Digitally enabled community engagement in policy and programme design
Converlens emerged from the Australian government’s 2017/18 Business Research and Innovation Initiative (BRII) "Digitally enabled community engagement in policy and programme design" challenge. The BRII challenge linked into OGP Australia’s first National Action Plan. Deploying artificial intelligence (AI) to provide a smart layer of qualitative natural-language processing techniques (NLP), Converlens assists people in government to excel at managing the submissions and communications process.
Converlens unpacks the cardinal challenges that governments experience while engaging with communities: fundamental pain points that surfaced during problem-discovery research for the four-month feasibility study. For example: matching the right expertise to the ‘right’ government problems; including relevant contributions from ‘off-channel’ sources; and facilitating ongoing interaction with communities often left in the dark about an engagement’s outcome. Other issues include how to deal with large volumes of public input that may not receive sufficient review and response due to resource constraints; as well as ‘closing the communication loop’—that is, ensuring that those who participate receive fast, sufficient feedback. Deploying artificial intelligence (AI) to provide a smart layer of qualitative natural-language processing techniques (NLP), Converlens assists people in government to excel at managing the submissions and communications process. By automating aspects of this process, Converlens alleviates the administrative burden, enabling public servants to maximise their value contribution to pressing issues.
Converlens focuses on the practical problems faced by public servants tasked with administering engagements. These pain points include running the day-to-day tasks of building engagements with communities; reaching out to the right stakeholders at the right time; and handling and analysing communications in the review and feedback loop. Converlens’ public-participation tools are designed with government for government by people who get government’s fundamental needs. This toolkit combines to ease the administrative burden that so often thwarts successful outcomes due to resource, budget and time constraints, and offer agencies the ability to discuss and moderate the full suite of submissions internally—in a safe, controlled, managed-risk environment that facilitates radically leaner and more productive decision-making. By accommodating all levels of staff expertise and reducing the time it takes to conduct engagements, Converlens lowers the barriers to undertaking an engagement. Designed for public servants, Converlens’ improved toolkits and capabilities enhance outcomes for both sides of engagements, encouraging easier, faster and more effective engagements with greater frequency.
The beneficiaries of this undertaking are the stakeholders on both sides of engagements: government agencies and staff employing new capability; and the communities, citizens and organisations served through the application of a more inclusive and responsive engagement framework. Sharing engagement challenges common to public-service agencies in Australia, government agencies across the world would benefit from Converlens’ practical solutions. Governments also have a strong hand opening or closing channels for community participation, so a smart toolbox designed to conduct valuable engagements can encourage agencies to run consultation initiatives more frequently and convincingly, ultimately benefiting communities too. This can lead to a virtuous cycle, as increased trust on both sides of engagements leads to superior engagement levels and improved outcomes for all stakeholders. Improved analytical capabilities also assist governments to better harness community input for making decisions—AI, for instance, can save governments vast amounts of time when dealing with anything but the smallest number of submissions and facilitate better recommendations of who to talk to. By using automated, qualitative processing capability to address time consuming, yet low value work, AI-powered technology frees up extra time to help human staff make crucial value judgements and the smartest decisions when interpreting big data. Programmes like the BRII challenge also encourage the SME sector, which—in turn—provides government with a competitive, solutions-focused channel that is already delivering successful outcomes.
In 2017, Converlens secured a competitive, million-dollar grant from the government of Australia to help disrupt the public-engagement space with innovative civtech/govtech solutions. Today Converlens is available commercially for governments at local, state and federal level: not only in Australia, but internationally. This SME has also secured commercial contracts from the most senior department in the Australian government: the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, as well as state and local government departments. This serves as an important endorsement of the commercial viability of Converlens’ solution—a key BRII requirement. Thanks to support from the BRII and collaborative partners, Converlens streamlines the process of conducting public participation for government agencies, in turn empowering agencies to do their work with greater ease, speed and cost-effectiveness. Its entrance into the public-engagement space holds essential but far-ranging implications for international government agencies.
What Makes Your Project Innovative?
Two key factors made the project innovative. Firstly an innovated procurement approach was chosen by the Australian Federal Government. Rather than working with established, bigger corporations, the BRII initiative utilized skills from start-ups and SME's to co-create a solution that was fit for purpose. This offered an agile and cost effective approach to development of solutions in addition to providing critical investment to smaller companies. Secondly, the AI technology developed in the project has provided an innovative approach to dealing with large amounts of qualitative data often encountered with community and stakeholder engagement. The solution makes it easier for people to explore data and form insights so they can focus on high value work such as collaboration and communication of outcomes and with stakeholders.
