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Step 1. Setting your aims for e-Consultation

Before you decide the best combination of e-tools you want to use, ask yourself:

What is my aim for my e-Consultation?


For example, your aims might be:


  • General citizen engagement
  • Input on specific policy issues
  • Consultation
  • Feedback
  • Direct democracy (eg polls)
  • Community education
  • Combination of the above


Your aim will determine which e-Consultation tools you use. Forums, polls and surveys each achieve different aims and are best used in combination. This way you are giving people an option on how they get involved and you can use a poll to attract users to the forum or vice versa.


You might decide for one issue to just run a forum, whereas for another where you want more specific feedback you might use polls in addition to a forum.


Brisbane City Council uses a combination of tools for each of its consultations. See E-polls and surveys


In contrast Darebin does not use polls at all at present preferring to have general discussion about issues. See Darebin E-Forum: a case model


The below table is a rough guide matching your aims with e-consultation tools. You may want to consult with other areas of Council in determining your aims for the e-Forum.


Aim E-tools to use Example
I want to increase a general sense of citizen participation and community 1. e-Forum which covers general issues of interest in the Council area not necessarily linked to a current policy in development. For example: local parks; bicycle lanes; youth services; community harmony Darebin e-Forum discussion of community harmony at http://eforum.darebin.vic.gov.au/
2. Citizen-run or social e-Forums which permit individuals to start up their own communities eg a book club, gardening group, local knitting society online Examples: ABC Communities; My connected community; Community Builders NSW; Fujisawa Japan (government-hosted open topic forum offers one column for government led topics and one column for citizen led discussions) See Appendix 3 for links.
I want to engage in specific consultation on a policy that is being developed e-Forum Brisbane CC http://www.brisbane.qld.gov.au/BCC:BASE::pc=PC_76 Darebin: arts and leisure strategy http://eforum.darebin.vic.gov.au/
Online polls and surveys Brisbane CC http://www.brisbane.qld.gov.au/BCC:BASE::pc=PC_76
I want feedback from citizens on a policy but no actual discussion amongst them Online feedback form or forum / have your say form La Trobe City Council Feedback Forum http://www.latrobe.vic.gov.au/Feedback/Default.aspx?ForumTopicID=3 Online polls and surveys

Step 2: Get Council staff support

You need Council staff support in order to run an e-Forum. You are going to want other Departments to come up with topics and co-moderate discussions on the Forum, and spread the word about the Forum to their networks.


Ideas on how to engage other staff are listed below.


i. Inform your fellow Council workers about the new e-Forum

Work out what your e-Forum might be able to offer the other staff or Councillors in their work and then take the idea to them via:

  • face-to-face meetings
  • Intranet article on “What is an e-Forum”
  • Article in staff newsletter
  • presentations at various departments’ team meetings
  • memo to section heads
  • Put on a community engagement showcase promote your own tool along with getting others to promote what they are doing


In your information and presentations to Council areas, you can use the E-Forums:FAQs to help staff understand the rationale for e-Forums.


ii. Link the e-forum to Council’s core business

You can also present your e-Forum as part of Council’s core business as:

  1. A consultation tool. All policy makers have to engage in consultation on their policies.
  2. Part of councils’ strategic direction in increasing community engagement and participation. In Darebin the e-Forum was presented as means of actioning the Council’s overall strategic plan which had as one of its goals greater community engagement and participation, making the e-Forum an understandable part of core business.


iii. Get a champion amongst the Councillors or senior executive of the Council

It helps any project to have a champion amongst Councillors or senior executive, or an advocate in the community to push the e-Forum.

In Darebin the policy area which got the e-Forum off the ground secured the support of a member of senior executive to push the Forum. The senior executive was educated by the policy area in the benefits and uses of the e-Forum and its links into Darebin’s overall strategic direction and hence core business. He then championed the Forum with other Council departments and chairs the internal reference group for the e-Forum, lending the project weight and momentum. iv. Piggy-back on to existing Council consultations


Find out which areas of Council are about to engage in public consultation and offer them the use of the e-Forum.

v. Set up an internal reference group for the establishment of the e-forum

Example: Darebin e-Forum project reference group

Darebin established an internal project reference group for its e-Forum when it was in its pilot phase. The internal reference group comprises a representative from each Council department and is chaired by a member of the senior executive. This group meets from time to time to set the topics for the forum and discuss forum issues. It has been a successful strategy in engaging Council staff.

