Families on The Couch:
hearing from New Zealand families
Manager, Community Relations
Presented at: GOVIS 2007 Innovation in ICT
Conference, Wellington, 9-11 May 2007
The comments listed here represent a very small
fraction of the rich feedback provided by Couch
Christmas is a great time to spend with members.
whanau. The delight on the children's faces tell
These comments were received in response to
us that it is an important time for them. Every
our summer holiday poll: we simply asked if
thing we do on this day focuses on what the people had other comments. What impresses me
children want to do whether it be a meal is how honest people are about their
circumstances. This is powerful information to
together or a barbeque at the beach.
influence policy and decision-makes.
Christmas is a stressful time As a general observation, Couch members are
sharing incredibly openly and freely. Not only
(emotionally, physically and
that, people are at times writing at length, with
financially) despite trying to streamline people regularly writing entries of over 500
it each year. It is something to be words.
endured rather than enjoyed!!
This brings with it a weighty responsibility to both
Christchurch respect the different viewpoints, and to make
good use of what we’re told. This is in fact
common to any public consultation or community
engagement exercise, online or off.
As a sole parent family struggling with invalidity
or poverty this is the seventh year of struggle On the Couch we’ve been successful in creating
with circumstances imposed so our efforts have an environment where people are willing to share
their experiences, views and ideas. We have a
been focussed on healing grief and pain by substantial membership, just over 3,000 people
finding manageable creative positive wishes and at the time of this presentation, who are active.
actions for better tomorrows
What I want to talk about today is what are the
Porirua critical successful factors for running an online
community engagement website. Based on how
things are working, the critical success factors
- how we’ve established a
relationship with members?
- what do we do with the
information we collect?
- how we promote the website?
I’ll also talk about the design, customer service,
and development capability.
But first, I want to set out why The Couch was
set-up, how it works and how are we doing.
What I’ll cover today
Why the Couch was set-up
How the Couch works
How are we going?
Critical success factors
Using what we gather
Where to from here
The Couch set up a year ago, almost exactly, as a
means of hearing directly from members of
The role of the Families Commission is to
advocate for the interests of New Zealand
families. The Commission promotes the interests
of all families and promotes a better
understanding of family issues and needs
amongst government agencies and the wider
We need to know what issues are facing families.
This is done in a variety of ways: consultation on
specific policy areas; eyes and ears on the ground
through a team of community advisors;
Commissioner links with organisations and
In undertaking these activities, the Commission is
meeting its legislative obligation to maintain
mechanisms (for example, by appointing advisory
committees or forming consultation forums) to
ensure that there are at all times readily
accessible to it the views
a of Maori as tangata whenua
b of the Pacific Islands peoples of New Zealand
c of other ethnic and cultural groups in New
d of groups that represent families, or 1 or more
kinds of family members, and of groups that have
a particular interest in families.
The core idea behind The Couch is directly
hearing from family members - unmediated by
the caring professions or spokespeople. What we
want is diversity of views. The results of polls and
longer questionnaires were seen as being very
useful to help the Commission:
- develop position papers, research documents,
identify areas for new work
- plan public education activities
- use to influence public opinion, government
and other agencies.
At the same time The Couch is a fresh approach
to public participation which ideally will stimulate
active citizenship. As a by-product of involvement
we can envisage our members being more willing
to participate in democracy. We also want to
share what we’ve learnt and learn from others, so 4
online participation in New Zealand is effective.
For those not online, it was stressed that
The Couch would supplement face-to-face
consultation. Efforts to reach so-called hard
to reach groups would be made, including
The Couch was not set up for research
New languages of politics will have to be surveys. The Commission knew it would be
very difficult getting a fully representative
admitted into the representative arena, including
sample of New Zealanders to join up. This is
those based on experience and storytelling as inevitable when membership is self-
well as analysis and ideological polemicising. selecting. So we cannot extrapolate the
There can be no room for the downgrading of results to the total NZ population.
vernacular or emotive expression if we are really
Instead of conducting research surveys the
to take seriously the authentic testimonies of core purpose of the Couch is to run polls to
diverse experience as part of the policy process. capture member opinions and experiences.
Stephen Coleman & John Gøtze, The poll results are from a knowledgeable
Bowling Together: Online Public Engagement in and diverse cross section of New Zealand
Policy Deliberation (2001) families. The results we’re getting show
there is a very wide cross section of family
members: extended family, couples, solo
mums, people in same sex relationships.
