Online Forums for Civic Engagement and Public Policy

Max’s vast experience as a community engagement practitioner, combined with the fact that he’s used our product, means he’s ripe for the picking when it comes to answering people’s questions about online forums for civic engagement.

Max Hardy has been with Twyfords for the past 13 years and a respected specialist in community engagement for just over 20.

Before moving into engagement, Max was a case worker in child protection, community corrections and disabilities. His background leaves him relatively comfortable working in messy situations, and where emotions are running high.

“I’ve been able to assist engineers and planners in how to talk with people who might not feel like sitting down and having a calm, rational conversation at the time,” he grins. “I’ve made my share of blunders, and learnt from accidental successes. Over time I’ve managed to work out my own style of engaging people and helping others to engage. I like being in a career where I can make a difference,” Max says.

Q: Why would our organisation want to use an online forum?

M: An online forum is another way to give the community the opportunity to express their views and to gain a fuller appreciation of a project’s complexity.

The better informed a community is, the better equipped are the people to make thoughtful and informed commentary on an issue. Such community input can really help organisations learn something and act on things that the community can in turn benefit from. Understanding and appreciating other perspectives, and constraints, makes for a more useful community engagement process.

Q: I realise that there’s no “one size fits all” approach, but I’d like to know – should my organisation take an active facilitation role online?

M: I think it can be a good idea for an organisation to use an online facilitator who is somewhat neutral to the issue.

Using the project I worked on with Bang the Table as an example, if someone from that Government had facilitated the discussion instead of me, they may either have generated defensiveness within the community or come across as pretty defensive themselves. As a neutral facilitator, the community can see that I’m not there to defend any positions. I’m merely there to find what is working, what isn’t working and how that area could be improved from through community input.

From my point of view, I think it’s important to be active online. A practiced facilitator actively interacting on the site can promote dialogue between contributors, including the client. The client then has an opportunity to demonstrate it is listening, responding, affirming and being respectful to that community. Having someone facilitate means that the client can interact without feeling like they have to ‘manage’ the process. I believe online engagement is more effective when it fosters conversations between people, and not just a forum for people to dump.

Q: Are there better ways to pose questions online that will engage more people?

M: I think that a lot of online consultations might not be as successful as they could be, because of the way that they present their questions on the forums.

For example, very few people are going to respond positively to the idea of a rate rise. So instead of asking people how they feel about it, you could consider posing a “dilemma”, meaning that you walk them through the implications.

I mean, it’s a fact that all Councils are doing it tough financially these days, so it’s more respectful to your community if you provide the situation as it really stands. You state up front what the outcome would be if the Council doesn’t increase its rates. The reality might be that the Council will need to amalgamate with other surrounding Councils or reduce its level of services.

People get that. We all have to balance our budgets. And by posing the question that way, not only are you providing the community with much needed information – information that’s very helpful in helping them make an informed opinion – but the community can see that the rate rise may actually be more acceptable. In effect, dialogue around the dilemma can help people make a more informed judgment.

By posing your questions in this way, it can produce much more considered dialogue and generate a lot more understanding of what the situation is from the organisation’s end.

Q: Is it worthwhile loading items into the online Library? Do people really bother looking through them?

M: People who are very keen on the issue will always dive into the detail, so it’s important for this reason.

However, I think that by placing material you’ve generated on the site shows that there’s credibility surrounding the issue that people are being consulted on. If you do have an active online facilitator, they in turn can direct people to the library for further information.

Q: When should we consider online tools in our engagement strategies?

M: There is always an online option for a major project, especially when you’re trying to extend the reach.

I don’t think that you would ever consider using it as your only consultation method however. I think that in nearly every case, you’d want to use it within a suite of other options.

In many cases people may want to run an online engagement forum parallel to their other consultation methods. But there’s no reason why you couldn’t use it in a more linear way as part of an overall consultation strategy.

It could be used equally as well parcelled into a major strategy that would run over a number of years. For example, imagine if you opened up a forum for a couple of months, advertised widely that you were using Bang the Table to identify issues within the community, and then once you’d achieved that, you could then develop a discussion paper out of that.

You could use it to capture some ideas and then use those ideas to develop other materials, open papers and the like, before taking it to another consultation level.

Because it’s so flexible as a technology it would make sense to develop a longer term consultation strategy that would reach over a longer period of time.

Alternatively, you could use it as a reference point for a project and inform people of ongoing developments within that project. You could use it to interact with community over the project’s timeline and email them with developments i.e. first draft design of the project.

You could also use the site and library as a repository for all the information that’s been developed and gathered for the project. It would be up to the facilitator to ensure that the information is kept up to date and encourage the community to keep going back to the site.

Q: Why would my organisation bother to engage online? And why wouldn’t we be using our own online facilities?

M: Whether it’s the way you want to engage the community or not, people are going to use the internet to state their opinion. And if you haven’t engaged them online, they’ll do it in their own space.

I guess that one of the good things about Bang the Table packages is that they do offer round the clock moderation which is something that most organisations can’t find the resources to do. It is also run by people who understand and are committed to community engagement.

Also, Bang the Table is constantly revising and updating its features because they specialise in the online space. It really does give people a convenient opportunity to express themselves and can help everyone to learn something new.

Case study clip: Max and Bang the Table go to Canberra

In 2009, a team of specialist engagement organisations were contracted by a Government client to identify which community engagement methods suited people best.

Max was a part of this team and chose to use Bang the Table’s “EngagementHQ” forum along with other tools including focus groups, interviews, surveys and observations.

“As I remember, the (Bang the Table) forum was advertised widely throughout the region,” states Max. “And while we didn’t receive hundreds of comments, I believe we did manage to capture a lot of people who might not otherwise have been heard.”

During this period there were 4,300 visits to the site, 745 unique visitors and 64 comments posted.

Max acted as the online facilitator for the forum, and drew on his skills to open up the discussion, identify and answer people’s questions as best he could, and encourage people to engage in thoughtful conversation.

Photo credit: Richard Taylor

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