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Newsletter, August 2007

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CitizenBase - because engagement has to work both ways

Dialogue by Design launched into a world obsessed by customer relationship management, or CRM. Whoever mastered the art of staying in touch with previous customers and building relationships with new ones would, it was said, dominate their market. A whole industry had sprung up around software designed to help salespeople target and track their 'prospects'.

The challenge for us was rather different. For a start, we were not trying to sell anything to the people being consulted; in fact, it was exactly the opposite. In a sense, we were buying from them: buying their time, their knowledge, their opinions, their expertise. So we needed a way to stay in touch that would meet their needs as well as ours.

We also found the whole ethos of CRM uncomfortable in the context of public and stakeholder engagement - perhaps summed up in the reduction of people to mere selling prospects. We knew that, from a purely practical point of view, the cheapest thing to do would be to buy a simple CRM system and tweak it to meet our needs. But we felt that it would still be infected by the underlying treatment of people as commodities to be used and cast aside when they were no longer useful. Implicitly, we needed a system that was more respectful of the people being consulted, that would allow them to control how they took part and that asked for their permission throughout the process.

So we set out to develop our own citizen engagement system from the ground up, based on our experience of engaging with the hopes and fears of real people who need and want to be involved in the decisions that affect their lives.

Eight years later and we have the answer - CitizenBase - and it is so much more than just another database system. It does all the usual things you would expect, such as holding personal details securely, and a range of things that no conventional system ever would.

For example, it enables us to ensure people receive information, such as newsletters, invitations to events, or notifications of new consultation processes, that we know will be of specific interest to them - because they have told us what those interests are.

Similarly, it means that when we need to tap into their opinions, we don't waste their time by asking questions that are irrelevant to them - because we can make sure that what we ask is relevant to where they live or fits with the categories of stakeholder to which they belong.

Perhaps this is the single greatest strength of CitizenBase: it will reduce dramatically the number of citizens who are irritated by receiving irrelevant information or consultation approaches. And this, in turn, should increase the numbers who are willing and happy to respond constructively to the approaches they do receive.

We will be launching CitizenBase formally in September and giving more details about how it works in next month's newsletter.


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