We have always advised clients that this is not a risk so long as the interpretation of the results of a consultation is carefully carried out. BUT it had never happened.
This week it did!
We are hosting a consultation for Singleton Council in the Hunter Valley of NSW relating to a streetscape regeneration project: have a look
Over the week we have seen multiple sign ins to the site from a single IP address – 29 users in total all with ‘free account email addresses’ these all came at the same time of the evening, outside business hours (ruling out libraries and cyber cafes) and all exhibited the same activity patterns.
We are curently interpreting this as a rather ham fisted attempt to influence the process. An attempt that might work if we had not built our site to allow administrators to identify IP addresses and to follow the timing and other details of comments.
Our response? Well we informed the client of course and to ensure transparency posted the following on each discussion topic on the site:
COMMENT FROM ADMINISTRATOR
There have been a suspiciously large number of sign ups for users in Singleton coming from a single computer (IP address).
This does happen from time to time when the computer is in a school or library or where a family is involved. However, in this instance we have 29 signups from a single address mostly well outside business hours and all exhibit virtually identical voting patterns (against the development).
If there is an explanation for this other than it being a somewhat clumsy attempt to undermine the consultative process we would like to hear it. In the absence of an explanation we will simply include details of the activity from these users in our report to Council so that they can take this activity into account in their analysis of the consultation. We have already notified Council of this activity.
For online consultation to function properly and allow the community to participate at their convenience there has to be an open sign up process. We believe that transparency is the key to making these processes work and will always inform the community if we believe that attempts are being made to subvert the process.
I will come back to you if there is a reaction but for now I am feeling decidedly smug – we have a cunning plan to deal with those who would undermine consultation. Its called transparency.