Reader Note: This is the second 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.
Government officials that are augmenting and diversifying feedback from their community via the internet should be aware of several challenges and potential pitfalls. These challenges include keeping the forums legal, civil, and fair — and equally important, preventing a pitfall with crowd-sourcing known as the Referendum Effect.
This blog post starts with a brief description of the Referendum Effect, and then focuses on how it can be impeded using online public comment forums (OPCFs).
What is the Referendum Effect?
The Referendum Effect characterizes the loss of decision-making autonomy that government leaders incur when they are pressured to make decisions that are based on the majority opinion that is expressed via public feedback — regardless of whether that feedback reflects the opinions of the majority of their constituents. More specifically, the Referendum Effect occurs when public feedback that doesn’t accurately reflect the community’s opinion, usurps the decision-making independence of government leaders.
This dynamic is prevalent in conventional public hearings, and can also arise when public feedback is gathered using online crowd-sourcing techniques in which participants are encouraged to vote on comments.
The referendum effect can be especially intense when public feedback is one-sided. One-sided feedback puts pressure on elected officials because if their decision goes against the sentiments of the one-sided feedback, then the officials can be accused of not supporting the (apparent) will of the people (even when the one-sided feedback doesn’t accurately reflect the community’s opinion).
The pressure to comply with the non-representative public feedback is typically inflicted by the people giving the feedback, but it can also be self-inflicted by elected officials because they think that the people that are not providing feedback are indifferent, apathetic and/or most importantly – are less likely to vote.
How to Minimize or Prevent the Referendum Effect Online:
There are techniques that can minimize the potential of the Referendum Effect in online forums. The most straightforward technique is to caveat the forum with messaging that explicitly addresses expectations. For example, Peak Democracy Inc’s Open Town Hall OPCFs integrate the following message in the user interface: As with any public comment process, participation in Open Town Hall is voluntary. The statements are not necessarily representative of the population, nor do they reflect the opinions of any government agency or elected officials.
Another straightforward technique to minimize the Referendum Effect is to exclude the word “vote” from the user interface — as the “v-word” can create an expectation that feedback with the most votes wins.
An additional and more sophisticated approach to minimizing the potential for the Referendum Effect is to structure the online forum to solicit only qualitative feedback (as opposed to quantitative feedback). For example, instead of the online forum requiring participants to indicate “yes” or “no”, or option 1 or 2, the online forum can simply ask for a comment.
Structuring an OPCF using a qualitative format can eliminate the Referendum Effect, but if the qualitatively formatted forum garners lots of participation, then it can be difficult for decision makers to read all of the comments. This challenge can be addressed with clever analytical tools. For example, Peak Democracy Inc’s Open Town Hall OPCFs can be configured to enable participants to support comments. The comments can then be listed in order of most to least supported, and links to similarly supported comments can be provided. This “related comments” graph enables decision makers to synthesize voluminous online feedback.
Enabling users to support other comments makes the OPCF structure slightly more quantitative. However, the risk of the forum becoming a vote for the most popular comment can be reduced by not showing the number of supporters that each comment obtains, and instead only listing comments in order of most to least supported.
In summary, caveating online forums, not using the v-word, and structuring forums for qualitative feedback can prevent the Referendum Effect, and thereby enable government leaders to leverage OPCFs without the risk of losing their decision-making authority. To learn more about the Referendum Effect and ways to prevent it, contact Mike at PeakDemocracy.com.