I just came across a very succinct take on the advantages of online consultation. It’s from a 2003 paper Beyond Civil Society: Public Engagement Alternatives for Canadian Trade Policy (PDF) by Josh Lerner. Here’s how he summarizes the case for e-consultation:
Online public deliberation applies the principles of public deliberation workshops to the Internet. It uses interactive new technologies to facilitate open online discussion and deliberation. Online deliberation transcends e-government – rather than simply allowing government to deliver online services, it enables a two-way dialogue through which the public can help shape government policy. Likewise, online deliberation is distinct from online consultation – while the later aims mainly to collect public input, the former encourages the public to critically discuss different policy options and promotes “preference formation rather than simple preference assertion.
Online deliberation is not simply a free-for-all discussion. Participants must first have access to balanced information, and clear rules and procedures shape the online discussions. Unlike online polling, deliberation asks participants to consider open-ended questions and allows for flexible discussion. It gives people extra time to digest different arguments and revise their own positions, usually lasting for at least a month. Besides facilitating dialogue between citizens and government, online deliberation allows citizens to directly interact with each other. Ultimately, online deliberation benefits both the public and government – the public becomes more engaged in civic and government affairs, policy-makers become better informed of public interests, and both learn from the diversity of views and perspectives. According to DFAIT’s 2002 Public Opinion Survey, 60% of people who think that public consultation is important also believe that the government should utilize Internet consultation.
Reaches More People – Rather than being confined to a meeting room, online discussion boards can accommodate a virtually unlimited number of people. While only one person at a time can speak at public meetings, online deliberation allows multiple participants to contribute at any time.
Reaches New People – Online deliberation makes public engagement more accessible. It allows people in remote communities to access government centres, and the ease of access may attract people who are not sufficiently motivated to contribute to more demanding forms of public engagement.
Cost Savings – Since its main costs are limited to Internet space and website design and management, online deliberation has the potential to save government money and time.
Issues for Consideration
Setting Appropriate Rules – For online deliberation to function smoothly, clear and transparent rules must be communicated to the participants. Procedures about length and frequency of messages, acceptable language, appropriate message content, and other guidelines help create focused, productive, and respectful deliberation.
Moderating the Discussion – Skilled moderators are crucial to facilitating discussion. Moderators can communicate and enforce rules, ensure equal opportunity for participation, steer discussion, and summarize key points. Proper moderating is necessary to generate mutual learning and influence policy.
Involving Policy-Makers – To ensure policy impacts, government officials need to participate in discussions. If decision-makers are visibly involved in the deliberation, other participants will take the exercise more seriously.
Who is Represented – Online deliberation excludes those without computer access. Although Internet coverage is becoming more universal, online deliberation is most likely to attract better-educated, more affluent Canadians. It therefore needs to be made as inclusive as possible, to minimize discrimination and digital exclusion.