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“Online” is the future of community consultation

Community consultation should be a critical part of any organisation’s decision making process but for so many organisations in both government and private sector this has become nothing more than a chore, a box to tick.

Hold a public meeting, publish a brochure and spin for all you’re worth to convince the public that they really are happy with what is being served up to them.

Others are smarter, they know that the public isn’t so easily fooled and has a lot of value to add. They actually want to hear their views.

The problem is that with traditional methods of community consultation such as holding public meetings it is getting harder and harder to get representative opinions.

Today it is not unusual for people to work over 60 hours a week. Parents of young children spend up to 12 hours a day on parenting. Many parents juggle parenting and work. How many working parents can manage to attend public meetings and participate in the community? How many people have the time to put together a formal submission?

Sure people will get involved when an issue angers them deeply but for many important issues in our society we feel uninvolved, disenfranchised and without a voice.

In the Hunter another approach is starting to take hold. Online community engagement lets the community get involved in their own time and in their own place. In recent months Newcastle and Port Stephens Councils along with MPs: Jodi McKay and Greg Piper have embraced online consultation to ensure that more of the community has a chance to have a say.

The community has responded well to this, logging on in their hundreds, to have a say on issues that they care about. Sometimes there is criticism, sometimes cynicism but overall people seem to appreciate having a chance to participate.

It’s pretty brave to open yourself up to criticism. It’s not easy for an organisation or a public figure to not just invite criticism but to leave it out there for everyone to read, especially in a world where communication has for so long been about controlling the message and spin.

Online consultation is not just about letting people have access to a process. It is also about making that process open and honest leaving little room for spin. This works two ways. Just as institutions have learned to ‘spin’ the message, some community groups have long held that their minority view is representative of a wider public position. Two or three determined letter writers mounting a sustained campaign of writing to the newspapers can look like the voice of the community. In an online environment these people are present (usually the ones posting versions of the same comment over and over) but they cannot own the debate.

Anyone who viewed the recent online consultation on the Nobbys Lighthouse redevelopment will have seen this demonstrated. The usually silent majority of the community stepped forward and made a clear statement. The noisy minority appeared to be just that.

There is nothing wrong with minority views, one of the benefits of an online environment is that all views can be heard, no voice can be drowned out.

Online community engagement is here to stay. It is really just an inevitable part of the march of the web in all our lives. Some organisations will embrace this technology, accept the honesty of the internet and welcome getting more regular and better quality feedback from their communities. These organisations really care what the community thinks, they are prepared to accept and invite criticism in order to find out. Others will hang on to the world of spin and hyperbole for as long as they can.

Photo Credits: Max Heidenfelder

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