Published on April 11, 2012

Engaging in bits and bytes

By Edward Andersson

Edward Andersson is European Associate for Involve and an established expert on methods of participatory decision making. He set up – one of Europe’s leading public engagement sites, and has advised a number of organisations on public engagement strategies, including the Home Office, the European Commission, the OECD, WHO Europe, UNDP Turkey and numerous Local Authorities and Health Trusts.

Picture of Computer chipsEdward 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.

11 Responses to “Engaging in bits and bytes”

  1. April 11, 2012 at 7:27 pm

    Hi Edward, I liked the post. Just one little polemic comment:

    In the last three years I’ve read a lot of so called “experts” repeat that mantra you used to close the post: “‘Build it and they will come’ doesn’t work; you will need to go to the sites and platforms where people are.”

    In many cases, it is actually the same people that, in the past, were building e-engagement platforms.

    Well, I have to say: this is a lie. It is, at the very least, a logical lie.

    It may be, for sure, that they (or even no-one) have been able to “build a system and attract them to come”. But this doesn’t mean that it is impossible to build a system that will attract them!!

    And for sure, this also doesn’t mean that the alternative “go where people are” will work. Not at all. Maybe it will. Maybe it won’t. The same, actually, as when you build a system.

    I think we should be more intelectually humbly, and call the things by its name, not pretending that we know what we do not know.

    Things we now know:
    1. – “It is difficult to attract people to an e-engagement site”.
    BUT 2. – “It is also difficult to create meaningful e-engagement, even if we go to the sites and platforms where people are”.
    AND 3. – Regarding the rest, well: “we do not still know”.

    • Edward Andersson
      April 13, 2012 at 6:05 pm

      Hi Pedro,

      Thanks for your comment. I’m sorry I haven’t responded until now; I’ve been in lots of meetings that last day or so.

      I agree that we need humility -which for me is why I keep stressing the need to go to people where they are. It seems quite arrogant for a Council or Government Department to say ‘If you want to engage you have to come to us”.

      I did not want to give the impression that it is impossible to build a site and get people to come to it. It is however hard work. Engaging people on existing sites is also by no means a guarantee for success (as you point out).

      The decision to build a separate site or platform is a big one and should not be taken lightly. In some cases it is exactly the right thing to do. In many others I think it is a waste of resources.


      • April 14, 2012 at 3:41 pm

        Hi Edward, thanks for your reply.
        I agree with you that building a separate platform as part of an engagement initiative will in most of the cases be a waste of resources. Especially for small institutions, like councils, which do not have so much capacities and resources available.
        This means that, right now, the best option is to go “where people are” and use existing blogs, discussion fora and generic Social Networking Systems like Facebook, which have not been specifically designed for public engagement.
        For me… doing engagement in such generic platforms is a little like when planes still flew under the clouds: flying was not that pleasant at that time… since rain, lightning and storms fell on you (and smoking was allowed!). But I guess that, in the next 2 or 3 years, we will have environments trully oriented toward civic engagement that get enough traction… and attract not only citizens but also all institutions willing to engage with them (my organization, for example, plans to start such a project in the second half of this year).
        Thus, public institutions will not need to “create a platfom”, but just be present there, configuring their space and making good use of the engagement tools.

        I have the impression that, with regards to digital engagement we are all too obsessed with the “present” moment: What am I supposed to be doing? How do I do it? Where do I need to be? It’s like the “Red queen” of Alice, that had to run faster and faster in order to remain at the same place. Exhausting.
        I think it would be healthier if we thought a little more in advance, as a way to prepare well for the “near future”.
        Thus, instead of recommending councils to fly “right now” under the rain… I would probably tell them: get prepared. Make internal arrangements that allow you to promote real transparency in a couple of years, as a prerrequisite for meaningful public participation: improve your internal communication, change the mindset of your workers, improve your proceses, develop your accounting methods and systems, etc.

        Because now you may have to “go where they are” to engage with citizens; something like going to spend the morning at a Zoo. 🙂
        But in a couple of years there will probably be no bars anymore… and it will be the citizens who will “come where you are”. Not anymore “a morning in the zoo”… but “the night of the Zombies”. 🙂 If you are then not prepared and are genuinelly engaging… citizens will be able to bite, there where it hurts. So… better be prepared!
        Sorry for answering so much, Edward. And many thanks for the important labour you and Involve are doing!

