Collaboration and Technology Discussion Series – The More Things Change the More They Stay the Same

May 11, 2010

What makes for a good conversation? A seemingly simple question, but it reminds me of the importance of the basics as we venture into new terrain opened by technology.

I am having so much FUN exploring technological tools for public engagement! The process certainly looks different at times, which is part of the fun. And, yet, I keep coming back to the basics. What do we know about what makes a good conversation in person, and how do we translate that into a new setting, whether it be a web dialogue or a collaborative modeling process?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hosted a web dialogue in April as part of its support for a National Conversation on Public Health and Chemical Exposures. EPA decided this week to host a web dialogue to as part of developing a new strategy for its implementation of the Safe Drinking Water Act, and next week FDA will engage in a targeted dialogue with retailers about ways to reduce the number of children purchasing cigarettes. Although these are ones I have or will facilitate, they are just a few of many dialogues on important public policy issues popping up on the web.

If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there. Lewis Carroll

The first fundamental I’ve relearned is that it’s as important to have a specific reason to use a new tool as to use an old tool. In each of these cases, the web dialogue solved a problem of scale. These agencies wanted to have a national conversation – and the web makes it easy for people all over the country to participate. However, just as in a face-to-face meeting, people want to know how what they say will be used. RESOLVE created a process map for two of these three cases to help the sponsor clarify how the outputs from the web dialogue fit in its overall consultation (and decision making!) process. Our partners created another invaluable tool at the back end, which allows the sponsor to “tag” messages with key words related to issues they needed to decide and the software automatically sorted the sometimes-messy entries into useful categories for input.

Did you ever throw a party and nobody came? Anonymous

Another fundamental that bears repeating is that outreach is critical. What makes us think people will come to our party just because it’s on the web? CDC did a fabulous job engaging its public health partners and stakeholders with diverse perspectives, forming a planning group, inviting their thoughts about good questions to ask, inviting their leaders to serve as subject matter experts in the dialogue, and asking them to reach out to their members to invite their participation. Our partners at WestEd created a cool map of the country that located each participant as a figure icon by their zip code. Seeing participants from 42 states and the District of Columbia was a dramatic visual message that this was in truth a national dialogue!

I think I should understand that better, if I had it written down: but I can’t quite follow it as you say it. Alice

The advantage of the web, with people being able to participate at different times, means that agendas look different, but the power of a clear question remains the same. An agenda on the web? YES! I’ve learned from our partners at WestEd that it’s best to have one or two topics a day, each with two or three clearly formulated, open-ended questions. Any more than that and there are too many different conversations going on at the same time for participants to follow easily – and for a facilitator to track. I hadn’t thought it through before I did one that each question is a link to a different electronic space on the web.

Read the directions and directly you will be directed in the right direction. Doornob.

Usually, simple works best. A web dialogue is just that – a dialogue on the web. Think web site, with tabs at the top that say home, agenda, discussion, participants, panelists, guidelines, etc.

Also, think facilitated, with a warm welcome message, acknowledgements, follow up questions to draw people out, comments noting linkages between messages, summarizing themes, a closing message, and a thank you each day with information about next steps, etc. I’ve been told that some web formats are not much more than an electronic version of a public hearing, with people making their statements and leaving. A facilitator can do a lot to encourage interaction and true dialogue – and so can the technology.

Reeling and Writhing, of course, to begin with, and then the different branches of arithmetic — Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision. The Mock Turtle

The very openness that makes web-based processes attractive also creates concerns about an increased possibility of “bad” behavior. So, what do we do in person when people may be angry or abusive of one another? Ground rules help – which the technology actually makes it easier to enforce (by deleting or moving messages that cross the line). However, creating a personal connection is even more effective. Remember, people can read but not post unless they register. I’ve seen great results from a registration process that requires real names, contact information (although the latter remains confidential), and a personal statement so that people “meet” one another as they join the dialogue. Other ways to personalize the dialogue include involving respected subject matter experts from diverse perspectives serving as “panelists” with bios and photos to give a face to a name. And, respect, active listening, and sincere interest works as well on line as it does in person.

Tools that I’ve seen from WestEd include the capacity for any participant to post links to information sources (clear respect for two-way communication), for the facilitator to post a message that a response is needed that just panelists see, and for any participant to indicate concern that a message violates ground rules.

There’s so much more to learn and share and I look forward to what others have to offer. The key is to participate – just like in any dialogue. So speak up!

That’s nothing to what I could say if I chose. The Duchess

Gail Bingham

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