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After Deep Deliberation:

A Model for Cross-Government e-Consultation

Summary

Traditional consultation processes are expensive and have varying levels of legitimacy and effectiveness. While the use of the Internet for supporting democratic processes has been widely discussed, there appears to have been little realization of comprehensive, practical and sustained working applications. In short, there appears to be no comprehensive e-consultation solution on offer to government entities. This paper describes such a comprehensive model drawing upon best online practices.

In New Zealand, around three quarters of the adult population has online access and there are significant uptakes of banking, trading, purchasing, and interactive applications of all kinds. It is timely to consider the online opportunities available for a key aspect of government interaction: that of consultation. At present, even the agencies that use the Internet as part of the consultation process give token attention to reworking the material to suit an interactive medium. Consultation documents are typically placed on an agency's website mostly in PDF format, maybe with a response form and a deadline for response. There is much more that can and should be done.

At its essence, consultation on public policy is about improving the quality of decisions and increasing the buy-in by the policy's stakeholders. E-consultation has enormous potential for achieving both goals more cost-effectively than consultation using traditional methods. Decision quality is improved by consulting broadly and deeply as well as high quality of discussion. Buy-in comes from a sense of informed deliberation and that a fair and reasonable outcome is achieved in a transparent environment.

The model presented in this paper attempts to demonstrate the promise offered by contemporary online capabilities to both individual consultations and consultations throughout all government organizations in the country. It suggests a means for stakeholders to be matched with consultations affecting them and the outline of a platform to manage and support online consultations with a rich toolkit for both participants and consultation directors. The desired outcomes include highly personalized consultations that more clearly demonstrate implications of proposed policies, greater transparency of views from all affected stakeholders, and recognition of the experience, reputation and representation of contributors.

Why e-Consultation vs Traditional Consultation?

The potential for e-consultation appears to be increasingly strong from a stakeholder participation perspective. A British survey[1] indicated that Internet users are 22 per cent more likely to engage in political discussion. If better participation can be achieved using a relatively low cost medium such as the Internet then the long-desired goal of cost-effective broad-scale consultation may be in reach. The ability to structure a running debate at various layers of detail, by topic and options to discuss and poll iteratively throughout all increase the potential for engagement and involvement by current and new constituencies.

The potential advantages of a mature e-consultation approach over that of traditional methods of consultation include;

  • Broader diversity of engagement - high penetration of online access, easier to contribute, current issues are matched to interests, more 'interesting' process
  • Better quality of expressed ideas, opinions and submissions - not just expressed viewpoints but iteration and responsiveness to other voices
  • Greater perception of democratic legitimacy and mandate
  • Better public decision-making from 'horizontal' information exchange and the perception of equality (officials and stakeholders)
  • Fuller context is available to participants especially the information submitted by other participants, suits complex issues
  • Standardises the structure of government consultations offering consistency of interface, organisation, content quality and presentation
  • More rigorous testing of proposals
  • More responsive to limited time and interest levels of participants
  • More cost-effective than traditional methods
  • Creates both statistically significant quantitative results and rich qualitative contextual information
  • Allows for official participation throughout the debate without unduly affecting outcomes
  • Better perception of governance openness and accessibility from large-scale 'organic' consensus rather than 'black box' decision-making
  • Can draw upon willing and relevant stakeholders in an existing consultation pool meaning lower promotional costs and the targeting of under-represented voices
  • Based upon a collective learning model rather than a point-in-time polling of existing opinions and knowledge
  • Satisfies a 'whole citizen' perspective (ability to contribute ideas & opinions on all issues that affect them & know that they will be considered (and the reasonable opportunity to be acted upon)
  • Supports and complements representative democracy and avoids the demands for more aggressive democratic reforms

Opportunities for Practical e-Consultation

Democratic processes should help people understand more about their societies and the threats and opportunities of a global, interconnected world. We can encourage the evolution of democratic tools to include;

  • prevention through foresight,
  • cooperation by finding consensus and balancing market emphasis on competition,
  • acceptance of diversity (in all forms), and
  • clarification of underlying assumptions (beliefs, goals, values).

