Online participation: this is how it's done

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by Justus

Online participation: this is how it's done

Participation sounds nice... But how do you implement it in a social domain with so many different stakeholders? And which role can social media play? Communication is fragmented, silo thinking is still here and it's difficult to get feedback from clients.

Participation is all about thinking, working and deciding together - for example with clients, client councils, institutions, professionals, civil servants and policy makers. Each of them from their own perspective and with their own interest in mind. Participation crosses horizontal borders by connecting individuals and organizations. It also crosses vertical borders: from civilians (clients) and professionals to civil servants and policy makers, and vice versa!

Participation requires space, trust, personal contact and openness (and privacy). It also requires a structure in which ideas, knowledge, experience and relationships are easily established, shared and found. This structure should exist both 'offline' and online.

Everyone's own interest

Structure can be perceived as oppressive. Openness can be perceived as threatening. Participation can create false expectations. That's why it's important to have everyone contribute with their own interest in mind.

Let's start with the civilian. Clients have ideas and opinions. They want to be heard and they want to give feedback. And this is not limited to outspoken members of client councils. But the form of participation is important: it has to be accessible and manageable at the same time. When civilians provide input, they expect something in return. 

Civil servants, board members and councilors often seek direction and feedback on policy, from their own field and from civilians. The input they get is frequently colored or is gathered by trying to interpret complex surveys. 

Professionals and organizations seek information, direction and coordination. They want short lines to colleagues who do the same job at a different place, and to colleagues who do something similar nearby. They also want a chance to provide early input on new policies and to give feedback on current policies. 

Online participation

The social domain is a people business, and online tools will not change that. An online participation platform can however be a good addition. It can be a place to find and involve people, share knowledge, prepare and follow up on meetings. How could such a platform be used within the social domain? And who should be the initiator?

Municipal cooperation
Municipalities frequently join forces, combining health care budgets and sometimes executing health care together. The need for a platform for coordination and communication on these issues on a policy level is quite obvious.

Several groups of municipalities are currently working together in order to spur regional development of online participation. A regional platform connects and transcends their silos. By facilitating this, the municipality helps professionals find each other, so they can start informal cooperation.

Continuous feedback 
How do civilians (clients) experience policy and the execution of policy? What do they think of the services provided by institutions? What does the civilian want?

Client councils are often asked about their opinion on policy when it's already too late to make big changes to that policy. Still, clients struggle to get through dozens of closed-ended questions. A well-intentioned but slow cycle, usually without any feedback to the civilians.

Providing clients with a continuous role through an online participation platform can help change these dynamics:

  • Anyone can contribute anywhere, anytime
  • All feedback becomes real input
  • A complaint becomes a contact moment and an improvement
  • The process becomes the review
  • Yearly becomes continuously

Participation tips

How can you get clients to participate? How do clients and professionals interact online? How do we keep people involved? These are questions that deserve some serious thought. There is no panacea but from our experience we can say that the following tips and principles usually work well:

  • Keep it small and manageable: experiment with different forms and build on whichever works best.
  • Combine proactive and reactive: build a 'reactive group' that you can proactively approach (for example in a panel) and build a 'proactive group' for people who want something that you can respond to.
  • Ask open questions and ask for more than plain text: ask people what they want and how they feel about certain things, and also ask them to provide input in the form of pictures, videos, drawings or stories.
  • Always give back: make sure that every contribution by a civilian directly provides them with something in whatever form: recognition, a reply, information, real attention to a problem, better care, new forms of care, or 'credits'.
  • Promise something: promise a quick reply (for example "always within one day") and keep that promise - a short informal reply can already be enough.
  • Allow anonymity: being able to give input anonymously is a must for civilians, but they do need an 'account' in order for you to intervene in case of spam or foul language.
  • Make civil servants and professionals visible: if civilians 'expose themselves' while participating, they also expect other participants to do so. You need an account to 'see' each other though; a picture and first name suffice.
  • Facilitate open and closed discussions: sometimes everybody is allowed to see what's being discussed, sometimes you don't want prying eyes.
  • Offer mobile and non-mobile: 'continuously' also means that people can contribute from wherever they like - this will mean mobile for youths but desktop computers for elderly people.