Edward Andersson discusses what digital technology means for engagement and what the strengths and weaknesses are of engaging online.

A week ago I gave a talk at Government Digital Services on Digital and face to face engagement. This post is a summary of what I said.

First of all I acknowledge that Involve is different from many others in the digital engagement field; we’re not software producers, we’re not trying to sell software and we focus on engagement as whole rather than digital engagement. Our mission is to make the public sector into better commissioners of dialogue and engagement.  I’ll start with the question to what degree digital technology represents a breakthrough?

Two quotes illustrate how differently new technology is interpreted:

“The world is poised on the cusp of an economic and cultural shift as dramatic as that of the Industrial Revolution.” 

Steven Levy (Wired journalist)

“The Internet is a telephone system that’s gotten uppity.”

Clifford Stoll (US Author and astronomer)

My view is that both quotes are true, in their own ways. We tend to overestimate changes in the short term (where many people hype up relatively mundane technologies) and underestimate the shifts in the longer term.

There is a tendency among consultants to create artificial distinctions between digital/online engagement and face to face engagement. Human nature is the same in both settings and of course a badly designed online consultation without a clear purpose is just as much a waste of time as a face to face process without a purpose.

I think people get excited about digital for the wrong reasons.

People often think that the key defining characteristics of digital are:

Speed –The internet is making things go faster, but the obvious question is ‘so what?’. The really big qualitative differences in terms of speed of sending messages happened in the 1860s. Nowadays the speed of communication is already faster than human beings can react to.

Scale –The internet does allow a larger number of people to take part than was possible before. It is a great thing but it can also lead people to focus too much on the number of people taking part. Many of the websites or articles which have attracted the most number of hits do so for the wrong reasons; scandals are great for hit rates but not for much else.

Cost–The Internet does have the possibility of reducing the costs of engagement; while this is true it is often oversold by consultants.

There are also very good reasons for shifting to Digital which are often overlooked:

Enabling -Digital technologies allows the third sector and individuals to self-organise and do things that in the past the council would have to do. This opens up tremendous opportunities (if we are willing to give up some control).

Networking –the Internet opens up possibilities of networking people who wouldn’t normally meet, for reasons of time, space and who they are.

Flexible -finally the nature of digital information allows comparison, aggregation, mashing up data, and ability to make it easily accessible. And to make lots of different sorts of outputs which would not be possible using pen and paper.

There are of course areas were online engagement doesn’t work as well as face to face, for example:

  • Deliberation – if you want to get at people’s well informed and considered opinions you will find this hard going on the Internet where people’s attention spans are shorter than if you have them face to face in front of you.
  • Conflict –Body language and tone of voice play a key role in deterring overt hostility. Neither of these are present online. It is perhaps unsurprising that unconstructive conflicts are more likely in an online setting.
  • Ownership –It is easier to create a sense of team or group and a common agenda face to face than it is online.

I’m not saying it is impossible to do any of this online, just that it is more difficult.

But of course it is not an either/or. In many cases face to face and online complement each other; and of course let’s not forget that digital technology can be used in face to face meetings as well.

Adding digital technology to face to face engagement allows:

  • Scale and deliberation –in the past there was a trade off; once the meeting hit a certain size it became impossible to run a deliberative process with the whole group. Today thanks to networked laptops and electronic voting pads we can engage thousands in simultaneous deliberation, as America Speaks have shown.
  • Quick aggregation of views –anyone who has used sticky dot voting or other analogue ways of aggregating information in a large group will know how frustrating the delay can be for organisers and participants alike. With digital technology this process can be near instantaneous.
  • Different levels for different people –digital technology allows you to adapt the engagement to different needs. Those with little time can access the meeting remotely whilst those who wish to commit more to the process can attend in person.

I’ve seen a few interesting examples of the critical interplay between face to face and online engagement:

The award winning Geraldton 2029 process in Western Australia has made use of a wide array of face to face and digital processes in determining the future of the town.  4000 people have been actively involved through world cafés, online surveys, online moderated deliberation, 21st century town hall meetings™, community events to celebrate milestones including BBQs. They have also used the local Newspaper facebook page heavily. What I like about the Geraldton process is how they have understood the strengths of face to face and online and worked with both.

–          The Crowdsourced Icelandic constitution has been in the news a lot over the last few months.  The Constitutional council has drafted and posted clauses each week open for public comment, and has live streamed their proceedings. The focus has often been on the online elements but it was made possible by in depth face to face deliberation, both from the elected Constitutional Council and a randomly selected national forum.

So to sum up my key points from my presentation:

  • Start with a clear purpose, not with the method. Only decide if online is suitable after having gone through a clear thought process balancing up benefits and downsides.
  • Play to the strengths of digital –don’t use online or face to face methods for what they are not good for.
  • The ‘Field of Dreams approach (‘Build it and they will come’) to online engagement doesn’t work; you will need to go to the sites and platforms where people are.