Online consultation has opened up a world of new opportunities for reaching new audiences and enhancing community involvement in public life. However, with new opportunities come new risks.
To start the ball rolling on this topic, I’ve picked six issues we are commonly asked about. There are many other issues to consider and each deserves as much space on its own as I have room for here. I promise to flesh them out in due course.
6 Risks of Online Consultation
Who speaks for the agency through these channels?
The issue of who can speak on behalf of an agency and what delegation do they have to respond to issues raised in an online consultation can be compared to current organisational practices for dealing with the media and customer service. There is no fixed strategy because different organisations will have different projects and will have very different cultural practices and approaches to risk. What is consistent is the need for a defined policy. The policy will address issues such as who authors comments; whether the author is a relatively anonymous entity, such as “Project Coordinator”, or whether the agency and individuals are comfortable using their real names; whether there is a single author or multiple authors for different aspects of the project; the specific strategic role of the author – to answer questions, address issues, point to additional information and resources, correction misinformation etc; and the approval process for loading new content onto the site.
How do we prevent cyber bullying and harassment?
The potential for cyber bullying and harassment is low in an online forum because participants are protected by their pseudonyms. There is nevertheless a residual risk that participants will attack, or “flame”, each other if the forum space is left unmanaged. This is dealt with by ensuring the forum rules are clearly articulated and that moderation is timely and consistent. Round the clock moderation ensures that disrespectful comments are removed quickly. It also sets a clear tone about how the participants are expected to conduct themselves.
Who owns the copyright on content on a site hosted by a third party provider like Bang the Table?
My advice here is written with the caveat that I am NOT a lawyer; this is my common sense understanding of the issue of copyright in relation to the sites we manage. There are four copyright issues that spring to mind; (i) content developed and loaded by an agency; (ii) content entered into a forum by a community participant; (iii) content that relates to the software platform and Bang the Table services; (iv) automated qualitative and quantitative reports generated from each site by a client.
My non-lawyer feelings about each of the three issues are that content loaded by an agency is controlled by whatever form of copyright the agency chooses to impose on that content. Increasingly this will be published using a creative commons license to permit others to reuse the content in various appropriate ways. But some content will always have strict copyright attached.
Content entered into a forum in the form of comments by a community participant do not have a copyright owner. They are, in effect, licensed under the most flexible form of creative commons. Neither we, nor our clients, can claim ownership of a community member’s thoughts and feelings about an issue. The comments are available via RSS feed for redistribution by fourth parties.
One of the distinctive features of EngagementHQ is the automated onsite reporting capacity. The reports can be viewed on screen or downloaded as PDF documents or CSV files suitable for viewing in MS Excel. These reports are provided to our clients as part of the service agreement for use of the software. We do not distribute these reports to anyone other than the client “owner” of the relevant site. Having said that, I would imagine that such reports can be obtained fairly easily by the general public under Freedom of Information laws affecting government agencies and should therefore generally be treated as public documents.
Who should moderate and when?
We strongly believe that moderation requires three essential features to ensure its efficacy; (1) it must be independent of the consulting organisation; (2) it must occur after the fact; (3) it must be timely.
Independent moderation protects all parties involved in the consultation process. It protects the consulting organisation from any perception of bias or favouritism and it protects the community from any temptation by the consulting organisation to moderate out uncomfortable comments. I have seen two models for third party moderation including commercial service providers like Bang the Table and the appointment of a “community panels” of moderators. Community moderation using voting systems is simply not appropriate for government consultation sites. As a strategy it creates too much residual risk due to the potential for gaming and poor behaviour.
It is desirable to post-moderate rather than pre-moderate comments for a number of reasons. Pre-moderation removes the possibility of dialogue between forum participants – in effect the result is a list of disjointed comments rather than a conversation. Pre-moderation frustrates participants because of the time lag between the participant making the comment and the moderator approving the comment – this time lag may be more than 48 hours if internal employees are being used as moderators; representing very poor service quality. Pre-moderation sends a very clear message that the consulting organisation simply does not trust the forum participants to engage constructively.
Timely moderation is particularly important in the context of post-moderation of comments. It is important to keep the forum space safe and on track for all participants. This requires a 24 hour, seven days a week approach to the moderation task.
What are the privacy and freedom of information implications?
Participants in an online forum are required to provide a functioning email address to sign up to the site. They are also asked to provide their name and suburb, and to choose a pseudonym as a screen name and a password. There is therefore very little personal information held in the database on an EngagementHQ site. Participants are only ever identified on the site and within the reports by their pseudonym. The service agreement between Bang the Table and our clients specify that the email addresses and names of participants will NOT be provided to the client unless explicitly authorised by a participant. If participants are particularly concerned about their privacy they can use a temporary email address (such as a Gmail, Hotmail or Yahoo) to set up their account on EngagementHQ.
How do we ensure the online consultation is accessible?
The accessibility of an online consultation is a function of many considerations.
The key “risk” component is the accessibility of the website according to the version of the international Website Content Accessibility Guidelines adopted by the particular jurisdiction. Government websites are required by various laws to be accessible to people with disabilities. Agencies have been successfully sued for failing to ensure that their sites were accessible.
Another key component of accessibility relates to the “digital divide” although this is closing rapidly – in 2010, some 93% of Australian householders have access to the internet. For people without internet access, careful consideration needs to be given to whether internet-based consultation will be the most effective strategy for the specific target population group. If it is still deemed appropriate then access can be facilitated via a number of strategies such as local libraries and community centres, hiring internet cafes, and creating project specific cafes and drop-in centres.