This Commission is accessing very rich
qualitative data that powerfully portrays the
real experiences of families. We are arguing,
along the lines that Professor Stephen
Coleman and John Gozte do, that it is critical
for genuine voices of families to be heard in
the policy process.
The responses are valid even if they are not
run according to social scientific
methodology. We are not ignoring the
question of representativeness. Indeed we
are looking into selecting a cross-section of
members that is demographically
representative of the New Zealand
population for specific subjects.
A tender process was run to select a developer for
Core requirements were:
-ease of administration, including automated poll
and report generation, bulk email capability
The Commission wanted to minimise ongoing
maintenance costs, and reduce bottlenecks so
quick turn around for publishing polls and reports.
Boost New Media were selected. They are
experienced in user centred design, and have a
portfolio of multi-media work for ACC, Learning
Media, education clients.
Agreement reached giving Boost the right to re-
sell the core code so they invested a lot of time
and effort in the development phase. They
continue to be involved doing maintenance and
The database and website is a custom built
application. For those that are technically minded,
the application runs on Ruby on Rails, is database
agnostic (eg works with MySQL, Microsoft SQL
Server), and is open source.
It is important to acknowledge the critical role the
Commission’s Communications team played in
ensuring the look ‘n feel meets the needs of the
audience. Communications staff were involved
from the very beginning. A purely technical team
would have been unlikely to come up with such a
Lets go, lets follow in the foot steps of a new
Who here has visited the website? Is a member?
Has completed a poll?
The Couch open to any New Zealand resident.
A requirement of membership is completion of a
form collecting demographic information.
Privacy is very important - we commit to not
using email addresses for any purpose but
communicating about the Couch. And all poll
responses are anonymous - the name and email
address are stripped from responses.
Every 6-8 weeks we notify run polls asking
members about some aspect of family life.
Polls are a combination of closed-ended and
The length of polls varies. The longest was about
18 questions. Shortest one is coming up: just one
question. We want people to be able to complete
them in one sitting - aiming for no longer than
An email alert is sent to members, and reminders
to those that have not completed a poll also.
After completion of a poll, or longer research
focused questionnaires, we publish a results
The report is a very important part of the
feedback process. It is available to members, and
to any visitor. We provide members with their
responses to questions.
Reports are a combination of graphs and freeform
Currently reports are laid out on a single page.
Length varies - we’re getting much deeper
information than originally intended so format
needs to be tweaked to reflect how we are
actually using the website.
Before I walk through the website, I want to talk
about how the website is run.
There are two levels to this:
How we run it The Family Knowledge Base steering committee
comprises both senior management and
Commissioners. They set budget, determine
Governance Steering Committee - policy, poll and report policies, approve polls and reports, and monitor
progress. Email round robins are used in-between
approval, monitor progress
Operations Internal team with survey design, analysis
On the operational side:
and communications expertise -Internal team: membership from policy and
research, communications and Couch
administration. Role is to design and test
questions for polls, analysing results, prepare
reports and disseminate findings.
Marketing, promotions support -Project Officer, full-time - Rebecca Whiting in
this role. Help desk for members, uploading polls
and reports, technical management, coordinating
and cajoling other staff; promotional activities;
and other related administration.
-Project Manager, currently part of broader
Community relations manager role. Reporting,
planning, budgeting, strategy, and support for
Project Officer. I see role as being a advocate for
-Marketing and promotions activity shared by
Communications team members. Press releases,
materials, presence at events, booking
In total this amounts to about 1.5 FTEs.
The Couch sits within the Communications and
Community Relations team (not an IT
department) which means the emphasis is on our
the relationship with the people who use the
website. We are committed to meeting principles
within the Commission’s community engagement
charter, just as we are with any face-to-face
I’m going to run through the statistics, but in
doing so don’t want to de-emphasise the
importance of the data we receive because it is
not really a numbers game. We are collecting we
useful information that is supporting the
Members, so far Steady growth over the year. Reached 3,000
members in April.
Total at 20 April 2007: 3,000 Substantially more women online than men,
which reflects the predominance of females as
Gender: primary caregivers and nurturers of family life.
Female 79% Male 21% Ethnicity broadly same proportion as New Zealand
population. Under represented in under 24 age
Ethnicity: group and over 65 years.
