Let’s learn from the mistakes a bunch of us made back in the 90’s when we put up online “discussion” rooms and held online “town halls.” If you want the pay-off - if you want good ideas and positive outcomes - you have to invest the resources and plan strategically. Think of it as running a meeting.
- Invite participants – You’re holding a meeting. You don’t just open the door and shout, “We’re having a meeting – come one, come all!” You do a little work to make sure the right people join the discussion. You look for the people who are most likely to have an interest in and/or experience with the subject. You advertise the meeting in places where your target audience can find out about it. You seek out people with a wide array of opinions, so you’ll come out with the best result. So if you want input on a new homebuying policy, put out the call through new home guides and housing counselors and homebuying conferences and on websites (public and private) that deliver homebuying information. Open the discussion to all. But get out there and find people who have an interest in the subject.
- Share background information – When you have a meeting, you send out background materials – right? So spend a little time educating the participants on the issue, and you’ll have a much better discussion. Publish a short (1-2 page) paper laying out the issue, the objectives, and the parameters. Not voluminous government-speak. Not links to laws and regulations. Just short, plain, and unbiased. Or do a short video…something they can view in 2 minutes and get a feel for the problem on the table. Take the time to prepare the participants, and their input and satisfaction will be so much better. So will yours.
- Publish an agenda. People want to know what to expect – what the process will be. When will the process start? When will it end? Who are the key players? What are the key milestones? Publish an agenda at the beginning and stick to it.
- Designate someone to preside. Someone (a real person – not an agency) has to run the meeting. That means someone has to kick it off, pay attention to what’s going on (every day), channel the discussion, answer questions, head off the “dominators” and encourage others to chime in, and summarize the points. Assign someone with appropriate authority and the right skills to run this meeting. Grant him/her enough time and support (read: resources) to do a good job. And hold him/her accountable for the process. This is where so many efforts failed in the past. If you want good results, you have to make the investment.
- Conclude the meeting. Let everyone know the meeting is over and what’s next. Don’t just disappear and make people wonder what happened. Publish a summary and describe the next steps. Make sure everyone knows who’s doing what. Let participants know when and where they will see or hear about results.
- Follow up. Someone has to make sure that promises are kept and report back to the participants what’s happened and what hasn’t. Reconvene the group if more discussion is needed. Let everyone know when everything is finished. Then – and only then - declare victory!
I’d love to see the federal government, as a whole, start with a handful of topics for public discussion. Throw the best resources at the efforts. Establish models for public participation and collaboration, before the agencies start doing this willy-nilly. Pick issues that don’t need legislation and can be resolved in less than 6 months. Pick issues that have broad public interest, don’t require extensive research or prior knowledge, and won’t be especially contentious. Pick problems that have a good shot at being solved.
Then go out to the public. Sure – use websites and online tools and social media. But try other methods, too. See what works best. Team up with state and local governments. Hold in-person meetings and broadcast town halls on local public access stations. Ask for ideas on other ways to engage. Show in your actions that you sincerely want the public to be involved in their government.
Build some success. Success will beget more success. Get it right in the beginning, and satisfied citizens will spread the word and bring in others.
Participation and collaboration. Exciting times! Let’s make it work.
How Do We Measure Success?
Are We Ready for E-Democracy?
A Next Big Step for Grassroots Democracy (Craig Newmark)
Can We Categorize Participation and Collaboration? (Andrea DiMiao)