Public Spheres

This methodology was originally developed by the Hon Kate Lundy and myself (archived here in 2010) for openly and collaboratively developing policy with the public, for better outcomes. It was used for 4 different consultations, all at a national level. It was very early days for this type of public engagement, and we didn’t get to a point of normalising the methodology for policy development, but we did get all contributions formally taken into the policy processes with a lot of ideas adopted. Since it was created, I have continued to use the methodology and have expanded it with service design and user centred methods. I continue to seek ways to establish genuinely equitable codesign between government and other groups, and recommend this as a basic methodology that naturally supports any person or group to engage more constructively with stakeholders and the communities we serve through the most effective channels, regardless of technology changes over time.

The consultations we used this methodology for, were (with final reports for each linked below):

I now recommend that anyone wanting to design policy should treat policy like a service, and apply a holistic service mentality to the process, which is nicely supported by the principles in the New Zealand Digital Service Standard. It will help you treat policy like any other service and take both a service design and scientific approach to how you construct it, naturally resulting in more open, collaboratively developed and effective policy outcomes for and with the community.

Public Sphere (2010)

We wanted to find a way to really engage the public in open and transparent policy development using online tools to broaden the normal consultation process. We wanted to give form and substance to how we could incorporate the best elements of online and offline consultation methods, to create a truly open, accessible, transparent and collaborative process of policy development. So we designed and ran a number of consultations which we called “Public Spheres”. A “Public Sphere”, according to Habermas, is a space that “…through the vehicle of public opinion it puts the state in touch with the needs of society” [2]. This kind of engagement in public policy is a great way to represent different views and harness a broad range of expertise, particularly on topical issues of the day. Although there are certainly many formal mechanisms for participation in Australian Government processes, we thought it would be a great idea to create an online public sphere and facilitate regular topics of interest to both the general public and to the government. This way people from all around Australia can participate and engage equally with government. As we run more Public Spheres, we experiment with different technologies and methods to continually innovate and improve upon the recipe for this kind of engagement.

Public Sphere on Prezi

Intro: Three main components to a Public Sphere

The timing for each of these phases can vary but large consultations that happen over a year or years should probably be broken down into 3-4 month chunks.

  1. Design & Discovery – about 4 weeks
  2. Conversations – about 6 weeks
  3. Consolidation – about 4 weeks

Design & Discovery

  1. Define – the definition of what you are trying to achieve, how meaningful it is and how necessary is it.
  2. Draft – the drafting of a basic outline of the consultation, it’s goals and how it will assist a government consultation or policy development.
  3. Community Development – investigate the people and groups in government, industry and the broader community that would be either interested in the consultation or affected by it’s outcomes. A healthy combination of expertise, experience and opinions is important. This is the most important stage of the consultation as it will determine buy in. People must be assured their contributions are valued and the goal is meaningful. Research should be done into existing initiatives, publications and community groups around the topic.
  4. Codesign the Plan – work in collaboration with key champions and stakeholders to fine tune the consultation draft. This will both improve the quality of the consultation whilst also gaining buy in from valuable contributors in the space.
  5. Launch – Launch the topic, encouraging communities of interest to spread the word and start the conversation online. Ensure the launch includes a webpage with information about how to contribute, when and where the event is, how their input will be used. The launch documentation needs to give people a roadmap for the consultation so they can trust enough to want to engage.


  1. Discuss – Encourage participants to discuss the consultation, gathering their thoughts, responding to ideas and feedback. Concerns and expectations must be managed so people know input & ideas are valued.
  2. Encourage Contributions – Encourage people to post ideas, feedback and talk submissions to the blog, to help populate the live event with a diverse range of ideas.
  3. Live Event – Run a live event that is streamed over the internet such that people can come along in person or participate online. One of our Public Spheres had several Remote Nodes, community run events that tuned into the live streamed video and contributed their ideas whilst bringing local communities of interest together in several locations simultaneously. This was a great way to show how the Public Sphere model can scale.


  1. Public Data & Analyse – publish all the collated data as soon as possible, ideally the next day. That is, the Twitter hashtag log, the video footage from the day, comments collated through any additional tools such as Zing, etc. Email all registered contributors and post a blog post to let everyone know how the event went and to let them know the process from here. This will get people thinking, analysing the information and continuing to provide feedback. Analysis is then extremely important, with both data analysis to understand the content and community responses to ideas put forward, but also relationship analysis to understand the context of the information provided.
  2. Publish Draft – Public a draft of the ideas put forward, community feedback to these ideas and specific recommendations on a wiki. Email all the registered participants and publish a blog to announce the wiki is open for editing and for how long. We chose to require registration to edit the wiki, but content open to browse without.
  3. Promote and Monitor – Promote the wiki regularly, encouraging and recognising the contributions made as they happen to encourage more contributions. Monitor the wiki for any problems.
  4. Finalise and QA – close the wiki and add the recommendations to an endorsement system to act as a final quality assurance.
  5. Publish & Thanks – Ensure the results and data is all published publicly, and that appropriate thanks are made to any helpers, organisers, contributors and all participants.

Finally – Submit/adopt and feedback

  1. Ensure the final version is either adopted or submitted formally by or to appropriate channels in government, as we did with all the Public Sphere’s we ran.
  2. Ensure the participants get meaningful feedback and can see the fruits of their labour through outputs that reflect the efforts of the Public Sphere.

This methodology is still somewhat in beta and I hope to see the Public Sphere model evolve into a fully-fledged co-design method for government policy and even policy implementation. Such active engagement with the public would deliver better outcomes and better services to the community. In early planning, the Public Sphere was designed to be purely a virtual environment for policy collaboration. After some research and experimentation, we realised that the inherent strength of the new online social media tools were most effective when used to complement a physical get together – a focused, timely and facilitated presence – ideally with a specific goal that people can rally around. This is why each Public Sphere included in person events as well as the online environment.

In reality, getting out to remote and regional communities is vital, and trying to have diverse voices on your team is helpful. The idea that people can participate equally in the process and discussions, whether in person or online has been very empowering and has generated incredible good will and constructive input from the community.

We then wanted to capture everything in a meaningful way, whether it be a thoughtful treatise or a reflective tweet. We needed to do justice to people’s time, effort and expertise.

It must be said that the key to the success of the Public Spheres has been the incredible effort and enthusiasm from the volunteers who helped, and the community who contributed. Active and informed community development is a vital part of any public consultation, and no less so when done online. By coordinating public policy consultations in collaboration with some of the people most passionate about the topics, we had an incredible swell of interest, support and participation.

Community development is a vital part of any collaboration. We have fully documented each Public Sphere we’ve run, and I’m proud to say that we saw several Australian universities and government departments pick up the process, and many of the principles be adopted broadly.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *