Introduction 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 web 2.0 tools, 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.
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: 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. 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. 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.
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? 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.
The tool needs to be supported by quantitative and qualitative reporting tools.
A quick word on microblogs. 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 Bushfires... 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. 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.
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.
Time permitting.... How hearing from the broader community can change the perception of the popular narrative.
That’s all for today. You can find all of our presentations on our website or on SlideShare. We also have a blog at Online Community Consultation where we talk about these issues of applying online technologies to the community engagement task. Thank you for your attention.