Friday, November 28, 2008

Small steps into online consultation for government

It can be a challenge for government agencies to get the level of buyin required to build or buy the infrastructure required for online consultation.

Questions get asked at senior levels around security and privacy, the risk of consultations being hijacked, the level of resourcing required, the concern about publicly getting few (relevant)responses or contrarywise the risk of getting to many and the risk of excluding groups who do not have access to the Internet.

Plus there may be resistance from IT, limited understanding of the medium (which gives rise to many of the earlier concerns) and the education curve required to lift senior executives to an appropriate level of understanding to feel comfortable with initiatives.

However there are approaches which take small steps toward online consultation that can aid in building organisation comfort. These are easier bite-size ways for government agencies to begin 'eating the elephant' that is online consultation.

Email feedback
One of the easiest steps is adding an email channel for feedback which allows interested parties to more readily respond with views on a service or program. This is a cheap and easy approach to introduce with limited management overhead as it simply a non-digital mail respond mechanism.

Online surveys
There is also the online survey approach, which asks visitors to a government website or email recipients their views on a given topic. Appropriately targeted and promoted this can provide valuable input,key audience insights and new ideas, aiding in setting the terms of a broader consultation.

These are reasonably easy to set up using commercially available products such as Surveymonkey or Questionpro.

User ratings
Next is the ability to ask audiences to supply their key priorities and then rank them communally, using tools such as Uservoice, which I have implemented on this site to give me guidance on the topics you'd like me to talk about (see the feedback tab at the left of the screen).

These systems can be moderated to manage user comments and can be used to gather a prioritisation of different approaches using a simple voting approach.

Participation in existing online communities
Next it is possible to engage with pre-existing external communities and ask them to ask their audience about your initiatives and programs. This is more confronting for a government agency as the moderation is left in someone else's hands - usually unpaid volunteers. However it can uncover some of the deep seated issues very quickly, allowing an agency to develop the material required to correct mistaken impressions or mitigate external fears.

This can also feed into other public debates, allowing the agency to provide Ministers and other spokespeople with appropriate pointers on how to address various concerns.

A key consideration is that these discussions are very much on the public record and outside the agency's direct control - which can be scary for many senior public servants and officials. However these discussions will happen regardless, therefore, in my view, it is better to turn over the rocks and develop an understanding of the real concerns before they are raised by the media or 'on the record' on the floor.

A key benefit of these discussions is that an agency can issue a 'thank you' at the end of the process, which makes people feel heard. This can also address some of the key issues or misunderstandings, thereby also placing the correct information on the record (provided it is in clear english).

Commercially moderated forums
The next approach is to use a commercially moderated forum, which provides some safety around how the moderation is managed, via an organisation such as Bang The Table.

This is a more controlled environment, but still out in public. Appropriately supported and managed it can provide a venue to elicit strong audience views with less control issues for government.

'Owned' forums
Finally agencies may create their own forums (which could be a blog, online forum, wiki, video feedback or other type of social media tool) to elicit feedback, as has been done with Future Melbourne.

This requires significantly more ongoing resourcing and commitment by an agency, and can also suffer from growth pains as many in the audience have to learn about and then build trust in a 'government mouthpiece'.

If these issues are handled well this can become a sustained community whereby the agency can converse with audiences, not just on spot consultations but over time.

Choosing the options
So clearly there are many different option for government to 'get its feet wet' which can reduce the risk, cost and commitment by agencies while they decide when, and if, online consultation will work for them.

Most important is to start using at least one approach and building some organisational knowledge, confidence, and small wins that aid in the future as departments are pushed to become more active in this space.


  1. My personal view and based on my experience and knowledge of online participation - I agree that 'bite-size ways' is a useful starting point.
    Options - consider also the great opportunities for agencies to engage members of their intended audiences to co-design the online consultation spaces with them. As you're whiteboarding the desired functions of an online consultation, you can have direct involvement of some of your users in that planning phase. The aim is to develop an online consultation that will contribute to your audience's active participation.
    Iterative development - consider the term 'permanent beta'. The online consultation site can be launched in beta which means you are having a go with online consultation and that you are open to suggestions for how to improve and make the consultation site accessible.

  2. I like the thought behind the term "permanent beta". The analysis could center around how to organize shared influence, where it is central to create a system that is always open for participatory suggestions concerning improvements, with beta tests continously running.
    Tomas Ohlin
    Ministry of Integration and Gender Equality, Democracy Unit, Stockholm, Sweden


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