Engaging with people online is not difficult. The tools are available and affordable and there is certainly no need to invest in building bespoke platforms. However the wide range of options and choices can, at times, be bewildering. The spaces where most people already congregate are optimised for commercial, personal and social outcomes, not for political discussion. Yet these spaces are often at the cutting edge of interaction, web design, privacy control and social expectations. How do we make use of these sites without abusing them, or losing track of the purpose for using them in the first place?
The following review of Web2.0 tools focuses on one unique feature of Gov2.0 – the ability for governments to shift from orators to conversationalists. We’ll therefore look at the potential of Web2.0 tools to improve the quality and reach of conversation between governments and citizens.
Tracking (finding the conversation)
Before we venture out into web2.0 to talk to people, we need to listen. Let’s say we want
to gauge interest in the National Broadband Network (NBN). We need to figure out what people are talking about first – so we’re not just barging into the conversation. Let’s come up with some search terms (‘NBN’, ‘National Broadband Network’, ‘Nbnco’, ‘Conroy’) and use some free tracking tools to find out what people are saying and to whom. Some good ones are Google Alerts (google.com/alerts), Social Mention (socialmention.com) and Twitter Search (Search.Twitter.com).
Now we can go out into those spaces with some preparedness.
Chatting (starting the conversation)
There are a number of web2.0 services that can fulfill some discussion and collaboration
functions. We’ll look at what sort of use you can make of the different services.
The Benefits: Twitter is a great way of quickly gauging interest in an issue, and a call for responses put out on Twitter will gain a lot of interest. Twitter has also proven to be a powerful tool for the coverage of events and public hearings. Attendees can publicise and discuss the hearing in real time and engage with people who are unable to attend in person. Twitter is definitely low-hanging fruit and a very fertile area for relatively little effort. The lesson: any public consultation should tweet at an early stage.
The Limitations: The biggest drawback is it’s hard to have substantive debate in the 140 character limit. Many Twitter users are fairly passive and tend be self-selected insiders and broadcasters. They are more likely to be interested in internet politics, telecommunications issues, civil liberties and the like. For more specialist issues we will need to target other spaces.
Examples: Senator Kate Lundy has done a great job using Twitter to discuss government consultation reform at http://twitter.com/katelundy. Conversations are tagged with the #publicsphere hashtag, and you can search for them here: http://search.twitter.com
The Benefits: Facebook has far more people subscribed than Twitter, and there is more space for conversation to flow. You can also reach people who are not into the public performance element of Twitter. The privacy controls allow for a far more personal space and people only share the information they’re comfortable with. Another advantage is that there are more ‘average’ (i.e. non-geek) users on Facebook.
Examples: One way that Facebook can be useful in public consultation is through the use of surveys. Don’t let the simplistic (or annoying!) survey applications you’ve seen on Facebook put you off – the functionality exists to create more sophisticated and detailed ones. CNN’s Political Ticker shows one way a survey application can be used to host debate.
Obama’s first Facebook application successfully used the tool to promote his campaign and educate people around issues related to the election, as well as bringing like minded people into the election campaign.
The Benefits: While users are moving away from MySpace there’s still value in using it. It has a large youth demographic, often overlooked in government engagement. MySpace is a good place to begin the process of combined education and engagement – if the uncoolness factor associated with government can be overcome.
The Limitations: A MySpace campaign would have to be targeted to the site’s smaller, mostly youthful demographic and as such may not translate well to other age groups.
Example:http://www.myspace.com/impactau presents social issues in a youth-friendly way and promotes discussion.
The Benefits: Youtube is great for promotion, particularly as its viewers increase and people move away from watching prime-time news. It also allows longer-form videos. Most accounts are limited to 10 minutes but this is still a lot longer than the average TV grab. As such, a video post can explain a policy in greater detail and in a more relaxed style. Youtube allows for comments and people can even post their response in video format.
