Managing risks and creating opportunities from online public engagement: Public Sphere Presentation

A few days ago I gave a presentation as part of the Public Sphere conference in Canberra on managing risks and creating opportunities from online public engagement.

I’ve had a bit of second hand feedback that it would be good to hear more about the sorts of things I touched on at Public Sphere #2 in Canberra last week. I’ve been meaning (and hoping to find time) to blog about a few issues since then but have yet to find (or is it make) the time. As an interim measure, I am posting a slightly annotated version of my speech notes below.

NOTE: For anyone who was there or who has watched the video of my presentation, these notes are NOT a verbatim transcription of the talk I gave on the day – I tend to be more illustrative on the day than in notes. There are a couple of issues in particular that I have added some explanatory content to these notes to go some way to articulating a more reasoned rationale for some of my comments, particularly in relation to micro blogging (read Twitter).


Thank you to Senator Lundy for hosting this event and thank you to the organisers for giving me the opportunity to speak.

The first thing to say is that I am NOT a Techo.

I think that Java is a warm place for a holiday. Ruby on Rails has something to do with my grandmother taking a trip on the Orient Express. And Flash is something you can be arrested for.

I have been a public servant, a consultant, an academic – the constant has been the need to engage communities and stakeholders in conversation.

So, rather than approaching these technologies with a developers’ perspective, I work with local, state and national governments to help them use social software, principally online forums, to engage their communities on all manner of issues.

As a company we have been around for less than 2 years – but in that time we have worked with around 40 organisations on probably double that number of discrete consultation projects – there has been lots of learning along the way and their are lots of stories.

Now, I’m used to giving presentations about the benefits of online community engagement and the risk management practices that need to be put in place – but today I’m going to talk about something a little different.

In just 15 minutes I want to take you through a potted version of the thinking process we run through when planning which online tools to use and how to use them. Here goes…

Where are you on the ladder?

In the world of Community Engagement (with a capital C and a capital E) there is one seminal academic paper that has influenced all subsequent theory and practice. It was published in 1967 by Cherie Arnstein in the US and was titled “A Ladder of Citizens Participation“.

The International Association for Public Participation has a “spectrum” based on this paper against which we test a project. The core questions we ask ourselves are; “How much flexibility for change do we have? And how much power can we hand over to the community to influence the outcome of this project?”

The five categories of project are Inform, Consult, Involve, Collaborate, and Empower. An example of an “inform” project would be the construction period of a major highway that has already received the necessary planning approvals. An example of an “empower” project would be a local community management committee with absolute decision making authority.

Why is this relevant? Because all of these fabulous tools we have been talking about today are only useful if they are placed sensitively and appropriately in the context of the “engagement objectives” of the project.

What are your engagement objectives?

The next set of questions we need to ask are:

  • Who do we want to hear from?
  • How many people do we want to hear from?
  • Where do we want them to live?
  • What sort of demographic profile are we trying to attract?
  • How active do we want people to be once we have their attention?

All of these questions help us work out what sort of tools to use as well as how we will measure the success of the engagement process.

Choosing Tools

The third stage in the planning process is when we start to think about which tools to use.

This is where Web 2.0 comes into the picture.

Everyone here is familiar with the vast array of mass collaboration tools available today. I’m going to talk for the next few minutes about the tool I have the most experience working with – online forums.

I also want to touch on the use of micro -blogging and social networking sites before finishing – time permitting – with a short success story.

Community forums are at the heart of the service we currently provide – we have built a template website with a forum at its heart, we manage the sites, moderate the forums, and provide strategic and analytic advice.

As I said, we have run around 80 community forums so far. The scale has ranged from 1 comment to 2500 comments in just over three weeks.

So not on the scale of the “Open for Question” Whitehouse experience, but given the localised nature of the consultations, they can occasionally get pretty big thus demonstrating the potential of the technology.

