A simple set of guidelines for your moderators is necessary to assist them in their tasks. A few pointers on the following should be provided:
- How to moderate
- How to guide discussion
- How to handle offensive comments
- How to balance personal opinions with being a public servant
You could provide your moderators with the information below as a general guide to moderation. Also see Gilly Salmon’s work on moderation in e-learning: http://coe.sdsu.edu/eet/Articles/salmonmodel/index.htm
How to moderateEdit
The basic steps in moderation are similar to the steps in facilitating a meeting. A good moderator will:
- start the discussion with an interesting and stimulating issue written up well and succinctly
- keep discussion on track by re-directing people’s posts back on to topic
- keep discussion moving by regularly posting themselves and having topic related questions ready to post if discussion flags
- involve members who are not participating much by emailing them directly or targeting a question at their general interests
- regularly summarise discussion and post summaries with a follow-up question to move discussion further
- at the end of a discussion period, thank members and provide a final summary
- provide discussion members with feedback on what has happened to their comments (eg they were fed into policy development and the resultant policy is…)
Introduce the topicEdit
The moderator will begin each new discussion with a short introductory paragraph or two outlining the issue and highlighting the key questions for discussion.
Example: Darebin e-Forum “4 key environment issues” discussion group
This is an introduction to a discussion thread on “sustainable transport programs” within the “4 key environment issues” discussion group. Note it is short, to the point, asks a question to get discussion moving and provides html links for further information.
Keep discussion on trackEdit
The moderators of a forum should be firm but not too prohibitive. If you think someone is going off topic, it is important to be respectful of their comment but bring the discussion back on track by asking a question back on topic.
Discussion thread: What are people’s views of the use of bicycle lanes and other bicycle support programs?
Comment: I think that climate change is really overstated. The academics don’t speak clearly and we don’t really know for sure if what they say is true.
Moderator: Thanks for that comment. The topic of climate change is probably out of the scope of this discussion but perhaps you would like to discuss it in our off-topic forum or submit it as a future topic via our topic suggestion form.
Back to bicycle support programs, I saw that there were some interesting earlier comments about the possibility of limiting the hours of usage of bike lanes on busy roads. Other communities in Canada which have done this indicate that this can be prohibitive to bike usage at all, defeating the purpose somewhat. Other ideas are making protective fluoro gear compulsory, driver training, and a no-liability policy for bike riders in case of traffic accidents. What are your views?
In the above example the moderator has offered the forum member alternative forums for their comment and has restarted discussion on topic. If you do not have an off-topic forum or some other appropriate forum for the off-topic comment, simply thank the person for their comment and bring the discussion back on track.
The moderator is also the gatekeeper, checking comments either before they go on the site or once they are already up (Darebin checks posts before they get published, whereas Brisbane lets posts go up without being checked and checks comments once they are already up in case there are comments that should be taken down). There is no hard and fast rule about what comments not to permit on to a Forum, but anything rude, offensive or potentially libellous should be eliminated. Anything off-topic should be included but a moderator comment could follow immediately afterwards, bringing things back on track.
Consider involving citizens in topic creationEdit
You might want to allow your citizens to create discussion threads and start topics themselves. However it might be best in the first instance to start up just Council starting topics and go from there until you are really used to the Forum concept and how it works.
Instead of allowing citizens to start topics, you could:
- have an additional forum or topic area where citizens can start their own discussion threads, such as that used in Japan (Richards: 2002)
- have an “off-topic forum” for topics that are not on the topic being discussed, providing a kind of overflow area for general discussion or issues of interest to Forum members
- have an online topic suggestion form where citizens can suggest topics for the Forum
- Conduct research into what are hot topics
- provide opportunity for participants to identify potential new topic areas as part of their e-Forum evaluation
- develop participation rules and purpose of discussion
Charter and rulesEdit
Key Forum elements to support good moderation are:
- have Forum participation rules in place. Members are bound by the rules as soon as they participate.
- have a charter for each discussion. This sets out the aims of the discussion, giving members a sense of purpose.
- define the community's purpose (using a mission statement, a strong site personality)
See E-Forums: Rules
Develop personal connectionsEdit
You may wish to use less formal language and a more conversational tone to draw out participants’ experience and show that you have a personality. To balance this with being a Council representative, it might be best to have an elected official or a third party act as moderator on sensitive policy issues. Encouraging participants to introduce themselves and making sure that everyone uses their actual names on the forum is a way to help connections being made.
Balance “personal connections” with representing your CouncilEdit
As a public servant you are representing your local council when participating on the forum. You can balance this with contributing your personal opinions as you would in any face-to-face consultation or meeting. If you are the co-moderator who is the subject matter expert on a topic and you want to contribute something from your personal experience to the discussion, you can do so as long as you are aware that to do this has the advantage of being seen to be “human” by the other participants, but that you should also be aware that you are still representing the Council on the forum and therefore should make it clear when a post by you is personal.
It may be easier in the first instance to remain relatively neutral until you are used to the online consultation environment and moderating discussions in that arena. It will also be helpful if you have an independent third party person in your subject matter area who you can call on to moderate sensitive issues and you can always deal with an especially tricky issue off-line, eg by emailing or calling a forum member if they have raised something which can’t be discussed in an open forum, just as you might set up a separate face-to-face meeting with a community stakeholder or might take them aside to discuss a sensitive matter at a public meeting.
Example of balancing personal experience with Council representation: Darebin e-Forum
An example of where a co-moderator used personal experience in a discussion and where it was subsequently well received and stimulated discussion was on the Darebin e-Forum in discussion of green transport. The moderator contributed her personal experience of riding her bike from Lilydale to Darebin for work. This gave her a greater level of credibility amongst the forum participants and stimulated discussion dramatically. By making a personal connection which was still in line with the Darebin local council’s position on green transport, the subject matter co-moderator sparked a far more enthusiastic discussion.
See the below excerpt from Darebin e-Forum:
|Posted 09 Jun 2006 09:26 by Kate Myers [NB: Kate was the subject matter co-moderator in the environment discussion as she works in the Environment Department of Darebin City Council)
City of Darebin
|Posted 09 Jun 2006 09:50 by
WOW...i applaud you Kate, Lilydale to Preston is a very difficult trip for easy commuting in anything but a car.
roomy C or D class trams?
Get everyone involvedEdit
As in face-to-face meetings it is up to you to draw out the people who are not saying much on the forum. You may even privately request that your more outspoken participants wait 4-5 posts before they re-post so everyone has a go. Perhaps also note that perfect grammar is not required, so that people with lower literacy skills do not feel intimidated.
As a moderator you should “acknowledge and respond to participant input in a meaningful and timely manner.” Make sure that no comment goes unnoticed and each is addressed, even if the response is merely an acknowledgement.
Trusted facilitation is the basis for democratic mediation. Technology enables connections to be made between representatives and the represented, but technology on its own does not facilitate deliberative engagement. Facilitation is a cultural-democratic function. The facilitator's role is to provide discursive focus, stimulate groups into interacting constructively, build a sense of team spirit or community, referee, troubleshoot and keep time.
An example of moderation on the Darebin e-ForumEdit
In the below example, the forum moderator is Monika Merkes, who oversees all forum discussions on the Darebin e-Forum and works with a subject matter expert from one of the Council’s departments who is a co-moderator on each discussion topic. In the example we see one of the forum participants going off track from the topic of the discussion. He begins to talk about the quality of the paper available rather than the issue of community harmony. Monika then politely but firmly begins him back on track.