Online Consultations and
Events - Top Ten Tips for Government and Civic Hosts V1.1
By Steven Clift
Online Strategist and Public Speaker
Editor, Democracies Online Newswire
Copyright 2002 Steven Clift - All rights
reserved. This article may be freely linked to, cited or quoted with simple
notification to the author and a commitment to share copies of any
final derivative works. The full text of this article may only be redistributed
online or in print with the express permission of the author.
2004 Update - While the
example links below need to be updated, the lessons and strategies below
are still fresh. Also, my Online
Consultation slides are now freely available from my speakers page.
As the concept of "e-democracy"
builds momentum, interest in the use of online consultation in government
and civil society circles is growing significantly. Online consultations,
e-consultations, online public hearings, or online civic events can all
be defined as the structured, often time-limited, use of online tools to
inform public policy processes and encourage civic participation. By time-limited,
I mean an online event with beginning and an end.
This article provides online consultation
tips geared toward prospective online consultation organizers. Most
of the tips assume an asynchronous event (not real-time or live). Most
lessons can be generalized to different models and elements I share below.
At the very end of this article I share key links to resources related
to online consultation. Let's get started.
Online Consultation Top Ten Tips
In summary …
1. Political Support Required.
2. State Purpose, Share Context.
3. Build an Audience.
4. Choose Your Model and Elements
5. Create Structure.
6. Provide Facilitation and Guidelines.
7. Disseminate Content and Results.
8. Access to Decision-Makers and Staff
9. Promote Civic Education.
10. Not About Technology.
In full details …
1. Political Support Required.
Online consultations with strong and
sincere political support are the only ones worth hosting. There
must be a political desire for input and a willingness to consider that
input in the decision-making process. Expecting that an online consultation
will dramatically change the outcome of decision-making process is not
generally a requirement. Political listening is a first and reasonable
step. We are talking about evolution, not revolution.
2. State Purpose, Share Context.
Citizens want to know the purpose of
an online event. They will be skeptical. Share concise and readable information
that shares the context of the event. Where in the policy process
is this event being the staged? The beginning? The end? Let
people know in order to establish reasonable citizen expectations.
If it is an experiment or "public awareness" exercise that you know will
have limited impact, simply be upfront and say so. You have to start
3. Build an Audience.
Recruit your participatory audience
before the online event starts. Most online consultations fail due to the
lack of citizen participation. Why? The public relations engines
are not revved up until the event starts - bad move. The pragmatic approach
is to recruit participants one at a time. Don't be fooled by the Internet
myth that if you build it they will come - they won't. Create specific
audience goals from 50 to 1000 people or more. Encourage all prospective
participants to join an e-mail announcement list for the event and future
events. Carry your audience from one event to the next whenever possible
or appropriate. Recruit participants at in-person events and through the
traditional and online media for at least two to three weeks before an
online consultation starts.
Even with an audience, many discussion-oriented
events fail in the first three days because those attracted to the online
event are thinking the same thing - "No one has posted yet, this event
must not matter." Seeding the early hours of an event with “authentic”
posts encouraged behind the scenes combined with e-mail highlights and
encouragement to participants will make it a "happening" event.
4. Choose Your Model and Elements
Figure out what kind of online consultation
you want to hold. Here are different kinds of online elements to
consider, combine, and innovate from:
A. Q and A - A simple public
web page containing questions from citizens (often selectively chosen from
those received by e-mail) with responses signed by decision-makers in the
organization. Many media sites also use this model in reverse by
posing a question with short responses from citizens.
Kids Questions to Florida Governor
more examples ...
