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The Promise of Online Consultations

online consultations span generations

Flickr image by Phil and Pam

The ability to bring public consultations online to make it easy for people to connect with issues holds great promise.

Online tools can encourage greater participation in public consultations. They offer more ways to hear the voice of community members and to talk with them through a less formal dialogue. They also provide another method to gauge public opinion to inform land based planning and neighbourhood developments.

As a result public consultations can be more constructive and efficient way of engaging the community. Here are 5 more benefits to online consultation:


 5 Benefits of Online Consultations

1. Convenience, expediency and flexibility

Online consultation platforms can help engage people in more meaningful ways. Residents each have their own lives with multiple activities and responsibilities. They often do not have the inclination to go to a public meeting that requires travel and a significant investment of time. Even a simple act such as sending a letter to a politician requires many micro-tasks like buying a stamp and going to a mailbox. Some people feel overwhelmed by the need to concurrently listen, reflect and respond to information at a public hearing. They prefer having additional time to digest and reflect on the issues in question.

Online consultations are less limited by constraints such as place, time, mobility and other access restrictions. They offers the practical convenience of 24/7 access and location flexibility. Residents can research, reflect, engage, edit and respond to issues on their on time, at their own pace and in their own places. They can take the time to review a proposed development during their lunch break at work and comment on it from their kitchen once the kids are asleep.

From a proponent’s perspective, online consultations platform allows a level of reciprocity and engagement that is difficult and costly to conduct off-line. It can reach many more people in more meaningful ways than traditional open houses and focus groups. Online consultations also give the ability to customize information for targeted neighbourhoods and offer a diverse roster of communication tools to meet the specific needs of proponents and residents alike.

2. Enhanced Deliberation

The online environment eliminates several barriers and reduces the peer pressure and social cues that can limit participation in face-to-face meetings. Allowing residents to contribute to the discussion from the location of their choice helps some people overcome awkwardness and shyness that keep some people from speaking in larger group contexts. It also helps to overcome stereotypes and prejudice based on a resident’s age, gender, ethnicity or social-economic background.Eliminating these barriers facilitates the participation of people who otherwise may exclude themselves from public consultations.

Additionally, the asynchronous nature of online consultation allows for large-scale, many-to-many discussions and deliberations. Discussion threads allow readers to check and contemplate what others have said. Even if they do not actively post, the ability to listen and see what others have said is an important part of the deliberative process. Indeed online consultations can be seen as deliberation without the pressures of time or peers that often results in simple and heated in person discussions.

Rather than condensing a conversation into an evening or even a day, online consultations allow for prolonged discussion lasting up to two or three weeks. This allows for diverse points of view to be more fully explored. This extra time also allows for a sense of trust  to be established as rapport between participants grows over time.

3. Increased Civic Awareness

Online consultations acknowledge that residents come to public consultations from different backgrounds and with different knowledge bases. Web-based engagement encourages residents to get access to more information through customized pages and external links. This allows people to check information about the policy issues, proposals or topics being discussed.

The ability to get access to more information on demand provides a level playing field for residents, and closes many knowledge gaps. This helps to increase resident awareness, enriches public debate, leads to more fruitful discussions, and ultimately, better outcomes.

4. Reach Different Demographics

For many people, online technologies are a convenient, efficient means of interaction. This is especially true for younger generations, who see the internet as a part of their daily lives. Indeed if they can not connect online, they may not connect at all. Thus, excluding online consultations means excluding a large segment of the community. However, although computer and internet access is near ubiquitous in Canadian households, we understand that there still remains a small—but significant—part of the population without access to a computer or the internet at home. Engaging online therefore, should be seen as an adjunct, and not a replacement, to more traditional face-to-face meetings and forums.

5. Affordability

Online consultations provides cost efficiencies when engaging with large numbers of—or widely dispersed—people. Web-based tools can distribute information to a large or dispersed audience quickly and relatively cheaply. You do not need to rent a meeting room, prepare copies of printed documents or give refreshments. The cost and speed of processing large volumes of feedback is also much reduced when using online engagement tools. This makes acknowledgement, analysis, and feedback more efficient, timely, and cost-effective.


These are just 5 of the many benefits that engaging online can offer.  Stay tuned for more insights into why online consultations are an important trend that is gaining momentum.

In the meantime, please leave any questions, concerns or ideas you may have about the promise of online consultations in the comment section.


For more information on PlaceSpeak, check out our white paper, Bringing Public Consultations into the 21st Century on Scribd.


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