Ascentum Welcomes Software Developer & Web Publisher Miriam Goldman
Wednesday, August 8th, 2012

Ascentum recently welcomed Miriam Goldman, who joined our tech team as Software Developer and Web Publisher. Miriam is a graduate of the Web Development program at CDI College in Ottawa. Before joining Ascentum in May, she worked for four years as a web developer and editor in the federal government, specializing in coding HTML pages and Web 2.0 tools. I got a chance to sit down with Miriam to ask her some questions about her past and where she sees things moving into the future.

1. You’ve obviously been a witness to a massive evolution, having ridden the shifting tide of web development for the past seven years. What’s been the most important lesson you’ve learned with keeping ahead of the game?

I would say the most important lesson I’ve learned is to not discount anything, and to keep an open mind. While there might be a trend that seems ridiculous at first, it could very well catch on with the general public.

2. How do you think the current platform of web standards are evolving? Can you distinguish a theme developing in terms of what’s popular?

It’s definitely moving more towards an emphasis on accessibility for mobile and tablet devices. And I can definitely see an incorporation of social media.

3. What do you think websites will look like five years from now? What would make them better and why?

Graphically, they will probably be similar to today. I’ve been seeing a trend to keeping things “sleek and simple”, which is definitely an advantage to the user.  In terms of the “back-end”, the building blocks, per say, there will definitely be full integration of social media, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.  As to what would make them better – simplicity and a focus on user experience.

4. As you know, at Ascentum we employ a wide range of online tools to help people engage; from idea forums to Choicebooks. With this in mind, what aspect do you think takes more priority in the development of a website that aims to engage? Look and feel or accessibility? And why?

They are both equally important in my mind. You need a good look and feel to capture the initial audience – people will not click through a site that looks ugly. Conversely, once you have your audience, you need to focus on accessibility, to reach as many people as you can. For example, if you do not choose your color scheme properly, those who are colour-blind would not be able to navigate, and thus would not participate in the online engagement process.

5. At this point, there are more mobile users than desktop users. In what ways do you think we can accommodate mobile users and focus on mobile interface when developing an idea forum or Choicebook for an engagement project?

It comes down to simplicity and navigability. In developing a mobile theme for online tools, it’s important to reduce, and even eliminate, clutter. If you provide a clean experience, making it clear what to click, and where to navigate to, you’ll capture that audience well.

6. In an article about the future of web design, I read, ‘long gone are the early days of monolithic, cumbersome websites, which are quickly being replaced by simple but beautifully and thoughtfully designed user experiences.” I can’t help but wonder, with this new “simple, slick and clean” renovation of websites, how will communication between people change? Will our language also become quick, clean, and precise? Will in-depth ideas suddenly be limited by 140 characters? Will this inhibit true dialogue?

I can definitely see the trend towards clean and precise language. But I don’t think it is limiting. While avenues such as Twitter are great to express initial thoughts, places such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and Ascentum’s engagement tools, even email still exist to dive more in-depth. I don’t believe true dialogue will be inhibited – I think it will become more focused and precise. Perhaps ideas will become clearer with this evolution.

-Holly Clark -

Stakeholder Engagement: A Few Things to Keep in Mind
Friday, July 27th, 2012

Ascentum has worked with a number of stakeholder relations departments, from which we have worked to integrate a focus on stakeholders across an organization.  As a ‘cross-cutting theme’ that needs to be incorporated across an organization’s diverse functions and priorities, stakeholder engagement may be sidelined, misunderstood, or resented. But when handled well, integrating stakeholder engagement can transform an organization’s public face, and greatly strengthen the quality of its decisions and actions. So we thought we’d share a few thoughts on where we start when we work with a stakeholder relations division or team to optimize its effectiveness within an organization.

A typical progression inside an organization might include the following phases:

  • Ad hoc engagement with stakeholders;
  • An increasing commitment to building stakeholder engagement into more and more organizational activities;
  • In a larger organization, growing awareness of the need to coordinate stakeholder engagement events and to share content gained;
  • Emerging desire to systematize the approach to stakeholder engagement for consistency, and to ensure quality;
  • Creation of a stakeholder relations team to serve the organization, often under a communications or corporate affairs umbrella; and,
  • Efforts to incorporate stakeholder relations across the organization in an integrated way.

One key to success in integrating stakeholder relations across the organization is to remember that we may and must engage stakeholders at various points throughout our work, not just in the final stages of a decision. For one project, it might be most important to have stakeholders involved throughout the implementation; for another, it might be critical to have that input before the project itself is conceived, when you’re still trying to understand the problem. For another, it might be most useful to have stakeholders participate in the evaluation and refinement of a project.

With this in mind, there are some important questions a stakeholder engagement team can ask itself when it seeks to integrate stakeholder considerations across the organization.

1. What are the organizational processes that already exist, and how can we build a focus on stakeholders into those processes?

 Creating new processes is seldom popular, and these are less likely to be adopted. A small section on an existing form or checklist may do more to integrate stakeholder considerations in the organizational mindset than a comprehensive stakeholder binder.

 To build stakeholder relations in where it’s appropriate, consider activities in which the organization develops its priorities, planning processes, project or policy design stages, implementation phases, and evaluation mechanisms

2. What services can we offer to support the inclusion of stakeholder considerations in those processes?

 A stakeholder engagement team within an organization is a valuable resource for:

  • Identifying stakeholders who may be affected by, or have an impact on, an issue – here it can be helpful to use key questions, triggers, reminders, and checklists built into planning processes as noted above.
  • Support for engaging stakeholdershelping staff design an appropriate form of consultation, partnership, or other mechanism for stakeholders to be involved.
  • Local learning – helping staff to understand, interpret and utilize the input from stakeholders, as well as to evaluate their own engagement practices.
  • Training – sharing best practices, concepts, and frameworks to broaden the understanding of stakeholder engagement, encourage innovation, and strengthen the organization’s relationships with stakeholders.
  • Knowledge sharing - disseminating the messages gathered from stakeholders so that the whole organization can respond to those concerns and suggestions in a consistent way.

Every organization has its particular challenges, aspirations, and structures when it comes to bringing stakeholder input into its every day work. Let us know if we can help you tackle yours!

-Faith Mansfield-

Citizen Engagement in Health Casebook: CIHR documents successes and lessons
Friday, June 15th, 2012

CIHR’s (Canadian Institutes of Health Research) Citizen Engagement in Health Casebook offers succinct examples of diverse national and provincial initiatives spanning an array of health-related policy issues. There is profound value in engaging the public to share their values and opinions on health care challenges – this Casebook is a useful reference for both practitioners and decision-makers wanting to know more about how to do this well.  Please click here for your own copy!

The Casebook’s 14 stories were selected from 40 submissions by a team of leading health professionals, academics and CE practitioners (Carolyn Lukensmeyer, America Speaks; Roger Chafe, Memorial University; Wendy Levinson, University of Toronto; Andreas Laupacis, St. Michael’s Hospital; Karen Born, St. Michael’s Hospital). The team notes that while each case offers a unique perspective, collectively they identify the following shared conclusions and lessons learned:

  • Citizen engagement impacts policy decisions;
  • Citizen engagement can bridge divides;
  • The importance of communication and knowledge translation; and,
  • Employing multiple methods of engagement allows for more diversity.

At Ascentum, we’ve gained extensive experience in health care policy and planning over the past 9 years. We are happy to have been involved in four of the 14 cases selected for the Casebook, which are described below. Three of our staff members – Mary Pat MacKinnon, Nicole Pollack, and Tristan Eclarin – co-authored two of the case studies!

  1. Mental Health Commission of Canada’s (MHCC) Creating a Mental Health Strategy for Canada – This national public and stakeholder engagement initiative featured a series of regional and focused stakeholder dialogues across the country, with online public consultations as a complementary channel for citizen engagement. The process engaged participants in a deliberative dialogue on the goals outlined in the MHCC’s draft mental health strategy framework document. All of the valuable feedback gained from this process helped inform Canada’s first-ever national mental health strategy, which was announced last month!
  2. New Brunswick Health Council’s (NBHC) Our Health. Our Perspectives. Our Solutions – This provincial citizen engagement initiative asked what people value most in the provincial health system, how it can be strengthened, and what can be done to improve provincial health outcomes overall. Through a series of deliberative dialogues, the feedback gathered from citizens and stakeholders helped establish a common vision for a citizen-centred health system in New Brunswick. The key findings enlightened the NBHC’s 2011 recommendations to the Minister of Health.
  3. Canadian Blood Services’ (CBS) Improving Organ and Tissue Donation in Canada – This public and stakeholder engagement process gathered perspectives from health professionals, patients, and the public on designing a more integrated organ and tissue donation system to improve service efficiencies and patient outcomes across Canada. The results of the dialogue informed CBS’s recommendations to Canada’s health ministers.
  4. North West Local Health Integration Network’s (LHIN) Share Your Story. Shape Your Care – This project used a suite of online tools to engage citizens and stakeholders in setting priorities for the region’s Integrated Health Services Plan (IHSP). In 2009, this project was awarded the International Association for Public Participation’s (IAP2) Core Values Award of the Year for “Innovative Use of Technology.” It’s also  similar to our current work with the South East LHIN!

We want to thank the CIHR for profiling all 14 cases. We would also like to acknowledge the contributions of Howard Chodos from the MHCC and Shirley Smallwood from the NBHC for their collaboration in reflecting on successes and lessons learned. And of course we must thank our clients – the MHCC, the NBHC, CBS and the North West LHIN.  Without their commitment and vision, we would have missed the opportunity to do this meaningful work, which places citizens at the centre of the health care system – where they belong.

-Mary Pat MacKinnon & Tristan Eclarin-

Ascentum @ IAP2-North America
Wednesday, May 30th, 2012

We were quite excited to learn this week that Joseph Peters will be presenting at the upcoming IAP2-North America conference, Sept. 30-Oct.2 2012 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He will be sharing our experience working on the successful Our Health Our Future project (a national dialogue on childhood obesity).

Joe’s presentation will be one of 29, voted on by 150 people from 58 proposed sessions.

We’re looking forward to seeing you in Halifax!

From the conference program:

Public participation is evolving, with technological advancements, with new delivery channels, and broad, affordable access to participants. Imagine a dynamic initiative that in one week is engaging Aboriginal communities in the Arctic, youth on Facebook, stakeholder organizations online. Imagine that the week before events were in Vancouver with caregivers, and health professionals in Montreal. Imagine no more. Instead learn all about it, through an interactive presentation. This was the Our Health, Our Future
initiative on childhood obesity.

Changing Ontario’s healthcare system by engaging seniors & caregivers
Friday, May 25th, 2012

“Seniors and caregivers don’t want the moon; they don’t necessarily even want more. Their most frequent calls for change revolve around coordination and communication: how primary care providers and specialists collaborate and talk to each other – and to patients and caregivers; how patient health information is coordinated and shared; how health facilities transfer or move patients; how seniors and caregivers are informed – or not – about care options; and how they can be more involved in the decision-making.”

Here at Ascentum, we believe that building the right health care system means listening to and involving patients, their family members, health workers, and members of the broader communities they serve.

Last year, we partnered with The Change Foundation on a groundbreaking project to engage seniors with chronic health conditions, and their family or friend caregivers, to learn more about problems they have experienced moving from one part of the health system to another.  Often called “transitions,” these moves can involve referrals from a family doctor to a specialist, visits to a hospital or from a hospital back home with home care services.

The Change Foundation is a non-profit “think tank that does” and is one of Canada’s leaders in engaging people in its research activities.

We used a blended in-person and online process design to reach hundreds of seniors and caregivers from across Ontario – all the way from Dryden and Timmins up north, to the Regent Park neighbourhood in Toronto.

The Foundation has just released a final report on what we heard, along with a creative microsite with videos, participant stories and feedback mechanisms.  Here’s a snapshot of the top 5 themes heard from participants:

  1. The primacy – and problems – of primary care: Stop the dead ends and make people’s primary care providers accountable for positive transition experiences.
  2. The importance of connections and clarity about next steps: Connect all health workers and make sure people understand what’s happening next I their care journeys.
  3. The communication deficit: Health workers should communicate early and often with each other, and with patients and their caregivers.
  4. The inclusion factor – hey what about us?  Include patients, families and caregivers in decisions that affect their lives and health.
  5. Issues of equity: Don’t let people who are facing barriers fall behind.

From a public involvement perspective, the project shows the power of people’s real-life stories as levers for change.

It was a privilege to work with the team at The Change Foundation; people who are passionate both about improving health care, and doing so by engaging people who see the problems up-close – patients and their families.

I’d encourage you to visit the Foundation’s microsite for the report, at

– Ellis Westwood -

Recap: Ann Fuller on Social Media and Health Care Reform
Friday, May 18th, 2012

In the era of health care reform, social media can help hospitals improve patient care, patient support, health research, education, training, advocacy and more.

I recently heard Ann Fuller (Public Relations Director at CHEO – the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario) talk about current and potential uses for social media in health care, as well as some of the related risks and opportunities.

Fuller emphasized the potential of social media to reach beyond the walls of hospitals to educate the public, involve patients in their health and recovery using new tools and prevent hospital visits through health promotion. Fuller thinks social media can be used to improve access to health care specialists, improve the quality of health care, and decrease costs. She described some interesting examples of current and possible social media uses in health care:

  • filmpossible: a video contest to bring visibility to disability;
  • Community building around different health issues, for example “Totally ADD” and the Mood Disorders Society of Canada forum;
  • Using social media to improve health outcomes, through a smoking cessation program like “qwitter” or a mobile app to monitor irritable bowel disease in real time called “myIBD”;
  • Using Twitter status updates in emergency rooms to increase patient understanding:
  • Livetweeting surgery to educate the public; and,
  • text4baby: A free service that provides information via text message to expectant mothers.

Fuller identified a few challenges that come with using social media for communications:

  • How to respond to vocal patient groups who take to social media to present their case for controversial treatments (e.g. liberation therapy for MS patients)?
  • Privatization of health information (e.g. Facebook users can now indicate to their friends that they are organ donors. Could Facebook sell this information if organ donation is one day privatized?)
  • Liability: If a patient on a hospital Facebook page suggests using a poisonous herb to treat an ailment on a hospital Facebook, is the hospital liable? If a psychiatrist “friends” a patient, and fails to notice erratic behaviour which leads to death, is the psychiatrist liable?
  • Privacy concerns: Parents could inadvertently “out” their children with mental illnesses by thanking a hospital team on a hospital Facebook page
  • Barriers to using social media: age and language

One element of health care that Fuller overlooks, however, is using social media as a tool to involve patients, community members and employees in the discussions about how the system should be changed. As a few of our recent projects have demonstrated, (like this one) there is great potential to use social media to solicit ideas on tackling health care issues, engage citizens in priority setting, and have the public weigh the pros and cons of possible solutions.

-Stephan Telka -

“You’re asking ME to Cut Down the Red Tape?” – Part II
Friday, April 20th, 2012

In a previous blog, I wrote about the U.K. Government’s Red Tape Challenge (RTC), a national crowdsourcing initiative aimed at reducing the overall burden of regulations for businesses and individuals. I want to outline a few of the public involvement best practices that the RTC follows.

  1. Demonstrate support from senior leadership: It’s useful for participants to see real decision-makers standing behind an engagement process, as it can help reinforce the significance of the whole thing. In this case, the RTC is actively supported by the most senior leadership in the UK government. Check out this intro video, where Prime Minister David Cameron speaks rather candidly about why citizens should participate in this initiative (i.e. we need to reduce regulations “that frankly, treat all of you like idiots”). He remarks on  how the RTC will succeed “where so many other governments have failed” by focusing on “changing the default setting” for regulations. This means a shift towards regulations being scrapped “unless someone has a good reason for them to stay” (rather than the other way around). He also explains how pressure will be applied at the ministerial level, which reflects his own rationale for seeking citizen input. He says, “If ministerscome back with arguments for keeping red tape that we really ought to scrap, I need the evidence on my side Evidence from the real world.” Very well said!
  2.  Be transparent about the impact of participant feedback: Participants want to know why their contributions matter and that their time and efforts haven’t been wasted. However, in a lot of cases this isn’t done – sometimes participants never hear back after they’ve contributed! Fortunately, the RTC outlines how feedback will be used to inform decisions, how long the consultation process will take, and how ‘high’ the feedback will go. It also closes the ‘feedback loop’ by announcing any regulatory proposals/ decisions that have been made.
  3. Make connections to related initiatives/ processes: Participants should know how the initiative fits into the ‘bigger picture,’ which will make it seem less of an isolated, one-off process. The RTC makes a specific reference to the related Focus on Enforcement initiative, which is less about any specific regulations and more about the “inconsistent or inappropriate enforcement” of them (which could be the more significant issue in some cases). The RTC is also placed within the parameters of a broader, long term Government commitment, which “signifies a dramatic shift in the culture of Whitehall, as we work together collaboratively to turn the regulatory default on its head.”

 It’s great to see meaningful public engagement initiatives like this being carried out across the pond!

-Tristan Eclarin-

Ascentum’s 9th Anniversary – Interview with Joseph Peters
Monday, April 16th, 2012

Ascentum recently celebrated its 9th anniversary! To mark this exciting occasion, Holly Clark sat down with Ascentum co-founder Joseph Peters to reflect, reminisce and discuss plans for the future of public participation.

Video Transcription

Holly: Joe, what was the biggest adjustment that Ascentum has had to make? How did we overcome this challenge? And what did we learn from it?

Joe: One of the biggest challenges that we’ve had to deal with over the past nine years is really adapting to new technologies. The software we used nine years ago and the software that we’re using today are fundamentally different. I think that’s where we’ve had to adapt and I think that’s where we’ve adapted very well.

Holly: In the past nine years, what would you describe as Ascentum’s biggest success? Or most exciting moment?

Joe: That’s a tough question. It’s pretty funny to think about that and all the things that we’ve accomplished over these past nine years. But one of my favorite memories, and I’ll never forget, is the party that we had for employees and clients when we first moved into our offices at 30 Rosemount. It really was a fantastic event. Put down a marker in all of our experiences to say that we had arrived, we were an organization, we were a firm, we had our fancy offices with the giant Ascentum logo on the wall. I’ll never forget that day.

Holly: What was your most interesting project?

Joe:  I’ve been involved in over 100 projects, maybe even closer to 150 in the last 9-10 years so asking me which is my favourite project or which is the most interesting project is very difficult. They’re all like little children to me in a way that you start out with them, you build them, you grow them, and you watch them leave you when you’ve wrapped up the project. All of them are near and dear to my heart. One of the most interesting and most challenging initiatives was one I was involved with on the last year on Childhood Obesity. Both professionally and personally, it was an outstanding initiative. I learned a lot, I got to meet some fantastic Canadians all across the country from Vancouver to St. John’s to Aklavik in the Northwest Territories. It was fantastic to hear the different perspectives and hope that the outputs of this initiative could really help affect change and make a difference, because childhood obesity is an issue that affects so many Canadians and sets them up for their health outcomes for the rest of their life.

Holly: How do you think the world of public participation has evolved in the past nine years? How do you think Ascentum has adjusted to this evolution?

Joe: This is an easy one to answer. When I look at how public participation has transformed over the last nine years, the factor that has had the greatest influence on this has to be is social media. We used to spend a lot of time and effort trying to get people to come to you, to come to your website, to come to your event. With Facebook and Twitter now, we can go to where people are. That’s fundamentally transformed that relationship in terms of a pull to people, or a push out to people. That’s been the biggest difference and I think we’re just beginning to see the influence that social media can have on public participation, and it will continue to transform in the years to come.

Holly: What do you see for the future of public participation?

Joe: I don’t have a crystal ball, but I can tell you for sure that social media is going to have an influence on it. The way that we’re using technology today and how we’re going to use it in ten years from now is going to be different. I think that we probably have more virtual meetings. We’re beginning to see webinars, web-conferencing, video conferencing really coming into their own and being effective channels for engagement. I only hope that in nine or ten years, we start to see improvements in that area, and really an online supported technology can make public participation online seem closer to what we experience in a face to face meeting. Hopefully we will see that change in the next nine years.

Holly: What do you hope to achieve in the next nine years at Ascentum?

Joe: Well it’d be really nice if I had a crystal ball that would let me know where we would be in 9 years from now. What I can tell you is that what we’d like to achieve over the next nine years is investigating new markets. We’ve got our finger on the pulse of some emerging areas that we’d like to be involved in as we look to new markets, and it’d be also interesting to have some different Ascentum offices. We have our small office in Toronto and our virtual presences in California and Washington, but it would be nice to have another small office across the pond in the EU. It’d be great to do some work there. So I think in the next nine years, I see only good things for Ascentum. Only continued growth. It’ll be great to have new people on board. We know we’ll have to deal with change; change is a part of life. But I look forward to the next nine years. It’s been an outstanding first nine, and I only hope that the next nine are as rewarding as our first nine years.

Holly: Thanks for tuning in, and make sure to follow us @ascentum on Twitter.

-Holly Clark-

Twitter: The Medium Doesn’t Have to be the Message….
Tuesday, April 3rd, 2012

This week, New Democratic Party Member of Parliament Charlie Angus, an inveterate tweeter, bid adieu to the Twitterverse. He acknowledges being a big fan/user of social media but fears that Twitter is “morphing into a bully pulpit for trolls. It is a technology that favours the flash mob.” He goes on to say “that the digital mob is no different from a street mob. It can be excitable, good-natured or vicious, but don’t ever mistake the mob for democracy.”

Angus laments receiving hate filled and ignorant tweets about Attawapiskat, and fears that Twitter is undermining “fact finding and verification.”  Commenting on recent tweet attacks on his singing ability and other mindless ad hominem volleys, he expresses his disenchantment – “Being on Twitter is like being badgered by a drunk on a 24-hour bus ride.’ (and as a northern Ontario boy he knows of what he speaks!).

While Angus raises valid and serious concerns, the object of his criticism is off.  There is no doubt that social media in general and Twitter in particular, are influencing how we engage with each other and how we process information and we all should be more mindful about how we use this powerful technology. However, it is erroneous to place the blame on the technology itself.  The technology is neutral –it is all about how we use that technology – for good (and as Angus himself notes that during the Attawapiskat crisis the positive tweets far outnumbered the negative), for evil or simply for inane purposes. Human behaviour and motivation is the real culprit, not the technology. On Twitter, you’ll find the good, the bad, the useful, the useless, the beautiful and the ugly!

The poverty of political talk, trivial and banal remarks, uninformed and mindless commentary, knee-jerk responses, deliberately misleading quotes etc in Twitterverse are not a reflection of Twitter but rather symptoms of our impoverished public discourse.  As Pogo says ……”We have met the enemy… and he is us”.  If we want a better Twitterverse, we need to create it. Come on back Charlie Angus.

At Ascentum we strive to use social media and online engagement to elevate not degrade public discourse.

-Mary Pat MacKinnon-

@ascentum tweets of the week
Friday, March 16th, 2012

Here are just some of the Twitter posts and links that we’d like to pass on from this week. You can find us on Twitter at

-Stephan Telka-

5 Canadian Public Policy Issues That Could Be Crowdsourced
Friday, March 9th, 2012

On February 13 the Honourable Tony Clement, President of the Treasury Board, spoke at Third Tuesday Ottawa, a monthly gathering of innovators with an aim to “explore new developments in social media and online community building”. Minister Clement, known in Canadian social media circles for being one of the prolific House of Commons Twitter users, spoke about the government’s new Web 2.0 guidelines, open government, and using crowdsourcing to develop public policy.

Based on the success of the government’s first foray into crowdsourcing with Industry Canada’s “Digital Economy Strategy” project (proudly developed and led by Ascentum), Minister Clement shared that the government would like to see more government policy sourced from the crowds. He then challenged those in the audience to suggest public policy issues that could be crowdsourced.

We’d like to take Minister Clement up on his offer, and humbly suggest five topics:

  1. How can the government help celebrate the 150th Anniversary of Canadian Confederation in 2017 (Heritage Canada)
  2. Which e-services should the federal government be providing, that aren’t yet available? (Service Canada)
  3. How can the government increase productivity? (Industry Canada, Human Resources & Skills Development Canada)
  4.  How can we improve trade, security and cultural ties with our largest trade partner, the US? (Public Safety, Industry, Foreign Affairs & International Trade, Citizenship)
  5. How can the federal government make better use of diasporas, including Canadians abroad and those with foreign links in Canada, to improve trade, economic and cultural links? (Foreign Affairs & International Trade, Citizenship)

Here’s hoping Minister Clement is listening!

-Stephan Telka-

From the Water Cooler to the Web- Embracing Social Media in the Workplace
Friday, March 2nd, 2012

Here at Ascentum, we use social media in a variety of ways. Not only do we help our clients engage their stakeholders through various social media platforms, but we are also constantly tapped into these outlets, publishing weekly blog posts, posting hourly twitter updates and moderating topical Facebook conversations.

Brought up using social media tools to interact with friends and family, I would expect these tools to be put to use in the workplace to engage with colleagues.  However, the reality is that many places have ignored the social revolution. This makes me think, how valuable is social media to an organization?