The Limitations: While Youtube is useful for promotion and explaining issues in a personalised manner, the commenting function of Youtube is poor and overrun with trolls (users who post malicious comments to antagonize others). This can severely degrade the user experience, and requires effective and close moderation.
Example: Barack Obama is a pioneer of using Youtube to win over a deeply partisan public. Obama develops support for his political initiatives through bypassing the mainstream media/elected representative nexus to engage people directly.
A ‘blog’ can simply refer to a platform that allows for regular publication, user comments and easy syndication. This kind of platform can obviously be useful for gov2.0 projects – as demonstrated by the Government 2.0 Taskforce itself (http://gov2.net.au/). But the blogs we’ve all heard about are more usually self-published websites run for reasons of passion, interest, self-development or (in rare cases) money.
The Benefits: Blogs can be a powerful way of engaging with interested people, and the boundaries of a discussion can be mapped by monitoring the blogs of those already talking about the issue. This information can form the seed material for later debates and can help governments refine policy. One option is for a department or agency to partner with major political blogs to generate public debate. Online Opinion, Vibewire, Larvatus Prodeo, Open Forum and the like have active communities of politically minded participants who would contribute greatly to policy development.
It is easy to track multiple blogs using aggregators such as Regator.
Limitations: blogs are a low risk and simple element for any engagement but are not the most interactive of platforms so are best augmented with other tools. Blogs can be difficult to track because there isn’t a single website where you can easily follow the conversations. However, by using tools such as RSS (a live feed of content), Google Alerts and possibly proprietary tools such as ViralHeat or Radeon6 you can keep on top of blogs you’ve opted to monitor.
Larvatus Prodeo has regular long running debates around issues of political importance. Open Forum successfully hosted a blog-style conversation on behalf of the National Human Rights Inquiry at http://www.openforum.com.au/NHROC
Petitions are an age-old method of interacting with government. More recently organisations like MySociety have created simple tools to email your representative or to
directly petition the PM. Basic tools like http://www.petitiononline.com/ and http://www.gopetition.com.au/ still exist, but more targeted options tend to be more effective. http://act.ly/ provide a petition tool that works via Twitter, and GetUp does highly targeted petition-based campaigns after getting feedback from membership.
The Benefits: As an established form of interaction with government, petitions have a long history and are accepted as indicative of community sentiment. Highly targeted and researched petitions campaigns such as those run by GetUp have proven very effective.
Limitations: Many petition systems are poorly designed. Without management by moderators, the demands may be impossible, undesirable, directed at the wrong people or simply incomprehensible.
Ideas capture & prioritisation tools
There is a growing genre of tools designed specifically to capture and prioritise ideas and feedback from customers and website users, and some of these tools are now being put to work in the service of consultation and policy development projects.
The Benefits: Because these tools have proved extremely valuable for companies seeking feedback and ideas from their customers, their functions are improving quite rapidly. For example when a user submits a new idea through http://uservoice.com it automatically searches for similar ideas in its database, helping to prevent duplication of effort. Most tools in this genre put a lot of effort into good user interface design, possibly making them more appealing to citizens with limited online experience.
The Limitations: These tools may require heavy moderation if used in pursuit of detailed policy discussions. With the strong emphasis that most such tools place on voting favoured ideas to the top (combined with less support for collaborative editing than wikis), they may turn conversations into populary contests rather than steering them towards the collaboration, cooperation and compromise required for good policy development.
Example: Obama CTO is an independent site run to demonstrate user feedback software. It allows users to create discussion topics, and to comment and vote on initiatives put forward. This enables users to iteratively develop policy initiatives. The site has a nice user management system, with elements of web2.0 forum software (the interface is very similar to Digg). Another Obama initiative used the ‘ideascale‘ platform to seek ideas on his administrations’s open goverment agenda.