The more complex issues become the more feedback loops are required. The traditional democratic influence of the public, that of voting every three to four years, is too slow and cannot refine feedback on multiple issues. Our legacy democratic systems based upon mechanistic models of 18th century representative democracy can no longer solve our ever-more-complex web of social, cultural, political and economic problems. Citizens should participate in social decision-making in a democratic society.

With new democratic tools, we may close the gap between elitism and populism. We should seek to avoid, reconcile and harmonise oversimplified, either-or polarisation. We should seek to avoid oversimplified media and political summarisation - sloganeering, sound bites and flowery rhetoric, casting complex issues in terms of fundamental principles and values. Let us collate the wisdom, creativity and common sense distributed in our population. Non-specialized viewpoints can discipline technocrats by raising broad, humanistic questions, thereby helping experts to structure problems, justify their projects and think through long-range consequences more carefully.

The Web has unique capabilities to offer the consultation space. Many policy areas lend themselves to demonstrating the consequences of alternative courses of action to specific stakeholders or even individuals. Calculators, navigable maps with alternative overlays, visual impact simulations, decision trees, etc, all work much better in online form than passive and linear paper-based alternatives. Since most policies have budgetary implications and often require net increases in spending a strongly related participant feature should be the ability to express their spending priorities against the current authority's budget, c/f a balance the budget interactive capability.

To help demonstrate e-consultation potential, the following table presents typical problems of traditional consultation matched with online consultation possibilities.

Traditional Consultation Problems

Online Capabilities /

e-Consultation Potential

Low numbers of respondents / participants

o National-level matching of interests and roles with upcoming consultations of all levels of government

o Highly personalised views into consultation information

o Reputations that persist across consultations

Poor balance of participants relative to affected stakeholders

o Pre-registration of participants allows time to promote to under-represented stakeholder segments

o Share of summary space matches proportionality of stakeholders affected

o Stakeholder weighting (by, for example, experience, reputation, representation)

Public mistrust about not being listened to (tokenistic consultation, influence of insiders or lobbyists, 'black box' decision-making)

o High quality consensus-building and transparency

Public mistrust about misuse of frank contributions and general privacy

o Allow anonymous and pseudonymed contributions that have eligibility checked by third party registrar (part of a personal policy portal)

Polarisation of stakeholder positions

o Balancing summaries of each stakeholder group's views

o Iterative polling

Short attention spans of participants

o Interesting and engaging tools, especially visualization and simulation

o Summarisation available throughout process

Busyness of participants

o Personalisation of policy

o Real-time summarisation of the views and 'mood' of the stakeholders

o Best time use suggestion

Complexity of decisions

o Extensive chunking of information from summaries to full detail

o Personalized stakeholder views

o Visualisation of issues

Difficulty of tradeoff negotiation

o Closed session options

o Transparent tradeoffs discussion process options

Controversy / fierce differences of opinion

o Support of a range of issues in dynamic discussion that can reshaped as conditions or viewpoints change

Costs of consultation

o E-consultation platform is likely to be available at a low rental to agencies, primary cost is configuration, management and interactive development costs

o Costs per stakeholder should be much lower than other forms

Cross-jurisdictional issues are difficult to manage

o Feedback can be deliberated on in parallel with closed session options for agency discussion possible



e-Consultation Design Principles


A participative democracy approach to e-consultation is needed with reinforcing features of the deliberative democracy theory. This means that every citizen must be afforded greater opportunities for participation, influence and involvement. However, in order to participate, citizens must believe that it is meaningful to involve themselves. Indeed, the more citizens learn that participation yields influence, the greater the probability that they will continue to participate, and vice versa. Citizens' feeling of involvement - or lack of involvement - is the result of the poor experience that they (and others) have of participating and trying to exercise political influence.

Unfortunately, rather few citizens consider it meaningful to attempt to participate. Citizens consider that democratic institutions, not least those with elective representatives, are inadequately sensitive.