I recently read an interview with Peter Williams, CEO of Deloitte Digital and one of Australia’s leaders in the digital world. As an advocate for social innovation, Williams believes that this Cultural Revolution generates a compelling chance for companies. He says though it may be scary, “if you don’t embrace change, and understand how you can leverage it, you will just fall behind”.

Williams also expresses frustration at the managers who use the clichéd idea that “our staff is our greatest asset” but then block their staff from using social media at work. He says that a truly enlightened leader encourages communication and the wholesale sharing of ideas within their organization.

This concept of social media participation in the workplace has given birth to a handy little tool known as Yammer, a free social network for the workplace. Access to an organization’s Yammer network is determined by a user’s Internet Domain, so only those with the same email addresses may join their respective networks. It’s like moving the conversation from the water cooler to the web – but throwing in the popularly used Facebook “like” function and the option to create fun, informative surveys.

When asked how Yammer got started in his company, Williams recalls kicking ideas around in the innovation team, when someone simply said, ‘why don’t we give this a go.’  “I think that is the first lesson about adoption of social media,” he says. And he’s right. It’s worth a try. Why? Because it’s free, designed to be simple, and you have nothing to lose.

In early February, Ascentum started using Yammer, and it seems to have taken off naturally. Many have commented on how convenient it is to know what others are working on, and to feel “in touch” with colleagues even amidst the busy work hours when chats by the water cooler are infrequent and cut short. It fulfills the same purpose all social media aims to achieve – an extra branch of communication that keeps the conversation going.

While Yammer has been a hit, Williams says that companies who use these tools are still in a minority. He noticed that the default position of most organizations is to resist the use of social media in the workplace, at the fear of misbalancing hierarchy. But he digresses, “Anyone wanting a highly rigid hierarchy or to be in a controlling position will find himself increasingly under threat from active social networks.”

What’s the bottom line here? Well I can say that it feels good to work in an environment that has not only embraced the social revolution, but has manipulated it into a strategic tool for engagement. I think it’s clear that whatever your organization does, you should be exploring the ways you could leverage these new tools. Social media is not frivolous, and it is not a fad. It’s an opportunity. As Williams so accurately puts it “Leaders either see the light – or feel the heat”.

-Holly Clark-

@ascentum tweets of the week
Friday, February 10th, 2012

Here are just some of the Twitter posts and links that we’d like to pass on from this week. You can find us on Twitter at

  • Quote: “The 21st Century is a lousy time to be a control freak” Perhaps the sound byte of the day #openpolicy (Retweet from @SBTaskForce, during a conference on open policy development and collaboration that Ascentum attended at the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs & International Trade)

-Stephan Telka-

Chancellor Merkel crowdsources Germany’s future
Wednesday, February 1st, 2012

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is going online to engage Germans on the future of their country. On February 1 the Chancellor’s office launched a “Dialogue about Germany’s Future”, a project that combines an online crowdsourcing website and a series of in-person, “US-style” town hall meetings. It marks the first time the Chancellor is going directly to citizens using an online tool to engage them in decision making.

Over the next two months, Germans will have a chance to share their views on the Germany they’d like to see in the next 5-10 years, answering three main consultation questions:

  1. How do we want to live together? What holds society together? How can we produce more children and be more family friendly? How can society and government enhance security? How can we engage citizens better?
  2. How do we want to sustain ourselves? What are Germany’s strengths on the world market? How can we stay curious and innovative while making money? What can employers, employees and government do to make employment more secure and appealing?
  3. How do we want to learn? What do practical values look like? How can we all learn to do better – at work and at home? What role does the internet play? How can we improve professional development? Can the society as a whole learn?

Taking Ideas Seriously…and Uncharted Territory

In a weekend interview with the Bild am Sonntag, Merkel emphasized that all suggestions would be taken seriously: “They won’t land in the thin air of the internet. Rather, each one will receive an answer, and the best have the chance to be acted upon”. Pushed further, Merkel explained how ideas could be acted upon, while acknowledging the novelty of the initiative:

I can’t promise anyone that we will immediately implement everything, but I also won’t say what won’t work. Reasonable ideas could be turned into a research project or model project. Examples of best practices, on topics such as “better working conditions for the elderly” or “the city of the future” could achieve more than current political discourse. We will also send good ideas to the responsible ministries. What’s clear to me is this: With this online “Dialogue of the Future” we’re entering new territory. We don’t know 100% how exactly this will work, and how many people will actually take part.

Merkel explained that her team of “120 experts” would be pouring over the results after the online tool closes in April, releasing a book in June, and presenting the most useful ideas in September.

In-person vs. Online

When asked why the main thrust of the project was online, Merkel answered simply, “there’s no other way to reach so many people”.

After the crowdsourcing site has been closed, authors of the ten top-voted ideas will have a chance to meet with Merkel in her office.

The online process is also being complemented by 3 in-person “US-style” town hall meetings in the cities of Erfurt, Heidelberg and Bielefeld with 100 participants each, as well as sessions for children and youth.

So what?

The project has only been live for a few hours, so I can only make general observations. It’s clear that the project has lots of potential. It has buy-in from Merkel herself, who has committed her government to respond to and act upon all “reasonable” ideas within a strict timeline (the timeline below, which appears on every page, explains the process. Click to view larger image). It shows that the federal government in Germany is interested in using novel ways to engage citizens, including both crowdsourcing and “town hall” meetings.

Potential challenges include how to deal with popular suggestions that are beyond the scope of the federal government. A “Citizen’s Forum” project last year in the country, for example, brought together 3,000 interested citizens who suggested that education systems (a state responsibility) be harmonized across the country. The idea was pretty much dead on arrival, as states have clung to that responsibility vehemently. Critical to the collection of useful ideas will be communicating to participants the scope of ideas being solicited (what is up for discussion, and what is not). Another essential step for the Chancellor’s office will be to ensure enough resources to wade through the ideas (6 hours after launching, a total of 123 have been posted).

Stay tuned for further updates as we track this exciting project.

All translations are my own.

-Stephan Telka-

Open_policy@DFAIT Conference
Wednesday, February 1st, 2012

February 9, 2012, Ottawa Ascentum is excited to be participating in the open_policy@DFAIT (Collaborer@MAECI) event at the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) next week. Up to 200 officials from DFAIT and other federal departments will be exposed to new tools, new partners and new approaches to collaboration.  The purpose of the event is to promote “open policy development” by adapting the private sector’s open innovation model to the public sector’s policy process. We will be sharing Ascentum’s unique approach, and how our digital tools facilitate collaboration. Contact Joseph Peters ( for more information on this event

Working Lunch Seminar Series – Crowdsourcing & Employee Engagement
Thursday, January 26th, 2012

Working Lunch Seminar Series – Public Participation
Tuesday, January 24th, 2012

Working Lunch Seminar Series – Social Media Strategies
Thursday, January 19th, 2012

View more PowerPoint from Ascentum

Top 10 Ascentum Blog Posts of 2011
Friday, January 6th, 2012

It’s been a busy year on the Ascentum blog, a space for us to share interesting developments in public engagement, useful tools and resources, and news on the goings on of our dynamic team.  Our top most viewed blogs deal with topics vast and varied, from the history of crowdsourcing to the demise of RIM, from Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi to the use of NVivo to analyze qualitative feedback in engagement processes.

Here are the top 10 blog posts (by page views) of 2011:

  1. Gmail and GSA – one giant step forward for government (Friday June 17) – Joseph Peters  402 views
  2. Why RIM Fails – The Kindle Fire (Thursday September 29) – Joseph Peters 289 views
  3. Shaw’s Customer Conversations on Data Use. Great, but what about online tools…? (Tuesday March 1) – Ellis Westwood 246 views
  4. Using NVivo to Truly Understand Participants’ Views and Ideas (Monday June 13) – Stephan Telka 98 views
  5. Announcement – Mary Pat is becoming a Partner at Ascentum! (Monday September 19) – Holly Clark 82 views
  6. A Short History of Crowdsourcing (Friday June 24) – Ellis Westwood 68 views
  7. Social Media tackling obesity one picture at a time (Thursday April 14) – Cassandra Tavares 64 views
  8. Inspiration and Iron Fists (Thursday September 22) – Joseph Peters 63 views
  9. In Conversation with Ellis Westwood, Ascentum’s new Director of Project Innovation (Monday December 5) – Holly Clark 63 views
  10. Kathleen Petty and Fostering Dialogue in Canadian Media (Tuesday July 12) – Stephan Telka 61 views

Looking forward to more great posts and conversations throughout 2012!

-Stephan Telka-

The Possibilities for Citizen-Led, Community-Level Change… in Canada?
Thursday, December 22nd, 2011

In an effort to follow new and interesting practices in engaement, I’ve spent some time looking into the work of Everyday Democracy – a non-profit organization that works closely with communities across the U.S. to address complex, local level issues through public involvement (PI). Its work seems to reflect a much larger trend around PI, which is the rise of community-based initiatives, particularly in the U.S.

To help demonstrate the type of impact that PI can have on the local level, let’s look at Portsmouth Listens, a collaborative effort between the city of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and its citizens to impact important local issues through increased PI. According to Matt Leighninger, “Portsmouth Listens shows that public engagement processes do not have to be ‘owned’ by government – that they in fact may be more effective and sustainable when they are jointly owned… it harks back to a time in New England when public life was as much a function of community as politics.”

It all started in 1999 with the issue of bullying in the city’s middle school. In an attempt to address the situation, the school invited students, teachers, parents and neighbours (e.g. homeowners, shop owners and individuals from a nearby senior’s housing complex) to participate in a dialogue.

Some of the most notable ideas came from students themselves, which included moving the school’s bike rack to another area that has more traffic and is less isolated, and increase lighting in certain areas around the school grounds. A year later, the town council used this process as the foundation for gathering public input on school redistricting, which can be a ‘hot’ issue in any community. With a significant enrollment imbalance between Portsmouth’s three elementary schools, rotating dialogues were held in each one. This process helped increase comfort levels, as parents were given the opportunity to get a feel for all the schools, thereby decreasing the antagonism around “moving my kid from their school.”

These types of participative initiatives continue to be used in Portsmouth today. For example, residents can review the city’s Master Plan, which outlines the framework for the community’s planning and land use decisions. In one review, citizens came up with a unique idea that wasn’t in the Plan – to convert an old soap factory to an art colony, which could also attract tourists to the city. For more information, please visit this link for Everyday Democracy’s two-part orientation video (scroll down).

All of this leads me to ask three questions:

  • Are these types of community-level initiatives emerging to the same extent here in Canada? (I would argue that they aren’t, or are not as well publicized)
  • How is the potential for community-level change affected by the fact that our municipalities are “creatures of the provinces,” which provide less funding sources and regulatory levers in relations to their American counterparts?
  • What actions we can take as citizens, so as not to limit the possibilities for citizen-led, community-level change here in Canada?

-Tristan Eclarin-

Choicebook™ Demo – “Speak Up For Change!”
Monday, December 12th, 2011

One online engagement tool that we put to use on a regular basis is something called a “Choicebook”, an innovative public participation tool that provides participants with the key facts, perspectives and arguments needed to make an informed choice about a given issue. With the necessary information at the tips of their fingers, participants are guided through a series of scenarios, and are asked to provide their ideas, perspectives and priorities, through a combination of open- and close-ended questions.

Our Choicebook™ tool can be hosted on a stand-alone consultation website, or launched from an invitation e-mail. We can even embed the tool within Facebook, to take engagement where possible participants are already converging on social media.

One Choicebook that we’re particularly proud of us was part of a project that we recently profiled on our website. Back in the summer of 2009, when climate change was on the top of Canadians’ minds in the run-up to the Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, Ascentum partnered with Apathy is Boring, a Montreal-based non-profit with a mission to use art and technology to educate youth about democracy, to engage Canadian youth on the issues of energy use and climate change.  This partnership brought “Speak up for Change!” to life.

The Speak Up! Choicebook™ created for this website was embedded into Facebook, allowing for an ongoing dialogue to take place on the ‘wall’ of the project page. It included flash animation and audio prompts to create an innovative and engaging consultation experience.

Click here to visit the “Speak Up for Change!” Choicebook

Contact us to discuss whether a Choicebook is the right tool for you and your organization’s needs.

-Stephan Telka-

In Conversation with Ellis Westwood, Ascentum’s new Director of Project Innovation
Monday, December 5th, 2011

Holly Clark recently had a chance to sit down with Ellis Westwood, Ascentum’s new Director of Project Innovation, to explore his new role, and learn more about his views on the future of public engagement.

1. You have recently been promoted to “Director, Project Innovation”, with Ascentum. Can you give us some context on what this title entails? How is this new position different from your last? What new responsibilities/duties do you have?

The first thing people say when they hear my title is that they’ve never heard anything like it before! For me the new role is about always trying to be creative. It’s about building on tried and tested engagement approaches, but not being afraid to try new techniques or tools. I think the new role reflects my growth at Ascentum over the last five years. It’s an amazing place to learn, work, and have fun. As a Director, I’ll be working directly with clients and delivering projects, while coaching and supporting our really talented staff at Ascentum.

2. What are the highlights of your year, and what do you hope to accomplish in the next year with Ascentum’s clients?

Over the last year, I’ve been involved in some very interesting projects, working with adventurous, creative and smart clients.

One of our recent engagement projects was “Our Health Our Future”, Canada’s first national dialogue on childhood obesity. We used a blend of in-person, online and social media tools to foster conversations across Canada on healthy weights and about how we can all work together to address the growing health problem of childhood obesity. As part of our creative approach, I used social media to foster conversations on Facebook and Twitter about childhood obesity. We engaged hundreds of caregivers, youth and stakeholders across Canada and to hear how childhood obesity affected them and their ideas for making our kids healthier.

So that’s where I’ve come from over the last year. Where do I want to go? Well, I’d like to continue to use social media, to complement the engagement work that we do through in-person and online channels.

3. Why do you think public engagement is important?

I think public engagement is important because it helps organizations make more “sustainable decisions”. These are decisions that are durable and sustainable into the future, developed by involving the people and perspectives that are affected and need to be involved.

At the beginning of my career, when I worked for the federal government, I worked alongside people that were smart and passionate, but at the same time they didn’t have all the answers. For me, engaging the public means providing government and decision makers with those additional perspectives, ideas and experiences from those outside government. It’s these additional sources of evidence that organizations need to make more sustainable decisions on important public policy challenges.

4. You are well known at Ascentum for being very well-versed in social media and new technologies. How do you think we can continue to capitalize on these tools to perform better public engagement?

For me, social media is all a conversation. It’s about people sharing points of view, information and ideas. It’s tools that people can use to co-collaborate and co-create.

So, social media is a natural addition to many public engagement projects. Depending on the project objectives and target communities, social media may not always be suitable for every engagement project. But when it is, we tap into and join the conversations that are already happening or foster new ones aligned with the topics we’re engaging on. These can act as natural complements to other streams of communications we might be doing, such as online deliberation or dialogues.

Social media also allows us to broaden the scope of our engagement. By using social networking tools like Facebook, which has 17 million Canadian subscribers, we can help our clients reach more people, hear more stories, gather more ideas, and ultimately make more sustainable decisions.

5. Based on your experience of social media and its progress thus far, what do you see for the future of public engagement in relation to these new technologies?

I’m really excited about the possible application of social games in public engagement. Imagine if you could use an interactive tool to actually re-design your community park or your neighborhood services on an engagement website? You could choose the design and size of your local community centre. You could redesign the public transit routes that serve your neighborhood.

This idea reminds me of that popular computer game from the 1990s, Sim City. In the future, online engagement could take a similar form. The only difference is that it would be more interactive, more social and you could collaborate with others to co-design solutions to the problems we face in our communities, cities or our country.

6. What’s the most important thing you’ve learned in your experiences? How do you think this will see you through your future?

I’ve learned a lot over the past five years! But the most important thing is that, to help my clients get the insights they’re looking for, it’s my job to help them ask the right questions.

In planning projects, I always like to start working backwards from the end. I ask my clients, what would success look like? What do you want to know from the people you are engaging? And also, what information do we need to give to participants to make it deliberative, so that they can give you their informed perspectives?

If organizations don’t ask the right questions of the people they are trying to engage, they won’t be able to gather the experiences or ideas they’re looking for, as well as their broader engagement objectives.

Some final thoughts…

It has been and continues to be an amazing experience at Ascentum. Every day, I get to work with really smart people who are passionate about public involvement. I get to work with all kinds of neat clients on interesting and important issues. All of that makes it easy to get up in the mornings and come to work, and I’m looking forward to the upcoming year and the future beyond that.


-Holly Clark-

Engaging with Google Plus: An Introduction
Friday, November 11th, 2011

Earlier this week, Google announced support for business and organization pages on Google+,  the latest social network from Google.  We’ve been following Google+ for several months and we thought it would be a good idea to review opportunities to get engaged on Google+.

Google+ is the latest social network from Google and offers the tightest integration with other Google services like Gmail and Search.   Google combines the functionality of popular social networks like Facebook and Twitter into its own unique experience.

The first thing you’ll notice on Google is the very clean interface and the following + things.  This is a combination of the Facebook “like” button and the Twitter re-tweet.  Users can + links or photos that they like in their feed or on external websites.  The + can also be used to address a user like +Ascentum, which is similar to Twitter’s @Ascentum system.

Adding the Plus

The easiest option for businesses and websites is to add the Google+ button to their site content.  The integration is very similar to the Facebook Like button and allows users to quickly + content they find interesting on your website, many users also use this as a bookmarking system that they can refer to later.

The other major importance of adding the Google+ is impact on search.  Google has indicated that the content with more pluses will receive higher search ranking.   It would be a good opportunity to add this functionality now to help building your site’s prominence in the future.

Joining the Plus

Now that Google has added business pages it’s a great opportunity to add your business .   Unlike Facebook or Twitter, Google+ doesn’t currently have the ability for multiple people to update an organization page.   This functionality may be available soon but until then, we recommend creating a new Google User account specifically for your business page.  Use this account exclusively to manage your Google+ Page.

Once you have your Google Account created, you can create your Google+ organization page here:

The  page setup is very simple but you’ll need a square image with your organization’s logo and some details to describe it concisely.  Most of the Google+ Page fields will accept HTML links so you can link to your website for more information.

You will probably need to promote your new Google+ organization page on your webpage and other social networks to connect with users.  One interesting benefit that Google has added to search is you can use +Ascentum to quickly find your companies Google+ Page.

As more users add your organization page you may want to develop some “Circles” of users to help group them into different categories.  You can use these circles to communicate different information. For example, employees, volunteers and regular users can all get their own circle and receive different communication.  Whenever you post something to your page you can choose which circle(s) should see the update.

Hanging Out…

One thing that makes Google+ unique is the the Hangout functionality.  This lets you have a live video/chat with a fairly small number of users.  This could be a great way to engage employees or volunteers without the time or expense of organizing personal meetings.

While Google+ is still fairly new it does offer some unique possibilities for engaging users and like all the networks before, it’s free to setup and experiment with.

-Colin Smilie-

Starbucks CEO and Public Engagement: “Wake Up!”
Friday, October 28th, 2011

Over the summer, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz began a crusade to end what he, and many others, are calling the political gridlock in Washington. In August, Schultz sent out an e-mail to all of his employees, as well as a number of business leaders, stating that he was finding himself “growing more and more frustrated at the lack of cooperation and irresponsibility among elected officials as they have put partisan agendas before the people’s agenda.” Weeks later, Schultz urged CEOs across the country to withold their political contributions until a “transparent, comprehensive, bipartisan debt-and-deficit package is reached that honestly, and fairly, sets America on a path to long-term financial health and security.” CEOs from many top companies, including those from AOL, Pepsi and Walt Disney, heeded his call and took the pledge. Following this, Schultz sought to broaden his call for action through public engagement.

On September 6, 2011, Schultz worked with the non-profit organization No Labels to conduct a “town hall meeting” in New York, where people could call in to share their perpective on what’s causing the “crisis of confidence” in America. Branded as a “Conversation with America,” Schultz sought outreach through online advertising, mass e-mailing, and by running ads in the New York Times and USA Today, urging “Americans to participate in the forum and insist politicians to end their hyper-partisan behaviour.” Schultz said he was inspired to hold the town hall meeting after receiving hundreds of e-mails and letters from citizens who are struggling in the current U.S. economy.

Now for some points on what went down during the town hall meeting:

Where was it held? The venue was Cooper Union, a prestigious private college in Manhattan. However, it was slightly repurposed to look like your local Starbucks, complete with eager-looking young people in the background, sipping on their Starbucks drinks and typing away on their Macbooks. The whole thing was streamed online.

Who was there? An impressive group of individuals hosted the meeting, including a senior political columnist for Newsweek and CNN contributor; the President of the Grady Health Foundation in Atlanta; a Professor of Management from the Harvard Business School; and the President of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

What happened? Over a 90-minute time period, the panel discussed the issues at hand and took questions from call-in viewers. However, the broader focus seemed to be on encouraging people to take the pledge to withhold campaign contributions.


So what should we make of this? From a process perspective, “A Conversation with America” does not represent the most robust public engagement initiative for a number of reasons. The hosts of the meeting were not unbiased and promoted a clear agenda, many of the questions that were asked were very similar and seemed to be a bit leading in nature, and there was corporate branding everywhere. However, I’m assuming that Mr. Schultz is placing more focus on the message rather than the process.

Political ideologies aside, I think this is an inspiring example of high-profile business leaders, particularly those from companies with popular consumer brands, taking a stand and using (some form of) public engagement to get citizens to “wake up”!

-Tristan Eclarin-

Ascentum community engagement project for South East LHIN a “resounding success”
Friday, October 21st, 2011

Earlier this year, Ascentum was hired by the South East Local Health Integration Network (LHIN) to engage community members across southeastern Ontario and gather public input on new health care plans for the region.

We worked closely with staff from the South East LHIN, as well as physicians and other clinical experts, to design a series of deliberative workbooks that local residents could complete online to have their say.

Here’s an excerpt from a recent press release that looked back on what we achieved.  According to the South East LHIN’s CEO, Paul Huras:

The fact that we heard from 867 participants who took the time to complete a total of 1775 detailed workbooks is a solid indication that this engagement worked very well,” said Huras. “Each of these participants took the time to learn, understand and comment on workplans that were detailed and complex. The process provided a great deal of quantitative and qualitative feedback that has helped our Clinical Leads and their teams to adjust and fine tune these plans,” he added.

We appreciated the opportunity to work with the LHIN and their partners on this project.  From our perspective, they were truly committed to gathering input from their communities and using it to help guide their decision-making.

In fact, you can read the full public report of what we heard during the engagement here.  And here’s a link to the full press release.


In support of LHINs

Recently, some people have questioned the value of LHINs.  These critics say that LHINs are too costly, or take money away from front line care.

From my perspective, the right question about what LHINs do should be framed differently.  Who best understands the health care needs of local communities across Ontario?  Local residents and health system planners, or those in a head office thousands of kilometers away?

We have done work for several LHINs, including Share Your Story, Shape Your Care for which the North West LHIN won the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2)’s Innovation of the Year award for 2009.

We’ve always found LHIN staff to be dedicated, hard-working local residents driven by a desire to coordinate health services in a way that reflects local priorities, needs and values.  We think their work is important and hope they are able to continue building on the progress already made.

To end, a local MPP for the region once told me “When you get the public involved, you get way better results.  When you leave it up to a politician, it takes too much money; it takes too long; and they’ll probably get it wrong!”

– Ellis Westwood -

Learning from Stakeholder Engagement at Canadian Blood Services
Friday, October 14th, 2011

I just arrived back from a term position at Canadian Blood Services (CBS), where I was on loan from Ascentum for a little over five months. Submerged in the world of blood and blood products, not only did I learn a great deal about the organization, but I became further versed in the realm of stakeholder relations, one of Ascentum’s main service offerings.

CBS is a prime example of how an organization can use stakeholder engagement to further advance its goals, while ensuring that all players are involved in the decision-making process. Designated as a Stakeholder Relations / Communications Specialist, my role included managing the various committees CBS has for gaining input on the blood system. The two main committee groups I helped oversee were the seven Regional Liaison Committees (RLCs) and the National Liaison Committee (NLC).

Regional Liaison Committee membership includes the Regional Director, donors, recipients, volunteers, hospital partners, clinic organizers, patient groups and sponsors. There are seven RLCs held across Canada and they each convene three times per year to discuss hot issues pertaining to the blood system. Equipped with knowledge acquired from meetings, RLC members are also responsible for assisting CBS in taking the issues to other stakeholders and citizens in their regions.

The National Liaison Committee is similar to the RLC in that it consists of recipient, patient and donor groups, volunteers and hospital partners. However, it is at a level higher in the sense that it is comprised of one representative from each RLC and members from national organizations, such as consumer groups. This Committee meets twice per year and on the second day of the meeting scheduled in the fall, the Committee has a chance to meet with the full CBS Board of Directors and raise any issues which are bubbling at the regional level and within their stakeholder groups.

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to organize and sit in on the fall NLC meeting. On the second day, members were asked to present to the Board why they felt this committee was important to them.  One member summed up his experience on the committee as follows:  “It’s made me feel like I have part ownership in the Canadian blood system.  It reconfirms my commitment as a donor, as a recruiter of donors and as an advocate in my community for CBS.”

