What is it about the online environment that makes it such a good place for engaging citizens?
I think it’s all about the possibilities.
Online dialogues can give citizens the opportunity to voice their individual concerns and ideas, on an equal footing with others, and at almost zero cost. And because it all takes place online, there is the added value of collaboration – whether in real-time or at your own convenience. If I’m participating in the dialogue, I can see what others are saying (who agrees or disagrees with me?), I can work with others to enhance our common ideas, and I can help build the critical mass needed to push action on an issue.
So what can we do to make sure we’re making the most out of these opportunities? Ellis Westwood, one of Ascentum’s senior consultants, forwarded me some research on online deliberation that addresses this question.
In 2009, the EU Commission implemented the European Citizens Consultations in all member states, with the aim of producing a set of social and economic policy recommendations that would have broad support from all EU citizens. One of the methods for engaging citizens was a series of online discussion forums, which helped set the agenda for the rest of the process. Citizens could develop their own proposals and post them online, vote on other participants’ proposals, or write discussion posts.
In a report written by Martin Karlsson, a doctoral candidate at the Örebro School of Public Affairs in Sweden, all 28 of these online forums were looked at. Since they were all similarly designed, implemented and connected to the broader policy process, Karlsson makes the case for looking deeper, and focusing on what other factors contribute to the success of online deliberation projects. He came up with two general hypotheses…
- “The more a forum is characterized by a diversity of opinion the more deliberation will occur between the participants.
- “The higher the level of engagement among the participants in a forum, the more deliberation will occur between the participants.”
While it may seem self-evident that diverse opinions and high levels of engagement are critical factors for effective participatory processes, it is easy to ignore them, especially if there is a lot of emphasis on reaching consensus. But your online deliberation project stands to be much more constructive and impactful if you commit to these principles and work them into the process.
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