Can online community engagement contribute to better public policy?

One of the more critical questions our clients ask  before deciding to engage online is whether it can contribute to creating better public policy.

From a practitioner perspective there are lots of great reasons to go online: it is a manifest demonstration of decision making transparency and open government; it brings people who you wouldn’t otherwise hear a peep from into the debate; at the very least it gives more people the opportunity to join the debate if they so choose rather than discriminating against people who can’t make it along to Wednesday night workshops (i.e. most of us).

But government organisations live in a media driven world and are extraordinarily conscious of the communications environment, to the point where the need to control the message is almost a pathological need. In this environment it is no surprise that risk assessment of a new engagement tool is at the top of the list of considerations when they are confronted by the transparency and freeform nature of online community engagement. It is no great secret that governments at all levels work hard on their relationships with journalists and take great care to contextualise and nuance the messages they deliver to the mass market (i.e. there constituencies).

So where does online consultation fit into this logical framework of tight (sometimes excruciatingly so) control of the message? Is free discussion really that scary? Can opening up the debate change the relationship between government and citizen? Can it also change the decision making culture and motivational drivers of the government entity? Can it improve decision making process and outcomes so that they are more relevant and more socially, environmentally and economically sustainable?

Clearly, I believe the answer to all of the above questions is YES otherwise I wouldn’t be in this game. I am sometimes accused of naivety, but everything I have seen through 15 years of professional practice, tells me that the more inclusive the process, the better the outcome (however so measured) for all. Treating the politariat like mushrooms simply doesn’t cut it in today’s world. Everybody has the power to communicate to a mass market, everybody has access to online media; nobody can “control” the message. The only way through is to embrace this changing reality and embrace the fact that change will take place evermore rapidly in the future. Our government institutions live in a market place, just like any other business – the consumer is Queen/King. Government organisations need to evolve their decision making cultures and processes to meet these new expectations.

Now to a very specific example of the benefits to decision makers of opening up the debate. We recently hosted a consultation about the adaptive reuse of the buildings around a heritage listed lighthouse at Newcastle (Australia). The project had the support of the local Council, local business chamber and local State Member of Parliament. It was opposed by the local community heritage group – a small and very vocal and organised group of passionate residents. We were asked to set up a page to open up the debate completely and allow transparent discussion between all parties.
To say the result was phenomenal would be an understatement. It was easily the single biggest issue we have dealt with to date. Within one week around 900 people had visited the site and either left a commented, voted on other peoples comments, or just browsed the conversation.

This is a small example of a conversation with 330 comments:

Ok Fargo, so tell me in a few words what your contacts are supporting.
Do they support an admission fee of say 40 dollars a person?
Do they support cars on the breakwater wall?
Do they support silver service dining?
Have they ever walked the breakwater?
Have they used the Kiosk at Nobbys Beach?

Can people please check their facts?
There will be no admission fee to Nobbys as a result of the proposal. Access to all members of the public will be free and available at all times. Where on Earth have you come up with $40 admission? It’s not Dream World!
Patron’s vehicles will NOT be allowed on the breakwall under the proposal.
Most people I know couldn’t care less about the restaurant service; they’re just happy they will finally have access to Nobbys. Ridiculous objections about the level of food service available are what put the final nail in the coffin for Surf House!
I and many of my friends and family have walked along and surfed off the breakwall on many occasions. In fact it’s my favourite surf break in Newcastle.
And yes, I and my friends have and will in future use the kiosk at Nobbys Beach.

Disco Stu…
The legally binding consent conditions from the NSW Heritage Council that was published during the previous public comment period of the commonwealth assessment states that public access must be allowed to the site, including the public observation deck, for no commercial fee.
The legally binding consent conditions from the NSW Heritage Council also states that private patrons vehicles will not be allowed onto Macquarie Pier.
Just because you repeat these lies over and over again Bigfeller doesn’t make them right. It just makes you look silly.