The following principles should shape the development of this new style of consultation:

  1. Seek to produce high-quality opinions that support effective, efficient and balanced outcomes for as many stakeholders as possible
  2. All citizens have a right to express their opinions about issues and policies that affect them. Encourage and accommodate broad and deep stakeholder input but initially target 'those who show up', the 1 to 5% of people who traditionally contribute to public consultation
  3. Recognise that participants' time is valuable and sporadically available. Provide guidance about where the time the stakeholder thinks is worthwhile spending for this issue can be used most effectively.
  4. Outcomes should be protected from bias, undue influence, coercion, breakdown or abuse. Stakeholders have influence to the degree to which they are or are expected to be affected by the issue or policy concerned. Participation may be encouraged of groups affected but currently under-participating in consultation (countering self-selection bias). Polling results may be weighted to compensate for self-selection bias. Process transparency and auditability is available. Registration of uniqueness (but not necessarily identity) is available.
  5. Encourage relevant expertise from whatever source is recognised in debate, ideally independent and credentialed.
  6. The more complex the issue the more feedback loops are required
  7. Must be easy to use and convivial
  8. Participants go in agreeing to be open to compromise and to state their preferences, enables expression of tradeoffs - what people would be willing to give up in order to get their preferences
  9. Continuous capture and summarization of contributions throughout process
  10. Must be able to scale according to the importance and complexity of issues
  11. Responsive to a balance between a full and active debate and a timely process
  12. Usability, legitimacy and cost-effectiveness are paramount
  13. Rewards to participants should always exceed effort
  14. Anonymity for individuals should be available, if desired
  15. Avoid debate fragmentation by encouraging official participation from agency officials, ministers or mayors, chief executives and opposition spokespeople

A Typical e-Consultation Process for Stakeholders

The flow of the stakeholder through the two parts of the e-consultation would typically be:

  1. Potential contributor "Citizen Sue" finds out about an upcoming consultation "ABC" (by media release, interest groups, or advertising) and is offered summary information and registration at the Personal Policy Portal
  2. Citizen Sue goes to the Personal Policy Portal, sees a summary of consultation ABC and decides to register for it, entering personal information, stakeholder roles, policy interests, anything needed to validate her stakeholder status and whether or not she wishes to be anonymous. After submitting how much time she would like to spend on this issue she is advised where the most effective stages of contribution will be. Other upcoming consultations matching interests or stakeholder roles or interests are also presented.
  3. In parallel, the e-consultation is set up based around a consultation document transformed using hypertext summarization, consultation stages, virtual library and personalization for identified and weighted affected stakeholder groups. Any elements lending themselves to visualization or simulation are developed. Support roles for management and moderation are selected. An e-consultation budget is agreed.
  4. When the ABC e-consultation begins Citizen Sue receives an email notifying her with a link to the e-consultation platform for Consultation ABC.
  5. In Consultation ABC, Sue is offered views of the consultation information personalized for her stakeholder role. The information is arranged in stages with a timeline that might include;
  6. Problems / issues framing
  7. Stakeholders affected and to what degree
  8. Stakeholder implications
  9. Policy context / environment
  10. Options proposed
  11. Tradeoffs / options harmonisation
  12. Preferred option support
  13. Throughout any stage, Sue is presented with indicators showing contentious points that have been disputed by other contributors that she can read firstly in summary form, then at full detail showing the contributor's reputation rating. She is able to indicate support or disapproval of any comments with a simple voting system, which can affect the reputation of the commenter. She is able to add to the comments from her own experience, knowledge or opinion and, once moderated, are also published which may also be rated by others. The more popular comments are more likely to find their way into the summaries.
  14. Sue can leave the consultation at any time and return to see what stage the discussion is at by the changes in the levels of support for the issues she is interested in. She will be advised by email when the consultation is about to close so that she can offer any final vote or comments contribution. At any stage Sue can also see summary indications of the quality of the debate including breadth and depth of stakeholders contributing, average time spent, average number of vote, comments and ratings, etc.
  15. When the consultation has closed, outcomes deliberated upon and the appropriate decision-makers have made their policy decision (hopefully using the consultation outcomes both online and any off-line), Sue is advised via the Personal Policy Portal (as notified by an email) and how close the official decision is to the consensus of people involved in the consultation. Her accumulated ratings will affect her reputation (hopefully positively) so that she has greater or lesser impact during the next consultation she participates in.


