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'Most of the innovative examples in engaging citizens
in [on-line] policy making are to be found at the local
government level - mirroring the trend found in traditional
"off-line" public participation.' Citizens
as Partners, OECD, 2001
|Brief description of technique
E-consultation involves the use of information and
communication technologies (ICTs) for consultation processes
and activities. Typically this involves the use of a
website or electronic discussion groups (including usenets,
email/listserv, discussion boards and chatrooms) for
The Census of Population and Housing indicates that
38.6% of all residents used the Internet somewhere in
the week prior to the Census. The use of ICTs for consultation
and engagement will become more significant as usage
rates and skills continue to increase throughout the
|To what kinds of consultation situations
is this approach best suited?
E-consultation can be well suited to broader or municipality-wide
issues or events.
The technologies lend themselves to the posting of
plans and reports and therefore are particularly useful
for policy, strategic planning and land use consultations.
The immediate nature of input/response may be particularly
suited to performance reviews or citizen satisfaction
exercises where delays in time may exacerbate the situation
or impact on community relations.
The growing use of innovative ICT practices and increasing
community use means that the scope and potential for
the conduct of a variety of consultation activities
continues to emerge.
|How much time is generally needed?
Depending on how the consultation is structured this
For example, consultation on plans to redevelop a facility
may be linked to project management or statutory timelines.
On the other hand, as the medium can provide near immediate
responses to issues raised or input provided, time-frames
for the actual consultation may be relatively short.
For example, a structured chatroom session may only
be an hour long (with significant preparation and promotional
lead time built in).
|How are target populations identified and
Target populations should be identified using traditional
and online means. This relates to both information provision
Existing email networks can be used to advertise consultation
events. Different local government departments could
consider creating email contact lists for their committees
and networks to broaden the pool of participants.
Many discussion-based consultation events fail if there
are only minimal postings in the first few days. It
is therefore essential to ensure there are some authentic
postings in the first few days, to encourage the other
participants to follow.
|What are the skills required?
Strong and responsive technical support is required
for the maintenance of a website and associated applications.
Knowledge of particular software applications may be
required for more complex or sophisticated methods,
which could include web-casting or chatrooms.
Facilitation skills are not required for all forms of
e-consultation. Moderated chat sessions and listserv
discussions are consultation processes where a facilitator
In this context, an online facilitator is recommended
(either in-house or contractor) to help set the tone
and keep the event moving and on topic. This person
will undertake the role of "neutral" host.
They are authorised to deal with any administrative
issues as they arise and also encourage stakeholders
to participate as required
|What kind of information do participants
require prior to their involvement?
The provision of information to the community is the
first step in the consultation process - as for more
traditional consultation methods. Any relevant information
on the specific issue should be provided to the public.
Documents such as draft discussion papers, strategic
plans, vision statements, design drawings and plans,
or draft amendments can be made available to view on
the website. Either the documents are available on the
website itself in html or through a downloadable file
(word or adobe options).
In addition to the provision of background information
to the community, it is helpful if there is a clear
invitation for the public to give comments and clear
instructions on how this can be done. Details on the
decision-making and feedback processes are important.
|Brief outline of how the process usually
Internet technologies offer a number of new ways to
collect data and feedback from the community. Many local
governments are incorporating these new internet technologies
alongside traditional consultation methods.
Popular media for input during a consultation process
- html survey or questionnaire
- survey or questionnaire in word or adobe format
that must be downloaded, printed out, then mailed
to local government
- email address for general, non-structured submissions
- postal address for general, non-structured submissions
- contact telephone number for member of staff
- announcement of in-person meeting or consultation
Some local governments have started using innovative
internet technologies as part of their regular communication
with their citizens. These new technologies include:
- Online feedback or comments forms.
- Real-time forums or chat rooms.
- Public message boards.
- Web-casting of council meetings.
|What level of reporting back to participants
In addition to the dialogue that occurs between the
local government and community, dialogue amongst community
members is an important part of the process. In more
traditional consultation methods, such as community
meetings, the public has the opportunity to hear the
comments of other community members. One of the drawbacks
of e-consultation is that it does not always
provide the opportunity for the community to hear the
concerns of other members and can often hinder one's
sense of engagement in the process. One consultation
method that addresses this problem is the "listserv"
or online forum where citizens, councillors and council
staff can all participate in the same discussion via
Some local government involves delegated authority
to key staff members moderating the site to provide
near immediate turn-around in responses to community
concerns. This is not without its difficulties but is
important in engendering participation by matching the
immediacy of input.
|How is this approach usually evaluated?
Evaluation of e-consultation could incorporate
reference to the following, depending on the particular
- Number of hits on website.
- Number of responses (html surveys received or faxed/written
responses on downloaded forms).
- Number of participants in a listserv.
- Number of participants involved in discussion board
One of the main advantages of e-consultation
is that it provides the opportunity for individuals
to participate who would not usually be interested in
the traditional methods of consultation, for example
community meetings, longer workshops or large group
interventions which can take days to complete. The e-consultation
process can provide flexible options for input. For
example, residents and stakeholders can choose when
and where to access the forum, for example home, workplace,
school or community access through the local library.Using
ICTs enables a quick response rate to concerns or issues
raised during a consultation. It also provides a medium
whereby information can be kept current easily and a
large amount of data can be stored and collated.
There are still many barriers that may prevent some
members of the community from fully accessing the website:
- Unable to see, hear, move or process some types
- Difficulty reading or comprehending text
- Unable to use a keyboard or mouse
- Text-only screen, small screen or slow internet
- Language difficulties
- Problems with software, hardware and computer systems
The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has developed a
set of guidelines that explain how to create web content
that is accessible to people with disabilities. These
guidelines can help to ensure that persons using browsers
and assistive technologies such as screen readers or
braille displays will be able to comprehend the information
given on the website.
Another potential drawback is that e-consultation
may only engage those who are technologically literate
and/or connected to existing local government networks.
Broad-based promotion of the opportunities for input
and details on how this can be done will assist. This
is why the use of ICTs is often seen as complementary
alongside other more traditional methods. Dedicated
staff to handle public inquiries about how to best use
the technology will also be useful.
Persistent technical problems can undermine consultation
activities. E-consultation requires expert technical
staff to be on hand at all times.
Results can be unrepresentative.
Initial outlay can be substantial for the design and
construction of a website (around $20,000). Once a website
is set up ongoing costs associated with consultation
activities are technical and facilitation support.
Listserv (email list) software can be available for
no or little cost through existing government programs
(see resources below).
|Publicus.Net - Public Strategies for the
Online World, Stephen Clift
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development
(OECD) - Engaging Citizens in Policymaking
Ballarat City Council has recently launched myballarat.com which is a portal containing general information about the Ballarat region, news and weather information and has a range of consultative capabilities.
Banyule City Council has a Community Charter that
outlines Banyule's commitment and responsibilities for citizens'
enquiries, complaints and other communication. It also has
detailed information on how to request to speak in council
meetings, including the necessary forms in downloadable
Latrobe City Council has a public message board
for discussion on local issues. "Have Your Say"
allows citizens to respond to topics or post their own.
Includes guidelines for use.
Moreland City Council hosts "Moreland Chat",
a real-time discussion forum or chat room. "Moreland
Chat" offers opportunities to chat with the mayor,
participate in online ward meetings and community network
Wellington Shire Council has live web-casting of
monthly council meetings. Citizens are also able to view
archived council meetings.