Bang the Table recently converted its BTT web site from a general company page to a blog/content curation source, which is welcome because so few people are writing about these issues from an Australian perspective. And Crispin and Matt are about as close to long-timers in this field as anyone, so I’m usually willing to listen to what they have to say.
This article does a particularly good job of making a well-reasoned apologetic for one of the reasons people often bring up to me as a reason why they don’t do online public engagement: they’re afraid someone will “hijack” it. As Crispin points out here, that risk can be pretty readily controlled — in some ways, even better than you can control engagement “hijacking” in real life.
Before committing to a new engagement strategy it is natural to consider risks and risk management. It is quite natural, therefore, to ask if online engagement processes are prone to hijacking.
Many organisations which are new to engaging their community online harbour understandable fears that the process will be ‘hijacked’ or stacked by vocal minority groups. Actually this is a perfectly normal phenomenon. People are more motivated to contribute on an issue if they are passionate about it. Whilst passion can be positive or negative we know that negative emotion is often dominant in the public policy arena with those who are happy with a proposed policy or outcome usually happy to look on, feeling no reason to enter the debate.
Where this becomes a problem is if this tendency to collect minority views skews a decision making process. A few points on this:
- This is not just a feature of online engagement. All forms of community engagement are prone to attempted ‘stacking’ or ‘hijacking’. In my time as a public servant I saw allegations of people being bussed in to public meetings rent-a-mob style; of petitions infested with false signatures; and of submissions being made in the names of people who are resident in the local cemetery. Only this morning the Sydney Morning Herald is reporting a case of a developer allegedly offering $15 an hour through an employment agency for people willing to write letters in support of their development. Nobody is suggesting that because of these rare instances Councils should no longer accept submissions or hold meetings.
- At Bang the Table we encourage e-participation, preferring this phrase to e-democracy. If you go into definitions they are pretty similar concepts in meaning but I feel that the former implies that online engagement is part of a broader decision making process. A process that gives the maximum possible number of people the chance to participate and which draws out views, ideas and opinions which may have never been heard in a traditional process. These are then mixed with data from other forms of engagement, expert inputs etc and form the basis of recommendations and decisions. E-democracy is much the same thing but, to me, the words carry an implication that decisions might be made based on the pure numbers involved in the online engagement. This encourages gaming style behaviour. In our EngagementHQ site moderation rules we have the following statement:
‘Every comment is valued for its content. This discussion forum allows everyone to have a say and it brings out many different ideas and viewpoints. A single comment may have as much influence as 100 comments if the idea is a good one.’
I believe that this is fundamentally important and that online engagement should nearly always be set in this context.
- A well run online engagement process actually helps you get a much better handle on what is happening. The reporting tools that are provided with specialist online community engagement platforms allow you to properly understand user behaviour. This includes the behaviour of those users who may participate without commenting. Knowing how many people have visited, which documents they have downloaded, which videos they have viewed and the demographics of participants are all things that will help you properly understand what has happened in an online engagement process. It becomes easy to spot the difference between a small group of disgruntled individuals and an passionate community. In fact, online engagement allows you to draw these distinctions much more accurately than traditional engagement does. If you have 10 angry people attend a meeting you have no idea what the rest of the community are thinking. If 10 angry people comment in an online forum but you can see that 10,000 others visited the site, downloaded relevant documents, watched the videos and chose not to comment you can draw some well informed conclusions that the anger of the 10 is not necessarily shared by the entire community.
- Finally, the point I always make to nervous clients is that the decision making organisation does not cede control by allowing an online discussion to take place. You may find 20 people with one viewpoint and they may feel they have won the debate by being the only view expressed on the site. In no way does this obligate your organisation to do what they suggest. It simply tells you that this view is held passionately by a small group. You still get to judge what to do with that information. I think it is beholden on you to get back to those people with feedback but not to automatically do as they demand. Some years ago we did a consultation for a regional council in Australia who wanted to ask the community for ideas to spend a funding windfall. A number of people used the site to campaign for a conservatorium of music. The Council did not then feel automatically obligated to build one. It simply showed that the musical community had spread the word about the site and made a strong contribution. Many of those people also commented on other issues while in the site – they got involved, the creative and musical talents of the town were emphasised to the Council but nobody felt stacked, hijacked or otherwise violated by the process.