Online Citizen Participation: Why Governments Need To Embrace It
In 1998, only 18% of Australians had the “net” on at home. Today, 88% to 94% of people have internet access in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the UK and the USA.
No traditional engagement technique can offer this level of accessibility for this proportion of the community.
It’s ironic that in societies that are increasingly affluent, as individuals we are increasingly time poor. Work, family and social commitments leave little time for the vast majority of people to engage in community dialogue.
Most community engagement techniques ignore this pressure. Online engagement respects the community by allowing them to choose when and where to be engaged. As a result, it brings more of the community into the conversation.
70% of people visiting our online forums do so between 8 in the morning and 6 at night. They take 10 minutes out of their working day to get involved at a time that is convenient. No longer do they need to make time for a consultation “event” during their favourite TV program after a long days work.
Engage Under-Represented Groups
Self-selection is often presented as one of the most difficult methodological quandaries to overcome when community engagement strategies are being developed.
If we consider the community as an iceberg, we typically only hear from the very tip – the vast majority of voices are floating beneath the sea unheard. The most passionate and committed community members will always find a way to let you know what they think of you.
Survey techniques which purport to question a representative sample of your community mislead. They typically consider age groups and sex, but leave out the more important “values cohorts” and neglect to consider the people who refuse to participate.
Online engagement tools provide an accessible option for the largest and most under-represented groups in the community to get involved in your conversations: working parents, younger people, mobility impaired people, shift workers. People you don’t see at your community meetings.
Unearth The Real Issues
It is all too easy, when you beaver away day in and day out on a project, to imagine that the rest of the world thinks it is as important as you do. This is an unfortunate delusion suffered by many a bureaucrat. It can be quite a shock to learn that what matters to us often doesn’t matter to the rest of the community.
Planning, of whatever sort, in the absence of a strong sense of the issues that are most likely to be of importance to the community, is negligent. Attempting to guess what those issues might be is fraught with difficulties.
Without living within a community it is next to impossible to understand the values and drivers, or the significance of places and events. The only way to find out about these things is to ask.
Online engagement tools allow the broader community to raise their concerns as early in the lifecycle of the project as possible so that they can be addressed by the project team expeditiously. Project planning, risk management, policy development, and communications planning are all improved.
Debunk The Myths
It is not at all uncommon for an issue to have a long history within a community. Like any stories, these are partial and very often “mythological” with heroes, villains and metaphorical damsels” in distress – whether a person, place or object.
The heroes are very often self-proclaimed and expend considerable resources on constructing a careful narrative to their advantage. This narrative can come to dominate the public space. Anyone who challenges it is yelled down as a heretic. Dialogue ceases. Decision making is often stultified. That isn’t to say that the intent is malicious, most often it is otherwise. But it would be naive to think that it is anything other than political.
Online engagement tools crack open closed issues by bringing many more people into the conversation. People are free to express their opinion. New voices are exposed. Ideas, ways of considering the issues, and options for imagining the future, are given air. Sometimes the issue is broken wide open, and sometimes, just occasionally, a new “truth” is created through a process of self-managed dialogue. At the very least, the full range of opinions and options are thrown on the table for consideration.
Make Better Decisions
Wise decisions are occasionally made as a consequence of a brilliant flash of inspiration. More often, in a pluralistic society with competing values, priorities and beliefs, they are the result of good quality data, careful interpretation, individual learning, systemic thinking and organisational learning.
Data can be gathered through any of a number of methods. Personal learning and knowledge acquisition are brought about by having access to information in the right form and environment to meet one’s individual learning needs. Systemic thinking and organisational learning are a consequence of a set of respectful and inquiring behaviours through dialogue.
The online environment provides a secure space for personal learning and then rigorous testing of assumptions, positions, and options. The relative freedom of an anonymous online environment removes the barriers to entry to a conversation, which are often present in community meetings, where aggressiveness, loudness, power and assumed restrictions on the right to speak can stifle debate.