Step 3. Engage Councillors

A champion amongst the Councillors would be of benefit to the forum project. You could present a similar case as above to the Councillors, presenting the benefits for Councillors as follows:

  • forum can be used to get community input on issues of Councillor interest
  • forum can be used for ward-based surveys and dialogue
  • Darebin has had the experience that the e-forum has attracted more members than any public ward meeting


Note: Councillors should be participants, not controllers of the forum. It has been found in experiences elsewhere of online consultations that the Council staff are best placed to run a discussion otherwise participants grow sceptical and believe the forum to be a political vehicle rather than a real means for public participation in policy making. Councillors could therefore be amongst forum members commenting on topics, they could contribute to topic development and could be quoted in topic introductions or invited to participate as special expert guests, but they should never moderate the discussion or be seen to be too closely controlling a discussion.


Step 4: Get community support

You should also consider engaging community in the actual set up and design of your forum. They could be members of an external project reference group and be consulted on the first topics that should be discussed on the forum. This will help to ensure you have a ready group of forum members when your forum goes live.


Step 5: Develop topics

Next you need to develop a list of initial topics. You can run topics one at a time or run several discussions at once, depending on your time and resources.


Topics should ultimately be related to a current Council policy process to ensure the relevance to Council work. However to begin with you might want to select topics of interest to your community that have been flagged by citizens, even if they are not related to any specific piece of Council work. This is a good way of getting people on to the forum so that when you begin to discuss topics related to current Council policy issues, you have a ready membership group that is already familiar and willing to participate. For example, if “dogs in local parks” is a topic that keeps coming up amongst community, you could start discussions with this and then move to something Council is working on more immediately, such as urban renewal policy or a new arts and leisure strategy.


The topics that you then move to should have the input from all areas of Council to ensure the forum’s relevance across Council. You could:

  • set up a rotating timetable amongst Departments so each Department sets a topic every six months
  • Provide a topic suggestion form for citizens and Council staff on the Intranet and Internet
  • Link the topics on the forum to significant dates on the calendar such as World Environment Day, White Ribbon Day, Harmony Day, Reconciliation Week, local festivals
  • Link your topics calendar with the topics calendar of other Councils. For example, several councils in the same area could decide to run the same e-Forum topic at the same time, increasing a sense of momentum
  • Do an initial survey of citizens for topics, as a way to get them involved and do some name recognition marketing of the forum


Step 6: Develop participation guidelines, a discussion charter and moderation rules

See E-Forums: Rules for details.


Participation guidelines

You need a basic set of rules for forum members to adhere to. These are called “participation guidelines” and includes things like “be respectful of other people’s opinions” and “do not post offensive or libellous comments.”


Sample participation guidelines


Brisbane CC guidelines can be seen at http://www.brisbane.qld.gov.au/BCC:BASE:410773833:pc=PC_1621

Discussion charter

A discussion charter will set the parameters and timeframe for the topic and what will be the outcome of the discussion.

Sample discussion charter

Moderation rules

You should also decide on a few basic rules for moderators. For example, moderators:

  • can refuse permission to comments that are offensive
  • are to contribute to the discussion daily
  • are to summarise the discussion at the end of every two days and encourage further comments, with a final summary at the end of the discussion period
  • are to keep discussion moving
  • are to use their expert knowledge to contribute and can draw on personal experience to support comments, but should bear in mind that they are commenting on the forum in the capacity of a Council officer.

Moderator guidelines

Step 7: Set up the e-forum

Once you have a degree of internal and external support and a set of initial topics, you are ready to set up your forum. You should consider doing a pilot which you can user test to ensure the general usability of the site.


Work with your IT department to choose a technical option which best suits your needs. Some basic requirements you should ask for in your forum are listed below.


Things the site administrator (ie you or whoever is managing the forum) should be able to do:

  • moderate posts (this means that you can set the forum so that you have to approve a post before it goes on the site)
  • edit and delete posts and threads
  • confirm registrations
  • archive discussion threads
  • link to other webpages from within a post
  • limit the word count of a post
  • limit the user permissions of forum members (eg not permit users to upload images but administrator have permission to do so him/herself)
  • check web statistics on site traffic
  • send group emails to forum members


Additional requirements you may wish to include are:

  • have a listserv capability so that people can email their posts and the posts go directly up on the forum (Groupserver permits this)
  • allow for RSS feed
  • ability to upload image files within a post
  • ability to upload video content
  • conduct polls and surveys
  • collect further contact information on the users in the registration form in addition to email address - eg you might want to know the age, permanent suburb address, whether they live in the municipality or own a holiday home there. This requires modifiability of the registration form
  • add announcements to the forum


When you choose your forum software you have a choice between proprietary and open source software. E-democracy.org uses open source software Groupserver and recommends this for e-democracy initiatives. However it does require technical expertise to get up and running and to maintain.