This is just one example of how an organization has made it a priority to consult with its stakeholders on key issues affecting its growth and direction. I feel grateful that I was able to play a part in connecting CBS with the stakeholders that need to be engaged. Now that I am once again part of the Ascentum team, I will strive to blend my newfound stakeholder relations’ knowledge into my future assignments.

– Cassandra Tavares –

Simple Facts About Information Privacy Online
Friday, October 7th, 2011

I had the good fortune of attending MESH 2011 in Toronto back in May this year. Since Information privacy is something we take very seriously at Ascentum, one of the presentations that I chose to attend was on Information Privacy by Dominic Jaar where he highlighted some key facts about online privacy. Below I’ve summarized his key messages, and wrote how we try to overcome some of these challenges at Ascentum.

Privacy statements are usually hidden and are changed frequently

Almost all sites insist on making their registration process quick and simple. Therefore, they prefer to keep users from spending time on privacy statements. Here at Ascentum, we try to find a balance – between simplicity and ensuring that engagement website users take the time to read through and understand the fine print. Exposing users to our privacy statements is one of the key steps during registration.

What most sites also mention in their privacy statement is that they reserve the right to change their privacy statement without prior notice. And with all social media sites releasing new features almost every other day to keep up with the competition, it becomes a necessity to revisit privacy and settings as frequently as possible to keep your information safe.

It is among Ascentum’s best practices to not modify privacy statements after a website has been launch. In rare cases where we do need to make any changes to our privacy statement, we either follow it up with a clear and visible message on our home page and/or send out an email to our participants notifying them of the recent change.

Most mainstream users typically ignore privacy settings

In his book Simple and Usable, Giles Colborne outlined 3 main types of internet users. Experts, who are willing to spend time on a new product and its features and love to customize their products; Willing Adopters, who are tempted to use something sophisticated but uncomfortable with something entirely new; and finally Mainstreamers, who just use a product to get their job done.

Since there aren’t too many people who fall in to the first two groups, most sites are designed with Mainstreamers in mind. What that means is that site registration fields have been simplified and reduced to bare minimum. And newly registered accounts start off with preset privacy settings. Proper use of privacy settings is dependent on user skill set.

Ascentum approaches its website designs with all three users in mind and ensures no one is left in the dark based on their online skill sets. Along with our registration process presenting privacy statements clearly, our submission form feature further allows users to choose whether they would like to make their entries public or keep them private and only for analysis.

Privacy policies of a site are compelled by law of the country the site is hosted in

Back in 2009, Facebook had to readdress their privacy settings after they were found to be in conflict with the Canadian Privacy Law. Similarly, LinkedIn privacy policies are bound by California Government Law which may not necessarily agree with information privacy laws in other countries.

Ascentum counters these privacy conflicts by hosting all web sites locally. Our servers reside in Canada and come equipped with SSL encryption by default to ensure maximum data privacy.

So why share your information at all?

Answer: Return on Investment (ROI), i.e. visibility, contacts, connections, better product deals, etc..

  • In the case of Facebook, your ROI could be connection with friends, coworkers or family.
  • In the case of LinkedIn, your ROI could be professional contacts, following your favourite brands and companies, career advancement.
  • By participating online for Ascentum, your ROI could be ability to enable change and make a difference in the field you care about most. Whether it is a change in the workplace, schools, healthcare or your own community.


Here at Ascentum, we ensure that our process of dealing with user-related information abides with Canadian legislation. However, when it comes to popular social media, the best practice in order to ensure your information privacy is to use common sense. At the end of the day, users control what they share on the web regardless of privacy policies set by social media platforms.


-Salman Shakeel-

An alternative view of Alberta: Edmonton, energy, climate change and citizen deliberation
Friday, September 30th, 2011

The brouhaha against the Keystone XL pipeline once again shines a harsh light on Alberta and its oil sands industry. And the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy’s latest report on the costs of climate change to Canada sharpens the debate.

What flies under the radar in the rest of Canada is the fact that Edmonton City Council recently passed a comprehensive and far reaching environmental strategy called The Way We Green (TWWG). Its goals and policy directions, including on climate change and energy, are nothing if not forward looking and very ambitious.

The Alberta Climate Dialogue project (ABCD) is a five-year university-community initiative (2010-2015) exploring how new forms of citizen participation in policymaking can enhance Alberta responses to climate change (I serve on ABCD’s Steering Committee). ABCD and the Centre for Public Involvement  (CPI) are exploring a partnership with the City of Edmonton to co-create a public participation campaign that seeks to advance climate change policy and action in Alberta.  This partnership would also advance knowledge, capacity, and practices of citizen dialogue and deliberation in Alberta and beyond.

On September 23, ABCD/CPI hosted a workshop for the City of Edmonton leaders, community stakeholders who were involved in the creation of TWWG, and ABCD’s leading researchers and public participation practitioners (as both presenters and participants). I had the pleasure of facilitating this event which set out to better understand how citizen deliberation can support the City’s responses to energy transition and climate change; leverage expertise to inform the City’s public engagement efforts; and help align key energy and climate change objectives on a public engagement spectrum. Judging from the buzz at tables and the thoughtful contributions about how serious citizen engagement could really help the City administration and Council to implement TWWG, the workshop was a success.

Following on the heels of this workshop, ABCD convened its annual planning session – this year participants contributed their research and practice expertise to support the Edmonton initiative, including design and learning dimensions. Graphic recorder Avril Orloff captured a snapshot of key elements of ABCD’s work and aspirations in the drawing included here (click on the image on this screen and the next to view it in detail).

Stay tuned for the next chapter in the City of Edmonton / ABCD / CPI partnership story – citizens and the City implementing wise choices for environmental sustainability.

-Mary Pat Mackinnon-

Why RIM Fails – The Kindle Fire
Thursday, September 29th, 2011

I remember how excited I was when I got my first blackberry.  It was thick, black with a monochrome screen, but it was beautiful.  Finally I could get emails, contacts, and a phone all in one.  Goodbye abandoned and gently used palm pilots, and hello thumbs.

The first few blackberries I had were fantastic.  They did what they were supposed to do really well.  The other bells and whistles were slightly useful, like mobile web browsing or the music player, but they could be ignored.  Then something happened that changed mobile phones, arguably forever – the iPhone.  It did a lot of things really well.  It did the basics (phone, email, calendar), and it also made mobile browsing functional.  What changed it all was consolidation of media (songs, videos) that people already had and the already legendary app store.

It was around this time that RIM, in an attempt to compete with Apple, decided to push products to the market too early.  The Storm was the worst and last blackberry I ever had.  The touch was flawed, the clickety screen was a rate-limiting factor, and the thing rebooted like a 386 running windows 95 (aka constantly).  It was an embarrassment.  Instead of learning from that mistake in 2008, fast forward to 2011 and the release of the Playbook.  Once again trying to compete with an Apple game changer, RIM releases a product that just wasn’t ready.  Shortcomings were a camera with no camera app, and no native mail app.  Let’s put that together with a wasteland for an app store and the fact that the arcane process for creating an app is a barrier (and affront) to developers.

Now Amazon just released the Kindle Fire.  I will bet today that it is a game changer in the tablet market at a price point of $199.  It doesn’t do everything at that price, but it does many things well.  It provides access to movies and music, e-reader excellence, and an enhanced web browser that leverages Amazon’s server capacity.  Why didn’t Bezos et al release this six months ago?  Because it wasn’t ready!  Why will it work?  It will hum because there is access to a breadth of content that Amazon already has.  The Fire is just another channel to the diversity of Amazon’s content.

Dear RIM, it’s time to wake up.  I loved you once.  You are Canadian.  We should be proud of you, but now we are not.   Stop putting products on the market when they aren’t ready.  Learn!  Pretty please, learn!!

PS – this really isn’t a public participation post, but a social media hardware post.  Couldn’t help myself.

-Joseph Peters-

@ascentum tweets of the week
Thursday, September 29th, 2011

Here are some of the Twitter posts and links that we’d like to pass on from this week. You can find us on Twitter at

  • Survey Results: 54% of Canadians would engage more with government if there were ways to participate online.
  • Retweet from @elliswestwood: National Assembly of Wales video to launch public consultation on bilingual services. #demopart
  • @ascentum blog: @nenshi Thanks for inspiring at the Public Consultation & #publicengmt conference in TO this week! You inspired a blog
  • Video: Interesting facts & figures in this video on the “Social Media Revolution 2011″
  • From the U.S.: The U.S. National Issues Forum is engaging Americans on the National Debt using Second Life #demopart #publicengmt


Public Engagement in Singapore: Preventing Religious & Racial Conflict
Monday, September 26th, 2011

On September 21st, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean attended the International Conference on Community Engagement in Singapore. The Conference was specifically aimed to discuss, “Countering Extremism and Building Social Resilience through Community Engagement”.

At the conference, Mr. Teo applauded the success of the Community Engagement Program (CEP) which was launched in 2006 in Singapore to enhance racial and religious harmony. This program was created to strengthen the understanding and ties between people of different races and religions, and build up Singapore’s skills and knowledge in coping with emergencies. Through the program, the community is involved in response plans that are activated when a crisis occurs, and ensures that Singaporeans will work together to cope with them.

As reported in Singapore news on Wednesday, Mr. Teo mentioned how the program has inspired many citizens to take ownership of their future. He reminded Singaporeans that they should be proud of what has been achieved, and strive to bring even more people into the program.

He highlighted the Geylang Serai area, which has the largest concentration of racial and religious organizations in Singapore with some 120 religious institutions, clan associations and civic organizations. In February of this year, a fire broke out at the Chong Hood Lim Association, a Buddhist temple housed within a shophouse in the area. The temple and the Coronation Baptist Church next door became structurally unstable. Upon learning that the church would be unable to conduct service sessions, the temple’s management agreed to share its newly-acquired activity centre nearby to temporarily allow the church to continue conducting service sessions. Mr. Teo said subsequently, the church was able to find its own space, but what was important was the spirit of help from the community that was evident.

He went on to say, “We have learnt from campaigns of the past that a top-down approach may get a project started expeditiously. However, to have it take root and be sustainable in the long term, it has to inspire the ground and gain traction. It is only when the people on the ground take ownership and see meaning in it that the programme works.”

I was inspired to read that Singapore has implemented such socially-empowered engagement. It’s refreshing to know that an ideology we believe in also rings true across seas: That the top can initiate, but ultimately, we can’t ignore the influence that comes from the grassroots beneath. I think this is the path to a better democracy in the long run.

-Holly Clark-

Announcement – Mary Pat is becoming a Partner at Ascentum!
Monday, September 19th, 2011

As the warm air subsides and the seasons shift, the Ascentum team is also feeling some major changes in the atmosphere. It has recently been announced that Ascentum’s Director, Mary Pat Mackinnon, will be promoted to Partner at Ascentum! In her position as Director, Mary Pat has led public and stakeholder engagement initiatives and is integral to the strategic planning work Ascentum does for its clients. She has extensive background in government affairs, public policy research and community engagement practice. As Partner, Mary Pat will not only fulfill her duties as a skilled designer, facilitator and writer, but will also manage Ascentum’s human resources file. Given her approachable nature, it’s agreed that Mary Pat is perfectly suited for her new duties.

To mark this promotion, I thought it might be a good time for reflection. I got a chance to sit down with Mary Pat and ask her a few questions about her new position, her ambitions, and her perspective on the world of public engagement.

What do you hope to accomplish this year in your new position with Ascentum’s clients?

There are three areas I would like to focus on in the year ahead.  I want to grow our portfolio of health and labour force related policy engagement work, while also target outreach to public and not-for-profit clients in policy fields that we’ve done less work in, but in which we have much to offer. These could include topics like demographic challenges of aging workforce, citizenship, newcomers’ integration, education and the environment. I think our engagement expertise and products really make a difference because we deliver integrated design, facilitation, analysis and reporting grounded in informed participation approaches that give our clients a return on their investment. Secondly, I’d like to explore opportunities for work in the international arena, building on my past experience and projects – I think it’s an area that holds some real potential. Thirdly, I’d like to think about innovative ways to integrate and scale up our online, social media and in-person engagement processes, drawing on the unique contributions of these three streams.

Why do you think public engagement is important?

I would break it down to three main reasons.

  1. To revitalize democracy, which for me, means greater political accountability, greater legitimacy of public policies, all of which ultimately, strengthens citizenship.
  2. To improve our quality of life. I think that public engagement should both define and sustain what I would call the public good. I mean, it’s the public that should get to decide what kind of society we want. To have sustainable policies, the public needs to play an important role in defining and sustaining them (beyond voting every four years, important at that is).
  3. From a practical perspective, we need better public policies. This means we need more than technical expertise and top down decision making. So many ‘wicked’ problems are complex and involve a myriad of issues, involving critical value-based choices. Good public policy needs to incorporate various streams of evidence, including very importantly public policy preferences.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing the potential for civic engagement in today’s world?

 I think there are several interconnected barriers. Too many decision makers fear losing power and control. There is an inherent reluctance to share power, and reluctance to engage the public in agenda setting. If you don’t give up a bit of power, it’s hard to have authentic engagement. Also election cycles and just in time policy making doesn’t allow for more innovative ways of engaging the public.

And it is also true that many people and decision-makers simply are not aware of what good public engagement looks like or how it can help address problems. Another barrier is the level of distrust and cynicism about government and the public sphere.  People wonder “What difference will my contribution make?”  Decision-makers conclude “People don’t care – look at the ballot box turnout.” I think people do care, they just need to be reassured that they have the opportunity to contribute. An even more serious problem is apathy. Apathetic citizens are a much bigger problem than cynics because they don’t care that they don’t care.

Which aspect of this work keeps you motivated?

 For one, its people. The public – Call me naïve –but all the dialogues I have been involved with tell me that most Canadians, at their core, are reasonable, fair and caring.  I really believe that there is a latent public desire to contribute more to community life. I don’t know if I am a pragmatic idealist or an idealistic pragmatist, but personally for me, it’s important to feel like I’m making a positive contribution to Canada. Being part of Ascentum’s team allows me to do that. Secondly, I love learning. The field of public engagement is more of an art than a science. I also find that working with my younger Ascentum colleagues really keeps me au courant!

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned in your experiences?

 The most important thing I have learned is that process is as important as content. I have come to believe that achieving the scale of changes we need for more innovative, empathetic and productive communities, knowledge is necessary, but not sufficient. We need to engage our values, our hearts and our heads to make a better community.

What are main issues with regard to civic engagement and citizen involvement at the various levels of government in Canada?

 I think the main issues are commitment and resources.  If governments could view the public as a source of imagination and innovation, rather than seeing them as a stumbling block and hurdle, we would see the scale and scope of public engagement swell. Conversely, the same is true for the public – government is not the enemy – it is us! And we need to take responsibility to make it as good as it can be, acknowledging that we are imperfect beings in an imperfect but precious world.  As Tony Judt puts it in Ill Fares the Land, “if we feel excluded from the management of our collective affairs, we shall not bother to speak up about them. In that case, we should not be surprised to discover that no one is listening to us.” (132, 2011)

What do you see for the future of public engagement?

I don’t have a crystal ball and am long in the tooth to be confident in predicting the future. So often we are wrong. But I think if you look at the trends over the past decades, it is unlikely that governments, not-for-profits and private sector organizations can ignore the impetus for citizens, stakeholders/shareholders, customers and employees to demand greater control of their private and public lives.

Do you think advancements in technology and social media have impacted this push?

I do. Four decades ago, even a decade ago, we had engagement, but we didn’t have the potency and immediacy of social media. It can be a very strong tool for positive change. But it’s not so much the tool itself; it’s how we use it. I think Ascentum uses those tools in a responsible way.

How do you think new technologies and online engagement are affecting in-person engagement at events? Have you noticed a change in human interactions since this technological era?

Well I think human nature doesn’t change, but the ways in which people learn, process and interact definitely is reshaping the social sphere. Technology is way ahead of us and we need to learn how to use it effectively and responsibly. I think we’re still learning, and it’s very exciting and challenging and intellectually stimulating….. So coming back to the future of engagement, I think we have a bigger toolbox to engage far more breadth. The challenge is how do we get depth? The future is not going to be linear. We will have to be more vigilant against simplistic populism, where leaders and people are rushing to simplistic answers to complex problems. The world is not simple; shortcuts, while seductive, can also be dangerous. We need to figure out how to manage the ‘distraction’ reality and cultivate more mindful reflection of what really matters- and to do this online and in-person.

- Holly Clark -

Moving Forward Together: Process for Selecting a Site for Canada’s Deep Geological Repository for Used Nuclear Fuel – Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO)
Sunday, September 18th, 2011



NWMO LogoThe Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) was established as a requirement of the Nuclear Waste Fuel Act to develop a long-term management strategy for used nuclear fuel in Canada. In current practice, once nuclear fuel products are removed from reactors, they are safely stored at licensed facilities located where fuel is produced. However, long-term planning requires the development of a safe and secure storage and transportation system for these products.

After the NWMO conducted a three-year collaborative study with over 1000 citizens, Adaptive Phase Management (APM) was identified as a suitable management framework, as it incorporated a high level of flexibility and adaptability into the decision-making process. In 2007, the federal government approved the APM approach and gave the NWMO the mandate to implement it. The NWMO’s next task was to engage citizens in designing a site selection process for “an informed and willing community” to host the management facilities in a deep geological repository. The goal was to ensure that the implementation of the APM accurately reflected their values, concerns and expectations at every step of the way.



To continue and strengthen its dialogue with Canadians, Ascentum collaborated with NWMO to design, implement and report on two daylong dialogues with members of its Citizens’ Panels (recruited from community-engaged opinion leaders). Ascentum also collaborated on the design of five Public Discussion Groups to engage a broader cross-section of citizens on this issue.


The two Citizens’ Panel Dialogues engaged over 60 participants, with representation from each of the four provinces involved in Canada’s nuclear fuel cycle. Additionally, each of the five Public Discussion Groups brought together 14 to 18 randomly recruited citizens from different cities across Canada.

The engagement process revealed a number of shared values and expectations between the Citizens’ Panel and Public Discussion Groups, even though their experience and degree of familiarity with the issue varied. Both groups generally agreed that the proposed guiding principles and the site selection process were fair and appropriate. Importantly, participants provided the NWMO with many valuable ideas for refining and strengthening these processes, and clarifying the reference documents.

Additionally, participants felt very positively about their dialogue experience. Feedback through written evaluations revealed that all participants either agreed or strongly agreed that they enjoyed participating in the meeting; and that the facilitators were effective in promoting reflection and constructive, respectful dialogue. The dialogues contributed to the final site selection process for the identification of a willing and informed host community. The dialogue reports can be found on the NWMO website

Canada uses social media to engage China’s new tech-savvy generation
Friday, September 16th, 2011

In early August, it was reported that the Canadian Embassy in Beijing had used the popular Twitter-style social networking site Sina Weibo to post the entire Federal Court decision in the legal battle that led to the deportation of businessman Lai Changxing.

While governments in Canada are starting to use social media to engage Canadians in dialogue,  the creation of a Weibo account makes the embassy the first Canadian diplomatic outpost to use social media to speak directly to local citizens in another country. Although the embassy in Washington D.C. has a Twitter account, it is used to communicate with expatriate Canadians living and working in the United States. The Sina Weibo account, on the other hand, is used to speak directly with Chinese people and avoid the filter of China’s official, state-controlled media.

“We [diplomats] are under tremendous pressure to innovate and to really understand who our audience is. We’re pretty convinced that reaching out to this group of largely young people who are interested in the world and interested in Canada relates directly to what we’re doing here,” Canada’s ambassador to Beijing, David Mulroney, said in an interview. The 56-year-old career diplomat said the online interaction with ordinary Chinese citizens was now “the single most important tool we have in understanding what this emerging generation in China is all about.” 

Sina Weibo offers the embassy a chance to listen to and interact with Chinese citizens in a way that wasn’t possible before, by using social media to: determine what’s important to ordinary Chinese citizens, and the new tech-savvy generation; create mutual understanding and explore shared values; and to possibly change the perception of ‘brand Canada’ in the minds of Chinese citizens. There are risks as well, however, in letting government officials interact so freely with Chinese internet users. Education and training of embassy staff, as well as a social media strategy, are critical to ensuring the success of this approach.

While the embassy’s creation of a Sina Weibo account was hardly revolutionary in Beijing, it was indeed revolutionary for the Government of Canada in how it engages with foreign nationals beyond our borders.  The United States and United Kingdom have social media presences for the vast majority of their foreign missions. Could this be the beginning of a new and similar approach to public diplomacy for Canada?

– Stephan Telka -

On the Government of India’s ‘Framework and Guidelines for Use of Social Media’
Friday, September 9th, 2011

In the spirit of the “back to school” season, I’d like to share an example of a social media strategy that we can learn a few things from. Recently, the Government of India’s Department of Information Technology (DIT) released a draft of the “Framework and Guidelines for Use of Social Media by Government Organizations.” What’s even more interesting is that this document has been circulated for public consultation. The opportunity to provide feedback is open until the end of this month.

What strikes me most about this strategy is its robustness – it is not simply a declaration to support social media use. Rather, it seems to provides government organizations with a detailed strategy for conducting productive engagement with their stakeholders through social media. After reading through the document, there were three things that I especially liked:

1. The strategy articulates the underlying challenges associated with integrating social media into government practices:

“While at a personal level, the uptake and usage of such media is gaining rapid popularity, use and utility of such media for official purpose remain ambiguous. Many apprehensions remain including, but not limited to issues related to authorization to speak on behalf of department/agency, technologies and platform to use to communicate, scope of engagement, creating synergies between different channels of communication, compliance with existing legislations, etc.”

Understanding these complexities is essential for anyone hoping to leverage social media in a truly strategic way. This is especially relevant for government, as there will be strict protocol around corporate communications.

2. The strategy does not ignore the essentials. Determining “who, what, when, where and why” is always a critical first step to identifying your social media needs, expectations and limitations. This may seem like a no-brainer, but overlooking these fundamental questions (e.g. targeting the wrong audience, developing irrelevant content) is often at the root of unsuccessful social media campaigns.

3. The strategy speaks to some important nuances around social media. Perhaps the most important is the recognition that “social media is literally a 24/7 task… [so] the extant rules and regulations of media interaction do not fully apply to them.” In fact, the relentless pace of activity occuring on social media platforms (e.g. news can spread instantaneously and exponentially; people will expect instant updates and responses) makes it a unique, and often more demanding, channel for citizen-government interaction. The DIT also emphasizes the need for social media monitoring and analytics, which can help organizations increase their outreach overall by utilizing key data around online activity.

I’ve just glanced over what I think are some interesting features of this strategy, so I’m hoping that you take the time to look over it in more detail. Please visit to download a copy.

Social Media and Democracy (and One Really Interesting Example)
Friday, July 22nd, 2011

In a recent article entitled “Are Facebook, Twitter Fostering Civic Engagement?”, Emily Badger provides a useful narrative of the debate on whether social media strengthens or weakens democracy. To narrow her scope, she focuses on the impact in countries that are already considered democratic, like Canada and the U.S.

Those who suggest that social media hinders democracy often point to a phenomena that has been termed “slacktivism” (“slacker” + “activism”). This results in minimal, “feel good” measures of support for an issue/ cause for the purpose of personal satisfaction and social capital.

To be clear, I don’t think that claims of “slacktivism” are entirely unfounded. We all know how easy it is to “like” a person, issue/ cause or organization on Facebook. And statements like, “…so what if Barack Obama’s Twitter Feed  has nearly 9 million followers? How many of them called their representative to lobby for his health care bill?” do reflect the gap between clicking a button and taking real political action. However, I do think that there are some important nuances to be mindful of when thinking about the real value of social media.

In the article, Emily Badger refers to Lee Rainie’s (Director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project) notion of “engagement as a spectrum.” He suggests that “we want lurkers to become commenters, and commenters to become forwarders, and forwarders to start knocking on their neighbour’s doors… If social media helps move any of those people a little further down that line, isn’t that increasing engagement…” So maybe all I’ve done to support my local MP is join his Facebook group. But what if my friends see this on their news feed, and a few of them decide to do the same, or even more? And what if this process replicates and builds further through their networks? In this context, I don’t think that the impact of the online social network can be understated.

Before I go, I also want to highlight something that I found really interesting. Part of the Obama administration’s digital engagement strategy is the “White House White Board.” This is a series of short (3-4 minutes), YouTube-hosted videos of well-known, senior public servants explaining some of President Obama’s major policy initiatives. Wouldn’t it be great to see something like this here in Canada?

– Tristan Eclarin -

Kathleen Petty and Fostering Dialogue in Canadian Media
Tuesday, July 12th, 2011

At the end of June, one of the most familiar voices in political circles signed off as the host of Canada’s longest running political program, The House. Kathleen Petty, a veteran CBC reporter, is known for creating a space where personal attacks, guests talking over one another, and reading unchallenged from talking points were not tolerated.