        • Edward Andersson
          April 16, 2012 at 2:54 pm

          Thank you for taking the time to respond in such a detailed way. I like the analogy of zoos and zombies.

          It would be good for Councils to be thinking further ahead and planning for the future. The big difficulty people face is doing this whilst facing massive short term cuts.

  2. April 11, 2012 at 7:46 pm

    Thanks for the write-up, Edward. Some useful examples there that I’d not seen before, of engagement processes that might otherwise happen in traditional ways, migrating online (e.g. Geraldton).

    I think the enabling, networking & flexible points are especially important: I think the mode in which people use technology (generally by themselves) can certainly make group-style deliberation tricky, but it perhaps opens up other modes of intelligent discussion. It’s not policy engagement, but I was struck by the effort and range within this discussion thread about urban explorers’ pictures of The Shard, and there are countless similar examples on the threads of Mumsnet, The Student Room, Quora, Wikipedia and so on.

    And of course, there’s a huge range within the ‘online’ spectrum. Simple blogging, old-fashioned email lists, and playing an active part in existing community forums are hugely undervalued in terms of their potential compared with more complex platforms like Geraldton’s, budget simulators and so on. Focus groups and citizens’ juries necessarily end after a few hours or a few days, but those online communities can live on and take on lives of their own.

    • Edward Andersson
      April 13, 2012 at 6:12 pm

      Hi Steph,

      Firstly I love the link you sent. I loved reading about the Place hacking of the Shard and that article just added another layer of interesting content!

      The web is full of meaningful, deliberative and insightful commentary. Often this takes place in communities of people with shared interest where norms of mutual respect and dialogue have formed. The trick for government is to replicate this in online consultations.

      There are things we can do; as a board member of I’ve been impressed by the ways they’ve tried to encourage pro-social behaviour in their neighbourhood forums, for example by making people post with their real names or limiting the number of posts anyone can make in a day. I’m not saying that these are ‘must-dos’ by the way; just that they represent some of the tools we can use to lay the foundations for respectful dialogue online.

      Also, thank you for raising the profile of the undervalued day to day online engagement. I didn’t pay enough attention to that in my post.

      Have a great weekend!

  3. April 12, 2012 at 9:04 am

    Nice post Edward. Thank you for sharing.

    There are some more advantages to digital that we’ve identified in the ten years of online public engagement we’ve been doing with school students:

    1. Fairness – everyone has an equal voice online. In face-to-face situations the more confident, eloquent, out-going people tend to dominate. Online, even the shyest of people can speak up loudly.
    2. Speed – perhaps counter-intuitively online engagement can be slightly slower in parts. One recent participant in I’m a Scientist, Get me out of Here! explained that typing his answers (even in a real time chat) gave him that little bit of extra time to think about what to say when compared to face-to-face engagement. When you make it asynchronous that thinking time is very significant. It also allows participants to think more about and research their viewpoints.

    On other issues I’d agree with you. They can be very enabling. We’ve had people from across the globe take part together. We’ve had students from special needs schools, from pupil referral units take part with pupils from independent and comprehensive schools.

    On a small scale digital projects are expensive, but if you do want to involve a lot of people then scaling up digital can make your consultation affordable. One back of the envelope calculation showed that I’m a Scientist is costing about £0.07 per minute of student engagement. Match that, or indeed measure that, offline.

    And in terms of conflict? I’m reminded of the time we were running I’m a Councillor, Get me out of here! in Northern Ireland. A group of 5 councillors from one of the most divided parts of Ulster were left in the chat room on their own when one school had their internet connection break down on them. After 10 minutes they were proposing that they should hold their council meetings online as it was far more productive than face-to-face.

    • Edward Andersson
      April 16, 2012 at 2:50 pm

      Hi Shane,

      Thanks for sharing those examples. Like the point about online helping shy people, or those who struggle to express themselves verbally. Of course the improvement of vocal recognition software in the years to come will also even the playing field for those with dyslexia.

      I like the example from Northern Ireland. High conflict environment indeed!

  4. April 17, 2012 at 10:05 am

    Hi, Ed.

    Nail on head in terms of the unspoken benefits although digital in a broad context is also thought about in terms of error tolerance, availability and space saving (just think ePetition!).

    Perhaps you could do a reverse post about when digital detracts? Some thought starters here :

    • Edward Andersson
      April 17, 2012 at 3:01 pm

      Hi Fraser,

      Great idea. I’ll start working on a post soon!

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