: errr, none; WordPress and WPMU are both free downloads, and we’re not on any sort of commission or payback!)

At some point, we need to do a side-by-side comparison of the CommentPress and Commentariat themes, not least so that we can provide a checklist for helping people decide which commenting theme best suits their document; but in the meantime, Steph Gray pointed out a few of the original Commentariat features in Introducing Commentariat & the POI Taskforce Report. If reading that post is still too much effort, the major difference to users is that CommentPress supports paragraph level comments, whereas Commentariat offers page level comments, and an arguably nicer navigation scheme.

Through working on JISCPress, an enhanced version of the CommentPress theme, we’ve started to tease out some principles that will guide our future work on the WriteToReply platform.

  • Support paragraph-level commenting. Consultation documents are generally pithy, carefully worded documents. Allow readers the option of directing comments at specific points in the section rather than at the section as a whole.  The Institute for the Future of the Book have done research into online engagement with texts. It’s worth building on as Steph Gray did by including the scrolling comment box in the Commentariat theme.
  • Document amplification: A government consultation document is not a destination site. By using a platform that is already syndicating chunked document sections on the web (e.g. through RSS syndication), exploit the fact that they’re no longer monolithic documents. Support ‘remote publishing’ through the use of embedded quotes sourced from your original consultation document. Leverage the web to allow people to take ‘ownership’ of the pieces of the consultation that matter to them. Most sites seeking widespread public engagement provide a means for embedding content elsewhere. Work being carried out as part of our open source JISCPress project will provide tools to republish paragraph level content in a variety of formats from a family of structured, unique URIs.
  • Allow search engines to index your consultations: ‘robots, noindex, nofollow’ has no place in a public web-based consultation document.
  • Remote commenting: Pulling in discussions from elsewhere on the web can be done by publishing a unique URI for each separate paragraph in a republished document. These unique URIs can be linked to from third party blog posts and microblog posts (e.g on Twitter) allowing remote conversations to refer to very particular parts of a document, and support the generation of linkbacks and remote comments back to an individual paragraph.
  • Platform-wide benefits: There is no doubt that there are organisational benefits for institutions or government departments running their own consultation platform, as Simon outlines in his post. However, we also believe that there is a public benefit in hosting documents from multiple agencies on the same WPMU platform arising from platform-wide search, browsing, cross-linked related documents, thematic navigation and semantic tagging. By publishing government consultations on an open, web standards-based platform, the documents become open data.  One key feature of our work is to explore the extent to which content analysis and automated semantic tagging of documents hosted on the same platform can be used to automatically generate crosslinks between related documents. For certain document ecosystems, this feature may be used to support automated content discovery or recommendations about related content in other documents.
  • Strength in re-use: We built WriteToReply on the CommentPress theme, in the same way that the DFID platform is built on the Commentariat theme. Our JISCPress project (another public-funded project) has in turn extended the CommentPress theme, not least in exploring the opportunities for content re-publication and third party quoting/embedding. We set up a JISCPress group to discuss our proposed extensions, and solicit further ones, so if there’s anything you like to see us working on over the next couple of months, please post your suggestions there. Remember, it’s an open source project so it’s code you can use for your own projects.
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3 thoughts on “Other Consultation Platforms in the Wild: The Department for International Development

  1. Simon Dickson

    … except that the DFID site isn’t using Commentariat. It’s using a custom theme more appropriate to DFID’s corporate style, although as I freely admit in the Puffbox.com piece, I’ve shamelessly used all Commentariat’s defining features.

    And no, for the record, writetoreply wasn’t a factor in the move to MU. I’ve listed the reasons in the aforementioned write-up: if I had to choose one primary driver, it was ther ability for them to create subsequent reiterations with a single click *inside the MU admin interface*.

    A single shared platform sounds nice in theory; and I’ve lobbied for precisely that over the past two years. I no longer bother. Civil service bureaucracy and risk aversion make it a practical impossibility. And if/when we want to link them up, RSS is all we will need.

  2. psychemedia

    “Civil service bureaucracy and risk aversion make it a practical impossibility.”

    We don’t have that problem ;-)

    “And if/when we want to link them up, RSS is all we will need.”

    Hmmm, I wonder, should we set up an #archivepress like thing and start to pull all the gov consultations that are published with feeds enabled into a semantic cross-linking platform?

    Something like Feedwordpress could pull the feeds in, (or maybe a variant WP-OpenLearn – http://ouseful.open.ac.uk/openlearn/wpopenlearn.html ) to synch each consultation blog with a private WPMU archive blog; then do the tagging and cross-linking inside the closed platform but using the original, rather than the private mirror URIs?

    Hmmm, if the blogs were private though, how would anyone see the cross links? Maybe if we syndicated them back to the original document…?

  3. Joss

    Yes, FeedWordPress is a pretty mature WP plugin that could aggregate consultations from other platforms, such as DFID’s. It would be a way of getting on with the job of cross-linking consultation documents without requiring any involvement of the people running the source sites. If civil service bureaucracy can only manage so much, innovation could take place on the meta platform outside the realms of government.

    As you note, hopefully, the #archivepress project will demonstrate an example of this by the end of November. I spoke to ULCC about jumping in with us on the semantic linking but it was a bit early for them to consider. Once we’ve got a working example of linked document sites on JISCPress, it’ll give them something to work with.

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