BBC Talking Point - http://newsvote.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/talking_pointthose
B. Document/Policy Comments
- The ability for people to share public comments or add their comments
or questions at the end an article or document. Sometimes this evolves
into a discussion among readers of a document. I envision this kind
of "annotation" on reports and draft proposals in the near term and in
the future we may see this with proposed ordinances and legislation. Encouraging
people who are browsing similar policy documents and proposals on government
sites to communicate horizontally would allow people to generate public
opinion and place the agency in a facilitation role. One of most advanced
forms of document comments will take place with formal electronic rulemaking
US Federal Trade Commission: http://www.ftc.gov/privacy/comments
ZDNet AnchorDesk TalkBack: http://www.zdnet.com/anchordesk
US Electronic Rulemaking Examples:
Transit Planning in Finland using
C. Online Guests/Panel - Decision-maker(s)
or expert(s) on a virtual stage answering questions often on a pre-chosen
topic for a specific time-frame. This can be done interview style
with a facilitator fielding citizen questions or panelist style with interaction
among the decision-makers and experts. Some events start with a panel
discussion and then open the dialogue up to the public, while others keep
the virtual stage tightly controlled. Starting with a panel discussion
can get the main issues on the floor and provide a context for more substantial
Twin Cities Metropolitan Council State
of the Region - http://www.metrocouncil.org/planning/SOR2001/SOR2001.htm
Web White & Blue Online Presidential
Debate - http://www.webwhiteblue.org/rcd/
Northfield City Hall Q & A: http://www.northfield.org:81/cgi-bin/WebX?13@@.ee8ab5f
D. Online Conference - When
I think of online consultation, a full featured online conference comes
to mind. This is pretty much a physical conference or even a public hearing
reflected online. Most online conferences take place over one to
three weeks and include many of the elements listed here as a well as tools
like participant directories and often the capacity for small groups to
communicate in break out sessions or simulated coffee breaks. See
number five below for related comments.
Scottish Youth Summit - http://www.youthsummit.org.uk
World Bank International AIDS Economics
Network - http://www.iaen.org/conferences
ETFRN Biodivesity Workshop - http://www.etfrn.org/etfrn/workshop/biodiversity
World Bank Development Forum - http://www.worldbank.org/devforum/ongoing.html
(Multi-month facilitated e-mail list exchanges.)
Politalk – Public Financing of Stadiums
E. Communities of Practice/Interest
- The use of online tools, particularly e-mail group lists (i.e. listservs,
mailing lists), will have a direct impact on the implementation of public
policy and provide a more informal mechanism for government agencies to
communicate with stakeholders on an ongoing basis. This form of informal
consultation may allow for more organic influence on the policy process
and help government become more attuned to those who they are working with
to solve public problems and deliver services. Developing an information
exchange grid that connects directly to government implementation may one
be of the most cost-effective forms of online consultation. Unlike
events with a start and an ending, these exchanges are narrowly focused
and are used on an ongoing basis primarily for open group communication.
NSW Community Builder - http://www.communitybuilders.nsw.gov.au
Washington State - http://listserv.wa.gov
Eastern Treatment Plant Advisory Panel
F. Live Chat Events - Live chat
need not be an unwieldy, unmoderated gabfest. Advanced tools exist
that allow you to interact in real-time even if the depth of the dialogue
is limited. Most chat events feature Q and A with politicians or
candidates. The trick is to attract a large enough audience at a
specific time. Chat elements can be used to complement asynchronous
forums. The use of chat with younger audiences and in educational setting
may have special appeal.
EU Commission Europa Chats - http://europa.eu.int/comm/chat
Moreland, Australia Chat to the Mayor
Washington Post Live Online: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/liveonline/politics.htm
(Simple “refreshing” HTML-based event)
G. Live Multimedia Events -
Imagine a lunch speaker or even a press conference where those watching
remotely via the Internet or interactive television can submit questions,
answer poll questions posed by the speaker, and have access to supplemental
content and some day real-time access to digital copies of handouts and
McCain Speech to Minnesota Meeting
Wisconsin Interactive TV Project -
NASA Mars Virtual Teacher Training
Conference - http://quest.arc.nasa.gov/marsconf
H. More Interactive Elements in
Online Polls and Surveys - Quick
and easy online polls, normally unscientific, are most common introduction
citizens have with political interaction online. Try crafting useful
poll questions (avoid politically divisive questions if you want to set
a more deliberative tone) that ease people into expressing their opinions.
This is no small task. After someone completes the poll, provide
them links to more information on the subject and invite them into your
online discussions where they can share why they answered what they did
Issy, France Citizen's Panel - Results
weighted based on community demographics -
Comment Forms - Make your comment
form intelligent, useful. Ask a set of multiple choice and check
list questions along side the usual open-ended comment space. Create a
shared information flow where policy related comments are forwarded directly
to those who can give a meaningful response. By including top management
in the flow of front-line queries you can build their awareness of the
type of queries coming into the agency. If most online comments (or comment
summaries) directed to a decision-maker are rarely seen by that person,
don't give the impression that they are. While comment forms are
a form of more "private" citizen to government communication, if your organization
can't design comment forms with meaning, then your organization will have
an even more difficult time incorporating more public forms of online consultation
into your mission and programs.
