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How not to do an ‘online’ consultation

Yesterday, the last day for responses, Bristol Wireless responded to the Department for Education‘s consultation on internet blocking in the cause of keeping children safe online. The consultation arose from a campaign called ‘Safety Net‘, run by Premier Christian Media and SaferMedia, and supported by the Daily Mail. The campaign, and now the consultation is about requiring Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to block adult and other content at network level whilst giving adults a choice to ‘opt-in’ to this content.

However, taking part in the consultation wasn’t easy. Consultees had to do the following:

  • Download consultation questionnaire;
  • Fill in questionnaire;
  • Upload completed questionnaire to Dept. of Education website.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it? It wasn’t.

Here’s why. Ignoring the rhetoric on open standards coming out of their Whitehall neighbours the Cabinet Office, Education Department civil servants only made the consultation questionnaire available as a Microsoft Word file (Wot? No ODF? Ed.). The author of the questionnaire had also stuffed it full of Word macros; this made it very difficult, if not impossible, to open using alternative office suites, such as LibreOffice. Many highly experienced openistas encountered this: Alan Lord (aka the Open Sourcerer) mentioned on Twitter that he couldn’t open it, whilst Glyn Moody could, but found the questionnaire impossible to fill in! On the chief scribe’s, machine attempting to open the file either stalled to a complete halt or crashed the office suite! 🙁 Ultimately, the chief scribe was only able to complete the questionnaire as he had access to a copy of MS Office.

We cannot understand why the civil servants at the Dept. for Education couldn’t have designed the consultation questionnaire as an online survey. Bristol City Council has years of experience of doing online consultations in this manner – and they work very well indeed. Perhaps Sir Humphrey at the Dept. for Education should have called the Counts Louse for advice. As it is, out of 10 we’re giving this Education Dept. consultation a mark of 2. They’d better pull their socks up or it’ll be detention for them… 🙂

Update 08/09/12: It seems that the consultation did originally start out as an online consultation, but was rejigged owing to extremely embarrassing security cock-ups, as The Register reports.

The Register was first to reveal – within hours of the Department for Education publishing its parental internet controls proposal – that the DfE’s website was ironically exposing the email addresses, unencrypted passwords and sensitive answers submitted people who filled in the consultation’s questionnaire.

As a result of this additional information, we’ve now reduced the DfE’s mark to minus 2 out of 10. 🙂