The Benefits: Wikis are a type of collaborative software where all participants have add/edit/delete rights to a shared pool of content. Wikis extend the reach of traditional policy development by leveraging the knowledge and creativity of a global community of participants beyond the elite few usually involved in the policy development process. This expanded collaborative engagement can lead to more participatory and representative policy outcomes while increasing shared ownership, buy-in and voluntary compliance to the policy outcome. Wikis enable increased scope in the types of participation possible, by allowing people to self-select the types of activities most appealing to them (providing supporting research, drafting original work, engaging in discussions, correcting spelling & grammar). This tends to lead to an increase in the quality of individual contributions as each participant is focused on their interests. Wikis also store every revision participants contribute, providing a significant advance over traditional document collaboration in that the changes between every version (from origin to completion) can be reviewed and sorted by date or contributor.
The Limitations: Wikis can be overwhelming to new comers. Additionally, wikis do not inherently come with a structure, indicating a need for moderators to guide participation by demonstrating pathways. Wikis present a new way of working, and as such, may require associated change management support for implementation in more traditional workplaces.
Examples: FutureMelbourne.com.au, an open source wiki-based collaboration environment that enabled collaboration amongst the many City officers and stakeholders, as well as members of the general public during the public participation period. Parks Victoria’s wePlan.parks.vic.gov.au is drafting a large park management plan in a wiki which is open to contribution from anyone in the world with web access. The NZ government placed the NZ Police Act on a wiki to allow people to participate in writing the new version. This wiki was open to public comments for 5 business days during business hours.
The Benefits: A forum is unlikely to win awards for fancy technology but, along with blogs remains an effective method of engaging the community online. Forums are simple to use and allow freeflow discussion (especially if structured to allow indented responses which encourage discussion). The conversation can be easily moderated and the results reported on. While forums or message boards are arguably web1.0, they draw engaged readerships and are good at publicising news and discussions. Some of the new news-aggregator sites such as Reddit and Digg also function as forums and have long, engaging conversations about political issues[ii] (or cute cats). A front page mention on Digg can draw a large number of visitors and discussion will happen on their site and yours.
The Limitations: Forums can tend towards the snarky if they are not carefully moderated. However, there is no evidence that the trolls who try to dominate can do so more effectively in an online forum than they do at a face to face event and there is some evidence that in an anonymous forum the Trolls actually incite others to comment and
contribute to the discussion.
There are free forums available on the web and also specialist products aimed at community engagement such as Bang the Table and Open Forum. The Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations used an online forum as part of its development of a new Early Years Learning Framework.
Discussing (having the conversation)
While the issue of people forming echo-chambers online may be somewhat overstated,
there’s no denying that people self-select towards those they already substantively agree with. Social media does amplify this effect, which is a problem when we want people to engage with those they disagree with as well.
This is why the creation of a ‘third space’ can be especially valuable. One that is independently operated, free to take risks and experiment, and that utilises the best aspects of social media, while providing the necessary education, management and dispute resolution that any policy discussion requires.
The reality of e-democracy is that democratic engagement in the policy process requires a
concurrent commitment to education.
The ideal community engagement site would contain all the necessary information for
people to educate themselves on the issue before engaging in the debate. The site would also need to provide plenty of help to teach people how (in the technical sense) to make their contributions.
Moderators who are well versed in the issues and well versed in online community
management should run the site itself. The site should use RSS or email alerts so participants and moderators can track conversations.
Reflecting (understanding the conversation)
There are many tools for understanding the conversation. High-end data-mining applications used for advertising, like Leximancer, are probably overkill for this kind of thing. Human understanding and discussion are of far more value for the purposes of this review.
The two issues that are most important are searchability (a technical issue) and
moderation (a people issue).
The moderators’ role should include summing up conversation in conjunction with participants. Search systems and a permanent archiving creation within the discussion site will allow moderators to annotate summaries with links back to primary source material. The site should be built in consultation with organisations like OpenAustralia (http://openaustralia.org/) to ensure searchability.
A combination of easy access to original discussion, engaged feedback and facilitation by moderators will ensure that participants’ perspectives are accurately communicated.
To make e-democracy truly collaborative the final thing to remember is that neither government nor activists control it.