These are questions I have been asked time and time again by various groups around Australia and overseas during presentations and meetings.
The first question I am addressing is "Will we receive feedback from a representative sample of the community via online consultation techniques?"
This question is at the heart of many doubts about online engagement, based on a belief that only certain people use the Internet, or will engage online, therefore it is risky to use the Internet to communicate with or consult communities.
The secondary doubt has to do with the fear that lobbyists or pressure groups will spam an online consultation with hundreds or thousands of near identical responses.
My answer always starts by turning the question around - using your current (offline) communication and consultation techniques, are you sure you are reaching, engaging with, and receiving feedback from, a representative group from your community?
In many cases traditional communication and consultation techniques are not longer effective at reaching a representational group.
Television is time-shifted, podcasts and MPEGs have replaced radio, newspapers are rarely read from cover to cover, many households no longer have landline phones and community meetings at set times and in set locations only attract those with the time and mobility to attend and are a magnet for lobbyist and pressure groups (with limited attendance by workers, young families, the infirm and disabled).
By default, when you engage people, those most likely to respond are the people who are engaged and outspoken - regardless of the channels you use. There is bias in all engagement towards interested, articulate extraverts over uninterested introverts, even if those uninterested introverts are your intended audience.
In short, if your current engagement or consultation techniques are not representative, and you are prepared to invest in them, why hold online to a higher standard before considering it as a viable channel?
Regarding the risk of hijacking and astroturfing of online consultations by lobbyists, pressure groups, businesses or savvy individuals, my response is also to turn the question around - isn't this already an issue offline? How do you know that lobbyists or businesses have not paid people to show up at a community consultation, or apply for focus groups, in order to tilt the outcome their way?
If anything, appropriate online consultation channels can help minimise the influence of lobbyists, both by opening up responding to a much broader range of people and by allowing technical detection of large numbers of similar responses from a single, or a few sources. Holding an online consultation alongside your offline engagement can help uncover a more balanced view from the community and highlight areas that may not be raised in offline consultation means.
This brings me to my main point when answering this question - online doesn't necessarily replace what you are already doing, it supplements and extends your existing channels.
You are better able to reach a representational spread by using more techniques rather than discounting any particular channel because it may not be representative in itself.
Spread is key. Use different techniques and mediums to target different sub-audiences, your outcomes will be far more likely to be representational.
Therefore online is an important set of channels to use. It is lower cost than face-to-face, however offers far greater reach. It delinks consultations and other engagement from geographic and time constraints and allows your audience to digest and reflect in their own time, leading to better outcomes.
For example, rather than showing up at 4:30pm for a 90 minute town hall meeting, and getting at most five minutes to present their view, people are able to read or view the material online at their leisure, come back to the parts they wish to reread and them think about their response. While responding they are able to reference other material, reread their comments and edit or extend them without immediate time limits. They are even able to reflect on the comments of others and build on or extend them to add value to new ideas.
So don't aim to reach a representative sample of your audience through online alone, use it alongside other techniques to form a full picture. Use different channels and techniques to attract different viewpoints and modes of response and bring the different views together to form a representative picture of your audience.
However whatever you do, don't neglect online. If your audience are internet users (as 95% of Australians are) and if they are engaging through social media (as over 60% of Australians are), excluding online will seriously constrict your ability to obtain a representative sample.