The Proposed e-Consultation Approach


The proposed approach is in two inter-related parts;

  1. Personal Policy Portal - invitations for contributors to register their interests and matching with upcoming consultations, as well as related tools
  2. E-Consultation Platform - configured by consulting agencies for each consultation presenting personalized implications and inviting contributions by stakeholders

Personal Policy Portal Features and Benefits

A personal policy portal is a website established at a national level to serve as a universal directory of all current and upcoming e-consultations throughout the country at all levels of government that are matched with stakeholders. The key distinguishing features and their benefits include:

Features

Benefits

Directory of all current and upcoming e-consultations

o Reliable source for policy involvement

o Reduced need for marketing & promotion

Registration of participant stakeholders

o Reliability of real participation

o Proof of eligibility

Optional anonymity

o Less fear of consequences from frank expression of views

o Greater likelihood of participation

Matching of consultations with interests and stakeholder roles

o Greater relevance of issues presented for participation

o Greater likelihood of participation

Pre-registration for involvement in consultations

o More notice of likely balance of stakeholder participation

o Ability to target promotions to unrepresented groups

Best use of available time

o Participations can target their time well and feel respected

o Greater likelihood of participation

Persistent participant weighting tracking

o Rewards participation in a good way

o Limits 'gaming' of e-consultations with false identities

o Allows recognition of representativeness

o Avoids discussion being crowded out by non-experienced participants

E-petition support and initiation

o Influence on issues not being currently consulted on

Closed group discussion areas

o Allows stakeholder to organize themselves and discuss issues



Mockups of this site's key pages are included in Appendix 1.



e-Consultation Platform Features and Benefits

The e-consultation platform offers government organisations a rich toolkit with which to initiate, configure and manage an online consultation website. Each consultation site is established for the period of consultation before being decommissioned. The e-consultation platform allows agencies to both have access to more comprehensive tools than they would otherwise justify in isolation for just their sporadic consultation volumes as well as avoiding reinventing consultation functions for each agency. A platform approach allows a broad toolset that may be 'rented' for the few times an agency needs it at hopefully attractive rates.

The likely key distinguishing features and their benefits include:

Features

Benefits

Highly personalised views into consultation information

o Much greater relevance of information presented

o More efficient use of participant time

o Implications are more transparent

o Greater likelihood of participation

Multi-level hypertext summarization in near real-time

o Participants can browse at any level from summary down to full detail

o Latest contributions are included in summary levels as agreed by consensus

Invitation of support or disapproval at all levels, including not only for their preferences but the intensity and rank order of their choices

o Participants can express their summary views very easily

o Points of general contention are revealed

o Consensus changes are able to be indicated and made

o The 'mood' of participants can be seen at any time throughout the consultation period

Iterative polling

o Allows consensus to evolve as discussion progresses

o Allows participants to keep learning through the debate and have the option to change their opinions

Participant weighting via an aggregate index based upon prior reputation, experience in the consultation and representation

o Means to prioritise contributions bringing those with more likely interest to the forefront

Visualisation / simulation of effects and implications

o Much greater clarity of understanding is possible

o Fun and stimulating to see and interact rather than just read

o Greater 'word of mouse' potential to attract further participation

Stage-based emphasis through consultation period

o Assists clarity of consultation context issues and problems before solutions and implications

o Gives greater choice about when to participate

Stakeholder views balancing

o Debate is not crowded out by disproportionate contributions from any one stakeholder group

o Fairer polling as results can be made proportionate to the actual weightings of stakeholders

Consultation reputation tracking

o Rewards participation in a good way

o Allows recognition of representativeness

o Avoids discussion being crowded out by non-experienced participants

Closed tradeoffs negotiation session option

o Stakeholder representatives can participate in negotiation from anywhere at critical stages


Mockups of this site's key pages are included in Appendix 2.


Visualisation & Simulation Tools

Visualisation and simulation tools are likely to be primary reasons that result in reluctant participants at least viewing the e-consultation. These tools can be especially clear in presenting the effects or implications of new policies. The main opportunity is to allow personalised effects to be shown in a form compelling to understanding.

For visualization of new facilities, e.g. power pylons, wind farms or prisons, the pre-generated view from any adjacent property could be selected. GIS-based digital maps with relevant overlays for location-specific policies would be a standard module and would be particularly useful for local government consultations. The public expectations created by applications like Google Earth is high and there is no reason why government should not be using zoomable 3D mapping when relevant.

