Online consultation reinforces and complements traditional consultation methods and provides more ways for agencies to seek feedback from and engage with the public. It may be used as part of formal submissions or policy development processes, or integrated into business-as-usual activities as another way of gathering feedback and engaging with the public.
Online consultations can cover a broad range of activities, such as the submissions process of a formal inquiry or an agency seeking input as it develops policy. In its simplest and least interactive form, an online consultation can take the form of a website offering a discussion paper of some kind and requesting public submissions though email, online forms, or other means.
Online consultations can also provide greater interactivity and engagement with the public by using social media tools such as social networking sites, or agency-run tools such as blogs. There may also be benefits of using and coordinating multiple social media channels as part of an online consultation, for example by establishing a blog as well as a presence on a social networking site.
The key consideration with adopting this approach is to engage with stakeholders in a genuine two-way consultation process, giving them the opportunity to contribute and then responding to or otherwise making use of that contribution. Common scenarios and tools for engaging online are discussed in detail in the Web Guide’s Government 2.0 Primer.
The following guidelines are likely to be further refined and developed based on feedback from agencies, public servants and the public as clearer evidence on best practice emerges.
In 2008-09 several Australian Government agencies ran online consultation trials to experiment with web-based approaches to involving the public in the policy development process. In June 2009 the Government 2.0 Taskforce was formed to advise the Government on how to make better use of online technologies to engage with the public. The Government accepted with some modifications most of the Taskforce’s recommendations, and in July 2010 made a Declaration of Open Government stating its intention to use online approaches to be more consultative and participative in policy and service delivery.
Agencies should consider why they are engaging online, which audience they are targeting and what they want to achieve. The answers to these questions should then inform the way the consultation is conducted, including which tools and approaches are used to engage with the public.
Consultations may make use of a variety of both offline and online channels, for example an agency-run website in addition to presences on other social media sites and possibly offline channels such as print or TV and radio campaigns. Consideration should be given on how to integrate different channels – for example, by promoting and seeking feedback on content from an agency blog on Facebook, or embedding the feed from an agency Twitter account onto an agency website.
Regardless of what methods are used to integrate multiple communications channels, it is important to establish a communications plan to ensure that agencies gain the benefits of a consistent communications approach while also using the various channels in a way that is appropriate for each individual channel.
Finally, when establishing an online consultation, especially one making use of Web 2.0 tools such as blogs and wikis, agencies should be mindful of their legal and policy obligations in areas such as security, privacy, accessibility, branding and recordkeeping, among others. More advice on these matters is contained in the Government 2.0 Primer.
The requirements and processes for running an online consultation will vary.
Barring privacy, commercial-in-confidence information and other relevant concerns, agencies can also increase the openness and transparency of the consultation process by posting submissions online and allowing comments or other feedback on these submissions. However, it should be noted that this may not be advisable for some forms of consultation, such as royal commissions, or for controversial or otherwise sensitive topics. Agencies should also give contributors the option to make private submissions.
Last Reviewed: 2010-08-31