When governments attempting to engage citizens online fail to properly manage their constituents’ expectations the result is public disillusionment, according to a new report from UK-based political research charity the Hansard Society.
It is vital that government departments that consult with citizens online effectively manage peoples’ expectations of the policy impact of each exercise, and define clear objectives.
“Web sites that combine careful planning and appropriate marketing with the development of reflexive engagement strategies have a greater chance of success,” the report says. “In such cases, policy leads have benefited from user input with government departments seeing enhanced public trust and receiving positive feedback from stakeholders. In turn, end user report more faith in the political process and better understanding of government.
The report is the product of the third and final stage of the society's Digital Dialogues review commissioned by the Ministry of Justice.
"Online deliberations offer a promise of transparency; unclear communication from engagement teams is often read by participants as obfuscation," it says.
The report cites the example of the Digital Dialogues Web sites, which it says people visit for a range of reasons — from general interest in online engagement to a strong interest in the policy matters being discussed.
“Many had previously not engaged in political processes; even when they had, most were initially critical of government. Such distrust was overcome when moderators facilitated open discussion and provided information to Web site users,” the report says.
“When government departments were reticent, they courted controversy and disengagement became inevitable. Some Web sites failed to gain traction (measured through few repeat visits) because users did not believe that anyone was listening or responding to their perspectives; in such cases, departments were paralyzed by a sense of ‘risk’ and failed to harness the range of engagement opportunities at their disposal — responding only on topics deemed ‘safe’.”
The most successful Web sites devote resources (time, people and technology) to their online engagement exercise and this makes it possible to satisfy user requirements and provide professional standards of deliberation.
“Most participating departments observed — at a minimum — that online engagement provided them with organizational, data handling and transparency tools; those with good marketing strategies (or who achieved media attention) noted that their exercise had led to the broadening out of engagement to people on the periphery of the policy process; those who were able to generate a sustainable community of practice noted that online deliberations allowed them to bridge space and time.
“The government departments that benefit the most from online forms of deliberation engage the public (and/or stakeholders) at various stages in the policy process: where government departments were too fixed in their approach, they failed to capitalize on their investment; those with a reflexive and experimental approach were able to adapt to meet the challenges posed by online engagement.”
It also finds online engagement speeds up existing process; departments that connect their online and offline processes are more likely to have an integrated and efficacious approach to policy; in such cases, democratic disengagement becomes less of a risk than in departments that lack a coherent approach.
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