Online Petitions - In many places,
people have a legal right to petition their government. While the
Internet is full of sites that allow citizens to organize their own petitions,
some governments like Scotland and Queensland, Australia are exploring
ways to adapt the legal right to petition the government to the online
world. Authentication is a serious concern for official petition
processes tied to government and parliamentary processes. Instead of authenticating
the identity of each person as they sign online, I suggest authenticating
the online petition as a whole by verifying the existence of the number
of people required to make a petition valid. (I'd compare the telephone
and addresses of the people on the petition with various databases and
determine whether enough signatures come from known people. A further
level of verification could involve contacting a representative sample
to unearth fraudulent efforts. Assuming some sort of minimum number of
signatures is required for an actionable petition, those well over the
number with a verified sample should proceed, those on the margins could
be investigated person by person.)
Online Testimony - If an online
public hearing represents the transfer of the full in-person public hearing
experience to an online setting, accepting online testimony is the first
step toward integrating online interactivity into the traditional hearing
process. This could work two ways - people from remote locations could
submit materials before, during, or after a hearing for inclusion in the
hearing record and in reverse, people at the hearings could distribute
electronic copies of their presentations and statements for real-time online
release. (I should note that governmental and parliamentary processes vary
tremendously from place to place. In Minnesota, legislative committee
hearings are the crucial very public part of our decision-making process
where experts and citizens can testify, while in many parliamentary forms
of government, hearings are rarely held in public.)
Online Focus Groups - Online
consultation need not be highly public to be effective or useful. There
is a significant opportunity for the use of representative groups assembled
online by the government and civic groups directly or through third party
services. A more advanced version of online focus groups might entail the
creation of online "citizen juries" or online components of existing in-person
citizen jury efforts.
Web Forums and E-Mail Lists
– What do you do with your audience when your online event is over?
How can you build the online discussion skills of citizens? Consider
hosting ongoing discussions or provide links to relevant external online
discussion spaces where people can keep talking. Organizing the “online
commons” is one of my main passions and is addressed in detail on my other
Now that we have covered the many models
and elements, let's get back to the tips …
5. Create Structure.
Establish a beginning and an end. Like
in-person conferences and events, pay close attention to the use of time
and themes. Most online consultations are asynchronous, but the time
required for participation is still a key factor. Most people use
the Internet as a convenience tool, so don't expect most people to read
a 40 page paper online, much less print it out at their own expense.
Consider creating the equivalent of a keynote speech, a question and answer
session with a decision-maker, small group break out sessions, and/or panel
presentations. Create word limits for keynote speeches and profile
essays that you commission – I like 400-600 word pieces myself. Effective
online consultations are sometimes designed as pre-conference or post-conference
exercises tied to in-person events. What about remote participation
during a conference (something beyond a simple video/audio feed and the
ability to send in audience questions)? The notion that people not able
to attend an in-person event will have a confernce-like online experience
during the in-person event and gain a sense of meaningful participation
is not very realistic. Virtual-only participants will rightfully feel like
they are second-class citizens denied the fundamental right to socializing
over coffee. Don’t promote such options just so you can say at the in-person
conference, “This event is available to millions of people on the Internet
right now and they are interacting as we speak.” Ten people on a
live video feed with three posts on a complex web board is not a meaningful
6. Provide Facilitation and Guidelines.
Discussion oriented online consultations
work best with a welcoming, trusted and often more "neutral" host.
This online facilitator, be they an in-house or contracted individual (or
a team), will help set the tone and keep the event flowing and on task.
They will have the authority to remind organizational decision-makers of
their commitment to participate, and deal with problems behind the scenes
as required. Someone has to ensure that this "on your own time event" does
not mean a contribution by a key decision-maker at the beginning and nothing
until the end except an apology for being too busy to participate.
Issues surrounding guidelines, terms
of participation, moderation/approval of submissions, removal of content
will consume much of your planning time. In governments, expect a
review of your guidelines by legal counsel. With good facilitation,
you will avoid many of the problems effective guidelines hope to prevent.
