Some thoughts on consultations online

Just posted on Ideal Government

Assuming Government want more people to take part in consultations then putting consultations online is 'a good thing'. Online consultations are often easier to run, more flexible and more likely to garner responses. Sending an email is much easier than responding to a paper-based consultation. Paper-based consultation processes usually involve, in my experience, the following steps:

  1. Find out about consultation (if you're lucky)
  2. Request the paper-work
  3. Wait
  4. Receive the respondents' pack (if you're lucky)
  5. Read through it all, perhaps do some more research if you're feeling keen
  6. Fill out the questionnaire or draft a letter in response
  7. Snail mail it
  8. Hope someone received your response and read it. Responses can go unacknowledged.

Online consultations, if done right, can consist of:

  1. Find out about consultation (if you're lucky)
  2. Read supporting information on website
  3. Respond via email or online form
  4. Hope someone received your response and read it. Responses can go unacknowledged but electronic acknowledgements are for more likely.

Such an abbreviated process is likely to draw in people who haven't previously participated in consultations, or even any political activity. However one challenge is that once these newcomers have done one consultation they may not return for another. Why? Because often it's impossible to see what impact their responses had. At the very least respondents want to see their arguments acknowledged in a summary of submissions. But truly people submit to consultations because they want to make a difference!

Politics is a game of negotiations and compromises between a wide number of interests. However people participating in consultations are not provided with this context. Their expectations are raised to the level that their lone voice will have a meaningful impact. But if the consultation has 7,000 responses and is for a policy at the pre-legislative stage it's going to be very hard for the respondent to see what impact they have had in any outcomes that do emerge.

So online consultations need to do the following to ensure that participants don't go away disappointed but keep engaging in political activities:

  • Explain clearly where in the legislative process the issue currently is (e.g. pre-legislative, legislative or post-legislative implementation stage).
  • Define how the responses will be dealt with, what output the respondent can expect and what other interests the Government expects to have to take into account on this matter.
  • Take email addresses and/or mobile numbers so participants can be told what is happening with the issue after they've put the effort in. So if the bill is passed – tell them!