As she reflected back recently on her five years as host, Petty shared some interesting insights on the kind of conversation she was trying to foster (emphasis my own):

“I didn’t think we were really asking for much. If, in response to a question, a politician hesitated, even a little, I was reasonably confident that the answer required some thought, instead of tired talking points that require none. That in Ottawa is a victory. And that is, in my view, a problem. We talk AT each other, not WITH each other. We keep score, assign penalties, and generally treat politics as a sport. But as sports go, politics might be a great a game for participants, but not spectators or listeners. I sense a great disconnect. Why don’t Canadians vote? Perhaps, because we’re not treating them as participants – but as spectators.”

Petty was clearly trying to foster dialogue, which according to the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation, “is a process that allows people…to share their perspectives and experiences with one another about difficult issues we tend to debate about or avoid entirely…Dialogue is not about judging, weighing or making decisions, but about understanding and learning. Dialogue dispels stereotypes, builds trust and enables people to be open to perspectives that are very different from their own.” It is one of the key ingredients to changing the way we tackle some of the most pressing public policy issues in Canada.

It is my hope that the kind of conversations Petty started will continue after her departure for Calgary, and continue to influence greater political discourse in Ottawa and beyond.

– Stephan Telka -

A short history of crowdsourcing
Friday, June 24th, 2011

You’ve probably heard of “crowdsourcing” – a way for organizations to solve tough challenges by tapping-into the knowledge of their broad communities.While social media and web technologies provide governments, businesses and other organizations with tools to crowdsource more rapidly and collaboratively, crowdsourcing itself isn’t new.

In a great blog, DesignCrowd researched some of the most well known examples of crowdsourcing.  They think the first case could date all the way back to 1714 in England.  And, of all the examples they describe, it’s this one – the invention of the Marine Pocket Clock – that I find the most interesting.  Here’s the story.

1714: The Longitude Prize

In 1714, sailors in the British navy had a problem.  The motion of a ship through the waves meant that traditional clocks with a pendulum couldn’t keep accurate time, which they needed to for navigation purposes.  If they didn’t know where they were, captains and their unlucky crews could sail right into reefs or other dangers.

The Admiralty couldn’t find a solution so, in perhaps the first example of crowdsourcing, they issued a challenge to the public.  For a prize of £20,000 (US $4.7 million in today’s money), everyday citizens were asked for their solutions to this tough problem.

And it worked!  The winning response was received from a Mr. John Harrison, the son of a carpenter.

What does this tell us?

I really like this story because it shows some of the fundamental principles behind crowdsourcing:

  1. People outside an organization are willing to help solve a problem
  2. Organizations don’t have all the answers… sometimes they need to leverage the knowledge of people outside
  3. Even the most technical and seemingly impossible problems can be solved, and from the most unlikely sources

While the term “crowdsourcing” is new, the idea that organizations can look outside for help has a long and interesting history.

– Ellis Westwood –

Note: My thanks to DesignCrowd for the original blog that inspired this one.

Gmail and GSA – one giant step forward for government
Friday, June 17th, 2011

I am a big fan of the Government Services Agency or GSA in the US.  Canada’s equivalent is Public Works.  GSA have been early adopters and supporters of social media with but now are on the brink of a giant step forward for government.  They are moving to Gmail.  Think of the cost savings, the collaboration options, the bottomless in-box (for all intents), but also a recognition that web based makes sense.

Contrast GSA’s innovation with government departments here in Canada that use antiquated browsers (IE 6) and Lotus Notes as a major email platform.  I know, Lotus Notes.  GSA’s decision is one to be commended.  

One of the funny parts of this move is that some believe that this will make the more attractive to younger employees.  What is amuses me is that younger staff assume that this is the way that it works. It is their expectation that they should be using today’s technologies. However they are in for a surprise with blocked access to Facebook, Youtube, and Twitter, and are shocked and appalled at zero blogging and a 6-12 month approval lag for a wiki.

It just shows that government can be innovative when it choses to do so.  GSA is a shinning beacon for other government departments, agencies or ministries to follow, on either side of the 49th parallel.


Using NVivo to truly understand participants’ views and ideas
Monday, June 13th, 2011

One of Ascentum’s pubic involvement tools is the Choicebook – a deliberative experience where participants learn about issues, tough questions, and recommend options or choices. These are built into larger engagement processes that may include in-person events and other online tools, like crowdsourcing. Depending on the engagement objectives, participants can be asked a variety of open- and close-ended questions, in a Choicebook resulting in the collection of reams of quantitative and qualitative data for analysis.

While we use SPSS to analyze our quantitative results, the thousands of words of text that we collect through open-ended questions is analyzed using a specialized tool called NVivo. As an analyst, I use both tools to help dissect and understand the views of the publics we engage. During a recent project, I was responsible for reading through 85,335 words of comments (about the same length as the second Harry Potter book, “Chamber of Secrets”), contributed by over 850 participants. Deploying software like NVivo allows me to ensure that participant feedback can be analyzed and presented in a systematic way.

But, NVivo is just a tool.  Getting true insights from qualitative data is as much about process and how the tool is used.  Here is how I approach analysis:

  1. For each open text question (for example, “Share a positive experience you’ve had with a government centre”), I import a Word document containing all of the responses.
  2. After reading a response, I can highlight certain elements of a response (e.g. “agents are very knowledgeable” or “for me, it’s about quick and easy renewal of my permits”) and drop them into ‘buckets’ I’ve created, which are known in the program as ‘nodes’.
  3. After analyzing (or ‘coding’) about 20 responses, I can get a sense of the themes arising (“knowledgeable staff” or “quick service”), and can start creating sub-themes or sub-nodes (“quick permit renewals” and “quick processing of applications”).

It’s almost like using a handful of coloured highlighters to classify data. The program not only allows me to get a sense of recurring themes, it provides me with a way of quantifying qualitative data in real time (“the most recurring theme when participants spoke about their positive experiences in the government information centre was the breadth of knowledge of the staff, mentioned 83 times.”)

It gives me a true sense of what the majority is saying, without losing the views of the minority. Participant feedback can then be neatly presented, and enhanced through the use of charts, to get a sense of the relative popularity of themes and quotations, to illustrate these themes (and ensure that the voice of those engaged finds its way into our client’s reports).

– Stephen Telka -

@ascentum tweets of the week
Friday, June 3rd, 2011

Here are just some the Twitter posts and links that we’d like to pass on from this week.  You can find us on Twitter at

  • Quote: Calgary Mayor @nenshi “we make better decisions when we involve people in our decision making”
  • Retweet: @Healthy_Weights After a break for #elxn41, Canada’s first national dialogue on childhood obesity is back! #healthyweights
  • News: We agree. Now’s a great time to engage Canadians in a public dialogue on the Senate & ways to make it more effective.
  • @ascentum blog: How to produce same-day reports for in-person dialogues that will seem, to participants, like magic!

How to produce same-day reports for in-person dialogues that will seem, to participants, like magic!
Friday, May 27th, 2011

It’s always important, at key points in a public involvement process, to produce written reports for participants on what the sponsor has heard and how their input will be used.  This presents a clear “return on participation” to those involved – or, in other words, why it’s been worth their time and effort to take part.

These reports can be different in style, content and format, depending on their purpose.  Sometimes, they will be analytic and will only be available several weeks or months afterwards, once data collected has been carefully reviewed and assessed.

Other times, “what was heard” descriptive summaries are all that is required and these can be produced in shorter periods of time.

For some in-person dialogues, it’s possible to produce a written report for participants even before they even leave the event at the end of the day.  This can really provide them with tangible evidence of what has been accomplished.

Here’s how:

  1. Before the dialogue, start preparing a draft template for the report.  The background, objectives, list of expected participants and overview of the dialogue can all be written in advance.
  2. Create outlines for the report sections that will be completed by the facilitation team during the event.  This can include sub-headings, bullets or tables to display key points and summaries.
  3. Before the event, make arrangements with a printing company at or very close to the dialogue venue to have copies of the report printed quickly.  Make sure to give them the expected number of participants and outline delivery plans to have the report copies brought to the venue.
  4. At the event, the facilitation team takes notes and works through health and lunch breaks to analyze this data and enter the key points directly in the pre-developed report template.
  5. In the final health break of the day, send an electronic copy of the report to the printing company.  This draft will contain a summary of the dialogue up to this final break.
  6. Distribute the preliminary report copies to participants as they leave, explaining that a final report will be distributed in the following weeks.  This version will contain the results of any final discussions that occur between when the preliminary report is sent for printing and the end of the event.
  7. Following the event, distribute the final version of the report to participants.  Email may work best for this.

Producing quick reports for in-person events will seem like magic to participants, but it’s really the result of careful planning and preparation before the event even happens.

Twitter, Dialogue and #elxn41
Friday, May 13th, 2011

Here at Ascentum, we’re really interested in how people are using social media to connect, get involved, and engage in dialogue on issues that matter to them.

That’s why I volunteered to be part of a small team led by digital guru Mark Blevis (@MarkBlevis) that looked at how people were using Twitter on the night of Canada’s 2011 federal election.

In space provided by The Canadian Press (thanks @CdnPress_Ott!) we spent a fun evening together following the posts, unfolding events and the stream on Twitter related to the election.

We used a Canadian social media monitoring tool called Sysomos to find and follow the traffic.  Using a powerful and customized search, we were able to pinpoint and track posts that mentioned any one of over 100 keywords or criteria.  For a detailed analysis of results, I’d recommend visiting Mark’s ongoing research at

Lots of traffic, but less dialogue

That night, I was excited to see the high level of interest, buzz and traffic about the election on Twitter.  At the end of the night, we measured a total of 90,150 election tweets, from 45,075 users.  There was a community of Twitter users across Canada, and beyond, sharing the same real-time experience of democracy in action.  There was genuine engagement in the process.

What I didn’t see as much of, however, was real dialogue.  By dialogue, I don’t just mean people talking to each other.  As practitioners have observed, dialogue is to “honestly expressing perspectives, clarifying viewpoints, and developing solutions. The goal of dialogue is to deepen understanding and judgment, and to think about ways to make a difference on an issue.”

Understandably, on election night, people were more focused on news and results than policy issues.  However, even during the campaign, though, the twitter traffic on #elxn41 seemed to be more partisan than “transpartisan” – people looking beyond party politics to engage in dialogue on bigger issues of public concern.

It will definitely be interesting to see how the Twitter community continues to evolve in the future and whether members can shift the interaction to facilitate more dialogic exchange.

Mark, Stephanie and Nygel: same place next time?

– Ellis Westwood -

How we can all practice engagement to make what we do better
Monday, May 2nd, 2011

Throughout our busy project season here at Ascentum, I’ve also been working on the capstone report for my MPA degree. Through my research, I’ve learned about a wide range of policies and practices that government departments and agencies have adopted to help them build the organizational capacity needed to effectively integrate public involvement at the federal level.

However, in this blog I want to focus more on public and stakeholder involvement occurring at more local and personal levels. The reason is simple: we often see public involvement as a large-scale process that is managed at the higher levels of government. However, it can also be a sustained effort coming citizens themselves, who can use it to their own benefit to improve their everyday work and activities.

One interesting example relates to what Sophia Parker, an associate with the U.K. think tank Demos, calls “service design.” This approach provides real value for public services because it is about “understanding services from people’s perspective that actually then helps you work out how you might improve that service, how you might innovate around it.”

In a recent podcast, Ms. Parker talks about a teacher she met through her research. In collaboration with his students, the teacher developed a questionnaire that is conducted on a monthly basis to engage students with questions that truly matter to them, like “did you find the lesson boring?” and “did the teacher mark your homework on time?” Although some teachers had reasonable apprehension over the use of this survey, Ms. Parker notes that “it’s starting to generate some really powerful data… And he’s using it in a very open way; he’s not just keeping it to himself and using it to punish people. He actually gives it out to his staff and it helps them prioritize how to allocate resources, how to use their time properly and so on.” And since the questionnaire is conducted regularly, it is considered to be “part of the service instead of an additional set of activities.” You can listen to the entire podcast at

Among many things, this case shows that citizens shouldn’t think of public involvement in an entirely passive manner (i.e. “when will I be consulted on this issue/policy/program?”). If we focus on the goal of improvement, then public involvement isn’t just about being consulted; it’s also about doing consulting – at different levels and in different ways – to make a real impact on our everyday lives.

– Tristan Eclarin -

Social media tackling obesity one picture at a time
Thursday, April 14th, 2011

Studies and studies time and again report that we as a society are growing – and it’s not just in numbers I am talking about. A joint study between Statistics Canada and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducted between 2007 and 2009 concluded that approximately 1 in every 4 Canadians are obese, compared with nearly 1 in every 3 Americans.

Now I know that life’s stresses can get in the way of eating healthy – but what if I told you that a new social media tool can help make it easier for you?

A recent iPhone application – called MealSnap app and costing $2.99 – allows you to retrieve an instant calorie count just by taking a picture of your chosen food article. It works by matching the picture with a database of some 500,000 food items. Within minutes users receive a message specifying the range of calories for that food category, as well as being provided with other pertinent information such as the proteins, fat, carbs, vitamins etc.

Developed by a fitness social network named DailyBurn, users can then choose to share what they’ve eaten on Twitter or FourSquare. With the support of your peers, the idea is you’ll be held accountable for what you eat and encouraged to choose right.

Furthermore, users are able to keep a record of the food they devour as the pictures get stored into a ‘visual food diary’. As many studies report that people who record what they eat are more likely to lose weight, this method is a whole lot easier than actually taking the time to write down everything you consume.

This being said, naturally this app has its limitations, namely that it can fail to identify food correctly at times and that the calorie count for each food category may be too broad to be useful. However, users are permitted to rate the accuracy of each classification, thus improving the validity of each read-out.

Now I don’t know about you, but if this app is telling me that the salad at the restaurant has more calories than the burger (which you laugh but this is sometimes the case), I will gladly oblige and eat the burger.

– Cassandra Tavares -

“When you get the public involved … you get way better results”. Strengthening Healthcare in Southeast Ontario
Wednesday, March 30th, 2011

“When you get the public involved … you get way better results.  When you leave it up to a politician … it takes too much money; it takes too long; and they’ll probably get it wrong!” (Lou Rinaldi, Ontario MPP for Northumberland-Quinte West)

When Ontario MPP Lou Rinaldi opened a media event with this tongue-in-cheek observation last week, he certainly got a good reception from the audience, ranging from nodding heads to roars of laughter.

He was in Belleville, along with staff from Ascentum, for the official launch of the Community Engagement for the South East Local Health Integration’s “Clinical Services Roadmap” initiative – a project to involve communities across the region in helping design measures for improving the way health care services are organized and delivered locally.

Local Health Integration Networks (LHINs) were created by the Ontario Government six years ago, as vehicles to bring a local perspective to health system planning.  Part of their role, which they have taken on enthusiastically, is to “engage” or involve members of the public in setting directions and making important decisions about health care.

Ascentum’s excited to be partnering with the team at the South East LHIN on the project.  We’ve worked with them to develop an engagement website and a series of deliberative workbooks to gather informed feedback from local residents, health care workers and community groups.  Through these engagement tools, participants can learn about issues ranging from mental health and addictions to restorative care, and engage in the same tough choices that the LHIN and hospital staff need to make to design a system that meets people’s different needs in different communities.

At the end of the project, the goal is to have plans that truly reflect the values, priorities and views of the local community, as well as clinical evidence and good practice.

And, you can get involved as well!  If you live in southeastern Ontario, or have friends or family there, you can help us spread the word about the project.  It’s a great chance to influence local decision making on heath care – services they are almost certain to need, whether it’s today or tomorrow…  Just go to:

Ellis Westwood and Stephan Telka

@ascentum tweets of the week
Friday, March 25th, 2011

Here are just some the Twitter posts and links that we’d like to pass on from this week.  You can find us on Twitter at

Shaw’s Customer Conversations on Data Use. Great, but what about online tools…?
Tuesday, March 1st, 2011

Shaw Communications has just launched a great customer consultation to hear their views on internet use and fees.  There are 35 in-person dialogues but, ironically, limited ways to take part online.  We think they can do better.

The situation
In the last few weeks, there’s been an interesting public debate about the internet – how Canadians think their internet services providers (ISPs like Bell or Rogers) should limit or charge them for how they use the web.

This was sparked by a controversial CRTC ruling on so-called “Usage Based Billing”.  If #UBB is something new to you, CBC has a great 2-minute explanation here.

The CRTC’s decision was questioned by some Canadians, and 416,207 of them signed a petition on asking for the decision to be reversed.

Shaw’s response
Shaw, one of Canada’s leading telecom companies, seems to have taken note of the public’s concerns and has launched a consultation with its customers to hear their views on usage and fees.

I think Shaw deserves credit for starting this conversation.  More companies could be engaging their customer to co-create new programs, policies, products or decisions.  Ultimately, the quality and utility – both for Shaw and its customers – will depend on the process design, I think it’s a promising campaign.

Bringing the conversation online
The Shaw conversations are described here.  People can take part in one of 35 in-person dialogues, send Shaw an email, or call a service rep.

For a customer engagement that’s really about how people use the internet, I think these participation streams should be complemented by more online dialogue.  Shaw could be hosting a discussion board or idea forum on its website – similar to what the Government of Canada did for its consultations on the Digital Economy Strategy.  This would foster a broader conversation, and allow people to take part who can’t attend face-to-face events.

It seems to me that more online engagement would better fit a conversation about the internet and how Canadians use it.

What do you think?  Would you take part?  What would you tell Shaw and other participants?

– Ellis Westwood -

@ascentum tweets of the week
Friday, February 25th, 2011

Here are just some the Twitter posts and links that we’d like to pass on from this week.  You can find us on Twitter at

  • Study: When governments share info, people feel better about their community (via @EllnMllr)
  • Resource: If govt consultation online interests you @transportgovuk’s latest is interesting: (RT@lesteph)
  • Resource: For all you facilitators out there: The art of giving instructions (via@davidkahane)
  • @Ascentum Blog: Recovery in Haiti – Using the Power of Dialogue (by @stephantelka)
  • News: House of Commons approves Twitter, Facebook apps for MPs #Gov2.0 #OpenGov (via @mdassinger)

Recovery in Haiti – Using the Power of Dialogue
Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011

One year ago, Haiti was shattered by one of the most devastating natural disasters in its modern history. The 7.0 magnitude earthquake destroyed an already fragile country, killing 300,000 people (roughly the size of London, Ontario), leveling towns, villages and cities, including the capital Port-au-Prince, and chipping away further at the spirit of the nation.

In recent Globe and Mail article on the disaster, a few quotations from development experts jumped out at me about how positive change can come about in the country:

“The international community should go back to a minimalist approach to Haiti and let Haitians assume full control of their own affairs. But this starts from Haitians, inside and outside, reinventing the brand.
Chalmers Larose, political scientist and Haiti expert, University of Quebec in Montreal

The goal of the donor community should be to put itself out of the Haiti aid business. That’s why we are supporting dynamic organizations like YouthBuild, Iveneo and the International Medical Corps, which are enabling small businesses, bolstering job creation and empowering Haitians with life skills and job training”
Gary Edson, CEO, Clinton Bush Haiti Fund

As some who’s passionate about public involvement, I do see a role for dialogue as Haiti stumbles along the road to recovery:

  • The provision of needs through dialogue: The most immediate need is to ensure the basic daily needs of the nearly 1.3 million Haitians left homeless and now living in slums scattered across the country. The nearly 10,000 non-governmental organizations operating in the country need to enter into dialogue amongst themselves and with government authorities (regular coordination meetings, prioritization of aid projects, developing handover timelines, etc…) to avoid duplication of services and gradually hand off service provision to Haitians.
  • Economic empowerment: Haitians need to feel a sense of ownership over their lives and wellbeing. With the freedom to pursue their own economic endeavours, through basic training, skills development and microcredit, in tandem with the elimination of red tape, attention can gradually be put toward improving community life and wellbeing. It is from here that more in-depth dialogue and deliberation on Haitian identity and nation-building can take place.
  • Civic engagement: With the most recent presidential election results mired in scandal, and the ongoing challenges the government faces in bringing about change, Haitian respect in their democratic institutions is waning (assuming scarce resources of time are already being dedicated to engage in the broader community when access to food, clean water and shelter is a daily struggle). Scarce central government and donor funds need to be dedicated to engaging neighbourhood populations in reconstruction and the provision of care. By engaging recipients of care at the local level, Haitians will feel a greater sense of empowerment and engagement.

As the thirteenth post-disaster month approaches, it is clear that Haiti requires involved, sustainable solutions.

– Stephan Telka -

Online deliberation – It’s all about the possibilities!
Wednesday, February 16th, 2011

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…

  1. “The more a forum is characterized by a diversity of opinion the more deliberation will occur between the participants.
  2. “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.

– Tristan Eclarin -

A Resolution and a Commitment
Wednesday, January 5th, 2011

It is never too late to make a New Year’s resolution.  We at AmericaSpeaks and Ascentum thought it might be helpful if we proposed a resolution focused on Open Government that federal managers can adopt to start the year off right: Resolve to make a specific, concrete commitment to enhance citizen participation in your agency.

(Note: Ascentum and AmericaSpeaks are partners in offering online public engagement services to agencies in the US Government in support of the White House’s Open Government Directive)

Public commitments can be scary, exciting, and newsworthy, but the healthy pressure they generate often proves transformative.  This “open government resolution” includes two elements: a pledge and a relationship.

An example of a pledge might be an organizational commitment to public participation, perhaps a commitment to two large-scale public participation projects in a year.  It could mean capacity building and training of staff in public participation theory and techniques.  It could also cover the development of an Agency framework or standards for public participation.  It can be many things.  But it has to be clearly articulated, or rather, pledged.

The second part of the pledge centers on a relationship.  This is the relationship between your Agency and the public, whether it is individual citizens, nonprofits, stakeholder organizations, academic institutions, small businesses, or multi-national corporations.  Public participation builds relationships of real value to an agency.  This isn’t merely democratic governance theory; relationships established through public participation generate public support for actions an agency takes.  Public participation can ensure that new policies and programs are sustainable and robust because the public’s perspectives have been considered and taken into account.

This isn’t devolution of decision-making to the public.  Rather, agencies must incorporate public input into the decision-making lifecycle along with other inputs and evidence.

The decision-making lifecycle, from our perspective, is the cornerstone of public participation.  By understanding the current position within the decision-making lifecycle, you can better decide where and when it is appropriate to ask the public to make a contribution.

A key component of the decision-making lifecycle should be established at the outset: true participation cannot occur after a new policy has been finalized. Faux participation impedes the positive momentum of genuine participation as the last conclusion a policy maker wants to convey is that citizen perspectives don’t matter.  From time to time, we see requests for public input made in instances where a decision has already been made.  This is more a communications or public affairs effort to spread the word disguised as an opportunity for public input. Of course, ultimately, an agency always makes the decision.  Accountability always remains with government. However, citizens and stakeholders can always make a contribution to different points in a decision-making lifecycle.

The Department of Lawns and Gardens

Let’s illustrate the process of identifying potential contributors at other stages of the decision-making process using an example at the fictitious Department of Lawns and Gardens (DLG).

DLG wants to implement a new national regulation on lawn watering.  Scientific surveillance data from every region of the country has shown that the use of water over the summer months is having a negative affect on the regional, state, and national water fresh water supply.  Policymakers are exploring new regulations on residential and commercial lots.  This will not affect the agriculture industry.

So let’s see where this DLG policy sits within the decision-making lifecycle.  It is clear that officials have moved beyond monitoring and have defined the issue with a degree of specificity.  The Department also has collected a wealth of data on the issue, and believes public input on these first three stages is not required.  The Department has formed a Public Participation Committee (PPC) and they are thinking through the plan for public participation across the decision-making lifecycle.

Pre-Decision Participation

Establish Criteria To Inform Development of Alternatives

The Department’s PPC decides to convene a series of panels with experts from across the country, including a healthy mix of academics and government scientists.  The intent of this session is to focus on generative dialogue by asking, “What are the key criteria for developing lawn watering regulations that are flexible to meet our regional needs and local variation?”  The DLG will then analyze the outcomes of these conversations to assist in developing alternatives.

Develop Alternatives For Broad Consultation

Based on its external expertise and the input received from experts, the PPC then decides to develop and articulate three different alternatives.  This was a difficult decision, but the PPC felt that it would be a better use of resources to engage the public during the evaluation of alternatives and in the implementation stage.  Having been trained, they know that they must present a balanced positioning of the alternatives, including arguments for and against each position.  The public would cry fowl if the presentation of alternatives were skewed toward one position or another.

Evaluate Alternatives

The Department and the PPC feel strongly that a national conversation on lawn watering regulations is necessary to choose the correct path forward. The PPC believes that residential and commercial perspectives must be gathered in large-scale, integrated conversations.  They decide to use a series of networked and 21st Century Town Meetings to identify which alternative would be the best fit for all.  These sessions are to be held in 10 different locations, each of which will include 50 to 2,000 participants.  All sessions will be linked to the primary session to be held in Las Vegas, NV.  The participants must represent the diverse cultural and social-economic perspectives of their region.

Participants would spend 4 hours hearing about the three different options and engaging in deliberative dialogue.  Participants would discuss the benefits and drawbacks of the different approaches and what each option would mean to them personally with others at their tables.  Table conversations are submitted and synthesized by a centralized team of thematic and process experts. Participants would then use electronic keypads to automatically register their perspective at different points in the conversation.

