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Online Consultations and Events - Top Ten Tips for Government and Civic
Hosts V1.1
Original: http://www.publicus.net/articles/consult.html

By Steven Clift
Online Strategist and Public Speaker
Editor, Democracies Online Newswire

Copyright 2002 Steven Clift - All rights reserved. This article may be
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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, 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 Carefully.
5. Create Structure.
6. Provide Facilitation and Guidelines.
7. Disseminate Content and Results.
8. Access to Decision-Makers and Staff Required.
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 somewhere.

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

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 Carefully.

Figure out what kind of online consultation you want to hold.  Here are
different kinds of online elements to consider, combine, and innovate

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

Kids Questions to Florida Governor -
Need more examples ...
BBC Talking Point -

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 procedures.

US Federal Trade Commission: http://www.ftc.gov/privacy/comments
ZDNet AnchorDesk TalkBack: http://www.zdnet.com/anchordesk
US Electronic Rulemaking Examples: http://www.statelocal.gov/rulemake.html
Transit Planning in Finland using IdeaFactory:

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 open discussion.

Twin Cities Metropolitan Council State of the Region -
Web White & Blue Online Presidential Debate -
Northfield City Hall Q & A:

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 -
ETFRN Biodivesity Workshop -
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:
(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 testimony text.

McCain Speech to Minnesota Meeting -
Wisconsin Interactive TV Project - http://itv.wpt.org/examples
NASA Mars Virtual Teacher Training Conference -

H. More Interactive Elements in Brief -

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 more publicly.

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

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 writings http://www.publicus.net.

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. Dont
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 innovation.

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

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 Staff Required.

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 Responses
B. Context Provision and Informational Corrections
C. General Policy Query Response
D. High-Level Policy Challenge Response
E. Politically Controversial Query Response
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.
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 do that.

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 future.

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 technical

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 here http://www.thinkofit.com/webconf.
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 lets get busy.

Network Online Consultation Hosts

Join the Democracies Online  Online Consultation and Civic Events e-mail
list by sending an e-mail to <[EMAIL PROTECTED]>.

Further Reading

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

Electronic Democracy and Educating Young People

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 (Canada)

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