Using scenario based questions to stimulate online discussion

The Victorian Sentencing Council used scenario based questions to stimulate online discussion about complex legal questions to great effect.

“There’s no such thing as a stupid question.” Hmmm? We’ve all heard that one before, and normally I would agree. But when it comes to engaging online, the art of asking a question can make or break your consultation outcomes.

This is particularly applicable when it comes to complex subject matters. The Victorian Sentencing Council ran an online engagement consultation a couple of years back and it’s one we continuously refer to as great case study for asking great questions. We thought it was about time we reflected their success in a case study on the blog.


In 2010, in response to a request from the Victorian Attorney-General, the Sentencing Advisory Council set out to review maximum penalties for about 250 of the most serious criminal offences in Victoria. A review had not been undertaken since 1989. The project ran for 12 months, with the online component, (no longer active) running for about six weeks.

As part of this review, the Council consulted with the community in an attempt to understand views on relative offence seriousness – what elements make one crime more serious than another.

Going online

The Sentencing Advisory Council used several methods of engagement to stimulate debate around this topic.

The Council captured some of the offline engagement activities on video, including interviews with participants about the process. These vlogs were loaded onto the site and provided further insight and reference points for the online community’s participation in the project.

The Council initially developed short surveys asking people to choose between the seriousness of two criminal scenarios. The response to these surveys was then used to drive further conversations through forum topics, where participants were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the survey outcomes and why.

Asking great questions

The Council also followed up on points raised in early conversations within the online forum, such as ” what makes an offence serious? why are some offences more serious than others?” by posing related scenario-based questions. These focused on the elements raised in the previous debate, such as intention and consequences, enabling both the community and the council to drill into the specifics of why one crime should carry a more serious penalty than another.

An example of these questions included the following:

Question: Is an offence that only risks a high level of harm more or less serious than an offence that actually causes a lower level of harm?

Scenario 1: David throws a rock off a freeway overpass into moving traffic. The rock narrowly misses the windscreen of a car and bounces to the side of the road. No one is physically injured.

Scenario 2: David punches Victor once in the face, intending to injure him, Victor’s face is bruised.

This approach enabled the community to provide feedback on a complex topic from a well considered perspective. The activity report provided great insight into the depth of engagement, highlighted particularly by the number of people agreeing or disagreeing with comments.

  • Number of page views:  30,381
  • Number of unique visitors: 5,336
  • Number of comments: 218
  • Number of people disagreeing or agreeing with comments: 524
  • Number of document downloads: 1,137
  • Number of video downloads: 396

Tell us where you think scenario-based questioning would be, or has been, used effectively in an online engagement context?

Photo credit: Matt Kowal

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