Online consultations utilise the internet to ask a group of people their opinion on an issue (typically a policy in the development stages). An unlimited number of participants can be sent information about the subject or download it online and respond via email or comment on the website.
Online consultations can take different forms. At its simplest consultation documents can be made available online together with an email address to send responses to.
Online consultation using structured templates is more complex and uses software that is designed to emulate the face-to-face methods used in facilitated workshops. Different templates can be used, for example, to allow participants to brainstorm ideas, identify issues, prioritise solutions, or comment on consultation documents.
Online consultation enables participants to comment in detail and those commissioning the process to collate responses and present the results back to participants quickly, comprehensively and transparently. The fact that the participant comments do not need to be transcribed adds real benefit and speeds up analysis.
You should use an online consultation when:
- There is a clear and achievable aim
- Dealing with a large and/or widely dispersed group of participants
- Participants are more comfortable participating online than in other ways
Online Consultation should be avoided if your primary aim is to build strong, lasting relationships. It cannot deliver intensive deliberation, empowered participants, direct decisions or strong relationships between participants.
- Electronic processes are very flexible when it comes to the number and location of participants, but do not presume that everyone has easy access to the Internet or that everyone can navigate it with ease. Organisers must ensure that the 'digital divide' does not prevent participation, usually by organising alternative methods of participation.
- Hosting an online consultation cuts costs for venues and postage but has costs of its own. These can include process design, technology set up, or the cost and effort of getting people to participate in online processes. It is still necessary to find and recruit participants in advance of the process.
Approximate time expense
- Most online consultations are only in existence for a few months to discuss a current event or situation. Shorter than two months doesn't really leave enough time for participants to contribute while letting the consultation become a permanent feature tends to transform it into an online forum.
- Allows a large number of people to contribute
- Gives all participants an 'equal voice'
- Can reach people who are unlikely to respond to traditional engagement methods
- A quick and accessible mode of engagement from the participants' perspective
- Allows participants to discuss an issue at their convenience (regardless of location or time)
- Anonymity of online processes can encourage open discussion
- Allows information gathering and giving without the constraints that group size or travel can place on face to face events
- Excludes people who do not or cannot access/navigate the internet
- If not carefully planned, online consultations can generate unmanageable amounts of material.
- The technology can shape the process rather than vice-versa.
- Written communication can be a barrier for some already marginalised groups.
- Any perceived complexity, such as registration, can be a barrier to participation.
Online consultations developed as face to face or paper based consultation was adapted for use on the internet in the 1990s. The structured template approach was pioneered by Dialogue by Design in 2000.
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