Earlier yesterday via Twitter, I came across this paper from the December 2006 issue of the Electronic Journal of e-Government (a bit less recent, yet still valid today): On the Road from Consultation Cynicism to Energising e-Consultation (PDF, 144KB) by authors Simon Stephens, Paul McCusker, David O’Donnell, David R. Newman and G. Honor Fagan.

Abstract: A major concern in recent political discourse is that government has become both isolated from and unresponsive to its citizens. Democracy, by definition, demands a two-way flow of communication between government and civil society. ICTs have the potential to facilitate such improved flows of communication — hence, e-democracy and e-consultation. This paper initially draws on focus group discussions on the theme of e-consultation conducted amongst activist citizens on the island of Ireland. High levels of frustration, scepticism and cynicism were expressed on the form, nature and process of extant consultation processes. In follow-up demonstrations, however, the preliminary findings are much more positive suggesting that the potential exists for using e-consultation technologies to enhance democratic processes.

The following set of recommendations caught my eye as they still very much seem to apply today, three years later (page 90):

The following recommendations on future e-consultations were generated from a preliminary analysis of the eight focus group discussions/transcripts:

  1. Maximising inclusion must be central to future e-consultation.
  2. Provide pre-consultation ICT training.
  3. Create and widely circulate detailed time plans.
  4. Provide a suitable contact person to deal with queries or difficulties.
  5. Be flexible with methods and techniques.
  6. Tailor time and settings to participants’ needs.
  7. Provide structured and thoughtful feedback mechanisms.
  8. Allow freedom of access to all information collected.
  9. Provide low cost ICT.
  10. Offer technical support.

The paper closes as follows:

6. Conclusions and Recommendations
What can we learn on the future potential of e-consultation from the two sets of findings presented here? The communicative rationality of local lifeworlds (EU Commission 2003; Habermas 1996; Macintosh, 2004; McCusker et al., 2005; Morison and Newman, 2001; O’Donnell and Henriksen, 2002) may, theoretically, be communicated by citizens via e-consultation processes and technologies—with the purpose of influencing decision-making processes and public policy that directly affects them. The rationale for a radical overhaul is the democratic ideal of ‘partnership and participation’. No single actor (public, private or voluntary) has the information or resources to tackle all problems either efficiently or effectively. To enhance democracy, however, it is imperative that effective consultation takes place enabling a worthwhile transfer of ideas and concerns from the bottom-up. Although not the solution to all the current difficulties, ICT does offer the ability to dramatically improve the process in terms of access and information flow. The findings presented here range from the initial scepticism and cynicism emanating from the face-to-face focus group discussions to the much more optimistic experiential experiences of participants once they interacted with a range of e-consultation technologies in a hands-on manner. One aspect of this transition is the need to incorporate technical advances into political life in such a way as to provide citizens with a more central role in both policy-making and decision-making processes. eGovernment is defined by the Commission of the European Communities (2003) as “the use of (ICT) in public administration combined with organisational change and new skills in order to improve public services and democratic processes while strengthening support for policies”. It follows that organisational change and upskilling must be addressed by both central and local government agencies if the aspirations of present programmes are to be achieved—otherwise they will remain precisely that—mere aspirations. The preliminary findings from the demonstrations suggest that the former aspects of this are possible – whatever about their future influence on policy.
Changing the methodology of consultation may also make available to local authorities and local councillors a framework and opportunity within which to fulfil their roles as policy makers. The development of opportunities for partnership with local interest groups may assist in the formation of a bottom up approach. A variation in techniques may provide better communication, co-operation and consensus between all parties involved. Maximising the potential of ICT may enhance democracy by pooling resources, and by spreading workloads and areas of responsibility. Focusing on partnership may remove the time delays associated with individuals working in isolation. It may also assist by more clearly defining the various roles between central and local government and citizens and other interest groups or stakeholders. The use of the qualifier ‘may’ in all of our concluding sentences here is intentional and signals that there is much yet to discover and do before present aspirations on e-consultation become future working realities. That said, moving from the rather negative findings on extant consulation processes there is much that is positive in the feedback from participants on the hands-on demonstration of e-consultation technologies. The next phase of this research agenda is now happening – some of these e-consulation technologies are now in use in real consultation processes on the island of Ireland.

6. Conclusions and Recommendations

What can we learn on the future potential of e-consultation from the two sets of findings presented here? The communicative rationality of local lifeworlds (EU Commission 2003; Habermas 1996; Macintosh, 2004; McCusker et al., 2005; Morison and Newman, 2001; O’Donnell and Henriksen, 2002) may, theoretically, be communicated by citizens via e-consultation processes and technologies—with the purpose of influencing decision-making processes and public policy that directly affects them. The rationale for a radical overhaul is the democratic ideal of ‘partnership and participation’. No single actor (public, private or voluntary) has the information or resources to tackle all problems either efficiently or effectively. To enhance democracy, however, it is imperative that effective consultation takes place enabling a worthwhile transfer of ideas and concerns from the bottom-up. Although not the solution to all the current difficulties, ICT does offer the ability to dramatically improve the process in terms of access and information flow. The findings presented here range from the initial scepticism and cynicism emanating from the face-to-face focus group discussions to the much more optimistic experiential experiences of participants once they interacted with a range of e-consultation technologies in a hands-on manner. One aspect of this transition is the need to incorporate technical advances into political life in such a way as to provide citizens with a more central role in both policy-making and decision-making processes. eGovernment is defined by the Commission of the European Communities (2003) as “the use of (ICT) in public administration combined with organisational change and new skills in order to improve public services and democratic processes while strengthening support for policies”. It follows that organisational change and upskilling must be addressed by both central and local government agencies if the aspirations of present programmes are to be achieved—otherwise they will remain precisely that—mere aspirations. The preliminary findings from the demonstrations suggest that the former aspects of this are possible – whatever about their future influence on policy.

Changing the methodology of consultation may also make available to local authorities and local councillors a framework and opportunity within which to fulfil their roles as policy makers. The development of opportunities for partnership with local interest groups may assist in the formation of a bottom up approach. A variation in techniques may provide better communication, co-operation and consensus between all parties involved. Maximising the potential of ICT may enhance democracy by pooling resources, and by spreading workloads and areas of responsibility. Focusing on partnership may remove the time delays associated with individuals working in isolation. It may also assist by more clearly defining the various roles between central and local government and citizens and other interest groups or stakeholders. The use of the qualifier ‘may’ in all of our concluding sentences here is intentional and signals that there is much yet to discover and do before present aspirations on e-consultation become future working realities. That said, moving from the rather negative findings on extant consulation processes there is much that is positive in the feedback from participants on the hands-on demonstration of e-consultation technologies. The next phase of this research agenda is now happening – some of these e-consulation technologies are now in use in real consultation processes on the island of Ireland.

These follow-up projects certainly deserve a follow-up.