Face-to-face today, interface-to-interface tomorrow

by Doug Downs, managing partner

I learned this exercise early in my public consultation career some 15 years ago. Two participants sit back to back, with one describing verbally a scene on a piece of paper to the second person who must draw what the first person is describing without seeing it. Inevitably what the second person has understood and transcribed on paper is somewhat different than the original scene no matter how well described.

The lesson of course is that any interaction other than face to face is blind and therefore ineffective when it comes to understanding, retaining and repeating detail.

That’s why public participation practitioners like me invariably become strong advocates for in-person consultation. The International Association of Public Participation Professionals (IAP2) calls this “bringing people together.”

And so through the years project leaders and public stakeholders meet face-to-face. They connect at kitchen tables, in small halls and gymnasiums with foam core poster boards to outline their project. Sometimes they meet in coffee boîtes and in university classrooms. Real people meeting real people.

But I’m starting to wonder if one day the value of that in-person interaction may be replaced? Increasingly social media is becoming a viable way not only to communicate information one way, but to engage… maybe even participate.

Weaknesses of Public Consultation techniques today

There have always been weaknesses to various forms of in-person public consultation, the open houses and town halls. The vast majority of people cannot or do not participate in such engagements. Here’s one example. Calgary boasts that its imagineCALGARY project, launched in 2005, involved more than 18,000 participants and represented “the largest community visioning and consultation process of its kind anywhere in the world.” But it’s a city of a million people; that 18,000 equals to two per cent. What traditional, in-person consultation does promote is the engagement of special interests. Nothing beats the disorganized majority like the organized minority.

While the open house and town hall remains a municipality’s choice in public consultation, social media is gaining massive interest. Mississauga-based Redbrick Communications has followed social media use among Ontario’s 444 municipalities since 2010. Its annual municipal social media survey found social media use among municipal governments exploded over the last three years, going from five per cent of municipalities running social media accounts in April 2010 to 54 per cent in April 2013. That’s a whopping 860 per cent increase.

And yet, the firm’s study found growth in social media use by Ontario municipalities plateaued in the last quarter of the three-year period. The growth slow-down may be due to municipalities taking the time to research and plan a social media approach that fits with their unique circumstances or that a perceived lack of time and resources have made many smaller municipalities reluctant to plug into the social network (in fact, only 35 percent of municipalities with populations under 10,000 were using social media compared to 91 per cent of municipalities with populations 75,000 and over). Also, high-speed broadband services are still expanding across rural, eastern and northern Ontario. The plateau may just be a lull before the next boom.

The growth of E-Participation

For sure, many people are now finding social media as a preferred way to share their views. They are finding trust in what their friends recommend via social networks and they make stakeholder (and customer) experiences remarkably transparent. People are sharing their experiences with good and bad services all the time. Just plug in your organization’s name into www.socialmention.com. It may be brutally honest… but it’s honest.

Social media today is really a tool for PR – not P2 (public participation), but that seems to be changing. ParticipateDB (www.participatedb.com/about) is a collaborative catalogue for online tools for participation (or e-participation). It’s undertaking the daunting but impressive task of building a comprehensive directory to allow people to easily share, discover, explore and compare tools available today to engage people. Just a warning before you click on the link, if you’re fascinated by this stuff you will get lost in this directory for hours.

But could social media actually replace more traditional consultation? It is difficult to imagine. Regulations for public consultation would have to change (a lot), cost implications might be dramatically different and online consultation doesn’t seem to appreciate the power of non-verbal language that is so critical in conveying meaning. But heck, I still refuse to go through the self-checkout line.

Please let me know your thoughts on this concept… umm, online of course.

#IAP2     #Social Media