The Digital Dialogues Report by the Hansard Society - now available as web pages - provides some useful insights and guidance for anyone interested in the prospect of more public engagement online, flagged up by yesterday's Guardian story on possible funding. There's welcome scope for commenting.
The report covers pilot projects run by the UK Government last year. Further pilots are in progress. The interim findings from the first phase are realistic rather than evangelical:
- Public engagement can enhance policy making;
- Public engagement enhances citizens’ and government’s efficacy;
- The use of online resources presents significant logistical, data gathering and transparency benefits not always present in conventional, offline methods;
- People attracted to participating in online consultation and political deliberation were regular internet users. The majority had not been active in politics previously. It was the online mechanism (combining with an interest in the subject matter and the opportunity to deliberate with policy makers) that attracted them to engage in these case studies;
- Citizens were asked to engage with complex issues, deliberate and begin to find solutions together and with government representatives;
- Most of the people who used the websites preferred to spectate rather than participate in the deliberation, but did visit and logged-in regularly;
- Feedback attested to a satisfaction with text-based deliberation but expressed interest in greater use of audio-visual content;
- Scepticism amongst the public about the value of engagement in the policy process can be addressed as it begins by clearly setting out the potential for influence over outcomes. This must be matched by commitment to feedback processes at the end of an engagement exercise;
- Public engagement around policy must be led by ministers and policy officials, whilst ensuring that technical expertise is sourced from communications, IT and web teams;
- Simply building a website does not equate to online engagement. Site moderation and facilitation of the deliberation is crucial and must be led by officials with the depth of knowledge and ownership over the policy areas;
- If the breadth and depth of participation is to be enhanced, a marketing campaign must be put in place to drive traffic to a site, maintain interest and publicise outcomes;
- Participants may be unused to deliberation. Therefore, guidance and information resources will benefit the engagement process;
- Online engagement activity is not a replacement for conventional offline methods. It should be used as a complement and is best placed with a multichannel engagement campaign;
- Blogs are suitable where engagement is ongoing over a long-term period. Forums are good for periodic, structured deliberation with large groups. Webchats are useful as one-off real-time events (but may be combined in a series or with other applications);
- Participant bases created around one exercise should be maintained and encouraged to take part in an ongoing dialogue at appropriate junctures around the policy cycle;
- Online engagement exercises should start small and should be scaled-up in response to demand;
- Both the government and the public have had a long-standing interest in greater interaction online. The technology is now catching up with this aspiration;
- Planning and sufficient lead-in times are necessary to the success of online engagement activity;
- Discussion rules, terms and conditions, and moderation policies must be clear, easy to follow and published on the site;
- Consistency, personality and responsiveness are important in good facilitation of deliberation online;
- Opportunities to engage in the policy process online should be open to all, wherever possible. However, so long as the process is transparent, it is acceptable for government to select stakeholders;
- Further, longitudinal evaluation is required to gather data which can be used to inform long term online engagement strategies and procurement.
The section on next steps makes a point familiar to anyone involved in public engagement, online or off - that people will get involved only if they think they will be taken seriously.
During the case study consultations, citizens were asked to engage in complex issues, deliberate and begin to solve problems. Amongst the public participating in the case studies, we witnessed enthusiasm tempered with a healthy scepticism. Whilst the opportunity to interact directly with policy makers and deliberate amongst peers has been welcomed, there remains wariness about how genuine these government efforts are and what degree of influence the public can have on the decision-making process. This has directly influenced levels of take-up and participation.
Based on qualitative feedback, the more that government is able to show that it takes online participation seriously the more people will be prepared to get involved in the future. Sustaining opportunities will also help participants develop deliberation skills that will improve the content and structure of their contributions.
New case study leaders will be offered the tools utilised in Phase One ofDigital Dialogues – blogs, forums and webchats. In addition, Phase Two will make available innovative applications that are beginning to see mainstream use – wikis, podcasting, file-sharing directories, audio-visual blogs, mapping software and virals. New case study leaders will also be encouraged to combine applications – for example, converging polling software with forums, or photo-sharing with mapping tools.
... and explains them all in this context:
Facilitation roles are best understood as strategies which should be adopted to achieve different objectives in moderating an online deliberative exercise. Not every role is adopted in the course of a consultation; some consultations require different degrees of moderator intervention and role application. Indeed, in some consultations there may be no moderator activity in the actual consultation space; instead moderators are only carrying out ‘off-stage’ administrative duties.
The report adds:
Facilitation is a discipline in evolutionary flux. As online consultations move from their developmental phase and become a feature of legislative institutions, there will be increased pressure for regulation of moderators’ qualifications and skills. This will be difficult to achieve in a way that will be suitable for all applications of moderation. Nevertheless, a set of core skills may include:
- capability to carry out conceptual thought;
- good listener;
- attention to detail;
- composed nature;
- confidence in mediation abilities;
- strong problem-solving ability;
- high level of ICT literacy;
- cross-cultural awareness;
- excellent researcher;
- strong communicator;
- fluency in written language;
- confidence in group and interpersonal communications.
Looks to me like the set of skills and attitudes that we might welcome in politics and government in general.