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E-consultation

For a printable version of this information click here.

'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 structured consultation.

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 Victorian community.

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 will vary.

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 approached?

Target populations should be identified using traditional and online means. This relates to both information provision and promotion.

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?

Technical
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
Facilitation skills are not required for all forms of e-consultation. Moderated chat sessions and listserv discussions are consultation processes where a facilitator is required.

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 works ?

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 are:

  • 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 occurs?

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 email.

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 approach taken:

  • 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 or chatroom.
Strengths

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.

Weaknesses

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 of information
  • Difficulty reading or comprehending text
  • Unable to use a keyboard or mouse
  • Text-only screen, small screen or slow internet connection
  • 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.

Resources Required

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).

Further information
Publicus.Net - Public Strategies for the Online World, Stephen Clift
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) - Engaging Citizens in Policymaking
Multimedia Victoria
Vicnet


CASE STUDIES

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 PDF format.

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 discussions.

Wellington Shire Council has live web-casting of monthly council meetings. Citizens are also able to view archived council meetings.

To view more case studies, click here.

 

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