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Fall 2012
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The Public Manager

Online Dialogues Help Promote Learning and Engage Citizens

Much is written about the gaps in civic engagement, and so often, those who do provide input are insiders, familiar with and able to use formal procedures to their advantage. Refined web-based technologies provide government officials with a new venue for significant learning from the perspective of the target citizen audience of those activities or programs.

With careful planning and oversight, online dialogues are demonstrating unprecedented opportunities for government officials and agencies to engage a large and diverse citizenry in substantive conversations. Online dialogues also provide a means for enriched reciprocal learning between government officials and the public they serve. Specifically, online dialogues may foster common understanding of the parameters of technical or policy issues; dispel erroneous assumptions held by parties to the dialogue; and create collaboration in addressing government objectives. Indeed, online dialogues offer government officials a wealth of ideas and practical advice to plan solutions for complex policy and operational issues.

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Online dialogues are a form of social media focused on information exchange. People register, go online, offer ideas, and provide comments or vote on ideas. Online dialogues share commonality with other web-based tools: they are easy to use, easy to access, easy to analyze, and extend government much farther than traditional methods of interaction with citizens.

Online Dialogue Informs Cross-Agency Team

A recent example of a focused, online citizen dialogue bringing useful ideas to the attention of local, state, and federal officials is the National Online Dialogue on Veterans Transportation: Strengthening Transportation Choice So We Can Serve Those Who Have Served Their Country (Veterans' Transportation Dialogue). The Veterans' Transportation Dialogue is sponsored by the Federal Coordinating Council on Access and Mobility and the U.S. Defense Department, and is a partnership between the Department of Transportation and Easter Seals Project ACTION funded through a supplemental cooperative agreement United We Ride grant from the U.S. Department of Labor. The project began through the vision of Michael Reardon of the Labor Department's Office of Disability Employment Policy. The project used the online dialogue software, IdeaScale.

Easter Seals Project ACTION (ESPA) was selected to facilitate the dialogue because of its experience in building bridges of understanding between the transportation community and the disability community. It promotes the civil rights of people with disabilities in accessible transportation and has technical expertise using diverse forms of electronic media to conduct outreach to community-based organizations.

The Veterans' Transportation Dialogue was preceded by active marketing of the dialogue to organizations with ties to the veterans' communities including the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Paralyzed Veterans of America, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Association, the Wounded Warrior Project, VETS First, and a variety of local community organizations involved in transit services to veterans and other individuals within the community.

Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood invited participation in the dialogue via a video statement on the online dialogue website, emphasizing the significance of the dialogue for improving the lives of veterans and their families. Later, his blog was re-posted on the White House blog site. Catalysts, members of an advisory committee formed to guide ESPA in the idea exchange, helped stimulate the interest and ideas by initially going on the site to share ideas and drive momentum.

The Veterans' Transportation Dialogue began with carefully developed and designed discussion questions. Sponsors provided focused and practical feedback and suggestions to frame the dialogue. Discussion questions were grouped by significant topic areas, including

  1. overcoming barriers (such as, What transportation challenges are most difficult and why?; for example, to work, rehab or health services, shopping, the mall)
  2. communicating (such as, How could communications be improved to make it easier to learn about resources you need?)
  3. getting a ride (What would make it easier to obtain the ride you need?).

In addition, three topics were presented to community-based transportation providers for their practical advice and consideration:

  1. partnerships (How do we build effective partnerships with veterans, military service groups, and the public and private organizations that serve them to help us strengthen and coordinate transportation in our communities?)
  2. communications (What are the best practices that reach veterans, service members, and their families? How could communications among stakeholders and state, local, and federal partners be improved?)
  3. policy (Do you see opportunities to streamline service delivery at the local, state, or federal levels? If so, what do you suggest?).

The Veterans' Transportation Dialogue launched after just a few weeks of outreach. Within the first three weeks of the one-month comment period, the team obtained substantive and compelling suggestions and advice on the transportation needs of veterans and their families. Key ideas to date include centralized transportation services via Smartphone access; greater focus on rural transportation services; and concerns about long distance veterans' transportation needs. As this article went to press, 340 participants in the Veterans' Transportation Dialogue had shared more than 165 comments, 348 votes, and 51 ideas.