The PPC knows that organizing this process would be a lot of work.  However the outcome would provide a meaningful sense of what participants believe the most feasible alternative is.  The PPC also knows that participants’ preferences might include small modifications or dramatic, fundamental changes to the alternatives under consideration. But the PPC understands how important this process is.  If participants reject the alternatives, then the lawn watering regulation would not be viewed as acceptable when launched nationally.  If, on the other hand, participants endorse an alternative, then there would be a good chance that it would have national buy-in.

Closing the Decision Making Model

Making the Decision

The leadership of the Department of Lawns and Gardens feels at ease when the time comes to actually make a decision.  The PPC has provided them with a solid foundation of input from their public participation initiatives to help inform policy.  A particular alternative was selected, but it was accompanied by a commitment to public participation once the regulation came into force.

Implementing the Decision

One of the key pieces of feedback the PPC received was that the public is passionate about this issue and that it wants to continue contributing to lawn watering regulations implementation.  Participants have suggested that residential and commercial interests could share their best practices and experiences for conservation.  The PPC considers this and suggests to the Agency leadership that an Idea Crowdsourcing campaign be launched once the regulation comes into force.

The public would use the crowdsourcing tool to share their ideas and tips on working with the lawn watering regulation.  Others would read, comment and vote up or down the ideas they liked the best.  The PPC also receives permission to provide awards to the top 10 ideas.  These awards would take popularity into account, but would also weigh the PPC’s expert assessment regarding which ideas could have the greatest impact in making the regulation a success.

Evaluate the Decision

The PPC advises the Department’s leadership that a comprehensive formative and summative evaluation of the regulation should take place five years from its launch.  This would serve as a public commitment to evaluate the regulation’s effectiveness and to consider whether it had had any unintended outcomes.  The evaluation would be undertaken by external experts and reported back to the Department’s leadership through the PPC.

Is This Possible?

The Department of Lawns and Gardens is patently fictitious, but an agency commitment to public participation isn’t.  Many government agencies in the US and around the world could undertake a project like this with considerable success.  This type of process – one that generates sustainable and robust decision-making – does not happen accidentally.  Two ingredients are essential.  The first is trained, resourced staff with a mandate for public participation.  The second is an agency public participation framework with standards for engaging the public.  A framework must be adapted to the agency’s specific context and should address 9 key questions.  What are these 9 key questions, you ask?

Our Commitment

Our commitment to you, borne of an interest in establishing a relationship between ourselves (AmericaSpeaks and Ascentum) and our visitors, is to publish a blog post elaborating on each of the nine questions here at  We hope you’ll return as we lay out our thoughts on the critical ingredients for an agency’s participation framework.  You can search for 9Qs on the site at anytime to see the latest blog posts on the subject.  We hope you’ll visit, comment, and share our 9Qs.

Your Resolution

It is never too late to decide on your New Year’s resolutions.  We have made the commitment to you to publish our 9Qs.  We only ask one thing of you: Consider how making a commitment to public participation could be the next step in your agency’s contribution to Open Government.

– Joseph Peters -

@ascentum tweets of the week
Friday, December 17th, 2010

Here are just some the Twitter posts and links that we’d like to pass on from this week.  You can find us on Twitter at

  • New Ascentum blog post: Adding the right images to your engagement website (so people don’t ignore them!)
  • Resources: Tools for the institutionalization of public engagement (PDF) #edem (Retweet from @participatory)
  • Resources: 24 ways to keep your blog interesting to you and your readers (Retweet from @GovNewMedia)
  • Resources: Nice blog! This is a nice model for #engagement sites, too. “Landing Pages: A Great Infographic” (RT @scottica)
  • @ascentum news: @elliswestwood Briefing Management at the Public Health Agency of Canada this am. Exciting online/social media #engagement on obesity to come in 2011!

Adding the right images to your engagement website (so people don’t ignore them!)
Monday, December 13th, 2010

Think generic stock images help you “jazz up” your website?  In fact, users don’t even notice them…

We’ve all seen generic or stock images on websites.  The teamwork image of joined hands; the cheerful executive pumping his or her fist while using a laptop; business people embracing each other like they’ve just won the lottery.  These types or stock or generic photos are often added to websites to “jazz them up” or make them more user friendly.  But do they actually work?

According to research by web usability guru, Jakob Nielson, users don’t even notice them.  Based on eyetracking studies, he has examined how people view and interact visually with web pages.  Here are some of his recent findings:

  • Posed stock images of “generic” people or models are almost completely ignored by users
  • Instead, users are focused on finding the text content they are looking for
  • Photos can add to websites when they are of “real people” like employees or participants

This is important to know when designing your next online public engagement website.  It should be designed with the user participant at the centre, allowing them to access the content information they are looking for, and to take part, as simply as possible.

Any photos on the site should be of real people – like the head of the host organization, staff involved, or even of some actual participants who have taken part in the engagement.  These images will be more genuine and effective if finished without glossy effects that can easily make it seem generic.

However, engagement sites should still be content focused.  Participants want to quickly learn about the project, read how their contribution will be used, and to take part.  And that’s the true objective for the site and process.

P.S. I know you’ve probably paid more attention to the generic team image on this page, but according to Nielson’s research, only because I’ve pointed it out!

– Ellis Westwood -

@ascentum tweets of the week
Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

Here are just some the Twitter posts and links that we’d like to pass on from this week.  You can find us on Twitter at

  • Resource: Everyone bookmark this! RT @nonlinear_tweet: RT @DoctorJones: New Canadians stats on social media usage.
  • Case Study:Local Practices in Online Engagement” from US National League of Cities #municipal #engagement
  • Fun: Demo of our voting keypads = fun analysis of icebreaker questions on people’s favourite royal couple / gender!
  • @Ascentum News: Doing a demo of our voting keypads at GoC with “Who’s your favourite Royal couple?” as an icebreaker. Interested to see results by gender!
  • Resource: Canadian Medical Ass. Journal: The Need for Public Engagement in Choosing Health Priorities

Hear the Stories, Change the Practice, Change Patient Experiences…
Friday, November 26th, 2010

The best way to improve services is to listen to people’s experiences and their ideas, then use these as inputs for change….

We’re really pleased to be working with The Change Foundation on a new public engagement initiative.

If you’ve never heard of the Foundation before, I’d encourage you to learn more about them.  They are an Ontario think tank whose mission is to improve the health-care experience of individuals and caregivers as they move in, out of, and across the health-care system.  They do great work and are staffed by a dedicated and creative team.

Making the case for public engagement can be hard.  Sometimes, people have trouble seeing the benefits or understanding the need to talk to stakeholders the public directly.  From our perspective, though, it’s the people who use or even deliver programs or services who are best situated to identify problems and potential solutions.

We’re working with The Change Foundation to design new ways to help them engage caregivers and individual patients using social media and other involvement tools or techniques.

The reason we are partnering with them in this effort comes straight from their new strategic plan, and offers one of the clearest and most powerful cases for public engagement I think I’ve ever read:

We’ve set our sights on improving people’s experiences as they move through Ontario’s health-care system. Instead of being shuffled back and forth, people need to be connected to quality care and support wherever they are, clear about whom to turn to and talk to, assured of what comes next.

We will listen to the lived realities of caregivers and their loved ones who need help and health care.  We’ll hear–and heed–what their experience tells us must be done.  We’ll engage with the stewards, stakeholders and users of our health-care system, sharing what we’ve learned on the ground, using evidence, analysis and argument to incite change.

And it won’t come at all if we don’t change the debate, change the practice, change the experience.

The basic message is this.  You can’t make a change unless you understand people’s experiences and their ideas for improvement.

– Ellis Westwood -

@ascentum tweets of the week
Friday, November 19th, 2010

Here are just some the Twitter posts and links that we’d like to pass on from this week.  You can find us on Twitter at

  • Ascentum blog: “Fostering International Dialogue and Youth Engagement in Laos
  • Study: “Online public participation most effective among young people who are already online
  • Resource: For a great explanation of why #PublicEngagement is so important, read The Change Foundation’s Strategic Plan [Ascentum client]
  • Blog: “How can new media help civic engagement? (@Afine @leifutne @jdlasica)
  • Retweet: RT @INgageNetworks: Recommended: “Using Social Media Platforms to Amplify Public Health Messaging #hcsm

Fostering International Dialogue and Youth Engagement in Laos
Thursday, November 18th, 2010

Earlier in November, I had the honour of facilitating a dialogue and representing Canadian youth at the Vientiane Youth Leaders’ Forum in the Laotian capital of Vientiane, which took place on the sidelines of the First Meeting of States Parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions (the international ban on the production, stockpiling and use of cluster munitions). Laos is the world’s most cluster munition-afflicted country, a legacy of the Second Indochina War (Vietnam War) during which more than 2 million tonnes of ordnance were dropped over the country. Since the end of the war, more than 20,000 civilians in the country have been injured or killed by leftover munitions.

The Vientiane Youth Leaders’ Forum gathered 42 youth from around the world to engage in dialogue. The Forum organizers, Mines Action Canada, invited me to design and facilitate the final session of the week. Working closely with others on the Ascentum team (Manon Abud and Mary Pat MacKinnon) as well as the conference organizers, I designed and facilitated a generative dialogue and planning session on the Annual Plan for the newly-formed “Youth to Youth Network”.  The intention is that this network will sustain Forum momentum and relationships into the future.

Designing and facilitating the session was no walk in the park. Challenges included extremely limited time (2 hours, for a session that would normally require 4-6 hours), varying levels of English language skills, and differing political, economic and cultural realities in each of the delegates’ home countries.

To try and overcome these challenges, I met delegates in smaller groups in the days leading up to the session to review the process, and answer any lingering questions. I also identified ‘champions’ – delegates passionate enough to adopt particular action items and could encourage others to join them to discuss them further during the dialogue. By employing a modified “Open Space” format, participants were able to identify and discuss actions that were most important to them. People could take part in English or by engaging with others who spoke a different language. Dialogue was supported by three multilingual facilitators who helped foster small group dialogue. Despite the challenges of a short event, participant delegates produced and prioritized a rich list of activities on which youth across the Network should focus over the coming year, including the development of an interactive and comprehensive online space for collaboration.

– Stephan Telka -

Ascentum is hiring a Social Media Developer! Does this sound like you?
Thursday, November 4th, 2010

Ascentum is an innovative professional services firm, recognized as a Canadian leader in the field of public involvement, and we are recruiting for a full-time Social Media Developer.

Ascentum employs a variety of integrated online, social media and in-person tools, techniques and technologies to apply their philosophy of informed participation to public involvement. Through our flexible, comprehensive approach to knowledge-gathering, we aim to enrich public involvement and reveal the ideas, perspectives and values that empower our clients to make sustainable decisions on complex issues.

If you are the ideal candidate, you have a structured approach to problem solving and creative mind.  You are also able to work with Web-based technology, interpret technical documentation, develop creative client solutions, and consistently deliver exceptionally high quality work.  You are a strong team player, but are also a results-oriented self-starter, capable of demonstrating initiative and working independently. You enjoy the variety and the opportunity to continuously expand your skill and knowledge base offered by project-oriented work. Finally, you passionately believe in the importance of giving people a voice in decisions that affect them.

The full job description is available here.

We’re looking forward to hearing from you…!

Creating a Framework for a Mental Health Strategy for Canada: Assessing the Engagement Process
Friday, October 22nd, 2010

The need for robust methods of evaluating the impact of public involvement on policy and participant outcomes is widely recognized. Unfortunately, the reality is that all too often evaluation receives lip service only – being treated as afterthought and/or being grossly under-resourced. So, when Ascentum’s MPA Co-op Intern Tristan Eclarin pitched the idea of assessing the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s engagement process vis-a-vis the development of a framework to guide a pan-Canadian mental health strategy, we were keen – both  because it is such a compelling public issue and because we collaborated with the Commission on the process.

His case study – Creating a Framework for a Mental Health Strategy for Canada: Assessing the Engagement Process – examines how the design, implementation and results of Regional Stakeholder Dialogues and Public Consultations impacted the Commission’s Framework – Toward Recovery and Well-Being. The paper argues for a comprehensive assessment framework that is carefully tailored to context. To learn, more including his insights about the results of this engagement process, read on……

Creating a Framework for a Mental Health Strategy for Canada
Friday, October 22nd, 2010

Assessing the Engagement Process: A Case Study

In 2008, the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) launched a twopronged public and stakeholder engagement process to inform the development of a framework for its Mental Health Strategy for Canada initiative. This case study assesses the design, implementation and effectiveness of this engagement strategy (Regional Dialogues and Online Consultation – RDOC). Additionally, this article examines how the consultation results impacted the Commission’s framework document – Toward Recovery & Well-Being: A Framework for a Mental Health Strategy for Canada. The sources for this case study include a review of selected public participation literature, key informant interviews with MHCC senior staff and the public documents associated with the MHCC consultations.

The paper was written by Tristan Eclarin as part of his University of Victoria MPA internship with Ascentum and the views expressed do not purport to represent the views of the MHCC or Ascentum.

Professional Development at Ascentum – Reflections from Washington D.C.
Friday, October 15th, 2010

While most Canadians were enjoying their turkey dinners and beautiful autumnal colours over the recent Thanksgiving Day weekend, I was hard at work in Washington, D.C. for the first in-person session of a 6-month course on Dialogue, Deliberation and Public Engagement (DDPE). The professional-practitioner distance education program is offered through Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, California, and works with program participants to shape them into masters in the field. I am honoured to be the fourth Ascentum team member to participate in the program.

The 2010-2011 session is being facilitated by Dr. Anita Perez, who brings a wealth of experience in DDPE as Past President of the (U.S.) National Women’s Political Caucus, Lecturer at the Woodrow Wilson Institute,  and Transportation Department liaison in the White House. The bulk of our time (1.5 days) was spent working collaboratively with our facilitator and seven co-learners from across North America on our ‘capstone projects’, practical applications of course content in our home communities. The project proposals and ideas around the table were energizing – projects include a dialogue in Arizona on Senate Bill 1070 on immigration, a civic engagement project in Ottawa to bring citizens and newly elected municipal officials together to set priorities, an evaluative process in Florida to bring together stakeholders of a migrant workers community outreach centre, and a study on communicating the importance of DDPE through social media to residents of the San Francisco Bay area. My own capstone project will see me designing and facilitating a generative dialogue at the Youth Leaders Forum in Laos as Canada’s youth delegate to the First Meeting of State Parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions.

The highlight of the in-person session was a series of field visits, beginning with a conversation with Robert Marshak of the National Training Laboratories Institute on organizational development, a stop at the Library of Congress to examine rare books and documents on the origins of town hall meetings and political dialogue in the United States, and a conversation with Janet Fiero and Carolyn Lukensmeyer of AmericaSpeaks on Twenty-First Century Town Halls. These visits allowed me to learn first-hand from and engage with some of the leading thinkers in DDPE, providing rich context to my work at Ascentum.

In the coming weeks, our bi-weekly teleconference calls will continue as preparations for our capstone projects continue. In January we will gather in Santa Barbara for our second in-person session to share our projects and learn from one another. Keep posted to learn more about how my capstone project in Laos at the start of November unfolds!

How governments are using social media to join conversations, not just ‘broadcast’
Friday, October 8th, 2010

Federal, provincial and municipal governments across Canada are taking steps to use social media to communicate with and engage their publics.

The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), for example, uses social networking, microblogging, widgets and video sharing to provide information and participate in a dialogue on living healthily.  The City of Guelph is using social media to help local residents commute during an especially busy summer construction period, and give personalize help when users posted difficult experiences with roads or bus routes.

What do these examples have in common? They are based on an understanding that the public expects that government will join and participate in conversations taking place in social media spaces – not just use them simply as channels to broadcast.

In practical terms, this means that government organizations should have develop the following tools and processes to ensure that they are ready to engage in two-way communications on social media:

  1. Social Media Strategy: developed through internal dialogue and engagement, this blueprint will outline objective, desired relationships and target audiences, appropriate social media presences to meet these objectives, and performance measurement approach to assess ROI (return on investment)
  2. Monitoring Approaches: “monitoring” sounds sinister, but in the social media context is about finding and following relevant dialogues where government contribution would help participants and add value.
  3. Processes to Govern Interventions: Government organizations need to bring together traditional media and social media monitoring services, and ensure that the right tools and processes are in place to find conversations, assess whether to take part, and how.  This could include “triggers” such as incorrect factual information, or when government could help participants find services they are looking.  And, finally, bring able to post timely government contributions requires the right flexible approvals processes.

For me, this part of an exciting shift from Government 2.0, where information was made public through passive posting on websites, to Government 3.0 where governments bring personalized help and advice to people where they are on social media.

– Ellis Westwood -

The Value of Different Engagement Methods: Conversation Cafés
Friday, October 1st, 2010

Most people have some preconceived notion of what a public consultation may look like: a crowded room, people talking back and forth, and a person standing at the front fielding questions. However, meaningful engagement can be achieved in a wide variety of ways, and as a result, should look different depending on the situation.

In my last blog, I talked about Community Summits, one of the engagement methods I used recently in a course at the University of Victoria to conduct ‘simulation’ consultations.  This time, I’m shifting to another method, Conversation Cafés.

Conversation Cafés (CCs): Created in 2001 by Vicki Robin and Susan Partnow, this method has a broader purpose in relation to other engagement methods, which is to foster a culture of social cohesion and trust through open and lively dialogue between citizens. With this goal in mind, CCs are intended to be a fairly informal event- although it has some structure, the focus is on providing people with an opportunity to engage in some quality conversation and learn from others. Participation requires a high level of open-mindedness, acceptance and sincerity for other viewpoints; and there is no need for a formal agenda, consensus-building or marketing.

In contrast to other methods, the host is a full participant and does not represent any specific organization. In the simulation I conducted, I acted as the host to lead a dialogue on ‘dynamic updating’ in public deliberation. In the context of an urban planning controversy, participants discussed how conflicts among the various segments in the community could have been accounted for in the decision-making process.* Because of its highly open nature, the CC provided a suitable environment for true issue exploration, even when there are divergent viewpoints. The process is structured to encourage participation from everyone in the group, and allows them to speak freely without being interrupted. The value proposition became clearer with each subsequent round of discussion, as you could really see the conversation deepening. To learn more about CCs, you can visit

To further illustrate the wide range of engagement methods, it’s useful to mention of some of the creative things my colleagues did for their simulations:

  • One group used Playback Theatre, which takes personal stories shared by participants and uses improvisational theatre to portray the experience, and deepen the level of understanding, to the wider group. In my course, this method was used to focus on the impact of binge drinking on university student.
  • Another group used the Think Like a Genius process, which is a hands-on, strategic planning method aimed at leveraging the ‘beneath the surface’ (and often times incommunicable) ideas that individuals have. Participants collaborate to construct physical models that symbolize their creative vision. To some, this type of exercise may sound odd at first; but it has been used to engage executives from companies like IBM, McDonald’s and Procter & Gamble.

So what is the significance of these examples? It means that when you’re planning an event, you don’t have to start from scratch. If you have a good idea of what you want to accomplish and who you want to engage in the process, then these types of methods can be a valuable starting point for designing and implementing a truly effective engagement strategy.

– Tristan Eclarin -

The Value of Different Engagement Methods: Community Summits
Friday, September 24th, 2010

Most people have some preconceived notion of what a public consultation may look like: a crowded room, people talking back and forth, and a person standing at the front fielding questions. However, meaningful engagement can be achieved in a wide variety of ways, and as a result, should look different depending on the situation.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing a few examples of different methods, which I used recently in a course at the University of Victoria to conduct ‘simulation’ consultations. Please refer to The Change Handbook: The Definitive Resource on Today’s Best Methods for Engaging Whole Systems for more information.

Community Summits: Created in 2003 by Gil Steil and Mal Watlington, this is a method for aligning stakeholders around a complex issue and helping them find the common ground needed to implement real action. It often takes the form of a planning meeting, with the goal of enacting positive change within an organization or the broader community. For example, the United Way of Rhode Island engaged 700 individuals through a series of Community Summits to determine community priorities, which then helped inform the organization’s decisions around funding allocation.

For my course, I conducted a simulation of a Community Summit to address the issue of safe injection sites in Victoria, B.C. After an ‘expert’-led presentation that outlined the perspectives of the health community, police associations and local citizens, participants were divided into stakeholder groups to focus on a specific domain of the issue. After some in-depth discussion, participants were regrouped into ‘learning teams,’ comprising of at least one representative from each stakeholder group. Together, they learned about each other’s perspectives, set out goals and action steps to address the issue, and presented them to the plenary for voting. The value of the Community Summit is its focus on cross-perspective learning as a foundation for dialogue. By the end, participants had agreed upon some potential safe injection site locations and levels of service delivery.

I’ll continue this discussion in my next posting and provide more examples. In the meantime, keep in mind the value of having different engagement methods to address the wide range of issues confronting individuals, groups, organizations, and communities. Most methods have been carefully designed to achieve a certain type of outcome, and have been used in real world settings to affect change at many different levels.

– Tristan Eclarin -

Ascentum presenting at the next Social Media for Government conference
Friday, September 17th, 2010

Ascentum’s delighted to be speaking at the next Advanced Learning Institute (ALI) Social Media for Government conference in Ottawa, September 27-30.

We’ll be presenting on a recent high profile public engagement project we were involved with – the online consultation on a Digital Economy Strategy for Canada.  We’ll be describing the process design, launch, the challenges we encountered along the way, and our principal learnings, alongside the great team from Industry Canada.

Our slot is on September 29.  We’d love to see you there!

You can read more about the conference here, including how to register.

Vitalizing Democracy: Vote for the Mental Health Commission of Canada!
Tuesday, September 14th, 2010

Last year, we had the privilege of working with the Mental Health Commission of Canada as it embarked on an epic journey to develop a mental health strategy for Canada.

I say “epic” because the magnitude of this task cannot be under-estimated. Consider: the prevalence of mental illness and mental health problems in Canada (one in four Canadians will at point or another in their life struggle with mental health issues); the chronic under-funding and fragmentation of the Canadian mental health system (which is in effect a patchwork of systems held together by a mix of goodwill and duct tape); the complex constitutional context in which any reform must occur (not to mention that many social services are delivered by municipal and regional authorities) and… Well, you get the picture.

Enter Howard, Gillian and Mary – the Commission’s original Mental Health Strategy Team, and among the most dedicated people I have had the privilege of working with. Together, they rose to the challenge of catalyzing a national dialogue on this very complex issue by engaging Canada’s mental health community in 15 regional dialogues, and a far-reaching online consultation. When all was said and done, we had heard from over 2,000 individual Canadians, hundreds of stakeholder groups, and had collected enough notes to compete with War and Peace for the title of world’s longest novel. More importantly, the outcomes of this engagement process were very real: the Commission listened carefully to the voice of participants, and completely rewrote their Framework for a Mental Health Strategy for Canada.

This is why we couldn’t resist nominating the Commission for the prestigious Reinhard Mohn Prize 2011, which seeks to recognize a project that “vitalizes democracy through participation”. This is an international competition, and the Mental Health Commission of Canada is among the 20 projects shortlisted for the grand prize (among over 100 projects from around the world).

If you have a moment, please take a few minutes to visit Vitalizing Democracy website: members of the public are invited to vote for the shortlist project of their choice, and this public support will be taken into consideration in the jury’s final assessment. You will need to register to cast your vote, but it takes only a few minutes to do so.

The Commission has my vote… Please give it yours!

– Manon Abud -

How to use Smartphones to make your next in-person dialogue awesome!
Friday, September 3rd, 2010

Smartphones bring the world into users’ hands.  Web access, Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia and apps allow people to access, share and co-create knowledge in real time.

They are also powerful tools that can make in-person dialogues awesome – both in terms of generating shared information and giving participants a more engaging experience.  

And, researchers estimate that there are over 5 million Canadians with Smartphones.  They are becoming more common as tools for business and/or personal use.

Earlier this week, we read a great blog by Dwayne at called “35 Ways to Use an iPhone in a Workshop”.  Some are there for fun but there are quite a few thoughtful ways to use iPhones or other Smartphones in workshop.

Here are our favourite 5:

Camera: Use it to snap pictures of group activities, flip charts, and other knowledge products participants create during small group breakouts.  These can be analyzed and included in reports, as well as shared online.

Video: Use it to capture the “story” of the day – the opening, group interactions, individual conversations, and even personal “what I learned” or reflections interviews at the end of the event.  This could be easily edited and kept as a time capsule, shared with participants only or posted online for the broader community experience the event as well.

Twitter: With an LCD display and active search enabled, use it to ask participants questions and have them @message or DM replies.  140 characters isn’t much, but it can help participants express their ideas concisely!  (You can read an earlier blog with more tips for using Twitter at in-person events here)

Wikipedia app or Google search: Use them to check facts, conduct quick research and bring additional knowledge to play to inform deliberations and make they are truly evidence-informed.

Networking: Use it to help participants build professional networks or stay in touch.  On the free Bump App for iPhones, participants can “bump” fists with their devices and exchange contact information wirelessly.  It’s as easy as shaking hands… only more fun.

