I’ve been promoting the use of online tools to enhance citizen engagement for nearly 7 years now. When we started, fear was the major obstacle to progress. Even when we could find an enthusiastic team who wanted to hear more from their community using online tools, the real issue was persuading management and ministerial offices that this was not a crazy reckless endeavour that involved giving up all control of the discussion.
Things have got better over the years. It’s now the norm for some level of online engagement to take place. Sadly, I still come across very senior people who think that online citizen engagement is a ‘risky’ process. I think this is because at some level they think all online engagement is an open uncontrolled dialogue and perhaps do not understand the nuances available.
I think these people need some educating. There are degrees of risk and control with online engagement and, with some careful planning, you can choose tools that are suited to your risk tolerance.
Managing down risks in online community engagement using Arnstein’s ladder of control analogy
Below is a “ladder of control” for the online engagement tools included in EngagementHQ.
At the really low risk end of the scale are ‘Surveys’ which carry no risk of loss of control whatsoever because you can choose not to share the results with the community (though we always recommend giving accurate feedback).
Next up is the Q and A Tool. With this tool you choose whether to publish individual questions (when you answer the question). The alternative is that you answer the question by private email. So long as you set the scene by telling people that ‘some questions may be shared with the community’ there is no risk attached other than an a management risk – that your team don’t actually answer people’s questions!
The Story tool is also a low-risk tool, but it is considerably more engaging. There are a few reasons why it is low risk. Firstly people, when telling their stories, tend to focus on their own story and not on pushing a position. Secondly, because this tool enables use of photos and videos you are able to screen all content before publishing it. Finally, you can disable comments on stories (in fact we recommend this because it’s good for personal testimony to go unchallenged). Story tool is especially good for social issues and for sharing best practices. If you were to choose to enable comments on stories this tool would rise up the ladder accordingly.
Submissions are not at the bottom of the ladder for one reason. In EngagementHQ, we encourage you to share submissions with the community through the project’s library. This means that you are inviting the community to open themselves up to the views of others. It is certainly possible that as part of this a submission which is highly critical of your organisation will be published.
Mapper can be a low-risk tool because you set the parameters of the comment form associated with each pin. The community can see each other’s responses but if you have a high-risk project or a low-risk tolerance as an organisation you can set the tool up so only preordained response types (like multi-choice or dropdowns) are allowed. Of course, ask more open questions and mapper is a much higher risk/higher reward tool. It’s your choice.
Forums are a riskier endeavour because you do not control what people can say so long as they stay within the rules. Having said that; open, discursive engagement is rewarding, appreciated by the community and should be the default. Start by assuming engagement will be open and discursive and then justify steps back through the risk spectrum, not the other way around.
We moderate forums 24/7 to remove the risk of inappropriate material, bullying etc and with careful planning of question types and the framing of the engagement process risks can be reduced further still. Some tips for managing risks around forums are provided in our Online Community Engagement Guidebook.
Nonetheless, there are a few issues for which open dialogue is a little frightening and not particularly productive. In these circumstances other tools can be used or forums can be closed for representative user groups to discuss issues. Closed forums exhibit a lower risk profile because they are not open to casual observers or participants.
If you have a greater appetite for risk you can consider using Twitter and Facebook. There is nothing inherently risky about these platforms but, unlike EngagementHQ, you do not have control of the space. We provide a Facebook page moderation service that can help reduce risks around Facebook pages.
Given the choice of tools (and those above are just the tools provided in EngagementHQ) there is really no reason why any organisation would not engage the community online. I hope that this post might help some people to assuage the fears of their managers.
The really risky thing, in this day and age, is not providing a place online where the community can engage with you. If you fail to provide a place where the community can interact with you (not just a static website) then people will be driven to sites where they can talk to people and ask questions. By not providing the opportunity you give away control to others, if your project or issue is in any way controversial these ‘others’ may be exactly the people you are running from when deciding not to be online yourselves.
Photo Credit: Lisbon Stories by Feliciano Guimarães