4 strategies for nurturing a Web community

Web 2.0 technologies can facilitate it, but fostering citizen engagement still depends on people skills

Open government was never supposed to be about the technology.

By necessity, the Obama administration has focused a lot of energy on developing open-government systems in the past year, devising new and better ways agencies can engage with the public online.

And understandably, the rapidly evolving approaches that have emerged — the tools for submitting, ranking and discussing public input — have fascinated technology experts. So-called Government 2.0 technology has become a very trendy extension of the burgeoning Web 2.0 market.

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The town meeting meets the national dialogue

However, the technology is only an innovative angle to what turns out to be a rather old-fashioned discipline: community organizing. It’s about understanding the problem that needs to be solved, identifying the people who can help and giving them the guidance they need to be effective.

No amount of technical innovation will result in better policies or a more transparent government if federal agencies lose sight of the basic principles that have underpinned public engagement since long before the Internet came along.

That is the underlying message in a recent report from the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) on the online dialogue conducted last year in support of the Quadrennial Homeland Security Review. Through that dialogue, the Homeland Security Department gave the public an opportunity to weigh in on policies and strategies still in development.

When it comes to public engagement, “It’s about really bringing people together in a problem-solving community and allowing DHS to engage that community when there is a problem to be solved,” said Lena Trudeau, vice president of NAPA.

She and other experts say many of the lessons highlighted in the report could apply to other online dialogues focused on soliciting input from the public. Here is a review of some of their key recommendations for organizing communities in the open-government era.

Lesson 1: Identify your stakeholders — and your expectations.

The first step is to understand the purpose of the dialogue. But that’s not as obvious as it sounds.

In general, online dialogues are based on a belief in the wisdom of crowds. By requesting input from a broad audience, agency officials believe they can get more feedback or tap into more expertise than might be available through traditional public meetings.

But are agencies after general feedback or subject-matter expertise? You need to make that choice upfront and define the expectations for agency officials accordingly.

A broad public call for input will generate some good information, but it will not necessarily be from experts. That makes a difference, depending on the goals of the dialogue.

“When you start talking about the finer points of the mission, if you’ve taken a broad approach to engagement, you may find experts with great perspectives that really inform the specifics of what you are trying to do,” said Trudeau. “It’s likely, though, that most of the input you receive will reflect the level of knowledge of the assembled community.”

For the quadrennial review, DHS ended up with a hybrid strategy. It took the general feedback officials received in the first stage and gave it to a working group that developed specific recommendations, which, in turn, were released for comment.

A good way to identify the appropriate audience for an online dialogue is to figure out what questions you want answered. That's the approach the Environmental Protection Agency took when it hosted an online national dialogue in 2008.

“We spent more time trying to figure out those questions than almost anything else,” said Molly O’Neill, who was chief information officer at EPA at the time and is now a vice president at CGI and a fellow in the CGI Initiative for Collaborative Government. “Unless you know what questions you are trying to answer, you don’t know who to reach out to.”

Lesson 2: Identify your relationship managers.

Once you have an idea of the target audience, you need to identify the stakeholders who best understand that community.

In some cases, those stakeholders might be in your own department. In other cases, they might be experts in the community. Either way, they can serve the vital role of relationship managers, helping you reach deeper into the community and facilitating a more fruitful discussion.

“Involving these nodes in the network of stakeholders — whether they are located inside the organization or outside — is critical to engaging top-level associations and frontline professionals,” the NAPA report states.

Internal stakeholders are especially important in large departments that have individual agencies with discrete missions. For example, if DHS officials are looking to hold a national dialogue on an airport security policy, they will find that someone at the Transportation Security Administration knows how to find the people who are best informed and most passionate about the issue.

Trudeau points out that many online communities have sprung up around government policies without any prompting from federal agencies. It’s just a matter of finding the person who knows where those communities are and can get them engaged.

Relationship managers also serve as the agency’s eyes and ears as the dialogue develops. If the dialogue spreads, they can help officials understand “how these discussions are going and what new communities are forming,” O’Neill said. “That’s how you know where to target [next].”

Lesson 3: Help the stakeholders do their homework.

One of the difficulties that DHS ran into last year was that dialogue participants did not always have a sufficient understanding of the policies being discussed.

The best antidote to ignorance is information. In future dialogues, NAPA said DHS should give potential participants some background information ahead of time.

“Given that these types of reviews involve complex, detailed, technical material, providing content to stakeholders beforehand allows them to digest the information and contribute more well-formulated comments,” the report states.

However, the complexity of the material raises another problem. How do you create background briefings that are informative without being overwhelming?

It all depends on the audience. If they are experts, it’s just a matter of giving them enough information on the specific issue at hand. If the audience is more general, you need to take care to ensure that the information can be easily understood.

That has been the experience of officials at AmericaSpeaks, a nonpartisan organization that organizes local, regional and national town hall discussions about public policy issues.

When dealing with the general public, “we spend a lot of time making sure we are not giving people long, jargony policy papers,” said Joe Goldman, the organization’s vice president of citizen engagement. “We try to make it as short and pithy and accessible as possible.”

Lesson 4: Once engaged, stay engaged.

Finally, remember that the end of a dialogue is not the end of public engagement. If you want to have any hope of engaging that community on future issues, you need to keep its members in the loop.

“At a minimum, when you are convening a public dialogue, you are implicitly committing to them that you will let them know what you heard from them and what you are going to do with their opinions,” Goldman said.

Transparency is important throughout the process. For example, if agency officials have already narrowed a policy debate to a limited number of possible outcomes, they should say that rather than go through the motions of having a general discussion. “Otherwise, you are just creating cynicism,” Goldman said.

Another potential problem is that agencies might want to test the waters before committing to an online dialogue and can spend too long conducting pilot projects that do not interest the general public. After the novelty of online dialogues wears out, people might begin to disengage.

In addition, experts advise agencies to keep an eye on the geographic distribution of online participants. “If 80 percent is coming from Washington, D.C., that’s a problem,” O’Neill said.

A skewed distribution suggests that people outside the government’s immediate sphere of influence are not finding the dialogues relevant. Agencies need to ask, “Are we having discussions that are important to people outside the Beltway?” O’Neill asked. “Are we spending time trying to get those people?”

Trudeau is hopeful. She believes that people are willing to stay engaged if the agencies do their part.

“I have witnessed the fact that there is a great desire in the country right from people who know things aren’t working the way they should,” she said. “They want to help and make things work better — they want to engage — [and government needs] to tap into that great energy and enthusiasm.”


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