There’s hesitation in government to use the web to engage the public in dialogue. This seems to be because conversations on the web look disorganized and can feel hostile. We’ve found that, if it’s designed properly, web-based dialogue can be positive and productive for agencies. How can we reassure government agencies that they won’t be eaten alive on the web?
WestEd has been conducting public dialogues on the web to support public involvement in policy development since 2003. We have found that there is more to this than just opening up a blog, and that careful design can allow participants to become better informed about the issue, they deliberate with each other on difficult and contentious issues, and build confidence in government agencies that they would otherwise distrust. We have designed and facilitated web dialogues that:
1. Give government a platform that permits transparency and trust-building
2. Increase opportunities for citizen participation. It’s true that participants need a link to the Internet. However, there are many interested parties who have Internet connections but are unable to attend public meetings because of their location, the cost of travel, their childcare commitments, their work, etc. etc.
3. Increase the quality of citizen participation: it includes geographic diversity in a single conversation (watershed communities that are upstream and downstream, interested parties from the north and south, people from the East Coast and West Coast, local interests and national interests, etc.); it provides opportunities for participants to ponder and consider others’ postings before responding (instead of “dialogue” at public meetings that may sound more like “dueling”, the web-based process is asynchronous and written); it allows for several discussions simultaneously; it allows participants to initiate and join their own sub-discussions; it provides the sponsoring agency with a useful written record; it permits subject-matter experts to introduce information and advice throughout the discussion.
Here are some examples of public deliberation on policy development conducted in WebDialogues organized by WestEd:
1. Water Quality in the Great Lakes and St Lawrence River: an international, bilingual public discussion about water quality in a watershed that stretches for more than 1,000 miles. Sponsored by the International Joint Commission. http://archive.webdialogues.net/cs/ijc-greatlakes-home/view/di/77?x-t=home.view
2. Prioritization of Vaccination in an Influenza Pandemic: a nation-wide public discussion to inform the development of the politically sensitive policy to determine who should be the first to receive vaccine in an influenza pandemic. Sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, and the National Association of City and County Health Officials:
3. Achieving Success for All Students: a state-wide dialogue in California among teachers, students, parents, administrators, board members, the business community, and others about ways to improve the achievement of California students who struggle the most. Sponsored by the California Department of Education:
4. For access to 27 public WebDialogues, produced since 2003, go to