There is a crisis in the public consultation world.
Citizens have lost confidence in public consultations. They feel jaded. They no longer trust their decision makers, whether it be business leaders, politicians, or bureaucrats. They think that if—for example—there is a proposed real estate development, it will happen whether they have a say in it or not.
The current state of public consultations leaves a lot to be desired. Public meetings have become a stage to vent frustrations and a crusade for causes that often have no bearing on the project or proposal under consideration. People who don’t enjoy unpleasant, politically charged meetings do not attend, choosing to spend their evenings elsewhere. As a result, it is unlikely that the audience at public meetings accurately represents the sentiments of the broader community.
This is a shame. Public consultation is a key aspect of participatory democracy. Consultation is rooted in the idea of the knowledgeable persuasion of fellow residents, not the coercion, or the sneaking behind the backs, of peers. Engaging the public in a manner that inspires trust, confidence and collaboration is crucial to the long-term success of our communities—and beyond. Meaningful public consultations can enhance the ability of people to affect public policy development and political decision-making in their communities.
The Promise of Online Consultations
The ability to easily connect people with issues by bringing public consultation online holds great promise. Online tools can encourage greater participation in public consultations. They offer proponents additional ways to hear the voice of community members and talk with them through a less formal dialogue. They also provide another method to gauge public opinion to inform decision-makers. As a result, online public consultations can be more constructive.
1. Convenience, Expediency and Flexibility
Online consultation platforms can help engage people in more meaningful ways. Each resident has their own life, with multiple activities and responsibilities. They often don’t want to go to a public meeting that requires travel and a significant investment of time. Some people feel overwhelmed by the need to concurrently listen, reflect and respond immediately 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 offer the practical convenience of 24/7 access and location flexibility. Residents can research, reflect, engage, edit, and respond to issues on their own 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.
2. Enhanced Deliberation
Online consultations also provide opportunities for enhanced deliberation. The Internet eliminates several barriers and can reduce the peer pressure and social cues that limit participation in face-to-face meetings. Allowing residents to contribute to the discussion from the location of their choice helps to overcome the awkwardness and shyness that keeps some people from speaking in larger groups.
Online dialogue can also helps to overcome stereotypical and prejudicial cues based on a resident’s age, gender, ethnicity and socio-economic background. Reducing these communication barriers facilitates the participation of people who otherwise may exclude themselves from public consultations.
The asynchronous nature of online consultation allows for large-scale, many-to-many discussions and deliberations. The discussion threads allow readers to review and contemplate what others have said on without the pressures of time that often results in simplistic and heated real-time discussions. 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.
Rather than condensing a conversation into an evening or even a day, online consultations allow for prolonged discussion lasting up to three weeks. This allows for diverse points of view to be more fully explored. Additional consultation time also allows for a sense of trust to be established as rapport between participants grows over time.
Online consultations also increases civic knowledge. The web-based nature of the consultation platform encourages residents to access additional
information through customized pages and external links. This allows people to review
information about the policy issues, proposals or topics being discussed.
The ability to access additional information on-demand provides a level playing field for residents, enabling equal access to information and closes information gaps. This helps to increase resident awareness, enriches public debate, and leads to more fruitful discussions and 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 an integral part of their daily lives. Indeed, if they cannot connect online, they may not connect at all. Thus, excluding online consultations means excluding a large and growing segment of the community.
However, although computer and Internet access is near ubiquitous in many households, there remains a significant part of the population without access to a computer or the Internet at home. Engaging online therefore, should be seen as an adjunct—not a replacement—to more traditional face-to-face meetings and forums.
Engaging online also provides cost efficiencies when engaging with large numbers of or widely dispersed people. Online tools can distribute information to a dispersed audience quickly and relatively cheaply. You do not need to rent a meeting room, prepare printed documents or provide refreshments.
The cost and speed of processing large volumes of feedback is also significantly reduced when using online community engagement methods. This makes acknowledgement, analysis and feedback more efficient, timely, and cost-effective.
From Promise to Reality
The Internet offers great potential in bringing people together to discuss common concerns and exploring issues from varying perspectives. To help realize this promise, a new generation of online platforms like PlaceSpeak are offering new opportunities to enhance genuine consultation and public participation in local decision-making. The ultimate goal is to overcome the current crisis in public consultation by providing a safe online space to conduct meaningful dialogue on important issues.
About the Author
Yuri Artibise is the Director of Community Engagement for PlaceSpeak, an online platform that is advancing online public consultation by allowing citizens to influence the process in an open, safe, secure and transparent manner. PlaceSpeak works with various governments, industry, and non-governmental organizations to promote meaningful evidence-based online decision-making. Learn more at www.PlaceSpeak.com