You cannot control for every political or legal liability, but you can
have the event policies in place so you can quickly respond in an even-handed
way. You don't want accusations of censorship to be the only media
coverage you receive. Creating the "Other" category for the "junk"
to go or profile links to relevant external interactive forums (like newsgroups,
web boards, and e-mail lists) can help you maintain the value of your structured
topical dialogues while promoting a sense of free exchange. You can essentially
say, "If you don't like what we have put together here, here is where you
can go to hold us accountable or cause trouble on someone else's dime."
Again, you can't control everything that comes into a consultation, but
you can control how prepared you are to respond and deal with opportunities
and problems as they arise.
7. Disseminate Content and Results.
What outcomes or results will make
consultation participants feel like they were part of something important?
Make a list and design information products (a tangible result in my opinion)
from the start including daily or frequent e-mail updates. In your updates,
include diverse and representative quotes from participants and special
"guests" in order to share the value of the event. Make the event
seem real and something important, just like media coverage does for public
meetings and rallies. Prepare event summaries in print, yes print, for
distribution to key decision-makers. You need to create incentives
for mainstream participation or you will only get opinions from unaffiliated,
often agitated individuals. For higher profile online consultations,
you want to attract interest group participation and channel (or label)
it in a public way. If those with a real political stake in an issue
don't make submissions, your event is too obscure, unless of course your
goal is to create a civic exchange free of interest-group influence.
Such political cleanliness is your choice, but don't assume that this format
will bring out the voice of the "average citizen" better than other forms
of participation. In my opinion, the best it can do is complement and strengthen,
but not replace traditional forms of civic participation and consultation.
Making "objective" dissemination of
the consultation results part of the package is a strategic choice.
Consider incorporating in-person events, broadcast media features, and
special newspaper coverage and analysis through partner relationships.
For example, you could nominate active participants to be guests on a radio
interview show hosted by a consultation partner or use a government or
community television show to carry the deliberations to a broader portion
of the community.
8. Access to Decision-Makers and
This is a key lesson that has been
learned the hard way by a number of governments. Before an online consultation
starts, establish a system for responding to questions and statements of
participants in a rapid, timely, and comprehensive way. During the
event (online conference style events in particular) the following types
of responses may be required:
A. Informational Question
Civil servants must have prior approval
to quickly respond to informational questions as well as the latitude to
provide additional context including links to or excerpts of content from
legally public reference documents. These responses should come within
an hour or two during business hours. In all areas, posting an immediate
response notifying all participants that a full response is being generated
is much better than no response for a few days. Buy yourself the
time required to respond in full. With moderated events, don't hold
legitimate queries from public view until your response is ready. This
will cause problems.
B. Context Provision and Informational
C. General Policy Query Response
D. High-Level Policy Challenge Response
E. Politically Controversial Query
General policy queries are often best
responded to by the line manager in charge of that policy. Providing
an authoritative response will demonstrate that your online consultation
is being taken seriously within the organization. These responses
should come within the same day (or the next morning if received late in
the day) a query is submitted or posted.
High-level policy queries and politically
controversial statements require special care. As an organization, you
want to make sure future online consultations are not jeopardized by a
sense among top decision-makers or their staff that this new medium completely
overrides their traditional and legitimate power (you need to show some
light at the end of the online consultation tunnel). More importantly,
you want to ensure that participants see responses within 24 to 48 hours
when controversial issues are discussed. You want top decision-makers
to be engaged, so consider a bit of controversy a welcome challenge.
One trick, collect a series of more controversial questions and address
them as a group to avoid getting into a tit-for-tat argument with one participant.
In order to ensure top-level responses,
you need top decision-makers to sign off on a clear chain of command for
response generation. At the top level you need to have direct access
to a key assistant who will craft a response or simply transcribe a quick
response outlined orally by the busy decision-maker. Incorporate
mobile phone/SMS/pager access to ensure access to the top for the duration
of the consultation. Don't expect to rely completely on the decision-makers
ability to type their own responses nor should you rely solely on their
ability to directly use your online system at all times. Ideally
they will participate directly in the same way as other participants, but
unlike the citizens who are most likely to show up, managers and political
leaders have a vast range of technical aptitude and differing comfort levels
with the Internet. Ask them well in advance to block off an hour every
day or two during a two week event - verify that their time is still on
their calendar as you launch. You are teaching decision-makers new behavior.