If I am wrong about the fee then so be it.
The fee level was just a nominal figure.
I assumed that there would have to be a fee other wise there would be no return to the developer or site owners.
Maybe someone can explain who is going to cover the costs of the publics admission, facilities and costs of presence (eg insurance, garbage cleaning etc.)
Does Commercial fee also exclude admin charge or permit fee?

This is a great example of the power of online debate. The project was opposed by a very small minority of visitors to the site, mostly, as it turned out, on the basis of a series of either spurious or deliberately misleading statements.

By taking the debate online, the statements by proponents and opponents of the project were recorded accurately (there is no possibility of misquoting oneself) for the public record. Those statements can then be interrogated and tested against publically available information. Critically though, the too-ing and fro-ing of debate is an educational process. Misconceptions can be corrected. Misleading statements are shown for what they are.

There is also the opportunity for good humour and the development of a debating community as demonstrated by this lovely vignette…

It is very disappointing that the Minister for the Environment has sided with the small vocal minority that are in my opinion not speaking for the majority of Novocastrians. If the public are to use and enjoy this landmark it must be redeveloped in some way. The current redevelopment proposal will create a great asset for Newcastle while resurrecting a site with historical significance.

Dirty Harry
“small vocal minority” is the “Silent Majority” whose families have worked their guts out over generations for Newcastle and are not the yuppies who debate over chardonnay and “coffee and cake”. It seems to me that all the pro comments here are from that set. A great Aussie band, Broderick Smith’s Big Combo, had a hit song about us (in the 70s I think), called “My Father’s Hands. That was about pride in what we’ve got that links us to our past. Have a listen to it if you haven’t already.

You are deluding yourself Harry. The majority of Novocastrians are behind this development. Case in point, take a look at the left side of the page, and count the number of thumbs up beside the comments for the development [authors note: the votes were consistently 10 or 15 to 1 in favor of the development]. Then count the number of thumbs down for the comments against the development. If you insist there is a silent majority against this proposal, why don’t you stir them up and get them involved because so far they appear to be a figment of your imagination.

Dirty Harry
I reckon they are praying to the creator of Nobbys and all other earthly headlands Fargo.

The project wrapped up after a week and half of intensive debate with the following comments:

Dirty Harry
As we approach the deadline for this forum, I move that a paperback edition be published at the end and sold, with the proceeds, if any(!), to go a “Future Newcastle Fighting Fund”. Of course a copy should be placed, free of charge, in every Hunter school and public library so that future generations can see Nobbys’ history from 10th May 1770 to 7th April 2008.

I have been fortunate to visit the historic site of the “Battle of Cullodin” in Scotland. They don’t even mow the grass there. It is still in its natural state, without bloodstains of course. Maybe our “Fighting Fund” can be used for the “Battle of Honeysuckle”

I add a vote of thanks to Jodi for establishing the site and giving us a great opportunity to publicly express our views which, at times, have strayed a little. Thanks also to the moderators who, I believe, have been very tolerant.

Newcastle is God’s country, if there is one. May Mr Garrett’s decision clearly show that the best team has won.

Harry, I was with you almost until the end of the first sentence. (probably the only time I have actually agreed with you during this forum) Thanks for the ‘interesting’ reading…….let’s hope that commonsense & democracy prevails & we have the opportunity to go to Nobbys soon!

Thanks for the stoush – well worth logging on to. I look forward to buying you a beer at Nobby’s restaurant.

Dirty Harry
If it is declared “AF” we’ll do it at the Brewery after the hill climb. Cheers everybody.

It’s been fun, although I am almost certain after this time that we should be addressing you as Freeman of Newcastle, rather than Harry. Unfortunately Danielle, I fear that as with all government decisions, common sense and democracy will not prevail. It’s just too familiar; a vocal minority with apparent good intentions plants the seed of doubt and then slinks away with nothing further to contribute, and another Newcastle icon fades before our eyes. Very sad indeed, but very familiar

Photo Credits: Howard Lake

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