There are a number of other free, easy to use open source forum applications available for download from the Internet – see for example http://onlinegroups.net/. The advantage of Groupserver over these is that it has the capability for people to email their posts and the posts be directly uploaded on the forum website. However this advantage might be outweighed by the technical expertise required to run Groupserver.

Software type Pros Cons
Open source software Available for free Large online open source community of support Adheres to principles of community sharing Not supported by a specific provider. However you might be able to pay for its integration with your Council’s existing content management system and you could probably find a web company that you would have to pay for on-call technical support.
Proprietary software Can pay for support Can pay for integration with existing web content management system in use by Council You have to pay.


Step 8: Market your e-forum

Marketing your forum is a critical step to ensuring it gets used and is therefore useful to Council.


The following three points were drawn from Canadian Online Consultation Centre for Expertise http://www.pwgsc.gc.ca/onlineconsultation/

Reach out regularly


Online consultation activities require extensive promotion and ongoing support to reach and engage participants. Use email alerts, indices with relevant personal information and regular updates. You can promote the e-forum by website cross-linking, print ads, print newsletters and conferences.


Encourage online participation in advance of going live

Client participation should be prepared in advance so you have at least a minimum of about 10 people who are more or less guaranteed to get discussion going. You might find that you need to get on the phone first to get participants online. Do not assume people will go online just because a discussion area has been created.


Maintain a contacts database

Your database of forum members must be in order. A good database is essential to enabling you to keep members interested and in touch.


Remember to use your existing online and off-line reach and marketing resources:


  • Talk to your marketing department early to develop a communications strategy for your forum.
  • If your Council already run a regular slot in a local paper, piggy back on this or other marketing arrangements.
  • If you already have a functioning email list, send a notice to all the members.
  • Use existing community noticeboards to get the word out.


Ways to market your forum include:


Online mechanisms:

  • “viral marketing” eg via email lists, newsletters on related networks, media releases
  • email newsletters
  • contact all the people on your Council’s various email lists -remember to check privacy and shared used policies
  • post about the forum in other similar online forums and blogs
  • put up a notice on the Council website homepage and establish cross links within the website
  • offer training in the forum at the local library
  • link the forum to current library Internet training on offer to citizens
  • contact peak bodies who would have an interest and ask them to put a link in their next member e-mailout

Off-line mechanisms:

  • put out print advertisements eg flyers, bookmarks, ad in local newspaper
  • offer incentives eg be entered into random movie ticket prize draws for joining the forum mailing list
  • advertise to your particular contacts, eg call your key community groups, offer to register key people over the phone for them (that way they get an email with the forum membership details but don’t have to go to the hassle of registering themselves)
  • notify people who will have a specific interest in the topics coming up, eg make contact with environmental groups if the topic is to do with recycling
  • ensure online opportunities are promoted at all traditional community engagement activities
  • attend community events and promote opportunity, showcase what can be done


The most effective tool in marketing is going to be having an interesting and engaging forum topic. Make sure your first topics are going to be ones that people want to say something about.


Remember to also market the forum internally:

  • story on the Intranet about the forum launch
  • story in the internal newsletter
  • flyers, bookmarks and emails to Council staff


Advertising should be ongoing ie you should advertise each new topic as it commences.

Step 9: Launch

The next step is to launch the e-forum. Your checklist before launching is as follows:

Checklist

  1. Do I have my first few topics ready? Are they interesting?
  2. Do I have an introduction written for the first topic?
  3. Have I uploaded the first topic and introduction on the website?
  4. Do I have a co-moderator for the topic from somewhere else in Council who can act as the subject matter expert?
  5. Do I and the co-moderator know how to use the forum?
  6. Have I given the co-moderator enough training and information?
  7. Do I think I have enough people to move the forum discussion along so it is not a flop in the first topic? Have I enlisted a few community leaders and marketed my forum widely enough? Have I got the support of my Council’s marketing department and is the forum being well advertised?
  8. Is my forum software working? Have I done a test run internally with a few people and made sure that the software doesn’t crash after a few posts?
  9. Do I have a charter for the discussion and participation rules on the forum website?
  10. Have I enlisted the support of my IT department to help me with technical issues if they arise, or do I have some other arrangements in place to provide me with technical support (eg a volunteer site administrator)?


You could hold an official launch of the forum to attract interest on the first day of the first discussion. Put out a media release and invite your Mayor to launch it and other community leaders to attend. This might also attract the attention of your Mayor and Councillors and other Council staff.


