In the United States we have witnessed in recent years a growing interest among leaders at all levels of government in employing online tools for deliberation and collaboration. These tools certainly do not offer all the benefits of face to face dialogue, and substantial sectors of any given community face significant obstacles to interacting online. However, online dialogue can greatly enhance participatory democracy when used well and in conjunction with other engagement methodologies. As streaming video conferencing and other technologies advance, allowing more personalized and instantaneous online collaboration, the use and benefits of this online interaction will expand exponentially.
I spent the last few years researching public engagement strategies being used by local government agencies in California. Local officials in the golden state report that when residents are exposed to information and diverse viewpoints with the help of technology, debates are less acrimonious and public meetings are more productive. Here are some key strategies shared by local officials and staff that may be thought-provoking for public engagement practitioners interested in harnessing the power of online deliberation:
Make it easy for people to exchange information and get informed
Online forums can allow residents to access accurate information and exchange points of view. In Palo Alto, the city maintains an online Forum called Open City Hall that allows residents to post comments and information related to issues before the city council. The forum is moderated by an independent consultant to keep it civil, positive and on track, and the collected input is organized and reported to elected leaders at city council meetings. Participants receive follow up emails letting them know how their input impacted decision makers.
Actively moderate and facilitate online dialogs
No tool or platform will eliminate the need for an informed staff member to actively moderate online dialogs. Local agencies have found that they need someone actively monitoring online dialogs to welcome participants, address questions, guide the process and keeping discussion on topic, and synthesize/ summarize input. A neutral moderator who sets a positive tone can greatly enhance online public dialogue.
Establish online neighborhood networks to facilitate neighbors supporting one another
Palo Alto, Los Altos, Berkeley, Emeryville, San Carlos, and other communities around the nation are experimenting with online neighborhood networks that link residents and business owners in specific neighborhoods and allow them to communicate. People can share a crime or safety issues, propose a community project or event, or start a discussion among neighbors on their block. When neighbors can solve problems on their own, it can save local agencies from having to get involved. To learn more about online neighborhood networks, visit www.e-democracy.org.
Be clear how deliberative input affects final decisions of elected leaders
Before inviting your community to participate in an online or face to face dialogue about a local issue, it is useful to think through how this input will influence a decision making process and how this can be demonstrated. As with a survey, if a local agency seeks input and doesn’t demonstrate how it was used, it undermines the process and reduces public confidence and interest in civic participation. This is even more important when people are asked to invest significant amounts of time and energy in a process.
Create a strategy to achieve representative participation
Public input, whether from a survey or a dialogue, will be more influential and useful to decision-makers if they know the participants are representative of their community. A representative process is especially important in a dialogue about a controversial issue where people on all sides of the issue need to hear one another and perhaps find consensus. You may achieve more representative participation by identifying under-involved groups from the community and appointing leaders from those groups to a task force or ambassador position.
Harness ideation or crowdsourcing technology to allow staff, residents, or other groups to submit, rank, and/or act on ideas for community improvement
Local governments from Santa Cruz California to Oakland County Michigan to the towns of Manor and De Leon Texas are experimenting with online ideation or crowdsourcing platforms like UserVoice, Ideascale, and Spigit that allow groups of stakeholders to submit, rank, and sometimes act collaboratively to implement ideas or address community issues. These ideas can be used to help cities and counties adjust budgets to align with new fiscal realities, plan for the future, and improve service delivery. Santa Cruz used an online ideation platform as part of a multifaceted process to engage the public in difficult budget decisions. In Oakland County Michigan, an internal online ideation process for staff generated a plan to significantly reduce the county deficit, prompting the launch of a public online ideation process.
Facilitate collaboration between residents and “expert” staff or consultants
Online deliberative public engagement can enable and empower residents to connect and collaborate with local government planners and policy makers, bringing fresh insights and perspectives to address contentious community issues. For instance, in Golden, Colorado, the city is using a free online platform called i-Neighbors to enable 2-way communication between residents and city staff.
Promote participation, experiment, and be patient
It can be challenging to spur or sustain online dialogue and deliberation. It takes the dedicated attention of staff to promote, moderate, and seed online conversations. A process that addresses an issue of concern to many people that actively promotes participation with clear objectives and time frame is likely to attract attention. If initial efforts garner little participation, don’t give up. This technology is in its infancy, and users will increasingly gain comfort and confidence in it with repeated use and technical improvements.
For more lessons related to online public engagement strategies and legal considerations for government officials, see my new publication, “A Local Official’s Guide to Online Public Engagement,” available soon from the Institute for Local Government’s Public Engagement and Collaborative Governance program.