NZ European 75% Maori 10%
Samoan 2% Cook Is Maori 1%
Chinese 1% Indian 1%
Under 24 years 2% 25-34 years 23%
35-44 years 41% 45-54 years 23%
55-64 years 8% Over 65 years 2%
Good spread of members, broadly proportionate
to NZ population. We do have members in all
areas, even though summary statistics show 0%
in some cases. Wellington membership is higher
than its share of the New Zealand population.
Anyone here from Tasman or Marlborough, I can
Members, so far give you a stack of promotional material, and
might organise a promotional visit soon.
Northland 3% Wellington 22%
Auckland 32% West Coast 1%
Waikato 7% Canterbury 13%
Bay of Plenty 7% Otago 4%
Gisborne 1% Southland 2%
Hawke’s Bay 2% Tasman 0%
Taranaki 2% Nelson 1%
Manawatu-Wanganui 4% Marlborough 0%
Up to mid-April 2007 we’ve run nine polls and two
questionnaires. At the time of our birthday
celebration we counted up: 7,865 responses from
members to date. The membership is very active.
81% of members have completed a poll
Polls and questionnaires About 37% have completed one poll in the last
Poll 1: Parenting Education I just checked the latest poll and after just one
week 385 responses were received on “How are
Poll 2: Home and away poll
Questionnaire 1: Childcare needs for school children
Poll 3; Managing the family budget
Poll 4: Families and alcohol
Questionnaire 2: Disability and family life
Poll 5: Attitudes to family violence
Poll 6: Summer holidays
Poll 7: Ageing and families - how does it affect you?
Poll 8: Support for couples
Poll 9: How are we going? One year on The Couch
Members have made comments through polls and
by email. The lastest poll which will feed into
enhancements to the way we operate the website
will be a source of valuable feedback.
Very personal touch - lots of Christmas wishes.
There are both positive comments, brickbats, and
Some member feedback critiques of some of question design.
As you can see, members want to keep us
Great - keep up the good work honest. They are demanding that we make good
use of the information, and stay neutral.
Keep going in your present manner.
We are very happy to receive this feedback as our
Feedback about how the polls/questionnaires either directly or members are holding us accountable. As with any
indirectly affect support, services and policy for families in NZ engagement process, they want to see some
benefit come out of their involvement. This
information is particularly important to helping us
To be notified of policy changes (Govt) that have occurred as a
with how we communicate effectively.
result of the information provided by Couchers.
Debates about controversial issues, e.g. the propsed repeal of
Section 59 of the Crimes Act
Please continue to ensure questions are not worded to get a
prior agenda. If I felt this was so the site would immediately loose
Having set out how the website works and
progress to date, I want to give my point of view
on why we’re in this situation. I’ll refer to three
main critical success factors, and a few subsidiary
1. Critical success factors: building trust
Critical success factors What I think is going on is that we have
established a relationship with members with a
1. Building trust high levels of trust. It’s only because of this that I
can understand the openness and honesty with
2. Making use of what we gather
which members are giving feedback.
3. Effective promotion
I think there are many contributing factors to
4. The rest: trust, not all of which are related to the website.
o Usabilty These include:
-Relative newness of Commission – because the
o Customer service Commission was only established on 1 July 2004
people don’t have unpleasant past experiences
o Sound platform and responsive web developers
with our organisation
-Role of Commission as advocate for families – we
seen as being neutral or independent
-Committment to reporting back and privacy: we
report back on all polls, and typically within about
a month; we have not and will not use member
email addresses other than for the purpose they
-Making use of results – more later
-Respect for diversity… we reflect different
ethnicities, values, backgrounds on the website.
-Language – friendly, casual tone… really
reaching out to our target audience
-Look ‘n feel – inviting and ‘fun’
-Responsiveness to help-desk inquiries,
questions, comments, criticism.
The relationship with our members is very
precious – our job is to protect. Without it, there
is no Couch, it’s just a shell.
2. Critical success factors: Making use of
what we gather
As I pointed out earlier, we report back to
members. Generally within four weeks.