Make sure your e-forum website has the first topic loaded up and ready to go so that the launch is of something tangible.


Step 10: Run the first discussion

Now you have started it is time to put everything into action. You have to keep discussion moving: start new and interesting discussion threads on the topic every few days and send out email updates to keep members coming to see what new posts have been added. Make sure your co-moderator is actively posting too. Try to ensure that at least one of you posts daily.


Step 11: Provide e-forum input to Council

The e-forum is essentially a public consultation and so you should do a consultation report based on its discussions and provide this to the relevant staff. Provide the summary of comments on a particular topic to the relevant Council area and a brief to Councillors, highlighting the views presented and any key messages to come out of the discussion.


Step 12: Act on the outcomes of the e-forum

Take away the key messages from the forum and act on them.


As with any public consultation the aim of the e-forum discussion is to gather views that you use in Council deliberations and act on in some way. It is essential that you act on the input on the forum, whether this be by funnelling the views into the appropriate policy area and policy development or commencing a body of work on an issue which forum members have flagged as a concern and which Council is not currently prioritising.


Step 13: Provide feedback to e-forum members

It is crucial that your e-forum members feel like their input matters. If they provide input into a discussion and then never hear from you again about what has happened with their input, they will assume that it has been filed and forgotten and will not participate in future consultations. This is a real risk of any public consultation, not just e-consultations.


At the end of a discussion, you should let the e-forum members know what has happened with their input. For example if you have just had a discussion on “urban renewal,” you could let forum members know that their input has been provided to the relevant department and being considered in the development of a new urban renewal policy. If they want further information on developments, you might offer them an option to sign up to a specific e-newsletter, the Council’s general e-newsletter, or you might provide quarterly updates yourself to Forum members on how various policy issues that have been discussed on the forum are progressing.


Step 14: Evaluate the e-forum

As with any project you will want to evaluate your forum after you have run its pilot stage or at another significant milestone, eg after six or twelve months. Darebin evaluated the forum pilot after four months and decided on the basis of the evaluation to continue running the forum and evaluate the forum after the first year. The one year evaluation uses four main methods:


  1. Face-to-face interviews conducted with Council officers responsible for developing, maintaining and moderating the site about the challenges and benefits to Council and users.
  2. Online surveys with users asking them to provide feedback on: their demographic backgrounds; motivations for using the eForum; the content of the forum; and usability of the site.
  3. A content evaluation of posts to the site, including an analysis of the types of discussion and feedback provided directly within the forum. Analysis also looks at the degree to which users are directing their discussion at Council officers, Council members and/or each other.
  4. The automated generation of site statistics using AWStats, which is a free tool that generates web, streaming, ftp or mail server statistics.


Lessons learned, obstacles identified in evaluation

  • The main challenge in evaluating the forum is the collection of detailed information about users. The eForum currently requires its users to register using only a valid email address. This was a conscious decision by Darebin Council to avoid discouraging users who may be “time-poor” and who do not have time to provide a user-profile, or who are concerned about privacy issues and the potential abuse of personal information. Consequently, obtaining more detailed feedback from users relies on voluntary feedback which is difficult to obtain.
  • Experience from the pilot evaluation demonstrated that inviting users to a face-to-face focus group or interviews is difficult, even when compensation or some form of incentive (such as vouchers) is offered.
  • AWStats is an effective tool for evaluating site usage and offers relatively easy access to data in raw, percentage and graphical formats. The data can be summarised in hourly, daily, weekly and monthly averages. The software is also freely available.

A summary of the evaluation will be made available in March / April 2007.


Step 15: Enhance the e-Forum using other online tools

Other tools which can be used in conjunction with the e-forum to market the e-forum and engage your citizens online include:

  • E-newsletters/email subscription lists
  • Information on your general Council websites
  • Video content. This is a good way to engage and cover other forms of literacy
  • Podcasts
  • Mobile phone downloads of podcasts
  • Email or mobile phone database for polls and surveys
  • Forums for social and community use which can be community led, for example a local area online book club, gardening group, local restaurant reviews. These are ways to bring people to your e-forum website
  • Invite experts to participate in a confined real-time discussion on your forum, and/or invite them to do a 2 minute interview which can be downloaded from the forum website
  • Online articles in your newsletter and other online journals or websites (eg Online Opinion, New Matilda that link to your forum website
  • Web-casting of Council meetings
  • Mobile phone messages and linking with e-forum topics: reminders, free mobile phone downloads

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