Where there are simulatable effects from policies that depend on variables the user can enter, tailored results are then presented either graphically or in other forms. Policies involving funding tradeoffs can be complex but are greatly simplified if the effects of more or less funding to specific areas are shown as the user makes the suggested change. All kinds of calculators, interactive diagrams, flow-charts and utilities are possible and are not necessarily costly to create.

Development Options

Given that the approach outlined does not yet exist anywhere in the world, there are three main ways in which the approach outlined in this paper is likely to come about in New Zealand - await international developments, a proactive private sector initiative or a proactive government initiative.

1. Await International Developments

At some point in the future some constituency somewhere in the world will create some or many of the pieces of the e-consultation system outlined in this paper. They may get these pieces into a form that is portable and usable and eventually choose to offer it in New Zealand.

The advantages of waiting for this to occur are:

  • nothing needs doing now
  • no risk is undertaken
  • business as usual continues as usual for the policy-making community.

The disadvantages are:

  • all of the problems of traditional consultation continue especially sub-optimal decision-making and stakeholder frustration
  • applications that are not fully suited to a New Zealand policy and social environment.

Essentially this is likely to be a low risk, low cost and low benefit option unless exactly the right system is developed quickly and made portable and relevant to New Zealand conditions soon.

2. Proactive Private Sector Initiative

A proactive private developer or systems integrator could target the e-consultation space as having lucrative potential. The privatization of consultation may be tempting with a private manager offering to outsource consultations completely managing configuration, moderation and reporting. Once a critical mass of usage was established such a system could gain near natural monopoly aspects.

The advantages of such an approach are:

  • no development risk is undertaken
  • the solution is matched to the New Zealand environment
  • consultation roles and involvement are potentially reduced for government entities

The disadvantages of this option are:

  • the costs of the system rents to each agency will include a profit premium that in a near-natural monopoly would probably increase over time
  • public concerns about privacy protection
  • conflict of interest possibilities for any related business interests of the vendor

3. Proactive Government Initiative

Appreciating that the potential demand for an e-consultation platform extends across all levels of government and significant benefits would be useful in the short-term, government itself could undertake the commissioning of a system. A cluster of lead agencies would be enough to do this or a consortium from the central agencies such as the State Services Commission, Government Technology Services (DIA) or Local Government New Zealand.

The advantages of such an approach are:

  • all project benefits accrue sooner
  • the solution is matched to the New Zealand environment and the policy makers
  • ongoing costs are likely to be minimized
  • capital costs recoverable by on-selling to other agencies and countries

The disadvantages of this option are:

  • incentives for openness and transparency are reduced
  • project risk to government is high
  • significant capital investment
  • public mistrust about project owner protecting anonymity of expressed views

Open Source Systems

Whichever ownership option is undertaken, a related option is to employ an open source systems development approach. System components could be initially commissioned and then released under an appropriate open license to an international software developer pool for ongoing improvement and upgrade over time.

Already governments in Europe and South America, among others, have adopted open source standards for software and it will not be long before the e-democracy components become available at only the cost of customisation. Basing the architecture on open and modular standards would allow better components to emerge from agreed common functions.

Avoiding Bias, Undue Influence or Abuse

The design of the system outlined should endeavour to avoid or minimize foreseeable biases, undue influences or abuse, including:

Possible biases
  • Tyranny of the majority - excessively diminishing the voicing or consideration of the legitimate concerns of minorities affected by the policy
  • Tyranny of the minority - domination of discussions by excessively vocal minorities
  • Conflict of interest by debate moderators / policy analysts
Possible undue influence
  • Corporate lobbyists / special interests funding initiatives to influence opinion
  • Arbitrary decision-makers unwilling to consider consensus opinions not matching their own
  • Charismatic influencers / leaders / representatives unduly swaying opinions at critical times
Possible abuse
  • Fake identities artificially boosting strength of opinion
  • Artificial contributions to boost reputation ratings
  • Mass mobilization of supporters at critical times
  • Denial of service and similar attacks to suspend or break system

e-Consultation Support Roles

The main new roles involved in e-consultation are expected to be;

e-Consultation Director

  • provides overall management and setup of each e-consultation process
  • primary liaison with host organisation policy staff
  • manages contracted support staff
  • provides user experience management and process optimisation
  • initiates new phases of consultation and style of moderation
  • coordinates and edits concluding paper