Of course, this is not enough. Members are
expecting change to policies and the
circumstances of families to improve
So what are we doing:
1. Analysis for research reports – eg OSS,
2. Submissions – eg Alcohol and young people
3. Dissemination to other government agencies,
ngos, eg results of disability questionnaire –
presentation to IHC manager, Disability Advisory
Council associated with Office of disability issues
4. Public education – one coming up on work life
balance, attitudes for family violence
5. Analysing for trends, narrative
6. Summaries produced – published in regular
Talking with people about how the Couch is run
and its benefits, eg SSC online participation
There is more we could do, including sharing raw
data for analysis by others – a policy will be
There is a real onus on making use of what we
gather, and communicating with members what
we’re doing with results.
3. Critical success factors: communication
The Commission has committed budget and staff
time to promoting the Couch to target audiences.
The Communications and Community Relations
take a very professional approach. This
something that is not always on tap for websites
I’ve worked on in the past.
Word of mouth most effective way of attracting
new members…. I guess happy members tell
The ways the Commission pursues promotion
1. Every opportunity Commissioners and staff are
meeting with people, they tell them about the
2. Targeted print and online advertising, eg Tu
Mai, Mana, Indian Tribune, Chinese Herald, and
TradeMe. We have a modest budget, which in my
eyes is large but I’m assured by the
communications advisor that it is pretty small.
Effective promotion contd
3. Presence at events, shows, conferences.
Between the International Cultural and Pasifika
Festivals in Auckland when we ran the Fun Family
Photo promotion, 343 people downloaded their
photo and 187 have signed up.
4. Articles in our regular newsletter.
5. Links strategy – getting links on websites.
Much more to do on this.
4. Critical success factors: The rest
Usable design – user friendly, simple – single
purpose. Lots of white space, colour and dare I
say it, a sense of fun. This contrasts with some
forums or epanels overseas which I have seen
which have a very technical interface.
You might have noticed use of Ajax as part of
commitment to ensuring a good user experience.
Effective customer service – Rebecca the
Couch’s Project Officer responds quickly,
efficiently to emails. We’ve put in place systems
to ensure we get back to people quickly.
Sound platform and responsive web
developers – development and maintenance
undertaken by Boost. They are very committed
making the website work, very professional and
always thinking ahead.
Scheduled monthly maintenance is supplemented
by periodic enhancements. Some are due by end
of July following a first review of the website.
We are not standing still and have plans to build
on where we’ve got to. Most of what I’m
talking about here are still in the ideas stage
and under wraps at the moment, so please do
not widely broadcast them.
Where to from here One the areas where online consultation
shows the most promise is in
fostering deliberation. This about
1. Deliberation - investigating other features such as discussion more than individuals talking in
isolation, but engaging in dialogue.
Benefits of deliberation include people
As the objective of online deliberation is to inform elected representatives, then
being made aware of new information
the selection of participants need be less preoccupied with representativeness
in context and being influenced by
and more concerned to recruit a broad range of experience, expertise and
peers, and potential for re-framing
interests. So, when survivors of domestic violence were enabled to give
issues. Discussion forums with good
evidence online to the UK Parliament, individual contributions were not
facilitation are one area we are
evaluated in terms of their capacity to reflect the experiences of all survivors of
looking into. The way members are
domestic violence, but their ability to reflect their own experience in ways that
using The Couch suggest could work.
could inform the decisions of legislators.
It would meet one of the
Stephen Coleman & John Gøtze,
Commission’s statutory obligations to
Bowling Together: Online Public Engagement in
Policy Deliberation (2001)
2. Refined poll structure
Based on experience of the first nine
2. Refined poll structure months, being more careful about
3. Feedback loop: quarterly newsletter, policies on sharing data type of poll and objectives. Have
agreed on three types of polls:
4. R & D: subset of members consulted on specific topics 1. Quick polls: 3-7 questions, topical
2. Exploratory polls: we ask members
about issues for them, and ideas for
3. Research polls: question design to
feed into specific areas of work,
expectation that results will be
analysed and published.
3. Feedback loop
Make sure members know what we are
doing with information collected.
Create a well-designed quarterly
newsletter. It would include lists of
submissions and reports, and even
conference presentations like this.
4. R & D
Now that we have an established base,
how else can we do things to learn
about experiences of families, and
meet Commission statutory
One area being investigated is to create a
We are very happy to share our experiences.
Please get in touch.
I’d like to acknowledge input from my colleague
Rebecca Whiting in the preparation of this
Thank you for coming to participate in this
Contact session today.
ph available on request
email available on request
Presentation available on SSC facilitated Online Participation