Markers of Success

ESPA defines a successful online dialogue as an event with a clear purpose to gather information on a specific topic, with a defined start and end date, and a request for participation from an official of stature. The online event enables input from a large audience in a relatively short amount of time. Analytics can be gathered as needed including what websites respondents click through to find the dialogue, how long they stay on the site, and how many site viewers convert to registered users. Once on the site, everyone can see how many people are registered, and the number of ideas, comments, and votes.

It is easy to browse through the site and see what people are saying and when they said it. A "cloud" of key words reveals the major concepts being discussed. The hallmark of a successful online dialogue is accessible, easy-to-use technology and well written, easy-to-understand introductory information that entices a browsing visitor to take the time to register and join the exchange. Prior to launch, another essential element is a good marketing and outreach initiative that publicizes the impending online event to those individuals and organizations that government officials are seeking to reach.

Advantages of the Online Approach

The online approach has a number of advantages over traditional forums for interactive exchanges between stakeholders and government officials.

  1. Less expensive. General estimates from the National Association of Public Administration (NAPA) indicate an average less than $40,000 per national online dialogue. The development of reusable marketing processes such as sending dialogue notice information and updates through a pre-determined set of constituency groups helps to further decrease costs.
  2. More inclusive. The reach of online dialogues is often measured in the thousands, with a very wide and diverse area of participation.
  3. More efficient. Logistically, online dialogues are much less time consuming to plan, and are usually not dependent on a specific date or time or travel logistics. Participants can log on and provide comments and ideas anytime, anywhere.
  4. Richer data. Participants are not only providing comments; they also are commenting on other people's ideas, advice, and comments. Multiple discussion threads are often occurring simultaneously, while still providing the opportunity for stakeholders to eventually participate in many, if not all of them
  5. Replicable model. Local, state, and federal agencies can utilize existing online dialogue models and partner with not-for-profits and other federal agencies that have experience with online dialogues to share information and resources.

Citizen Engagement

Online dialogues can concurrently provide individual American citizens with an effective means of participation in the democratic process. Citizens may substantively contribute to the development of government policies and programs and in effect become part of the deliberative process of government.

This has, of course, always been a fundamental value and legal principle of American society. At the local level, in-person town halls represent a hallmark of American democracy; online dialogues allow us to advance this seminal ideal to the national level with far greater input from all parts of our nation.

Best Practices for Online Dialogues

There are some best practices that should be followed when creating online dialogues.

Establish a Steering Committee

Establishing a steering committee comprised of a diverse membership helps online dialogue organizers receive the benefit of multiple perspectives on process issues. The committee can set the ground rules for the dialogue, and partner with other organizations to serve as sponsors of the online dialogue. A steering committee also can establish what information should be sought in the registration process (which directly relates to what analysis needs exist for the data after the dialogue is over), and which electronic features participants may want to use for the dialogue portion of the website.

For example, special features may include "hot topics" or categorization of ideas and suggestions into major themes for reconsideration. Of course, the steering committee must carefully evaluate and craft the dialogue topics, questions, and reference materials to guide the discussion. The steering committee also has a duty to develop effective outreach strategies for desired categories of participants.

Plan Advertising and Mixed Electronic Media

Michael McDermott, a web designer and president of DemoWerks, emphasized the significance of knowing the demographic background of your targeted participant audience when marketing your online dialogue event. For some demographic groups, traditional listservs, email communication, and Twitter messaging remain the best means of reaching potential participants, which could then be linked to an online dialogue webpage. Further, organizers can use Twitter to update online dialogues, in coordination with information content feeds from blogs or other information-sharing sites such as Flickr or YouTube.

McDermott noted that Facebook has the advantage of not only drawing younger participants, but also of allowing organizers to ascertain users' profiles to target individuals who might reveal in their Facebook pages the demographic characteristics of interest to your dialogue (such as a veteran, community volunteer for providing rides, or local government official involved with transportation). A Facebook advertisement could draw users' attention to your agency's existing Facebook page, which would allow participants to learn more in advance about a future dialogue as well as to complete a survey of interest concerning the dialogue.

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A creative and well-coordinated advance media marketing effort not only generates advance publicity about an online dialogue, but also allows participants to gain information about key areas of interest. This information would help structure the format and discussion questions of the dialogue.

