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Engagement Best Practices

4 Reasons Discussions Strengthen Your Online Consultation


In today’s digital environment, online dialogue can be incredibly polarized on many popular platforms – in some cases, even reaching the level of harassment. It’s natural that many decision-makers may shy away from engaging on controversial issues online. However, that doesn’t diminish the importance of including well-moderated and respectful discussions or dialogue as part of your public consultation or engagement process.

1. Encourages collaboration amongst participants

Think about the last time you had a really productive, inspiring and stimulating discussion with a friend or family about a local issue. An open discussion encourages the exchange of ideas, which a survey or poll, while critical for collecting large-scale aggregate quantitative data, cannot facilitate.

Some of the best ideas grow from conversations between civically engaged participants. Discussions encourage people to think more deeply about the issues at hand, and allows for two-way dialogue: between the consultation proponent and participants, as well as between participants. It helps mimic the advantages of a townhall-style meeting but with all the benefits that come with hosting a consultation online.

In terms of the IAP2 Spectrum of Public Participation, engagement activities at the Consult, Involve, and Collaborate levels all require genuine dialogue to be truly successful.

2. Provides anecdotal evidence to support or challenge quantitative data

While data collected through polls and surveys can provide a broad overview of a population’s views, often it is not enough to support robust policy-making processes. It is well-known that statistics can be misleading or selectively interpreted in order to support or oppose certain policies. One of my favourite quotes is: “For data to become information, it must be contextualized, categorized, calculated and condensed.”

While anecdotes should never be used as the only source of evidence for decision-making, they can provide valuable insights and be used to complement or challenge findings from polls or surveys.

For example, simply knowing incarceration rates amongst certain populations is not particularly useful for crafting effective policy that tackles root causes. In-depth discussions allow for participants to share their lived experiences and provide a more human context around what those numbers mean, and the consequences of policy decisions.

3. Moves towards constructive engagement

While gathering more in-depth feedback, discussions can nudge participants to put themselves in the shoes of the decision-maker and ask them how they would act in a certain instance.

For example:

Don’t ask: “How should the City prioritize future spending on public transportation and infrastructure?”

Ask: “How would you prioritize future spending on public transportation and infrastructure?”

It is very easy for participants to make assumptions and say “the City” or “the government” should act a certain way or prioritize certain issues. It’s a lot harder when you ask them what they would do in this situation. Instead of getting a knee-jerk reaction, a constructive question forces participants to think about priorities, weigh different issues in their mind, and explain their reasoning.

4. Demonstrates openness and transparency

Openness and transparency shouldn’t just be buzzwords. In order to build public trust, collaborative decision-making that serves the entire community should be the ultimate goal. There is already serious mistrust and cynicism around the public input process, where people doubt that their feedback has an impact on the decisions being made.

Unfortunately, many citizen engagement processes look more like this:

Your consultation should include an online discussion component.

Responses from surveys, email forms, or closed panels go into a black box and decisions come out on the other side. Citizens are expected to trust that the decisions made have taken their input into account, but there is no way to verify whether that has been the case. Seeing is believing and people are more likely to trust open dialogue than closed processes where participants must wait until the consultation is over to see the results (if it is made public at all).

In our next post, learn five ways to facilitate respectful and meaningful online dialogue.

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To get started with your online public consultation, visit placespeak.com.


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