A big thanks to @learningcycle for a great blog that got us thinking…

Ellis Westwood & Stephan Telka

Evaluating Your Consultation: What Constitutes “Success”?
Friday, August 20th, 2010

Has my consultation initiative been successful? Here’s one question that we are bound to confront with every project… Before you launch into the mechanics of your evaluation though, take a moment to reflect on the following three questions – and in each case, “peel back the onion” to seek the answer behind the obvious answer…

1. What are the drivers behind the engagement process?
For example, a process may be driven by “an obligation to consult”, versus an honest desire to do so. Understanding the true drivers of your consultation, even if they are not always as “noble” as you would wish them to be, is key if you are to contextualize it appropriately.

2. What constitutes “success”?
This may not always be as obvious as one would think. For example, a high participation rate may create an illusion of success for the sponsor, but if the quality of the experience is found lacking, then can we say it was truly successful? Are the tangible outcomes (e.g., influencing the policy process) more or less important than the intangible ones (e.g., educating participants on the issue or mending relationships)?

3. A “successful” process… according to whom?
We tend to evaluate processes based on the perspectives of either the process sponsor or the process participants. A good evaluation should in fact assess the process from the perspective of the participants, the sponsor, and if relevant, significant third parties who may be affected by or who may affect the process (e.g., the media).

– Manon Abud -

Crowdsourcing: 5 Reasons Why It’s Here to Stay
Wednesday, August 11th, 2010

From designing marketing campaigns to vetting brand ideas to solving customer service-related issues and shaping new government services, crowdsourcing is a dynamic tool being used ever increasingly by companies to solve some of their most quizzical quandaries. First coined by journalist Jeff Howe in a June 2006 Wired article, the term crowdsourcing can be described as the process by which the power of the many can be leveraged to accomplish feats that were once the domain of an elite few.

L’Oreal, Sony and Toyota have all embraced the preeminence of crowdsourcing, using it to help them generate new ideas for ad campaigns. Mountain Dew has been inviting soft drink enthusiasts to help “shape the flavor, colour, name, logo, and design of the next Mountain Dew” through its crowdsourcing tool Dewmocracy.  And in one novel project, a 23-year-old man is using crowdsourcing to navigate the dating world by attempting to go on 30 dates in 30 days,  while taking cues from Twitter and Facebook as to how to proceed on each (

It looks as though crowdsourcing is here to stay – here are 5 reasons why:

  1. It grants access to a diverse range of ideas without a lot of investment – The technology makes it possible to unite large numbers of people who will share several ideas at a relatively stable cost. Time spent collecting data through formal focus groups or market research can also be heavily reduced by using this tool as a creative alternative.
  2. Messaging stands a greater chance of being relevant and authentic – Since the people engaged in the process will likely have a stake in the outcome, the input generated by the community will resonate with the voice of the end user. Also through the selection of people and breadth of ideas, this tool increases the odds of finding something of value.
  3. Crowdsourcing tools are engaging – Whether a person submits her/his own content and ideas or chooses to rate others’ ideas, they are an integral part of the creative process.
  4. It lowers the risk of new product and service introductions – The risks associated with uncertain marketplace demand for a new product / service can be evaluated by inviting participants to comment on what they think should be included.
  5. It builds relationships – Like many social networking tools, crowdsourcing is ultimately a means of connecting with people with similar interests, exchanging ideas, and cultivating lifelong bonds.

-Cassandra Tavares

The Census Debate: An Opportunity for Public Dialogue…
Friday, July 23rd, 2010

Over the past few weeks, there has been a great debate in Canada on the role of the census, and what form it should take – a short, widely-distributed version or a longer, less widely-distributed version – and whether completion should be mandatory or voluntary.

Those supporting a mix of a shorter, mandatory version combined with a voluntary longer version posit that the existing mandatory long form is an invasion of privacy and that it is coercive to force Canadians to complete it, considering that voting in Canada is not mandatory. In contrast, those supporting the current mandatory long version combined with a voluntary short version argue that it produces a wealth of data required by innumerable levels of government, non-governmental organizations and private business, and that any changes will produce a skewed or even useless national demographic record.

While the sweltering temperatures of early July have subsided, debate on the census remains heated. I see the debate around this issue as an excellent opportunity for dialogue, deliberation and public engagement – for those involved in the decision and its ramifications to come together and decide what the best path forward is. There are a number of tools that I could see being used to consult nationally:

  • A series of face-to-face dialogues held across the country, during which stakeholders would come together to learn about and work through the various options available;
  • An online consultation, using a ChoiceBook, during which participants once again work through the pros and the cons of a number of options.
  • A live online chat with the federal Minister of Industry, providing participants a chance to hear firsthand about and to discuss the options available.

It is through listening to understand, exploring and testing one’s personal assumptions, searching for strengths and value in other positions, and seeking an outcome that creates new common ground that sustainable decisions can be found on this issue and other pressing public policy issues.

– Stephan Telka -

“What the?!” Whatever happened to the UK Government’s innovative crowdsourcing project, the “Spending Challenge”?
Friday, July 16th, 2010

Earlier this week, I got really excited! (You should have seen me…)

On July 12, The UK Government launched an innovative crowdsourcing project to gather public ideas for reducing the country’s serious budget deficit. The Spending Challenge used an engaging website where members of the public co u ld submit their ideas for “getting more for less” by making public services less costly and more efficient. Participants could also read each other’s ideas, as well as rate and comment on them.

This was true crowdsourcing, where the community of users provides the engagement sponsor with a ranked list of measures based on what they think is most important to consider.

Before being released for public involvement on July 12, the Spending Challenge was used internally and received over 60,000 ideas from public servants government! And, with their expertise, this response was likely full of golden ideas.

What happened!?

So, I was surprised today when I returned to the engagement site, only to see that it had completely changed….

Gone is the ability to read other people’s ideas, to comment and to rate! You can still submit ideas – but that’s about all. Have a look for yourself:

Less engaging + less effective

I think this new process design change is less innovative and, ultimately, less effective for several reasons:

  • No Interaction: There’s no dialogue or interaction between participants. People cannot engage in dialogue on the subject matter, exchange insights or perspectives.
  • No Community: The community of participants cannot collaborate together to co-create or improve ideas posted.
  • No Priorities Identified: Now, the UK Government will not generate a rated set of suggestions, showing which measures participants thought were most important to consider or implement. Instead, the results will be more of a “laundry list” than more a useful, publicly generated set of priorities

I still think the UK Government should be applauded for involving the public in tough, values-based discussions about government services.

That said, I think the redesign of the site and whole engagement process had made it less engaging for users and less effective as a tool to inform government decisions.

– Ellis Westwood -

Fielding Graduate University’s Dialogue, Deliberation and Public Engagement Program Enters its 7th Year!
Friday, July 9th, 2010

The DDPE Graduate Program is entering its seventh year running at Fielding Graduate University and is now working in collaboration with the University of Western Sydney, Center for Citizenship and Public Policy. Fielding Graduate University is located in Santa Barbara, California – not that its students need ever visit campus. Fielding’s learning model utilizes distance learning via an “online campus” in addition to face-to-face events.

When I took the DDPE course last year, we had two face-to-face meetings (one in September in San Diego, and one in January in Santa Barbara), and during the rest of the five month program we met “virtually” once every other week in different group formations by phone and through online discussions.

Full disclosure: Ascentum has partnered with Fielding to provide resources and support to host the online dialogue in a learning module mid-way through the DDPE course.

This distinctive program [DDPE] strives for the development of mastery through building the skills, knowledge and intuitive sensibility that are needed to make wise choices about how to bring forms of dialogue, deliberation, and engagement into situations where they are most effective.”

I found the DDPE program stimulating (great readings, discussions, guest speakers), relaxed and at the same time challenging. Relaxed in that there is a lot of flexibility in how you participate online, by phone, and in person, and also in the peer-to-peer learning model. However it was also challenging in the sense of getting the group to work together: getting “communicators” to communicate well with each other, and managing the delicate flow of facilitation in a room full of facilitators. Good practice for all.

Overall, it’s an interesting course, and a valuable learning experience.

– Nicole Pollack -

Climate change, the Gulf of Mexico and the G8/G20
Friday, June 25th, 2010

Amid the discussions about this week’s G8 and G20 , there are pressing public issues that demand leaders’ attention. It is six months since Copenhagen, and the G8 Accountability Report raises concerns about member countries performance on the  environmental front.

This is happening at the same time that citizens across the world  witness the ongoing environmental and economic devastation caused by BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill in one of the world’s richest, most diverse and fragile marine ecosystems. With 60,000 barrels of oil continuing to spew into the Gulf of Mexico, there is a growing public dialogue about reorienting our approach to  to deal holistically with our economic, energy and environmental needs.

The Gulf of Mexico catastrophe  demonstrates  simple approaches to complex global challenges don’t work.  Economist Jeffrey Sachs in Commonwealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet and management guru Peter Senge in The Necessary Revolution, advocate transformative approaches to climate change that integrate economic, environmental and social dimensions through shared governance involving governments, the public, and corporate and community sectors.

A promising initiative with which I am involved (through Ascentum and the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa) seeks to advance practical and theoretical knowledge about shared governance through citizen deliberations: the Alberta Climate Change Dialogue (ABCD). This five year project, funded by a $1 million Community-University Research Alliance (CURA) grant from the Social Science and Humanities Federation of Canada (SSHRC) with $3.1 million in matching and in-kind support, led by University of Alberta Principal Investigator Dr. David Kahane, focuses on citizen contributions. ABCD researchers and practitioners will explore, in partnerships with Alberta municipalities and provincial ministries, environmental NGOs and industry, how and to what degree citizen deliberations influence policy; and how and to what degree participation in formal deliberations shapes citizen knowledge, motivation, and capacity to act on climate issues.

Check out this website or email for more information on the project.

– Mary Pat MacKinnon -

Engaging young people on their views of the future – and motivations for making a change in their communities
Friday, June 18th, 2010

Lots of people are worried about young people these days; why they vote less and appear less socially and politically engaged.

But, instead of just studying youth, Ascentum is part of an exciting community-level project to actively engage young people, as well as the rest of their communities, in dialogues and action about their confidence in learning and on how they want to make a difference in their neighbourhood, city, country or world.

The project is led by the Canadian Education Association, which has partnered with five Social Planning Councils, as well as Ascentum, to conduct a yearlong public engagement initiative pilot project in Ontario.  Each Social Planning Council involved is conducting its own face-to-face dialogues, tied together with a broader online process being designed by us.  The aim is to encourage dialogue, inspire action and collect data to inform education policy decisions.

We’re really excited to be involved and for the chance to work with both CEA and the Councils.  They both really “get” public participation and share Ascentum’s philosophy that it leads to more sustainable decisions.  The Association has been around since 1891 and works to foster national dialogue on education policy and how it can contribute to a better Canada.  Social Planning Councils are truly pioneers in public involvement.  Their missions are to create civic societies in their local communities, which they foster through capacity building, education, advocacy and engagement, and they have been experimenting in public involvement for many years.  The Social Planning Councils involved in the project are:

We are looking forward to working with and learning from them as the project unfolds!

We’ll keep you updated over the next few months with sneak peaks and news…

– Ellis Westwood -

Strengthening the Red Seal program – through stakeholder involvement
Friday, June 4th, 2010

Ascentum is excited to be working with the Canadian Council of Directors of Apprenticeship (CCDA) to develop a plan to strengthen and improve their signature “Red Seal” program, a system of common standards for the skilled trades in Canada. For 50 years, Canada’s provinces and territories have worked together to build the Red Seal Program, an endorsement that signals excellence to employers, instils pride in skilled workers, and promotes geographic labour mobility. As the Canadian economy continues to grow, develop, and change, so too are our labour, skills and training needs.

The CCDA is considering the adaptation of a trades certification model that can meet numerous objectives: providing industry with a clearer picture of the individual worker’s competency, removing barriers to certification for many workers, and contributing to the productivity and competitiveness of Canada’s economy.

In collaboration with CCDA, Ascentum has designed, is facilitating and reporting on a series of cross-Canada stakeholder dialogues with government agencies, industry bodies and experienced trainers to discuss the benefits and challenges related to strengthening the Red Seal Program.

The end of our dialogue schedule is approaching, with seven of the eleven dialogues now complete. Members of our team have travelled with CCDA representatives to Halifax, Charlottetown, St. John’s, Ottawa, Toronto, Winnipeg, Montréal and Fredericton. The next week will be spent pouring over the data we have collected thus far, and preparing for our final four dialogues in Saskatoon, Edmonton, Yellowknife and Vancouver. I’m particularly excited about the dialogues in the latter two cities, at which I’ll be carefully listening to and taking notes on the unique perspectives of those from northern Canada and the West Coast.

After the production of a final report in early summer, we will be moving on to the second phase of the project, an innovative online consultation that will build on the in-person dialogues and take the conversation to a broader group of stakeholders across the country.

For more information on the “Strengthening the Red Seal Program” project, including updates on the online consultations planned for Autumn 2010, visit 

Respecting Privacy, Learning from Facebook
Friday, May 28th, 2010

Facebook has been receiving a lot of attention lately as a result of their privacy settings.  In particular the default settings on new features like the Instant Personalization through the new Graph API which launched in April . Matt McKeon has a great visual illustration on how the default Facebook privacy settings have changed between 2007 and 2010.

The Evolution of Privacy on Facebook

Matt’s images are complex but they show the gradual trend for Facebook default settings to be more public and the complexity of sharing different information with different groups of people. Its important to understand that these are the default settings and many people have chosen to define their own settings and comfort levels.

Facebook has recently announced and is currently rolling-out simpler privacy settings for all users. The general trend is to allow the user to opt-into new services instead of enabling them by default. Its important to learn Facebook and apply the same principals when engaging individuals. Theses principals are:

1/Inform the User

Outline exactly what information you need from them and how the information will be used. On my websites this is done through a privacy policy but may need to be updated for Facebook, Twitter and other Social Media websites.

2/ Explicit Consent

When you launch a new initiative or service that effect privacy or personal information, request explicit consent on the new usage of personal information. It is generally not acceptable to automatically assume everyone wants to participate or share personal information.

3/ Keep it Simple

Facebook has learned that by adding multiple options and controls they confused the user and may it hard for users to understand what they were sharing.

4/ Listen and Respond Quickly

Problems may arise where information is disclosed unintentionally and effect user data. Respond quickly and effectively to these situation and respect the user’s involved, where possible inform them of the situation.

Facebook has achieved incredible growth by allowing users to share personal information with their friends. They recognize that users will share more personal and use the service more effectively when they are confident of their privacy.

– Colin Smillie -

Place à la jeunesse…
Wednesday, May 5th, 2010

La Fédération de la jeunesse canadienne-française (FJCF) est un organisme « par et pour les jeunes »  qui reconnaît le rôle important que jouent les jeunes d’expression française dans le développement et le bien-être de leurs communautés et qui met tout en œuvre afin de faire en sorte qu’ils puissent s’engager à leur façon et… en français.

C’est dans ce contexte que la FJCF a développé sa Stratégie d’intervention jeunesse (SIJ). Cette stratégie, publiée en 2009, est le fruit d’une consultation pancanadienne dans le cadre de laquelle plus de 200 jeunes d’expression française, âgés de 14 à 25 ans, ont formulé leurs recommandations quant aux moyens d’encourager et d’appuyer la participation citoyenne des jeunes. Elle a pour but d’aider à guider les actions des instances gouvernementales et des intervenants communautaires pour encourager une culture d’implication sociale chez près de 1,7 million de jeunes d’expression française au Canada.

C’est dans le cadre de la SIJ qu’Ascentum a collaboré avec la FJCF pour développer un carnet de consultation en ligne dans lequel les jeunes sont appelés à explorer la question de leur participation citoyenne, et d’offrir leurs perspectives sur comment et pourquoi ils s’engagent (ou non) dans leur communauté.

Pourquoi? Tel qu’expliqué dans le carnet de consultation :

« En gros, la participation citoyenne, c’est de mettre de son énergie et de ses talents au service de sa communauté ou d’une cause qui nous tient à cœur. C’est essentiel pour la communauté… et surtout, essentiel pour la jeunesse. C’est ainsi qu’elle prend la place qui lui revient maintenant en société pour bâtir l’avenir dont elle rêve. »

– Manon Abud -

Public Involvement: some parting thoughts from Ascentum’s first co-op student
Thursday, April 29th, 2010

With my current co-op semester coming to an end, it seems appropriate to reflect on my experiences here at Ascentum. As the company’s very first intern, I really didn’t know what to expect when I first began. But now, in considering what I’ve learned over the past four months, it’s challenging to figure out where to begin!

What strikes me most is how I think about public engagement now. Leveraging the values, opinions and ideas of the public and relevant stakeholders is the key to accountability and sustainable decision-making. Since organizations have to manage their time and resources quite carefully, it’s clear that we can’t (and shouldn’t) be doing public engagement for everything. But we should be strategic, and ask ourselves:

  • What issues and/or jurisdictions in Canada could benefit significantly from public engagement?
  • How can these types of initiatives/events be conducted more effectively?
  • How can we ensure that the results actually reach the decision-makers?

This optimism for public engagement has been shaped by the exposure I’ve had to some truly fascinating projects that Ascentum is currently involved with. Two experiences stand out for me:

  1. Strengthening the Red Seal Program through Organizational Performance Standards. Ascentum has been asked to engage regional stakeholders across the country, in order to explore the utility of a more robust model for skills acquisition and recognition for trades workers. Through this experience, I’ve been exposed to the high level of strategic planning, attention to detail, and effective communication skills needed to conduct a meaningful engagement process. You can learn more about this exciting project at:
  2. Helping our team conduct some of the in-person stakeholder consultations for the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC). These were for Phase II of the Mental Health Strategy for Canada initiative (there are a total of 18 events planned, with the fourth event is being held today and tomorrow here in Ottawa). Ascentum is working closely with the MHCC to lead the facilitation of these consultations, which bring together a diversity of people affected by mental health issues, both personally and professionally. These were very rewarding experiences- not only did I realize how prevalent mental health issues are in Canada, but you could really sense the passion and commitment of the people in the room. You can learn more about this MHCC initiative here.

I’d like to make sure that I thank the Ascentum team for giving me such great opportunities. In considering what I’ve learned about the use of social media, I hope that this last posting has some value for anyone that took the time to read it. As I said in my first blog, if you’re going to say something, make sure it’s useful, or at least interesting!

– Tristan Eclarin -

Building an organ and tissue donation and transplantation system for Canada – through public involvement
Friday, April 16th, 2010

Ascentum is proud to be working with Canadian Blood Services (CBS) to address the pressing issue of organ and tissue donation and transplantation (OTDT), a project I have been working on as lead analyst since December.

Canada stands out as the only western nation without a national, coordinated system for OTDT. In 2008, there were more than 4,300 Canadians on an organ waiting list; of those, 215 died without getting the transplant that could have saved their lives.

With a mandate from the Federal, Provincial and Territorial Deputy Ministers of Health (excluding Quebec), CBS is engaging stakeholders, the public and the medical community to develop a recommendation for a new national OTDT system. Three committees have already been struck, including a Steering Committee of 11 prominent experts in public healthcare policy, and two expert committees, one focused on organs and the other on tissues. These committees will meet throughout the year, and will lead the development of the formal system recommendation.

In collaboration with CBS, Ascentum has designed, is facilitating and reporting on a series of cross-Canada public dialogues with interested Canadians on the principles and elements of a new national system.

Seven of nine dialogues have been successfully completed – in London, Vancouver, Edmonton, Halifax, Winnipeg, Regina and St. John’s, – and we are preparing for the last two dialogues in Moncton (May 4) and Toronto (May 29).  Over 225 Canadians have answered the call to participate, including the voices of living donors, the families of deceased donors, recipients, health professionals, concerned citizens and community leaders.

I have been working closely with our facilitators Manon and Mary Pat to make sense of the rich contributions brought by these diverse participants. Some recurring themes extracted thus far are: the importance of a pan-Canadian system with high quality standards, safety, improved education and awareness, integrity and trust.

At the end of May I’ll be helping facilitate our final dialogue in Toronto, where I’m looking forward to meeting with and listening to participants on their vision for an OTDT system in Canada. From there, we will be working with CBS to finalize their end report, ensuring that the views of Canadians are heard in the design of a system aimed at improving outcomes and saving lives across this country.

For more information on the public dialogues, including how to register to participate in the final events in Moncton and Toronto, visit

– Stephan Telka -

The Big Picture: Facebook vs USA
Thursday, April 15th, 2010

How does real population in the US compare to the Facebook population in the US?  There is a great infographic from Mashable that paints a very interesting picture of the differences.   At the highest level 38% of the US population has an active facebook account.  It is actually pretty much the same in Canada too (12.7 million/33.9 million).

The population growth shouldn’t be a surprise at almost 300% last year.  The age breakdown is a little different but there are a lot of children missing and facebook is demographically ageist with no specifications for 65+.  The city stats are interesting too.  New York seems surprisingly low as a proportion based on their legendary iphone challenges but Philly and Dallas are rapidly approaching complete penetration.

You make your own call, but clearly the numbers can no longer be ignored.  Combine this with a recent assessment that a facebook fan has been valued at $3.60 each means that PM’s facebook page is worth $114,080 (31,689 fans).  How do you account for that in your Elections Canada campaign expenses!?

The New Advocacy: NGOs take note…
Tuesday, March 30th, 2010

Public involvement has changed how advocacy works.

Today, civil society organizations – whether they are local nonprofits or national associations – are fostering social change through collaborative dialogue with their publics instead of “top-down” or expert-oriented campaigns.

By involving the public, who want to be engaged, these advocacy efforts are leading to more sustainable and innovative solutions to shared problems.

Old School!

Civil society organizations play a crucial role in democratic societies.  Working outside government, they provide service to those in need and help government implement the right policy approaches.

In the past, many of these organizations advocated for change in a more-or-less closed process.  Staff or insiders would decide what was wrong with government policy, design on what they thought was the “right” solution and engage in advocacy to persuade government decision-makers to adopt this approach.

In this old school model of advocacy, the broader public or community were bystanders, not proactively engaged in finding and implementing solutions.

The New Advocacy

More forward-thinking organizations in civil society, though, are using newer and more participatory forms of creating positive social change.  Instead of bypassing the public, they actively involve the broader community in thinking about problems and how to solve them.

We’re working with a nonprofit organization who have really embraced the new advocacy.  Their mission is to create a more sustainable food system and instead of just lobbying government with their own solutions, they are hosting a series of community-level dialogues across Canada to talk about food security and how it can be improved.

They’ve recognized that policy change happens when the change is chosen and championed by members of the public.  Only then will decision-makers, who are often “behind” public opinion, champion change themselves.

This is the “new” advocacy.

- Ellis Westwood -

Our Health. Our Perspectives. Our Solutions.
Friday, March 19th, 2010

Ascentum is pleased to be assisting the New Brunswick Health Council (NBHC) in its first province-wide citizen engagement initiative, entitled ‘Our Health. Our Perspectives. Our Solutions.’ Manon and I are particularly pleased to be working on this project in our home province! ☺

Engaging citizens in meaningful dialogue is a core element of the NBHC’s mandate, which states that, “New Brunswickers have a right to be aware of the decisions being made, to be part of the decision-making process, and to be aware of the outcomes delivered by the health system and its cost.”

The team over at NBHC is great to work with as they clearly embody this mandate. They have brought Ascentum on to ensure the engagement process is appropriate and results in meaningful feedback that will ultimately inform the NBHC’s recommendations to improve health services.

The first of 4 dialogues in Phase I kicked off last weekend in Moncton, and will be circling the province to Bathurst, Edmundston and Saint John. Phase I focuses on exploring the perspectives and concerns of citizens with respect to the current state of New Brunswick’s health system.

Phase II dialogues will take place in the same four locations – the four corners of the province – and will shift to looking to the future, to envision the kind of health care system New Brunswickers want to have, and identify possible solutions to the challenges identified in Phase I.

Finally, the engagement initiative will culminate in a provincial dialogue to be held in Fredericton in June, which will bring together participants from all 4 locations in Phase I and II. This Phase III dialogue will identify shared priorities and elements of a common vision that will inform and guide the NBHC in its recommendations to the health system partners.

You can learn more about this citizen engagement initiative, and access the Conversation Guide, by visiting the NBHC website:

Stay tuned as this exciting project unfolds…

- Nicole Pollack -

Building a Mental Health Strategy for Canada – Through Public Participation
Friday, March 12th, 2010

During the first two months of my co-op placement here at Ascentum, I’ve been writing a case study on the development of a pan-Canadian, consensus-based mental health strategy. This is a nation-wide initiative of the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC), which collaborated with Ascentum to design the in-person regional dialogues and the online consultation process.

My case study is on the first phase of the initiative, which focused on identifying the goals necessary for a comprehensive and inclusive mental health system in Canada. In the process of reviewing a wide range of literature, conducting interviews with key members of the MHCC and analyzing public consultation reports, I’ve learned quite a bit on the issue and public engagement strategies in general.