Actively Moderate the Dialogue

To help ensure that people maintain civility during the course of the dialogue, and to maintain focus on the focus topics of concern, the organizers of the online dialogue should continually monitor the discussions and remind people of the ground rules. Ground rules should be developed in writing before the online dialogue begins and clearly noted both on the site and in the registration process.

Moderators can refocus discussions on key topic issues and ask probing questions about participants' ideas and concerns. Moderators also can point out existing reference materials or resources that not all participants may be aware of. Moderators also may ask for further reflection upon a thoughtful suggestion that was raised during the dialogue that participants may not have sufficiently focused upon. Active moderation is not an intrusion, but rather a means to keep the dialogue on course and address the issues of paramount concern.

Conduct An After-Action Review

A critical process for any online dialogue is to engage in an after-action review of lessons learned, successes, weaknesses, and failures. For example, the Center for Advances in Public Engagement's paper, "Promising Practices in Online Engagement" (2009) described how NAPA patients' privacy dialogue managers learned that by having users submit ideas and vote at the same time, the dialogue experienced the phenomenon of early submission bias. In other words, ideas that were submitted in the early stages of the dialogue were more visible and obtained a higher number of votes than subsequent submissions.

Further, ideas that are similar in content but submitted separately detracted from each other's total score. Because the overall dialogue process was premised on an idea generation model, the combination of these two effects caused a significant bias effect. The paper's authors suggest that online dialogue organizers consider a phased dialogue approach, in which participants submit ideas, then dialogue managers synthesize the comments into central factor themes, and then allow participants to both prioritize and rate ideas as a separate step in the online dialogue.

ESPA's after-action review and analysis of two previous dialogues resulted in the development of benchmark standards for dialogue participation. These include the average time users stay on the site, expected conversion rates, expected number of pages users will view, and the importance of understanding the awareness building aspect of online dialogues. ESPA found that three to five times as many people would go to the site and browse versus actually taking the time to register and provide direct input. Keeping a dialogue site up on the web after the closure of the comment period also allows the continuation of awareness and interest on the dialogue topics.

A Commitment to Follow up with Participants

Participants devote valuable time and effort to share their thoughts in an online dialogue. This is a public forum where participants leave themselves vulnerable to reflection and comment by others. Online dialogue governmental sponsors have an obligation at the end of the discussion to provide feedback to all participants on how they will use the results. Entities that manage the dialogue process must issue and either distribute or post a report on the ideas, comments, suggestions, and advice offered by participants. If participants are aware that the organizing governmental agency used their input, the likelihood of future online contributions are considerable.

Well-managed online dialogues implemented with the best practices articulated above offer citizens the opportunity to provide substantive input into the work of public officials on policy and program-related efforts both large and small. This collaborative tool empowers us all to work together faster, more inclusively, and more effectively. It is well understood in change management that active participation by those who will be affected by a policy, program, or regulation vastly increases the chance for success.

Online dialogues offer governmental agencies a highly effective tool to enhance civic engagement and gain a stronger understanding of their constituents' views. Imagine the efficacy of policies and programs developed within such a highly participative framework.

About the Author

Dr. Mary Leary is a change agent who believes that we can harness the power of people, partnerships, and technology emboldened by entrepreneurial concepts and social justice to make the world a better place for everyone. Her 30-year career spans a dual senior leadership path in both the private and public sectors across the technology, transportation, gerontology, community-services, education, disability, federal program management, academic, and business enterprise solutions sectors. Having joined Easter Seals in late 2007, she has built a management framework for idea generation and pipeline development that leverages social networking, social entrepreneurship, and private sector partnerships, as well as launched the Easter Seals Brain Health Center. Mary’s education and academic experience includes being an adjunct professor in statistics and public policy analysis, community adult learning, organizational informatics research projects, and analyzing cross-sector systems change. She holds a BS from James Madison University; a Masters of Administrative Science from Johns Hopkins University; a Gerontology Masters Certificate from George Mason University School of Nursing and Health Science; and a Doctorate from George Mason University, School of Public Policy.

JM
About the Author
MR
About the Author

Michael Reardon, MPP, is policy supervisor for the Office of Disability Employment, U.S. Department of Labor.

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