A few key learnings:

  1. The quality of the qualitative data that you can extract from an online forum is VASTLY superior to anything I have ever seen from a face-to-face community workshop – it captures the thoughts of individual verbatim and those thoughts are generally pretty well considered because they are not made in the heat of the moment.
  2. The ability for people to agree or disagree with other people’s comments captures data that is usually lost in a face-to-face environment.
  3. The number of people who get involved in an online forum almost always vastly outstrips the number of people at face-to-face meetings – because it is convenient, accessible, and pretty straight forward.
  4. The vast majority of people are voyeurs. They like to watch! But if the issue is hot enough, enough people will sign up and make comments to provide invaluable insights that make the project outcomes more robust and sustainable.
  5. The number of people who get involved in the discussion is proportional to:
  • The amount of publicity and size of the target audience.
  • The visceral nature of the issue under consideration – does this directly affect me?
  • The way the conversation is framed – are the questions themselves meaningful or are the issues impenetrable?


A quick word on micro blogs.

Twitter is obviously the new kid on the block.

It’s been used in all manner of circumstances to good effect – witness the protests in Iran, the terrorist attack in India, the Victorian bush fires…

Which is why what I have say might not be very popular.

I think Twitter is pretty much over-rated hype with limited use in a public policy context. [NOTE: I think this statement may have been where I got myself into a little bit of trouble with some members of the live audience, and possibly a few remote viewers as well. I will explain this statement below without any further interruption to my original notes.] 140 characters does not make for a particularly useful contribution to public policy. The “Twitter” environment is all about getting “followers” which means your message will almost certainly be overwhelmed within the Twitter Stream by all the other messages.

On the other hand micro-blogging (and I make the distinction deliberately) is potentially a very useful way to keep a community up to speed about important/urgent issues – emergency warning, road closures, changes to meeting dates etc.

[Post Conference Annotation: The first thing I want to say here is that I did not mean to dismiss Twitter. It has quickly become a valuable tool for political engagement on a national and global scale. The technology – rather than the Twitter platform – has great potential to bring the community into closer relationship with our political representatives. I love the work that the guys at tweetMP are doing. It may well prove to be a very useful contribution to encouraging transparency in Australian political life – but you must forgive me for remaining a sceptic for a little while yet; our politicians (as with our corporations and all of us) will only embrace new media communication modalities when they can see a very real personal benefit for so doing – witness Barack Obama. Would he be president without the phenomenon of social media? The US President has embraced social media the way previous candidates have embraced radio and television to their advantage. I am still waiting to see whether this leads to any improvement is real governance transparency.

Twitter was designed as a very banal tool to allow an individual to tell their friends what they were up to…. “I’m eating a jam donut.” It was NOT designed as a community or political engagement tool.

This does not, as a matter of logic, mean that it cannot serve the later purpose; but it does mean that we need to look very closely at the technology and measure its usefulness against some parameters more meaningful than the number of followers someone has. The parameters one uses will be constructed within the context of task at hand.

So, if I was someone with 50,000 followers on Twitter and I wanted to let people know about my new product (blog post, policy document, speech etc.) then having the ability to basically direct email 50,000 a link to that product is an incredibly powerful promotional avenue. Having direct access to 50,000 people who I know want to hear from me – target marketing doesn’t get any better.

On the other hand, if I want those 50,000 people to have a deliberative conversation about something that is complex and emotive – then the 140 character limit of microblogs puts them low on the list of tools I would choose to use. Which is precisely why we don’t use them as a community engagement tool. 140 characters is just enough to make a position statement – it is nowhere near enough to have a conversation about multi-faceted and complex issues. Microblogs also take place in an information vacuum.

Two of the aims of good community engagement practice are “deliberation” and “dialogue”. The first reallies on reflective consideration of a range of material and perspectives. The second requires empathic and respectful questioning of one’s interlocutor rather than the win at all costs approach that often inculcates public policy debate. So in summary, I don’t think Twitter should be banned, I just think it should be used sparingly and appropriately.]

Social Networking

And what of Facebook and MySpace?

Both tools were designed to allow people to talk to their friends – not to government.

They can be useful places to get messages out into the community (i.e. Inform) and can be useful for community organisations (i.e. Empowered) but.. government organisations need to be able to EXTRACT the information for administrative purposes and feed that into the policy making process.

You need to collect the information for FoI purposes.

You need to be able to manipulate the qualitative data – and by that I mean categorise and analyse it.

Sometimes you need to be able to plug it into qualitative analysis software.

You need to be able to present it back to the community with thoughtful responses.

Thank you for your time today.

Photo Credit: Music of Spheres by rachaelvoorhees

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