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The virtual town hall: making digital engagement work

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Nothing beats face-to-face communication. But digital consultation is an effective and affordable way to reach community members often left out by more traditional consultation methods, according to Bang the Table director and CEO Matthew Crozier.

“Digital engagement will never replace being in the room with someone having a conversation — what it does is allow you to reach more people,” he said, adding he believes government should “use digital engagement to complement face-to-face engagement, not to replace it”.

Bang the Table was founded seven years ago and has conducted thousands of online consultation projects with national, state and local governments in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States. Its clients include VicRoads, Melbourne Water, Western Sydney Parklands and SA Water and a number of state and local governments.

One of the benefits of online consultation is that it is relatively easy to engage a large number of people. Rather than needing to dedicate an evening to a public forum, citizens can click through and offer their opinions whenever they choose.

It also allows long-form and interactive methods of engaging, Crozier told The Mandarin. “I think online engagement should be more than just throwing out a survey. It makes the process richer when people can see contributions of others as well … Digital engagement provides an opportunity to broaden perspectives — to expose people to other, equally strongly held points of view.”

One method Crozier believes has worked well for Bang the Table is storytelling, which has been used in consultations around disability insurance and the Newcastle urban renewal project. Asking people to have a discussion or share a story, he argues, can offer perspectives into what citizens value and why — insights that may not have come through in more straightforward polling or surveys.

And because digital engagement is relatively cheap compared to traditional methods, governments are able to reach out more regularly. Many companies offer an annual license fee, allowing governments an unlimited number of consultation projects. “With digital engagement there is no barrier to engaging often and engaging on the small local stuff. This is a great way to build community and to suspend cynicism in government,” he said.

Keren Flavell of Town Hall Social says it’s imperative to get social media right, because governments need “to be present where those communities are spending their time online”. Town Hall Social was launched in January 2013 by social media engagement consultancy Wholesome Media as a means of engaging more effectively through Facebook. Clients have included local and state governments.

Because social interactions are so important in driving engagement, Town Hall Social designed its primary Facebook-based product “to be simple and easy to participate so it’s highly shareable. You need to be shared in order to be seen.”

Flavell also sees the benefit of digital consultations in their ability to attract input from people not normally engaged in public policy issues.

Such as? “Busy people! It’s actually 26-40 year old females that we’re seeing most active through our site. Many mothers are active on Facebook. It’s their key way of connecting with the community when they’re time poor.”

She believes many government agencies are “sick of hearing from the squeaky wheels”, and instead want to hear from “the silent majority” who may not be sufficiently motivated to seek out engagement through more traditional, time-consuming means.

It’s important consultations are designed to be user-friendly, she says, remembering some of the long surveys she’s seen. “Government rarely designs consultation with the optimal user experience in mind,” she told The Mandarin.

Flavell thinks we will increasingly see more effective uses of data, arguing governments will have to start “really using data and understanding more through smart use of the technology that already exists today. With smart use of technology and automation there are ways to include and involve people and this will help reduce negativity and bad reactions.”

And for those concerned that bureaucratic risk aversion will water down any community engagement to the point where it becomes a box-ticking exercise, Crozier has a message: “There is a spectrum of risk. One end is open discussion forums; the other end is storytelling, where you read stories before publishing them.

“Online engagement is not risky.”

More at The Mandarin: Increasingly, citizens demand to be heard on social media

Author Bio

David Donaldson

David Donaldson is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Melbourne.