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Controversy drives higher online participation rates

When we first ventured into the world of the internet we somewhat naively assumed that punters would love our site and flock to it in their thousands. After all, there must be a huge demand to speak on the web in a place where your views are actually going to be heard by decision-makers.

Being non-techy types who came from a bureaucratic sort of background we quickly learnt that what we thought were interesting grassroots issues were actually nothing of the sort. We tried out the site with a series of government planning strategy consultations. It seems almost funny now we thought these would attract the crowds. In our little and narrow world, these strategies were highly controversial but elsewhere…

As the business has evolved, we found out how important it is to educate our clients on how to market their consultation site effectively via traditional outlets and now social media. Managing expectations are just as important as managing the marketing strategy.

The naive views we held when we got into this business are also held in government. People working in obscure but necessary fields believe the web is waiting to open their work up to millions of interested people who to date have just been deprived of the opportunity to comment. The truth is a little different. People will comment on an issue online only if they are passionate about the issue.

This doesn’t mean only passionate grassroots issues should be consulted upon. It just means some consultations may not garner large volumes of comments no matter how well they are marketed. What is important is not to view these as a failure.

Another example was when a General Manager of a council commented that our exhibition of their Management Plan (which we were feeling a bit defensive about because it had only had about 8 comments in a week) was a great success because it had had several times more visitors in a week that the previous year’s ten public meetings had in total! The aim was not a lot commentary but rather to ensure everyone had a chance to comment and the council did not have to spend the earth giving that opportunity.

That said, everyone likes a blockbuster, the sort of issue that you put on the site and just seems to take on a life of its own. How do you pick these? No idea!

The first of these we had was a review of the Newcastle Bus Network for the local MP here in Newcastle, Jodi McKay, who is the sort of innovative early adopter that a business like ours is founded on. Anyway, when Jodi told me she wanted to trial the site on this subject my heart sank – ‘how boring’ I thought, envisaging 0 comments, 0 votes and the virtual tumbleweed blowing across the site.

However when the page went live, it clearly touched a public nerve, yielding over 500 comments in its 2-month exhibition from over 750 different visitors and causing me to eat my words. So that consultation put buses on the list of grassroots issues.

We’ve had a few others that came out of nowhere – an online consultation for Port Stephens Council relating to its foreshore management plan was rolling along nicely and much as predicted until it attracted the interest of dog walkers from an off-leash area called Bagnall’s beach, which was seen to be under threat. One comment led to an antagonistic anti-dog walker calling for a ban on free running pooches. Before we knew it the site was beset by dog owners wanting to protect the rights of their pets to run free – so dogs went on the list of grassroots issues.

Then Jodi’s office called to say they wanted to run a consultation about the conversion of the local lighthouse (Nobbys) into a restaurant, B&B, kiosk and viewing platform. The Minister for the Environment had indicated he wanted to reject the proposal. Jodi wanted to give the people of Newcastle a chance to have a say on the issue.

Having learnt by now that Jodi has a far better grasp than I do as to what constitutes a grassroots issue I created a consultation page quick smart. Jodi got on the radio and in the print media and the results were amazing. In the first 48 hours, there were 500 visitors and 152 comments. Our site hits went off the chart and the best part is that we saw a clear shift in Newcastle attitudes. People were clearly saying enough is enough. They want this development and will not be deprived of it by a vocal minority of naysayers. Great stuff. People power, that is what we are about.

So popular grassroots issues now include buses, dogs and lighthouses! I will keep the list updated as we find others.

Photo Credits: Indigo Skies Photography

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