I’m nearing completion of the case study and thought I’d share a few of the key lessons to be learned from this initiative:

  • Multiple ways to participate accommodates a broader diversity of perspectives: The process allowed people to attend either a series of in-person dialogues or take part in an online consultation. The in-person regional dialogues allowed the MHCC to have a real conversation with people; they could directly answer questions, probe responses further, and experience the dynamic between people in the room. This method had a higher representation of stakeholders, such as health workers, representatives from health organizations and government officials. In contrast, the online process was open more to the general public, and allowed individuals the opportunity to express themselves without the confines of time and location.  These methods complemented each other well.
  • Carefully think through data collection and analysis so you can plan accordingly: During the consultation events, the same pre- and post-test questions were used to gauge the opinions of all three participant groups (i.e. in-person, online citizen and online stakeholder). This was an intentional strategy, because it allowed for a comparative analysis of participant attitudes before and after the engagement process. In the end, there was very little variance in responses, which demonstrated both positive and enthusiastic support for the MHCC’s framework and overall approach.
  • It’s important not to pre-determine the outcomes: In terms of support for the MHCC framework, there was a remarkably high degree of congruence across all participant groups. This meant that, even with the wide range of audiences engaged, there was strong evidence for the consensus that the MHCC needed to move forward. This lack of divergence between public, stakeholder and government opinion was not an expected outcome. However, it helped demonstrate that the will for action was there. All that was needed was a clear strategy (as well as a responsible organization) to lead the process on a national scale

The Commission used the public and stakeholder feedback to revise their final Framework document and ultimately, to help guide the extensive amount work that they still have ahead of them (Phase II of the process is expected to begin soon). But overall, this is a very promising example of effective public participation.

– Tristan Eclarin -

The New Media Experiment
Friday, March 5th, 2010

There is a great series on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) called the Age of Persuasion. It is all about the business of marketing. The show is hosted by Terry O’Reilly who happens to be both compelling AND persuasive himself.

I listen to it religiously through the power of podcasts. Coincidently, the 27-minute episodes correlate to my morning or afternoon commutes.

There was an episode that aired last year entitled, “Embracing New Media.” I had missed it, so when I saw the title I thought, “Fantastic! Terry tackles social media adoption.” Unfortunately, the title misled me. Fortunately the episode was informative and illuminating in other ways, especially when you extrapolate it to the adoption of social media.

Terry’s premise is that with adoption of every new media, you can count on several things taking place. First, people will inevitably say that this is the end of previously adopted media. For example, television would be the end of radio or the internet will be the end of television.

Second, you can pretty much guarantee that people will try use the tried and true tricks of the former media in new media. Think about a newspaper ad being transformed (e.g. read aloud) on a radio ad in the 1920s. They were pretty boring and ineffective at first.

Thirdly, he makes the conclusion that while new media needs to be experimented with, to see what works, old media needs to reinvent itself. Just ask yourself, in today’s age, why do we still have telegrams? Their role is for formal announcements and congratulations. Old media has a new or niche role.

So what does this all mean for social media? What we can count on is that with the adoption of any new media we will try old tricks that may or may not work that well. We have seen that take place with websites like brochures or Twitter feeds that clearly don’t understand the concept of 140 characters. Neither of these attempts are wrong, because what we also know, and Terry shares with us so well, is that we have to experiment.

We know that Twitter feeds, Facebook pages, wikis, and other social media need at least three things to work. First, they need to figure out the value proposition for the end-user to “subscribe” and to continue to have interest. What does our audience get out of this?

Second, they need to figure out the specific organizational context in which the social media is be utilized. What do we as an organization get out of this? How does it align with our goals?

Finally, there also has to be a willingness and expectation set that things will be tried, will work, will not work, and will need to be adjusted and refined. SO THEREFORE what our community wants and what we originally wanted, may have to be re-worked as well. (The caps are just to make sure you were still paying attention.)

I will leave you with one last thought from the Age of Persuasion. When the great inventor Alexander Graham Bell was figuring out how the telephone was going to be used at first, they needed to figure out the protocol to start and stop a conversation. There were many words that were thrown around but we eventually settled on “Hello.” The inventor of the telephone himself had proposed something completely different. His proposal was to start each conversation with, “Ahoy! Ahoy!” (like Mr. Burns on the Simpsons!)  Experimentation, trial and error, and user preferences finally determined across many languages that “Hello” was what worked best. We are at the same point with social media adoption and practices. Before this new media is worked out, we have much experimentation, trial and error, and evolving preferences to look forward to. It is something we can count on.

The unofficial podcast for the Age of Persuasion is at: There are too many copyright issues for CBC to host on their own site.

– Joseph Peters -

8 Principles for Public Outreach
Wednesday, February 24th, 2010

It is never too late to start an outreach campaign, as long as your public participation initiative is still open. In this document we outline eight different principles and strategies for outreach, including the dos and don’ts for each. The principles include pointers on messaging, interactivity, ambassadors, mediums, the rationale, tracking, intentions, and social media.

You can download the latest in our Open Government Directions series here: Eight Principles of Public Outreach.

Case Study Jam – A few golden rules for using social media
Friday, February 19th, 2010

I recently took part in Ottawa’s second “Case Study Jam,” ( – an open learning and dialogue event for people who work in or care about social media, whether in government, businesses or elsewhere.Social Media Case Study Jam

We heard three case studies – a win, a fail and a work in progress. Although each situation was unique, a few common themes jumped out at me. These may not be groundbreaking; just solid advice.

When you’ve proven to yourself that a way of using a tool works, don’t suddenly throw it out the window: One presenter explained his failed attempt to create a new Twitter account, the “Daily Blog” on blogging. Straying from his own proven ways of using Twitter, and juggling a busy workload, he set a rule for his new account – one Tweet a day before 12:00 noon – no more, no less. By sticking to this rule, though, the Twitter account lacked the critical “community-building” piece of social media in which tweeters regularly engage and discuss with their followers.

Do your research on available tools before deciding on one to use: Another presenter explained her adventures creating a “Social Media Book Club”. Having seen a particular meeting management website used a number of times, she signed up, and paid for a small monthly hosting fee. Unfortunately, that initial monthly fee was introductory, doubling after three months, and she learned could easily manage the event using her own website. After amicable discussions with the meeting management website admins, her account was closed, but not before the website sent a message to all 60 members, explaining the event had been permanently closed. With no way to get in touch with the members (a membership export resulted only in a list of names – no emails), she had difficulty in re-establishing contact with people, and assuring them the Club was indeed still up and running.

Small actions can have big results: The final presenter spoke to recent fires at two housing complexes for victims of family violence, and the role that social media played to bring the local community together to help the residents. After writing a blog on the fires and urging action, word spread through the community via social media, with the blogger offering to pick up donations on one given afternoon. Local media picked up on the story, further spreading the call for donations. In the end, a car load of goods and hundreds of dollars in cash and gift certificates were collected. And it all started with a simple blog!

– Stephan Telka -

Engaging with the New Facebook
Friday, February 12th, 2010

Facebook recently launched a new Home Page design and is also planning more changes for how Facebook Applications can engage users.  A fairly technical developer roadmap has been published by Facebook but we’ll try to summarize here:

The Bad

With the current round of changes Facebook Applications going to take a hit initially in terms of traditional user engagement tools.  Facebook Notifications will be discontinued soon, instead Facebook Applications will be expected to communicate with users via Email or the Application Newsfeed Items. Facebook Invites and Requests will also be moving to the Facebook Inbox and won’t have a prominent screen location.

These changes are consistent with Facebook’s direction of forcing user application engagement into the Facebook Newsfeed/Stream.  Given the level of Application spam we’ve seen from Facebook Games and other noisy application this seems to be the correct direction to maintain an engaged user base.

With more and more communication moving to the Facebook Inbox a number of changes are planned to provide better filtering on communication.  Facebook has provided the following preview of how Invites will be filtered in the new Inbox:

New Facebook Inbox Design

Profile Changes

Facebook Profile boxes and Extended Profile Information ( rarely used ) will be discontinued but users can still manually add a Tab on their profile for their favourite Facebook Applications.  And example of the Facebook Profile Tab, using the Where I’ve been Application:

Facebook Tab Example

The Facebook Tab functionality has been available for while but has been widely under used by users.  We’re not expecting this to change unless Facebook provides a greater push to educate users to provide tools to make adding a Facebook Tab easier.

The Good

Facebook Application Newsfeed items will be moved to the new Application or Game Bashboards.   An example of the Game Dashboard:

Facebook Game Dashboard

The Dashboard will show your activity in applications you’ve used recently.  Your Friends recently used Applications will also be displayed, if there privacy settings allow them.  A smaller Application Directory will also be included on the Dashboard with popular Applications.  One of the most engaging aspects of the Facebook Application Dashboard is the addition of small notification “counters” indicating activity within the Dashboards.  This is a similar process to the iPhone and other platforms to provide subtle notice of activity that the user can investigate further.

We’re expecting that the separate Application Dashboard should allow Applications to engage more directly with users and avoid a lot of the noise associated with the Facebook Games.  The main unknown is how quickly and how often users will use the Application Dashboards.

Facebook Pages

In this round of updates, the Facebook Pages have received very little in the way of new functionality but maybe the most telling is the lack of change.  Facebook Pages can still issue items into the Facebook Newsfeed/Stream and continue to be a very powerful tool to engage Facebook users.  Even with the stock functionality of Facebook Page it can very engaging and it can also host Facebook Applications as specialized Tabs for Contests or News Letter information.

Facebook Connect Additions

Facebook continues to add more functionality to Facebook Connect and provide the ability to use Facebook functionality on external sites.   Facebook Chat can now be integrated into external websites and instant messaging services.  The Facebook Translations engine can also be used on external websites to provide translation functionality similar to what is available inside of Facebook.

Facebook’s roadmap also has commitments to increased support for Facebook Connect through what they are calling the Open Graph API.  The intent behind the Open Graph API is to allow external websites to duplicate much of the function of their Facebook Page on their own website.  In this way the engagement they have with users can be same inside Facebook or on their own website.

– Colin Smillie -

“Hard Times, Hard Choices”: The power of public deliberation to solve tough problems
Thursday, February 11th, 2010

When people have access to balanced information about an issue and an opportunity to talk-through policy options with others, they are willing to make tough choices and sacrifices to serve the public interest.

If you pay attention to traditional public opinion polls, it’s easy to get depressed about the public’s capacity to play a productive role in its own governance.  After all, people just want lower taxes and better services, right?


Surveys only scratch the surface and don’t give people the space to really think about a tough problem or issue facing their community.  They only gather knee-jerk or “top of mind” responses.

In stark contrast, a recent public dialogue – the “Hard Times, Hard Choices” project from Michigan – shows the power of deliberation to solve tough problems.   This was no survey.

Hard Times, Hard ChoicesThe project brought together a representative sample of over 300 people from across Michigan to recommend directions for the state’s economy and budget.  The organizers used a Deliberative Polling approach: the process starts and ends with a poll about key questions, but the interesting part is what happens between these.  Participants learn about the issues through balanced briefings, and then think through options in small groups.   By comparing people’s opinions in the before and after polls, organizers can literally measure deliberation or informed participation.

Here are a few of the results that I found interesting.  You can read the full report here.

People actually recommended increasing their taxes.  By the end of public deliberations, support for increasing income tax had gone up from 27% to 45%.  Similarly, support or raising sales taxes rose from 37% to 51%.

People also recommended decreasing business taxes.  At the end of the process, support for cutting business taxes rose from 40% to 67%.  They believed it would stimulate businesses and create jobs.

You can actually see footage from “Hard Times, Hard Choices” here.  It’s from a PBS documentary on the project.

– Ellis Westwood -

Toyota, Community & Public Participation
Friday, February 5th, 2010

How the carmaker could be better engaging its community to assess and fix recent safety problems.

Over the past weeks and months, Toyota has been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons.  Reports of technical problems with its cars, along with suggestions that it failed to take safety reports seriously, have damaged its brand and relationships that matter most – with its customers.  I’m on of those, with a 2007 Prius.logo-toyota-3d-silver

PR professionals have already been lamenting what the see as the carmaker’s slow, confused and unstrategic communications response.

I’ve been thinking about this too, but from a public participation perspective – about how Toyota could be building and engaging its community, especially its loyal base of “true believers”, as it responds to safety concerns.

Here are some of the community-building steps I think they should be considering:

Actively involving their community in assessing the scope of the problem.
Part of Toyota’s woes is the perception that it doesn’t fully understand the scope of safety problems.  To really find out, it could use an online story tool where customers could privately submit reports of technical issues, along with their car’s serial number.  This could provide Toyota with a rich dataset to analyze and contact information for those most concerned for proactive customer service.

Sending personalized help and advice to individual community members
Right now, owners are worried and are seeking information.  But by Toyota’s own admission, callers are experiencing long wait times “on hold” to call centres.  Not ideal.  A better approach would be to create an online tool where owners could register for information, by providing their model, year of production and email address.  Using this contact, Toyota could send people personalized information for their specific car, including whether there is a problem, where clients can go to get it fixed, and what they can do in the meantime.

Hosting local dealership dialogue events
People who purchased their cars from local dealerships may have stronger relationships with these showrooms and individual sales staff than with Toyota head office.  The problem right now is that many of these local representatives may be getting their news from TV, just like everybody else.  Instead, Toyota could be reaching out to these community members by empowering and encouraging dealers to host in-person events with customers to share experiences, fixes and timelines.

Right now, Toyota’s approach seems old-fashioned and top-down.  Already, pundits are predicting severe damage to the brand unless it changes strategy.  Hopefully they are using social media to listen for suggestions.

Have other suggestion for Toyota?  Share them with us and our @ascentum community!

– Ellis Westwood -

Ascentum and Public Participation: Impressions of Our First Co-Op Student
Friday, January 29th, 2010

My name is Tristan Eclarin, and I’m currently working towards my Masters in Public Administration at the University of Victoria. This semester, I’m working here at Ascentum as a co-op student. I’m excited about the opportunity to learn everything I can about public participation and social media, and I’d like to share some of my first impressions:

1. We could be the generation that truly pushes civic engagement into the mainstream. I used to Tristan @ Deskstruggle with the idea of social media as a means of getting citizens engaged. But when you consider the technology that has emerged over the past few years, how rapidly it develops and evolves, and how it has been integrated into our everyday lives, you can imagine the possibilities. The claim here is not that social media, by itself, can make citizens more engaged. But if we refine the ways we use it, the easier it will be for people to get involved in issues they care about. However, a lot of this depends on my next insight…

2. It’s all about using social media effectively. Social media is an undeniably powerful tool: it is used for a wide range of purposes, and by different kinds of people and organizations. So how do we use social media to truly engage citizens? Although context is a significant factor, the key is developing good strategy and being increasingly innovative. If there is a message you want to convey, remember a few things:

  • Use the tools that are appropriate for your purpose. There is no universal approach, and some work better than others,
  • Think of ways to make your cause stand out from all the others out there,
  • You need to evoke effective meaning to the people you’re trying to reach…don’t just advertise your company or brag about what’s going on in your life…say something important, or at least interesting!

3. Developing and implementing consultation approaches is often a strategically demanding process. Engaging citizens in public policy decisions requires a high level of strategic and technical planning, attention to detail, and long-term commitment by the organizations involved. However, these challenges do not diminish the social importance of conducting public and stakeholder consultations. With the time, energy and knowledge, there is always a way to meaningfully connect with the public.

That’s it for now! I’ll be with Ascentum until the end of April, at which point I return to school in Victoria. I’ll be blogging between now and then and will make sure to post a final blog on what I’ve learned before I leave.

– Tristan Eclarin -

Open Government Directions Site
Wednesday, January 27th, 2010


To view the Open Government Directions site, go to:

Open Government Directions Site

12 myths about social media
Friday, January 22nd, 2010

The worst-culprit myths about using social media to engage the people important to your organization…

There’s a lot of hype about social media.  It’s an exciting time to engage pubmythslics using new technologies and approaches.  Lots of people are doing interesting and groundbreaking work and sharing what they are learning with the broader community.

Unfortunately, there are also some persistent myths about social media.   Earlier this week on Twitter, I came across a great list of 12 leading social media myths by a blogger on the West Coast, Pam Dyer.  She does a great job of identifying & responding to these myths.

Here they are, with some of our own thinking on how they apply to public participation.

Do you have other myths to add, or experiences to share?  We’d love to hear about them… Just post a comment at the bottom of the page!

  1. “Social media is cheap or free.” It’s true that many social media tools are free to use.  But getting the most out of them as part of an outreach or awareness campaign requires time and financial resources
  2. “Anyone can do it.” There are lots of people out there who describe themselves as social media “experts”.  But, look deeper and far fewer have actually developed and implemented successful strategies.
  3. “If we create something that’s great, people will find it.” We’ve learned that this definitely doesn’t apply to online consultations, where success requires a multi-channel communications strategy that includes cultivating peer-to-peer or friend suggestions to take part.
  4. “We can do it all in-house.” In our experience, the best results happen when in-house teams and outside expertise collaborate.  It blends deep understanding of the organization with new perspectives, ideas and proven experience.
  5. “You can make a big splash really quickly.” This can happen, often triggered by external events or circumstances, but you shouldn’t bet on this.  Building a community takes time and nurturing – like growing a garden.
  6. “You need to be on all the big sites.” Instead of rushing to develop profiles on all of the leading social media platforms, organizations should invest the time to develop a strategy first, and then choose the tools selectively to meet their objectives.
  7. “It’s for kids.” Thankfully, fewer people believe this any more thanks to powerful statistics on social media demographics.  For example, the fastest growing demographic on Facebook is people aged 35 and older.
  8. “You can’t build quality relationships online.” Our experience in public participation has exposed this myth.  By engaging their publics online, organizations create deeper and more sustainable relationships that transfer into stronger face-to-face events.
  9. “It gives away content and ideas we should be charging for.” In her groundbreaking book The Whuffie Factor, Tara Hunt shows that success for organizations on social media is about building credibility by sharing value with their communities.   Over the long-term, this can build relationships and revenue.
  10. “It’s a fad.” We see social media as more than just technology.  It’s changing the possibilities and potential for how we communicate, connect and collaborate together. And it’s a series of revolutions – social, technological, organizational and demographic.
  11. “Social marketing results can’t be measured.” Right?  Wrong.  There are already powerful tools to measure success that go beyond click-counts to measure who’s saying what about your organization and where, on social media.  But, it’s also about knowing how to use these – after all, a tool is just a tool.
  12. “It’s a cure-all.” Obviously, social media is only one part of a broader communications strategy.  The challenge is working out how social media can best support your overall efforts to reach the people you want.

– Ellis Westwood -

How to use Twitter to make your next in-person dialogue better
Friday, January 15th, 2010

At its core, Twitter is a community-building tool.  In this blog, we’ll share ways you can build a Twitter community around your in-person dialogue events so they are engaging, create a stock of shared knowledge and make the results more sustainable.

Before your event…

  • twitter-logoCreate a Twitter account for your in-person event(s), right at the start of the project planning and design stage.
  • Develop a hashtag up-front (#yourevent) so you can search for and store your followers’ tweets – before, during and after the event.
  • Tap into the twitter community to build a community, share knowledge and recruit participants for the in-person event
  • Involve your followers in designing the in-person event by asking for suggestions and ideas
  • Create a buzz about your in-person event by sharing sneak previews and breaking news about speakers with your followers.   Many will re-tweet these to their own networks of followers.
  • Just before the event takes place, create a site where live tweets can be displayed.  One great tool for this is LiveTwit powered by WordPress.

At your event…

  • Setup a projected LCD screen to display live tweets.
  • Build time into the agenda near the beginning of the event to explain the live tweet process.  People can tweet to you @yourevent or tag their tweets with your hashtag (#yourevent).
  • Encourage people to tweet photos of the event.  They help capture the moment and the emotion of the day.
  • It’s a best practice to invite members of your pre-developed twitter community to live tweet the event beforehand.
  • Alternatively, under a different design each table could be given a laptop and means to share their ideas with other groups by live tweeting them in real-time.  This allows for quick thematic analysis and knowledge sharing.
  • Throughout the day, facilitators could walk participants through the live tweets and use to foster additional dialogues.

After your event…

  • Twitter gives you a platform to build on the success of the event, gather feedback and leverage a community for follow-up action.
  • Shortly after the event, thank your twitter community for participating.
  • Ask for people to post feedback, all searchable using the #yourevent hashtag.
  • Invite your followers to tweet about what they are each going to do to follow-up on the event and what actions they are going to take.

– Ellis Westwood -

Online vs. face-to-face dialogues…
Friday, January 8th, 2010

A few important differences to think about

Because we facilitate both face-to-face and online dialogues here at Ascentum, people often ask us “how are they any different?” or “which works best?

We’ve recently run an online dialogue with several partners in the US that showed some of the differences between online and face-to-face and why, in certain instances, online approaches can work better.

Ascentum worked with the Kettering Foundation and the National Issues Forums Institute (NIFI) to run an online dialogue to bring together 10 people from across America to think, talk and deliberate together on options for health care reform.  Using Ascentum’s dialogue tool, participants posted comments, ideas, stories and questions over a period of two weeks to explore health care choices and identify what solutions they could, and couldn’t, agree on.

We’re working on an analysis of the dialogue, which we’ll be able to share with you in the next few months.  In the meantime, here are some of our early reflections on how the dialogue went and what it taught us.

  • Relationships are different online and in-person: While online dialogues can lack the “personal touch” of in-person dialogue, this physical distance actually made it easier for participants to respond to each other’s ideas without these being interpreted as personal criticisms or attacks.
  • Online provided an opportunity for deeper dialogue: The online dialogue ran for 2-weeks, with participants contributing each day.  This extended period time allowed for “offline reflection”.  In addition, the dialogue tool made it possible for participants to share links (news items, articles, blogs, etc.) and bring new knowledge or perspectives to the table.
  • Online allowed for more accurate and informed dialogue:  Having a written record of people’s comments, together with offline time to do research, allowed participants to “fact check” statements and post corrections.  This allowed popular myths to be debunked and inaccurate claims rectified.
  • Different moderation approaches are required: The dialogue required more active or “present” moderation, through regular questions, polls, syntheses and daily summaries.  Online moderators also faced the challenge of keeping participants involved and engaged over a 2-week period.

Ultimately, online and in-person tools have different strengths and weaknesses.  Ideally, a process would have both and compare the dialogic outcomes of each.

That’s it for now.  Stay in touch to get the full debrief of the health care dialogue later this winter!

– Ellis Westwood and Manon Abud -

Participation and Open Government Web Sites
Wednesday, December 23rd, 2009

Joe Goldman, AmericaSpeaks
Joseph Peters, Ascentum

The recently-released Open Government Directive requires all federal agencies to create an open government web site within 60 days that provides the public with opportunities to provide input on the agency’s open government plan, publishes key data sets, and provides information about opportunities to participate in agency activities, among other things.

Here are additional elements that may be included on the sites to address the participation and collaboration goals of the Open Government Directive…

Read more here about participation and open government websites.

Picture 1

US Government launches the Open Government Directive
Friday, December 11th, 2009

And the next generation in government-public collaboration.

This week, the White House released its Open Government Directive – a bold initiative to change the way US government agencies share information with and involve the public.

It’s a big and welcome step forward in creating a more citizen-centred and participatory government that embraces new technologies.

The Open Government Directive is based on three core values:

  • Transparency. Government should provide citizens with information about what their government is doing so that government can be held accountable.
  • Participation. Government should actively solicit expertise from outside Washington so that it makes policies with the benefit of the best information.
  • Collaboration. Government officials should work together with one another and with citizens as part of doing their job of solving national problems.

During the Directive’s official launch, White House staff practiced what they preach. They broadcast the launch live on as well as in a custom-built Facebook application. The public could post comments and questions via Facebook Twitter and the White House site. You can read more here.

The launch of open government, done in an open way.

Picture 1

But what will the Open Government Directive really do?

Over the next 120 days, federal agencies are required to develop their own dedicated webpages to foster and support greater transparency and public participation, as well as a formal plan for how it will incorporate public participation and collaboration into what it does.

We think this will lead to more sustainable, and therefore more effective, policy decisions and directions.

So, it’s an exciting time to be helping governments and citizens connect and work together!

– Ellis Westwood -

Building the Business Case For Social Media
Friday, December 4th, 2009

Social media is here.  There are 100s of millions of users worldwide and a strong majority of our population actively uses social media.  This is in our own backyard.  Regardless of the stats, senior management in business, government, and not-for-profits still need to be convinced.  Those with a more substantive understanding of social media know that it’s long past the status of “just for the kids.”

Some organizations have already taken the plunge with great success, like Honda or the Centres for Disease Control. Other organizations closer to home, like the Public Health Agency of Canada and Veterans Affairs, have taken positive steps forward.  Regardless, the case still needs to be made for those islands of business and government that continue to remain isolated from social media.

It might be nice to think that there is one magic formula that can be used to convince organizational leadership that social media needs to be more than just on their long-range radar.  Organizational culture and dynamics demand us to put the need in the specific context and reality of the organization.  I have attached a link to a blog by Amber Naslund (thanks to Tim for sharing) that puts a list of 20 questions to consider in “making the case.”  It’s not perfect but it provides some good food for thought.

Also, don’t forget our social media video.  It is a cornucopia of stats that may still be surprising to some.