If the time to participate is not scheduled, you will likely be holding
an online event without anyone with power and influence present. Don't
Finally, in no case should a participant
who works for the host organization be required to claim that they do not
officially represent the host agency (unless of course they are from another
agency or unrelated division). Such disclaimers may be appropriate
on third party forums, but with online events sponsored by your organization,
such full disclaimers will damage your credibility. If disclaimers are
required, put them on the site as a whole not with each post.
9. Promote Civic Education.
While online consultations are often
designed to solicit input from the public, a strong benefit may reside
in their civic education potential. Unlike in-person hearings that
often attract the outraged and disgruntled looking to vent, a properly
promoted online event will attract many citizens not familiar or active
with traditional forms of participation. This may be their first
experience with the notion that as a citizen they have the ability to engage
and influence public decision-making between elections. Promote the
fact that the citizen experience of the consultation is one of the outcomes
(deliverables) and look for ways through educational institutions and others
to promote use and reuse of the content. Consider ways to turn online
consultations into off-line events with greater substance and use online
consultation to bring new people into traditional forms of public participation.
Think of the Internet as the ultimate civic "icebreaker" that introduces
them to democracy between elections and gets them out of the house in the
10. Not About Technology.
Online consultations are not about
technology. The best technological platform will never make an online consultation
"naturally" successful. Consultations are about people, not automation.
You may need to educate those with a background in more technical e-government
services about the principles of consultation and democracy. You
will find common ground by focusing on building an effective and responsive
government when consultation and democracy seems inefficient in an efficiency
You need solid technical support because
a poorly considered and implemented technical infrastructure can spoil
even the best structured, promoted, and facilitate online consultation.
Registration processes should be simple. At a minimum you need most
participants to opt-in to receive e-mail notices before, during, and at
the conclusion of an event. You can use your e-mail notice permissions
to educate people on their technical options and bring people back if technology
problems drive them away. Complex systems that require extensive participant
learning should be avoided. Watch your server logs closely to determine
where people are giving up on your technology. Try and find out if they
gave up before giving the content of the consultation a chance.
I suppose you really want to know which
tools meet your needs? I have no idea, but you can start your search
In making your decision, I would ask yourself, which tools use approaches
familiar to your likely participants? Consider using what other major web
sites in your area use to lower the learning curve. For ongoing information
exchange with participants over 25 years of age, I am a big skeptic of
web-only systems. However, with time-limited events the web allows
you to create more structured events than e-mail lists. However,
without e-mail participation options (delivery of content via e-mail digests),
you will lose much of your audience. Find the right combination of
tools and assume that most participants will not return to your online
consultations unless you remind them that it is there. I am still
looking for the tool that allows full participation (posting via both methods)
on an equal or balanced basis between web and e-mail users. If it existed
I would recommend it.
Finally, let me conclude by encouraging
you to share your further questions and experiences with the Democracies
Online – Online Consultation and Civic Events e-mail forum http://groups.yahoo.com/group/do-consult.
Our goal is to build democracies that thrive, not just survive in the information
age. You are at the forefront of an era where lessons are being learned
and innovations outpace our ability to know what really works. Like
the Internet, civic online consultation will only improve and become successful
through trial and error. So let’s get busy.
Network Online Consultation Hosts
Join the Democracies
Online – Online Consultation and Civic Events e-mail list by sending
an e-mail to <firstname.lastname@example.org>.
Key Online Consultation Reports Previously
Featured on DO-WIRE
Bowling Together: Online Public Engagement
in Policy Deliberation
OECD Citizens as Partners Guide: Information,
Consultation and Public Participation in Policy-Making (268 pages)
Engaging Citizens in Policy-making:
Information, Consultation and Public Participation. OECD Public Management
Policy Brief No. 10
Building Digital Bridges - Creating
Inclusive Online Parliamentary Consultations
Electronic Democracy and Educating
New Media and Social Exclusion (report
excerpt from Hansard Society)
On-line Engagement – New Models and
Implications for Government Departments and Officials
Lessons from the Network Model for
Online Engagement of Citizens
Electronic Civic Consultation: A guide
to the use of the Internet in interactive policy making (Key Dutch report
from 1997, found it below)
UK Best Practices and Guides (lesson
to be transferred to online):
Policity Citizen Participation Centre