The concept of “community ownership” of decisions taken on their behalf is a little like art; just about impossible to describe, but you know it when you see it. It’s an amorphous and entirely contextual concept that is defined by the people affected by the decision. The definition varies from place to place, community to community and project to project. And yet, it remains, for governments, and through them public sector organisations, a crucial goal of public policy making. Corporates similarly seek “community ownership” of their brands.
In public policy, “community ownership” is generally tested by whether, or not, the community is; (1) content, happy or ecstatic with a decision, or (2) if they aren’t necessarily happy with decision, they are at least happy with the process that was used to make the decision.
Community engagement practitioners will generally argue that good process – rather than bureaucratic procedure – leads to good decision making and good outcomes. A critical element of good processes is the provision of shared information and open dialogue. Over time, these two factors can build trust in decision-making processes, faith in the decision makers, and ownership of the decision.
Online engagement tools provide mechanisms to support “community ownership” at all levels of the community engagement spectrum from inform through to empowerment.
Build aA Community Around You
Attracting the attention of the community to your project or brand is not a straight forward task.
It is a relatively simple task to get people talking about something that affects them personally – a new road past the front door; changes to the planning law that affects what they can do with their property; even taking away the right to walk their dog in the local park.
It is much more difficult to get people talking about issues that are important to you if the issues and conversation appear somewhat remote.
This is where having an established online community becomes particularly useful. Direct marketing via a personal email about the opportunity to comment on your “draft plan” of whatever variety, is much more powerful than any form of indirect advertising. At the very least you have provided the opportunity for your stakeholders to get involved. Individuals can then choose to engage depending on their assessment of the relevance of the issue to their lives.
To achieve this you need to engage repeatedly and relatively regularly with your community using online tools. This achieves two primary goals. First, it allows the community to get used to an online forum as a venue for discussing your issues. Secondly, it allows you to build a database of people who are interested in your issues and willing to be contacted each time you run a new consultation.
Drive Cultural Change
The notion of opening up an organisation to dialogue with the broad community can send shivers of fear down the spine of many a comfortable public servant. Working with the public can be a threatening thing for some. Community engagement has been described as “a necessary evil” by more than one bureaucrat.
Establishing an online discussion forum sends an unambiguous message to the entire organisation that it is time to start listening to and engaging with the community.
The forum can operate as a “community discussion space” without intervention by public officials, or you can get involved in the conversation; answer questions, respond to suggestions, direct users to information sources, facilitate the dialogue with follow up questions of your own, even challenge myths or misrepresentations.
The dialogue then serves a strategic as well as tactical purpose: Strategic in that it generates a breadth and depth of accurately recorded qualitative data to support the decision-making process; and tactical in that it enhances organisational and community understanding of the most pressing issues and allows you to respond to those issues in real time.
Online engagement tools improve and demonstrate organisational transparency and responsiveness.
Ring-Fence Your Territory
When the internet was created it opened up a parallel “cyber” universe that sits beside the “real” world we live in. The “cyber-verse” differs from the material universe in that it can expand indefinitely. Whenever an issue is unearthed in the material universe, a “vacuum” opens up in the cyber-verse. The vacuum can either be filled with well managed constructive dialogue or with poorly managed, unmanaged or intentionally malicious content about that issue.
All too frequently we see protest website appearing with domain names like www.yourorganisationsucks.com. If there is nowhere else to go to talk about the organisation, that is, if they don’t offer their own forum to listen to the issues being raised, then the community will inevitably migrate to the protest site. Generally, pretty much anything goes on these sites. They are collection points for horror stories, rather than constructive spaces for discussing ways to make things better.
Once a community has been established around a protest site it is very difficult to bring them back into a managed space. It is much easier to get in first and manage the conversation before it manages you.
Online engagement can help draw many more people into the conversation than traditional face-to-face methods. Depending on the resonance of the issue and size of the directly affected population, online environments can bring several hundred to many thousand individuals to the table.
It is difficult to compare the value of one community engagement technique against another because of the variability in the number of people who get involved from project to project. But is clear that, on a marginal cost basis – that is the cost per individual consulted – online engagement tools are far less expensive than intensive face to face processes and also much less expensive than traditional telephone or print surveys.
Online tools allow you to engage more people, more effectively, for less money.