Here is the link:

I hope that you find this helpful.


PS – Manon and I are chairing/presenting at the 5th Annual Managing Public Consultations course in Ottawa on Dec 7th and 8th.  We’ll make sure to post our presentations.

A Government of Canada First on YouTube
Friday, November 27th, 2009

Veterans Affairs Canada launched their branded YouTube channel just in time for Remembrance Day.  They really got things started on the right foot (marching pun is not intended).  First they have some great content – the feature video is done well.  They also have some footage of veterans sharing their experiences.

One of the most interesting innovations is one that you can no longer see.  They purchased a YouTube “home page takeover” ad a few days before Remembrance Day.  This is a special type of video ad in a player right on the primary YouTube homepage for Canadian viewers. (Note – these ads are quite inexpensive relative to their reach).

While the hundreds of thousands of impressions and thousands of clicks are certainly of interest, it is the timing that is important. They didn’t do it on Remembrance Day.  They started to build interest beforehand.  They laid the foundation for Canadians to embrace the day itself.

Veterans Affairs have gotten off to a great start. You know how much we appreciate social media community-building efforts. Let’s hope they keep it up.

Here is a link for you to take a look.

Let us know what you think.


PS – We may have heard some credible rumours that more GoC YouTube channels are to come!  Stay tuned.

Veterans Affairs Canada on YouTube

Facebook and Privacy: A new policy and advice to help users protect their personal information
Sunday, November 22nd, 2009

Facebook has given us the tools to protect our privacy – we just have to use them!

Online SecurityFacebook has just released a brand new privacy policy that responds to the Privacy Commissioner of Canada’s concerns about protecting personal information. And that’s great news for all of us.

The fact that Facebook responded so quickly and publicly to the Commissioner shows that Facebook takes privacy seriously.

An easy-to-understand privacy statement… for real!?
To put it simply, the new Facebook privacy policy is brilliant. It’s written in plain English (no sneaky fineprint or lawyer words) so that anyone can read and understand it. And, Facebook actually invited comments on a draft of the new policy from members of its user community and received 1000s, so people have had a voice in helping shape it.

3rd party apps and your privacy
Part of Facebook’s success has been that other companies have developed mini-applications, like games or quizzes, to provide users with a more fun and engaging experience. Some of these 3rd party apps gather personal information; for example to post a status update to a user’s friends about a new high-score they’ve got.

The new privacy policy clarifies that Facebook requires all developers of these apps to respect people’s privacy settings and places strict limits on how user information is collected, stored and used.

We all need to play a more active role in protecting our privacy
Ultimately, Facebook’s new policy reminds us that we each need to play a more active role in protecting our own personal information. Facebook can’t stop your friends from sharing any embarrassing Halloween party pictures elsewhere online if they choose to!

It’s up to each of us to choose the privacy settings we are comfortable with. To get started, select the “privacy” option under settings in your Facebook account! You can decide who can have access to what information.

Facebook Security Options

– Ellis Westwood -

What Public Officials Want To Know About New Technology
Monday, November 16th, 2009

One of Ascentum’s good friends, Brad Rourke, wrote a great piece today on what public officials want to know about new technology.

You can read Brad here.

Citizens, Community And Social Media Lessons, Cases And More Lessons By Joseph Peters
Thursday, November 12th, 2009

View more presentations from Ascentum

“Citizens, Community and Social Media – Lessons, Cases and More Lessons” by Joseph Peters
Thursday, November 12th, 2009

Presentation to the National League of Cities.
San Antonio, Texas
November 12, 2009

What is social media?
How is it differrent?
How can you use social media?

You can also download a PDF copy of the presentation here.

Introducing Government Agencies to Web 2.0: When A Visitor Becomes A Community
Wednesday, November 11th, 2009

Joe Goldman, AmericaSpeaks
Joseph Peters, Ascentum

Social media is here to stay. For corporations, political campaigns, nonprofit organizations and government agencies, it is changing the way we interact with our clients, stakeholders and the public at large. The traditional notion of the target audience is now too limiting a concept.

With social media we must think beyond target audience and conceive of target communities. The opportunities to collaborate with your target communities are endless. The potential to engage those that matter most to your organization is now unparalleled…

Read more here about government agencies and web 2.0

Introducing Government Agencies to Web 2.0: When A Visitor Becomes A Community

Open Policy Making 101: 10 Questions To Ask Before Launching Your Online Public Consultation
Wednesday, November 11th, 2009

Joe Goldman, AmericaSpeaks
Joseph Peters, Ascentum

When done right, online public consultations can be very rewarding experiences that produce significant value for everyone involved. Here are ten key questions to consider while soaring in the blue skies, before you take the plunge…

Read more here about launching your online public consultation

Canada: “Blogger Nation”?
Wednesday, November 11th, 2009

Nearly 60% of Canadian web users read blogs. What does this mean for dialogue and deliberation?

You’ve probably heard a lot about blogs recently. Maybe you even write your own!

Short for weblogs, people use blogs to write about things that are important to them: whether it’s news, politics or a simply a personal diary.

Blogs may seem like new “fad” technology, but they have exploded in popularity over the past two years. The reality is that people read blogs in large numbers!

A recent study shows that almost 60% of Canadian internet users read blogs – more than in the US, UK or Europe!

But, what does this mean for dialogue and deliberation? Well, it means…

  • People are becoming more interested in reading other people’s stories, ideas and commentary.
  • More blog readers means more Bloggers. People, as well as organizations, are becoming more interested in sharing their own experiences in an online space.
  • Citizens are looking beyond “traditional” media sources for news and views about what’s happening in the world.
  • Blogs, in addition to popular tools like Facebook, are leading to the growth of personal networks online where people develop relationships and share conversations.

Blogs are about helping people learn new ideas and share points of view.

So, more blogs means more dialogue and deliberation! And that’s good news for all of us…

– Ellis Westwood -

North West Local Health Integration Network
Wednesday, November 11th, 2009

North West Local Health Integration Network (LHIN)

Share Your Story, Shape Your Care community online dialogue

NW LHIN header
Northwestern Ontario is a unique place with a special set of health care challenges.  People living in the region have poorer health than anywhere else in Ontario, and have the furthest to travel to access health services.  It’s a population of a few hundred thousand people spread across an area the size of France.

LHIN IAP2 logoThe North West Local Health Integration Network (LHIN) manages how heath services are delivered and knew they needed to listen to and involve local communities in setting a care plan for the future.  That’s why they decided to work with Ascentum.  The resulting partnership led to Share Your Story, Shape Your Care – a game-changing online engagement initiative that received the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2)’s inaugural Innovation of the Year award for 2009.

Ascentum built a suite of online and in-person tools to involve local patients, health care workers and stakeholders.   These included an online deliberative Choicebook™, a stories and ideas sharing platform and a creative community Conversation Guide to empower people to host their own dialogues on local health care solutions at home, at work or in their neighbourhoods.

By the time Share Your Story, Shape Your Care had ended, the LHIN had:

  • Heard from over 800 people across Northwestern Ontario
  • Learned more about patients’ and health professionals’ experiences with the health care system
  • Identified clear public values and priorities for the future of local health care.
  • Gathered 100s of new insightful ideas on how to provide services differently and more effectively

Share Your Story, Shape Your Care allowed the North West LHIN to develop a health services plan that more closely reflected the values of local communities and their health care needs.

And, it further enhanced their reputation as a government agency that listens closely to public views and gives them close consideration when making tough decisions.

The Choicebook was an interactive experience that allowed participants to provide informed perspectives on key issues, through facts, scenarios and background information. It collected by qualitative and quantitative data that was straightforward and highly accurate.

LHIN Workbook screenshot

This tool allowed participants to share their own experiences and their own solutions directly with the North West LHIN.  People could also choose to make their story or idea public, posted in near-realtime after review for appropriateness.

Conversation Guide
This tool was designed to foster small participant-led and organized group dialogues in communities across Northwestern Ontario, with simple steps to send the results back to the LHIN.  Different participant and facilitator versions helped people run moderate their own conversations, even if they had never done so before.

LHIN Facilitator's Guide
LHIN Conv Guide ShotTo learn more about this project, please contact us.

Moose FM 93.5 Interview with Joseph Peters of Ascentum
Tuesday, November 10th, 2009

Moose FM 93.5 Interview with Joseph Peters of Ascentum

Listen to the interview in an MP3 format

CBC Interview with Joseph Peters of Ascentum
Tuesday, November 10th, 2009

CBC Interview with Joseph Peters of Ascentum

Listen to the interview in an MP3 format

E-Consultation: Enabling Democracy between Elections
Tuesday, November 10th, 2009

E-Consultation: Enabling Democracy between Elections

Joseph Peters and Manon Abud, with commentaries by Kathleen McNutt and Colin McKay


Download “E-Consultation: Enabling Democracy between Elections”

Media Release

Download IRPP Media Release


Download IRPP Podcast in an MP3 format

Globe and Mail Article “It’s time to e-consult our citizens”
Tuesday, November 10th, 2009

Globe and Mail Logo

Globe and Mail Article “It’s time to e-consult our citizens” by Joseph Peters

Read a full version of the article here

Ascentum’s new web site in it’s final stage of development
Sunday, November 8th, 2009

Once upon a time, there was a need, which turned into an idea, which has developed into a collaborative effort to build a new company’s web site. We, the tech team, are happy to present v2.0.

Web 2.0: The Digital Quill
Tuesday, November 3rd, 2009

Blogging. Skyping. Instant messaging. Podcasting. Facebook. YouTube. RSS Feeds. Second Life. Wikipedia. Shall I go on?

If you are reading this blog, you may have some notion of how these new darlings of cyberspace – along with a host of brothers, sisters and cousins – are revolutionizing the way people connect with one another. You’ve probably also noticed that they seem to be sneaking their way in to every corner of private and public life, from your teenager’s social agenda to a visit from grandma via Web cam; from the campaign trail to the news anchor’s desk. Even Stéphane Dion has 11,613 Facebook friends!

What does it all mean? Where is it all going? Who’s driving this rollercoaster anyway? Well… We are! Welcome to Web 2.0 and the world of the “Social Web”. A world where Internet technology is increasingly interactive, conversational and participatory. A world where “prosumers” have the power to produce and consume inform

ation simultaneously. A world where meaning is layered, distributed, constructed, deconstructed and reconstructed. A world where “community” means “you and I connected”, not necessarily “you and I together”. A world where strangers bare their soul to each other across time zones and continents… without leaving the comfort of their respective homes. I know, I know. It’s all a bit crazy, really… Exciting and scary too… We are like children who have gotten their hot little hands on a big brother or sister’s shiny new toy, without parental supervision!

Web 2.0 is just warming up. We haven’t even seen the best of it yet. And after that will come Web 3.0! While the critiques of this cyber-progress (often rightly) point out that for all this “connectedness”, people are increasingly individualistic and isolated, the Web is here to stay… The onus is therefore on us to harness the power of these tools in a way that is positive, productive and responsible, so as to serve the greater good. After all, look at the web of knowledge and ideas that the political, scientific and literary luminaries of the 18th and 19th century managed to spread across the world using their parchment and quills… Imagine what we could do with this digital quill!

– Manon Abud -

Mental Health Commission of Canada
Monday, November 2nd, 2009

MHCC logoEngaging Canadians in a Dialogue to Set the Goals for a Pan-Canadian Mental Health Strategy: Stakeholder Dialogues and Online Public & Stakeholder Consultation

The Challenge

In 2007, the federal government, in collaboration with provincial and territorial governments, announced the creation of the Mental Health Commission of Canada – an organization mandated to be the catalyst for the development and implementation of a mental health strategy for Canada, one that will ultimately lead to a deeply transformed mental health system.

Canada’s lack of a national mental health strategy is in part  a result of our constitutional reality: health care and social services are largely the responsibility of provincial and territorial governments. Given this fact, the Commission though tasked with leading the creation of a mental health strategy for Canada, does not have the authority to implement or evaluate it. Consider therefore the Commission’s challenge: the creation of a consensus-based framework to guide the implementation of a comprehensive, pan-Canadian strategy for mental health promotion, prevention and treatment… while working within the parameters of  Canada’s complex constitutional context and history, and given a vast array of competing interests for limited resources.

The Approach

As it embarked on this journey, the Commission felt it was critically important to engage as wide a range of people as possible, including: people living with mental health problems and illnesses, their families and caregivers, mental health service providers, researchers and policy experts. It also wanted to connect with  people who are concerned about mental health issues, whether or not they are currently involved with the mental health system.

To this end, Ascentum collaborated with the Commission to design and deliver a series of 15 regional stakeholder dialogues, along with a parallel online consultation process open to all individuals and organizations with an interest in this issue:

Regional dialogues

Ascentum designed, facilitated and reported on 15 full-day dialogue sessions, which brought together a diverse mix of individuals and stakeholders, including two sessions dedicated to delving deeper into the specific perspectives, needs and concerns of Canada’s Aboriginal peoples (through their national leadership) and of health and social/community services professionals (through their national professional associations).

MHCC ReportThese dialogues were designed to provide participants with an opportunity to learn about the proposed strategy Framework (which outlined 8 proposed goals for the strategy) in plenary and small groups, and to provide concrete feedback on what they liked, were concerned about and wanted to change/add to the Framework. The facilitators also used electronic voting keypads to test agreement with each proposed goal and with the Framework as whole  at the beginning and end of the day, to measure shifts in perspectives. A summary of the day’s discussion was posted on the Commission’s blog at the end of each session.

Innovative online participation website: public and stakeholders

Ascentum developed and hosted a customized participation website on its platform. First, an online workbookTM provided a brief overview of the Commission’s proposed Framework and allowed participants to react to each goal through a mix of close-ended and open-ended questions. The online workbook also included pre- and post-test questions to measure shifts in views on the 8 proposed goals as a result of completing the online workbook. Members of the general public and representatives of stakeholder groups completed the same online workbook to facilitate a comparative analysis of their respective perspectives.

Second, each audience was offered the opportunity to provide “free form” qualitative comments –  in the form of personal stories and ideas for members of the public and more formal comments and suggestions for stakeholder organizations. Public participants could choose to register or participate anonymously, and could elect to share their stories and ideas on the website for other visitors to read or submit them for analysis only.

Participation Website: Online Workbook:

MHCC Workbook Screenshot

Participation Website: Shared Stories

MHCC Stories Image

The Results

Over 450 people, from coast to coast to coast, participated in the Commission’s Regional Dialogues, between January and April 2009. In addition, over 1,700 members of the general public and 300 stakeholder groups availed themselves of the opportunity to share their views with the Commission online between February 11 and March 31, 2009, completing some 1,800 online workbooks and providing over 465,00 words of comments (just a few pages short of “War and Peace”!). Moreover, in their evaluations of the process, the majority of participants expressed their willingness to remain engaged in the Commission’s work moving forward.

The Commission’s commitment to active listening was demonstrated by the extent to which it revised the final Framework document to reflect the weight and direction of public and stakeholder input: the Framework document was substantially modified to reflect what they heard, including the insertion of a vision statement, a reframing of the goal statements, the redefinition of key concepts and the elimination of one goal. Most importantly, as it engages in the most difficult portion of this journey – defining HOW to achieve the goals set out in the revised Framework – the Mental Health Commission of Canada can leverage the relationships and trust it has begun to build through this process  – all with a view to catalyze the change hoped for by the one in four Canadians who live with or have experienced mental health problems and illnesses.

Public Health Agency of Canada
Monday, November 2nd, 2009

Social Media Strategy and Implementation

Public health is in the middle of a paradigm shift.

SARS, Asian Bird Flu, H1N1 and other global pandemics are spreading more rapidly than at any time in human history because of globalization and travel.   The effects of these diseases have been severe and the public is growing increasingly concerned about their health and safety.

From these and other disease outbreak experiences, governments have learned that they need to change the way they respond to these new health threats.

Their clinical responses need to be more coordinated, flexible and scalable.  However, just as important, governments need to communicate in new and innovative ways to inform their publics and enable people to make informed choices about protecting their health.

PHAC Info SmallSocial media provides agencies with powerful new ways of leveraging social networks to spread health information to members of the public and other stakeholders.  Tools like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Blogger can help forward-looking governments to proactively take critical health advice to “where people are” on social media rather than leaving people to find information on their own – often from inaccurate or unreliable sources.

That’s why the Public Health Agency of Canada decided to work with Ascentum to design and build a strategic social media presence.

The results have been nothing short of powerful.  In a matter of weeks, 1000s of Canadians become “fans” of the Agency on Facebook, receiving real-time updates on H1N1 when they most needed it.  Others have used the Agency’s innovative H1N1 Information Centre to share personalized information on the virus.  And, the Agency has recently launched the first branded YouTube channel of any government organization in Canada.

We’re proud of the Public Health Agency of Canada for their passion for using social media and are proud of what our partnership with them has been able to achieve.  By having personalized health advice shared through their social networks, Canadians are able to make more informed decisions to protect their health.

Keep reading to learn more about Ascentum’s social media services for the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Social Media Strategy

Ascentum worked with the Public Health Agency of Canada to create its first social media strategy.  In fact, this was one of the first social media strategies developed by any Government of Canada organization.

It’s easy to start using social media; it’s harder, but more important, to design an appropriate strategy for how your organization wants to use social media.  Ascentum helped the Public Health Agency of Canada think strategically about how to get the most out of its social media approach.

Together, we spent time thinking carefully about who the Agency wanted to engage through social media, for what purposes, on what issues and involving which tools.  The strategy also allows them to gather data and measure success.

PHAC Target Audiences

Facebook Information Centre

Picture 2

Ascentum and the Public Health Agency of Canada understood that, with over 12 million Canadians as active users, Facebook presented a powerful vehicle to disseminate timely health advice to members of the public.

Using its in-depth expertise on Facebook, Ascentum designed and built a customize H1N1 Information Centre for the Agency.  This made health information available in personalized “bit size” pieces that people could share with their friend on Facebook.  There was a mini-factbook for pregnant women and another for parents of children in daycares or schools.  There were even quizbooks where people could test their knowledge of H1N1.

In addition, visitors could get regular news updates on Facebook as “fans” of the Agency’s presence or via viral messaging shared through social networks.  This has helped the Public Health Agency of Canada build relationships and grow its community.

PHAC Info Cent + Tool

To learn more about our social media work with the Public Health Agency of Canada, please contact us.

Speak Up for Change!
Sunday, November 1st, 2009


Some people think that Facebook is just a place for people to play and share silly status updates – not to achieve anything serious or productive….

We disagree and formed a partnership with some of Canada’s leading public affairs and media organizations to see if Facebook could be used to foster dialogue on important policy questions.

What we found through Speak Up for Change has revolutionized public participation.

Speak Up Partners

Speak Up for Change was an Ascentum-created Facebook application.

It invited people to learn about Canada’s energy challenge and to decide how, if they were a decision maker, they would solve our energy problems in the future.  Beyond top-of-mind, kneejerk responses, the online Choicebook gave participants the opportunity to make the tough choices necessary to find solutions.

Speak Up Front

Hundreds of Canadians have already taken part and spoken up for change.  On the application’s Facebook page, people have stayed involved and formed part of a growing online community.  Some joined as friends or fans of the Speak Up for Change app.  Others have returned to post further thoughts, ideas, links and experiences on the application’s wall.

So, what did Speak Up for Change tell us about Facebook and online participation?

Speak Up for Change underlined Ascentum’s experience that people want to participate in dialogue on decisions that affect them.  But, they want to take part in engaging ways and involve their friends.

That’s why Ascentum used its content and creative expertise to build an application that was attention–grabbing, interactive and fun to complete.  The Choicebook experience provided people with the key facts, perspectives and arguments they needed to make an informed choice about their future.

Who says public participation cant be fun?

Speak Up Slides

Speak Up for Change is an ongoing social and technology experiment.

It’s already shown the future of online public participation and demonstrated that Facebook can be used successfully as a platform to foster dialogue between people on questions that matter.

To hear more about Speak Up for Change and about what we are learning about social media and public participation, please contact us.

Values and Ethics: Involving Employees
Tuesday, October 27th, 2009

How do you involve employees in developing your organization’s values and ethics framework?

Employee retention and the dwindling supply of ‘talented’ labour are serious challenges for today’s managers. A content and productive workforce takes more than money and unique benefits. Creating a setting where people feel comfortable, safe and equipped to make decisions is often just as important. The development and integration of a values and ethics framework is key to creating this type of setting. The question is how do we do this well?

Developing an effective values and ethics framework requires a commitment to involve and listen to employees in a meaningful way. People want a voice and want to be heard, especially on issues that matter to them. The development of a legitimate values and ethics framework should include a number of involvement activities. Information-based activities are usually “passive” since they do not necessarily provide a means to involve people, who can choose to act upon or ignore the information that is provided. Typical examples include the use of websites, brochures, fact sheets and advertisement campaigns. While information-based activities are key to providing a sound basis for informed input, activities that enable meaningful participation and interaction are essential to ensuring that the framework reflects the values of employees across the organization. In other words, for the framework to be internalized by employees, they “must see themselves in it”. Otherwise, it becomes another meaningless management edict.

Of course, there are challenges. As involvement increases so do the level of effort, expectations and commitment to using the input. Inviting employees to consider all sides of a particular issue means presenting them with balanced, unbiased information. Developing this content is not an easy undertaking – particularly in the area of values and ethics where the issues are rarely black and white. Moreover, creating an environment where employees are able to feel free to challenge organizational practices and unwritten rules and to collaborate and make informed decisions will, in many cases, require them to act in ways they are not used to or comfortable with. Managers must lead by example and model the desired behaviours. They must also create the conditions for success, encourage, support, and above all manage expectations of employees through this process.

Despite the challenges, the end results will be greater than the sum of the parts. Meaningful employee involvement is key to producing a values and ethics framework that employees will relate to and be inspired by. It will also help increase loyalty and organizational attachment.

– Rob Mariani -

Public Action Technology – Micro Loans
Tuesday, October 20th, 2009

You have to take a look at this site.

While this is not public involvement technology, per se, I would argue that is a close relative. Maybe a sibling, maybe a cousin, but regardless it is a neat idea that shows how to transform public involvement to public action online.

One of the toughest challenges of public involvement is to make the connection between input/conversations and the actions, results or outcomes. It isn’t always clear. Let’s take an issue like “how can we help the third world?” I think it is possible to say that there have been many many conversations about how the first world can help the third world, but it is always difficult to see how an individual can make a difference. This site allows individuals to make small loans to entrepreneurs in the third world. How small is small? It starts at $25. To someone in Canada that might be a movie and popcorn, to someone in Bolivia that can finance product to sell in a local market. It really makes a difference. The BEST part is that 99% of the loans get repaid. Absolutely remarkable.

Check it out. Not public involvement, but incredible public action technology in action.

– Joe Peters -

How little do web users read?
Tuesday, October 13th, 2009

How do users read on the web?
They don’t.

According to web usability guru Jakob Nielsen, people rarely read web pages word-by-word.  Instead, they scan the page, picking out individual words and sentences.

In fact, Nielsen has recently drawn attention to a study on web use that concludes visitors read at most 28% of the words on an average page visit.  But, he believes 20% is a better rule of thumb.

So, what does all this mean for public involvement?

  • Keep text simple – and to a minimum.  Public involvement tools shouldn’t put people off with piles of text.  Instead, messages can be communicated in tables or creative images. Plus, tricks like bullets and bold font are still better than nothing.
  • But, the real task is to create a truly participant-centred experience.   We think public involvement is about creating a transformative communication experience between hosts and participants.  And, new technologies make this possible.  Online, video, audio and flash animation create simple, powerful and breathtaking experiences that people can actively engage with.

One day, it would be fun to hear what Jakob Nielsen thought of our public involvement tools. We’ve certainly used his advice to design online experiences we think are truly accessible.

… But if he’s right, you’ve probably given up reading this blog post anyway.  So, I’ll sign-off here!

– Ellis Westwood -

“Sustainable” Public Involvement? You Betcha!
Tuesday, October 6th, 2009

In our world, the notion of “sustainability” might be described as the impacts of a public involvement process, and its linkages to action, over time. This is important because… well… one would hope that we don’t invest ourselves in public involvement initiatives just for the fun it! Public participation is often about changing – or challenging – the status quo. It requires time, energy, and commitment, both on the part of the sponsor and of the participants. If public participation processes are to be more than cosmetic public relations initiatives or “one hit wonders”, then the issue of sustainability is a central one… In this regard, we can set three lofty goals:

  1. Sustaining the energy of public involvement champions: let’s face it, meaningful public involvement has not yet become standard practice. However, change is coming about thanks largely to a smattering of committed individuals who are acting as the drivers of change in their organizations. They need to be recognized, supported and connected because their job is often a difficult and thankless one.
  2. Sustaining individual transformations: participation in a meaningful public involvement process can often lead to changes in attitude and/or behaviour. The key is to create the conditions for the momentum to continue, that is for participants to internalize and apply in their life what they have learned or experienced during the public involvement process.
  3. Achieving sustainable deliberative democracy: the gold standard would be to eventually embed sound public involvement practices in the day-to-day business of our organizations and institutions. If we achieve goals 1 and 2, then this may eventually happen…

– Manon Abud -