Connecting citizens with policy through technology

clock • 4 min read

Rachel Pattinson explores how researchers at Newcastle University's Open Lab are working to connect citizens with policymakers and public service providers through technology

As public services move online and providers embrace digital-first strategies, policymakers are considering how they can involve citizens in developing plans and services. But what will the next generation of citizen-led public services look like, and how can the sector engage communities in meaningful consultation?

Digital social innovation

At Open Lab, a human-computer interaction research group at Newcastle University's School of Computing, we're working with citizens and partner organisations on digital social innovation projects.

We're interested in how technologies can be used to tackle social challenges and empower citizens - from education to healthcare, and from the future of places we live in to sustainability.

Digital policy consultation

In order to ensure that policies are developed and implemented with citizens in mind, public consultation is recognised by the Civil Service as ‘one of the most important activities government can undertake'. At Open Lab, we're interested in creative and collaborative consultation activities, and how we can engage with citizens whose voices aren't always heard by policymakers. And in the context of COVID-19, we have been highlighting digital methods for conducting public consultation with the partners we work with.

As part of the Metro Futures project, Open Lab's Dr Simon Bowen talks to shoppers at the Bridges Shopping Centre, Sunderland. Image: Newcastle University

For example, how can we make sure transport users are engaged with major decisions about future investments in infrastructure? We explored this with Nexus, the Tyne and Wear Passenger Transport Executive, which delivers the region's Metro system. Back in 2016, the Open Lab research team worked with around 3,000 people on the Metro Futures programme. We used a co-design approach, through in-person and digital engagements, to explore the future of the Metro. The findings supported a successful £362 million bid to the Department of Transport for a new fleet of Metro carriages. In 2020, we worked together again on a fully-digital public consultation on the final train designs, receiving over 20,000 responses - unprecedented for Nexus and Stadler, who are building the new trains.

We've helped Newcastle City Council to consult with citizens to reimagine Newcastle's public parks service, resulting in the creation of an independent charity, Urban Green Newcastle, to manage them. Most recently, Open Lab have also worked with the Northumbria Police and Crime Commissioner, Kim McGuinness, to deliver a social media consultation to inform the 2021 - 2025 Northumbria Police and Crime Plan.

In recent months, Open Lab has collaborated with the Northumbria Police and Crime Commissioner, Kim McGuinness, to support policy consultation activities.

Working with public service providers

At Open Lab we have always had strong relationships with many Civil Service and public sector organisations.

A number of our doctoral trainees have taken part in the UK Research and Innovation Policy Internships scheme through the EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Digital Civics. Our PhD researchers have undertaken internships with the Food Standards Agency, to explore small food businesses trading via online platforms; supported the Open Innovation Team to connect policymakers with academic research; and briefed the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport on using technology to involve young people in policymaking.

Open Lab researcher Sean Peacock works with children and young people in the Ouseburn Valley, Newcastle. Image: Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children's Books

Through this engagement, we're seeing some of our doctoral students go on to take up Civil Service roles at the end of their PhD, such as User Researcher positions at Policy Lab and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.

We also encourage public sector and Civil Service colleagues to join us as part of our research programmes. This Spring, we launched our new EPSRC Centre for Digital Citizens programme with the support of Newcastle Central MP, Chi Onwurah. We've welcomed a visiting researcher from Building Digital UK to join our team, and we're collaborating with Newcastle City Council, Northumbria County Council, the North of Tyne Combined Authority and Sunderland City Council to explore the emerging challenges of digital citizenship.

Future policymaking

As COVID-19 restrictions begin to lift over the course of 2021 and beyond, policymakers will face a new set of challenges.

Including citizens' voices as part of the decision-making process - and ensuring that emerging policies are evidence-based - is essential. Technologies can subvert traditional democratic processes, but we think that digital platforms also offer new opportunities for engaging with, and empowering, communities.

Find out more about Open Lab's research at

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