Reader Note: This is the third in a series of blog posts about online public comment forums (OPCFs) – that are becoming increasingly prevalent across the country. Other articles in the series discuss the justification and best practices for implementing OPCFs. The author, Michael Alvarez Cohen, is a co-founder of Peak Democracy Inc -- a company that has powered over 700 OPCFs, with over 70,000 attendees, for about 40 local government agencies and elected officials.
Online public comment forums (OPCFs) can complement government decision making processes by augmenting and diversifying community feedback, enhancing the perspectives and deliberations of government leaders – and ultimately, increasing public trust in government. However, OPCFs are most useful when both the quantity of feedback is substantial, and the quality of feedback is high. This blog post starts with a summary of the factors that can impact the amount of OPCF participation, and then it details the trade-off of how some points and rewards programs can increase the amount of OPCF participation but not necessarily the amount of thoughtful participation.
Participation Factors: Based on an analysis of over 600 OPCFs, the factors that can impact the quantity of participation include the following:
(1) the OPCF topic’s importance to the community,
(2) the community’s awareness of the OPCF topic,
(3) the duration that the topic is open for feedback,
(4) the ease of participation (i.e. registration requirements – if any),
(5) the level of attribution (if any) required for each participant (i.e. anonymous, pseudonym screen-name, or real name), and
(6) the special incentives (if any) for participation (i.e. points and rewards programs).
Whereas the first four factors are straightforward, the latter two factors have trade-offs. The trade-off for attribution is that low levels of attribution can increase participation, but also increase the 3Ps that are endemic to many online forums – comments with Profanity, Personal attacks (i.e. bullying) or imPertinent content (i.e. spam). However, the trade-offs in offering incentives in the form of points and rewards programs can be subtle, and therefore this factor deserves more discussion.
Engaging Civic Brains Versus Engaging Civic Games: In order to increase participation, many Internet crowd-sourcing apps have incorporated game design techniques – particularly points and rewards programs. This trend has been coined “gamification”. While offering points to people who participate in government-community forums, and then rewarding those with the most points can increase participation, some points and rewards programs can result in participation that appears more like superficial civic entertainment instead of thoughtful civic engagement. Accordingly, the challenge for government leaders is to structure points and rewards programs that result in thoughtful instead of superficial engagement.
Online forums can be structured to offer points and rewards for a variety of participant actions and outcomes including: (1) a participant’s number of comments, (2) a participant’s quality of comments (as evaluated by the community or a committee), and (3) a participant’s number of attempts and/or successes in recruiting others to participate.
Rewarding participants for sheer quantity of comments is conducive to motivating people to rack-up points simply by providing their “two-cents” on every OPCF topic – regardless of whether their comments are thoughtful. Likewise, rewarding people for recruiting participants from anywhere on the planet instead of from within the community can also be counter-productive to the objectives of government leaders.
In contrast, rewarding participants for posting high quality comments and/or recruiting members of the community motivates behavior that leads to informative and constructive OPCFs.
In summary, OPCFs have six factors that can impact the quantity of participation, however one of those factors – a points and rewards program, can lead to increased participation but not necessarily increased thoughtful participation – particularly if the points program isn’t structured correctly. To learn more about the factors that increase OPCF participation, as well as using points and rewards programs to increase thoughtful civic engagement, contact Mike at PeakDemocracy.com.