Keys for success in online public participation

Keys for success in online public participation

I last blogged about there being an online participation process and how if you follow it, success will follow you. Here are the steps in the process accompanied by some insights into each step.

Step 1: Listening

Chances are people are already using social media to comment on and share information about your issues. Social media provides you with the opportunity to listen and learn about people’s levels of awareness of and their perspectives on the issues under consideration. Traditionally, this kind of information had been the purview of public opinion research – focus groups and surveys. If you haven’t got the time or the money for public opinion research, a social media scan can help you understand who’s engaged on your issues and what they are saying.

One more thing on listening, if you are about to engage people digitally, it helps to learn about them digitally – odds are the digital natives will be the ones who participate in your program.

Step 2: Planning

You need a plan that will serve as a roadmap for your process. Planning is about asking the big questions and then using the answers to these to create your plan. At the start of any project, it’s best to ask people to describe what success will look like at the end of the process. Often, half the team will tell you that success is about hosting an open and informed process where people can share their opinions and discuss the issues and the other half will tell you that success is a function of the number of participants. The key benefit of a plan is ensuring that everyone is on the same page before you get started.

Lastly, some clients will argue that a plan is not needed or that they don’t have money for a plan. In these cases, focus on creating an abbreviated (PowerPoint format) plan and getting them to sign off on it. This will help you understand and manage expectations.

Step 3: Deploy your online presence

The objectives, tactics and reporting requirements outlined in your plan are used to identify the elements of your online presence. Typically, the hub or nucleus of your online presence will be an online survey, a dialogue platform, or an ideation platform. Your social media websites will serve as the spokes or electrons of your presence, driving people to your survey or dialogue. You need to think about online media and news sites as part of your presence and look for ways to connect them to your online hub. For a description of the hub and spoke ecosystem you can view my previous post on the public participation ecosystem.

The keys to deploying your online presence involve:

  • developing your website and social media policies (acceptable use, privacy, access to information);
  • aligning your online presence with your organizational policies and procedures (IT requirements, privacy, legal, accessibility, communications etc..); and,
  • developing the required content for each element of your online presence.

Step 4: Managing your online program

Online public participation programs are labour intensive – this is because there’s always something happening. Online, people can participate at any time and the process can take weeks from start to finish. The key to managing your program is having a clear statement on what people can expect from this process and a set of use policies governing what is acceptable and unacceptable from participants. Rules of participation, accessible from your consultation website(s) and approved by decision-makers in your organization, provide you with the ability to manage process in an open and transparent manner.

Another thing to consider is your voice or your organization’s voice in the online process. Are you the moderator, stepping in to manage discussions that have become too heated? Are you the facilitator, tasked with helping people with different opinions find common ground? I have found that most organizations see their voice as that of the moderator, stepping in only when required, comfortable to let the conversations happen. Typically, the moderator function is given to a consultant outside of the organization hosting the participation project. Why? Because of the time commitment, the unique skills required and the perception that an outside moderator contributes to a transparent process.

Social media outreach is the final piece of your online program management. Once the process has been launched for public input, you need to have a constant stream of content being shared on your social channels. This content will help raise awareness and drive participation in your process. For more on this, you can read my blog post on social media for marketing your public participation program.

In terms of a level of effort required for managing an online program, my experience has been that two hours per day are the minimum required to moderate a dialogue and manage the social media presence

Step 5: Reporting

This process involves exporting the data and analyzing the results in order to prepare a report on the process. When it comes to online public participation processes, the reporting methodology is a function of the online presence and how it was used. Once you have committed to a particular online presence – data, dialogue, social media, ideation – you have to work with the data that it produces. Put another way, if the report calls for survey results, you best be using a survey platform. If the report calls for a narrative overview with qualitative information, you’re best served with a dialogue platform. When it comes to reporting methodology, it is critical to insure that the nature of the report, what it contains and how it is presented, is taken into consideration during your planning process. With a clear idea of the report format and requirements, you will be able to ensure that your online presence will give you the data you need.

Thanks for taking the time to read. I’d welcome your thoughts or be happy to chat. You can follow me Twitter at @pierre.killeen or send me a note at Killeen<at>


Pierre Killeen

Pierre Killeen Bio:

Pierre is a leader and innovator in the field of online public participation, strategic communications and social media. He helps organisations design and manage public consultation processes that leverage the power of the Internet to engage citizens, stakeholders and members. He has conducted large-scale online public consultations for cities, public agencies, membership organisations and government departments across Canada. In 2012, he began serving as a public participation expert for the World Bank.

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