Issue Site Manager

  • manages overall usability of the issue content and navigation throughout e-consultation
  • managing online presentation of expert testimony, research and original request document into usable format
  • recommends improvements to platform capabilities

Interactive Feature Designer

  • liaises with policy owner concerning aspects that lend themselves to visualization or simulation
  • develops design approach and manages development to budget

e-Submission Summarisers / Editors

  • renders non-hyperlinked submissions into structured online form that are categorised and inter-linked with related submissions
  • summarise key points into summary arguments

Forum Moderators

  • moderates chat and email discussions against stated rules of behaviour, warning and eliminating users in cases of breach
  • stimulates lines of discussion, particularly in topical and underdeveloped areas
  • summarises trends and clarify issues
  • helps resolve potential conflicts or disputes
  • highlights potentials for consensus

Additional expert advisors or researchers may be required from time to time but performing a similar role to those of traditional consultation processes.

A key question is whether these roles and the skills they require are developed and maintained in-house within each consulting organization or whether some or all are outsourced to contracted specialists.

Proposed Development Path

A development path for the e-consultation approach might follow these stages;

Stage

Services Offered

0.

Scoping & business case

o Research & networking

o Business case development

o Prototyping of key interfaces & process design

o Standards assessment including open source viability

o Functional and technical specification

o Initial platform development

o Support roles and procedures description

o User testing & consultation on process

o Development finance secured

1.

Initial Platform

o 'Core' e-consultation process and support for small or medium complexity issues

o Ongoing tuning of system processes

2.

Services Extension

o Agency e-consultation configuration

o Citizen interest preferences registration

o e-Consultation platform and services for full range of issues (all levels of complexity)

o General guidance to participants about effective submissions

o Media highlights provision

3.

Strategic Extension

o Agency e-consultation strategy advice

o Training & development of moderators

o Seminars on issue framing for agency staff

o Advocacy of method & case studies

o Reputation ratings compiled from responses from other participants

o Encouragement of officials' participation

o Collaboration tools for representative groups to assist them collate submissions

o Issue raising / referenda from citizens

o Citizen e-learning and assessment



Further Development Required

The approach outlined in this paper is still at an early stage of development and many of the ideas will require testing in the arena of actual usage. Also required is expansion specifically in the areas of;

  • Assessment of further complementary aspects of online dialogue especially presentation of diverse opinion and consensus facilitation
  • Process design and key interface prototyping
  • Liaison with policy analysts from a pilot cluster of government organisations
  • Business and financial modeling
  • Governance

The early players in the New Zealand consultation context could gain strong influence in the e-consultation future when conditions are right to build and sustain momentum. A scoping and business case phase is suggested to further assess the viability of this opportunity space.

Conclusions

Escalating costs and poor participation of traditional consultation approaches at a time when the speed of change and complexity of issues is dramatic leaves only one effective choice - employment of a contemporary e-consultation platform employed across all levels of government.

The proposed model is based on separation of a policy portal from a platform upon which e-consultations are run. The policy portal maintains listings of all consultations across government and matches interests of registered users to these, directing only affected stakeholders to participate.

Each e-consultation is set up using a broad spectrum toolset featuring especially issue visualisation or simulation, stakeholder views and personalisation, reputation tracking, ongoing viewpoint polling, etc.

The overall benefits of an approach that balances centralization and de-centralised management will improve the rates of participation, the quality of decision-making and the level of buy-in from affected stakeholders.



Please send any comments or feedback to:

shane@e-govwatch.org.nz

Shane Middlemiss
Director
e-Gov Watch Ltd





Appendix 1: Personal Policy Portal Key Page Mockups


Screen shot of Personal Portal mockup - registration screen


Screen shot of Personal Portal mockup - best time use screen


Screen shot of Personal Portal mockup - my consultation calendar screen

Appendix 2: e-Consultation Platform Key Page Mockups

Screen shot of e-Consultation mockup - issue context screen



Screen shot of e-Consultation mockup - stakeholders affected screen


Screen shot of e-Consultation mockup - current support screen



[1] Economic and Social Research Council, Democracy and Participation Research Programme, http://www.essex.ac.uk/, May 2002

© 2009 e-Gov Watch Ltd