What is the current status of your innovation?
Converlens is now being used in The Independent Review of the Australian Public Service and other federal engagements such as the Review of the Melbourne Declaration, as well as other state and local government community engagements. This is has demonstrated that the solution can be successfully applied across all levels of government.
Collaborations & Partnerships
Converlens worked closely with several agencies and departments within the Australian Government throughout the project. This included the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science (DIIS), the Department of Social Services (DSS) and the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C). All departments involved helped direct the development of the solution ensuring it was fit for purpose.
Users, Stakeholders & Beneficiaries
The project involved stakeholders and users varying from Australian Government officials who were using the solution to facilitate engagement, as well as citizens, civil society and industry who participated in the Australian Public Service (APS) Review. Government use of the product meant they could realize efficiencies when running the engagement. Community members who engaged with the APS Review were provided a better opportunity to be heard by contributing through the solution.
Results, Outcomes & Impacts
It is easy to reflect on the technological innovation in this process, such as natural language processing, data visualisation or AI-powered capabilities. However, the real breakthrough was applying this innovation to the challenges raised within government agencies by the administrators running such engagements. By listening directly to these issues, a better understanding emerged of what was and was not working, coupled with a deliberate approach to avoid being prescriptive about how government ‘should’ conduct engagements. The empirical observations of the process, stakeholders and outcomes revealed resource constraints on staff (such as budget, time, knowledge) as a significant limiting factor. This directed the design and application of these AI, NLP, analytics and communications technologies. The main innovation was combining the technology with a discovery process designed to address government’s greatest engagement pain points.
Challenges and Failures
Converlens was new to larger spheres of public participation when it won the BRII’s million-dollar grant in 2017. Although this grant allowed the team to look at digital community engagement with fresh eyes—it was nonetheless a challenge to gain a comprehensive grasp of the problem domain, as well as determine the viability of the solution within the four-month period of the feasibility study. Within this framework, there seemed to be a clear disconnect between agencies: they were repeatedly trying to solve the same set of problems while struggling to find consensus on why certain failures continued to re-materialise. Co-creation was certainly a core element of solving the challenge: even so, challengers were also required to innovate by producing solutions without too much government input. In a word, Converlens needed to maintain a balance between interpreting the BRII’s upfront information, asking additional questions and calling on original insights from its own investigations.
Conditions for Success
A key factor of success in the development and successful deployment of the innovation was the co-design process used. One of the main drivers of the BRII challenge was to look for innovative procurement of solutions for the government. Rather than reaching out to established, bigger companies and consultancies to solve the challenge of "Digitally enabled community engagement in policy and programme", they brought in SME's to come up with a solution. This provided a cost saving to the government, offered investment to start-up businesses and created genuine co-creation dynamic. Open access to government employees and stakeholders allowed fluid and rich ideation that really informed the development of a the Converlens solution. In turn the end product was focused on solving the real problems associated community engagement face by government employees.
Converlens is now helping government departments at a federal, state and local level. This has demonstrated that problems faced by large government departments can also apply to smaller departments, namely processing efficiency. Converlens provides efficiency with sourcing of input from stakeholders and communities as well as processing, analysis and management of data, and this has now been replicated and scaled across the different applications at all levels of government.
Solving government-innovation challenges from government’s point of view turned out to be crucial. As intuitive as this may sound, government’s requirements don’t often feature upfront within the community-engagement spectrum. Focusing on community requirements — such as exploring means to increase citizen voices — will make scant difference to government decisions if no one addresses the practical issues of conducting government-led engagements. After all, governments hold the key to opening up the space for community participation. Several factors may lead to poor community participation and experiences: engagements resulting in rubber-stamped decisions; necessary specialist expertise not being brought into the conversation; and citizens receiving zero feedback on the outcome of their consultation. Was their contribution even read and considered? Rising public expectations and declining trust in government mean that government agencies are working under increasingly tough time and cost constraints. However, a surprising learning—given stereotypical characterisations of “government doesn’t care”, “they don’t listen” and “nothing ever changes” — was seeing how well government understood the issues at play. Instead of finding an indifferent, apathetic civil service, Converlens met skilled staff struggling with very real, practical resource issues. More often than not they were hamstrung by budgets, staffing and time pressures. The problem clearly wasn’t that government didn’t care. It was a general capability quandary dictated by system limitations. The deep scepticism of “software solutions” promising answers after years of repetitive failures delivered the insight that technology wasn’t the full answer: Converlens had to find human-tailored solutions to help staff execute their functions effectively and capably.