Probation Board of Northern Ireland Consultation
E-consultation is often criticized on the grounds that different groups of people do not have equal access to electronic communications technologies. They may not be able to afford Internet access at home, or have the skills or confidence to use Internet facilities in libraries, community centres or cybercafés. As a general criticism, it is a weak one.
The most common consultation technique used in Ireland is to write a long document (40, 50 or even 200 pages) in an inaccessible language. This discriminates against those with little time, and those who do not have very high reading skills.
Few e-consultation techniques will be so exclusive. From the beginning, we have proposed e-consultation techniques as complementary to traditional approaches, rather than replacements. Each technique can reduce participation: but the groups excluded are different. However, no matter what you do to make electronic access simpler, there are still people who will find it difficult to participate.
In this case example we discuss what can be done to improve accessibility and usability for some of these groups.
During a previous workshop in April 2005 we met a member of the Probation Board of Northern Ireland (PBNI). This stimulated interest in studying a case with the PBNI.
So, we met with Mary Coffey and Louise Orr on the 5th August 2005 to discuss their upcoming consultations.
The PBNI was planning to run a consultation on changes to the locations of probation offices, and reporting centres, across Northern Ireland. Consultants had recommended nine alternative ways of reducing the number of PBNI regional offices they had to maintain.
Assessing the impact of PBNI Change
In response, the PBNI wanted like to gather data on the impact of the structural changes on:
- Partners groups under the Northern Ireland Act 1998, Section 75, securing equality for all,
- Political parties, councillors, community groups, and
- Individual offenders
The Consultation section of the PBNI website sets out their plans in details.
Concerns arising from previous consultations
The PBNI had had a number of problems with previous consultations:
- There was a low response to calls for public meeting in newspapers.
- There was no response from some partner groups.
- There was little interest in filling out surveys.
- There were no representative groups for offenders. NIACRO, a voluntary organisation working to reduce crime and its societal impact, would provide such services rather than representing offenders.
- It was difficult to engage with individual offenders due to low literacy, numeracy and
other learning difficulties.
Concerns with certain stakeholders
The point, "difficult to engage with [participants] due to low literacy, numeracy and other learning difficulties" is a substantial challenge to any consultation process.
Many offenders had left school early, and spent many periods in prison. This had left them functionally illiterate. Perhaps they could read a few words on a road or shop sign, and text short messages from mobile 'phones, but not compose paragraphs.
However, can such people access some electronic communications technologies? Are there ways of using e-consultation technologies with them?
The project team suggested a number of technologies that could be used in their consultations with organisations. As for the ex-offenders, we suggested running some experiments or usability tests to find out which technologies they can use.
Scope of consultation
These e-consultation components would, if accepted, only be a small part of an overall consultation.
The consultation managers at PBNI spent some time over the autumn on designing and planning the consultation, with the help of the Consultation Institute (represented by Stratagem in Ireland)).
The Consultation Institute pointed out the disadvantages of consulting on only one out of nine options (i.e. ex-offenders).
The consultation dates needed approval from the PBNI corporate managers, their board, and the Northern Ireland Office, so there was a long delay before the consultation process and schedule was approved.
In the end, the PBNI ran a conventional consultation, without any e-consultation component, between 10 March and 2 June 2006. These details are posted on the NIPB website. In this consultation the PBNI ask for views on the positive and negative of their preferred option only. Rather than introducing a new technology for consulting with offenders during this major consultation, they agreed to work with us to do a usability test of an e-consultation technology with ex-offenders.