Outcomes from the e-consultation trial

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Two key learning outcomes are highlighted:

  1. Usability and Technology concerns
  2. Issues pertaining to participation.

Usability and Technology

Obtaining feedback on the web site

After initially setting up the consultation web sitethe researcher team gave Wheel personnel an opportunity to give feedback on the site in terms of its usability.

Focus Group feedback

Feedback was collected in a focus group. In general, potential for e-technology was viewed as very positive. However, there were some problems with the design of the site.

  • The site needed to:
    • be clearer and easier to navigate
    • state clear instructions
    • set expectations
    • devise limits to the particular consultation
    • state what will happen to submissions
  • the registration process was overtly complicated

On the basis of these recommendations, the researchers significantly modified the site to the satisfaction of the Wheel.

Usability Survey feedback

Prior to launching the consultation, a number of participants were invited to take part in a pre-trial usability survey. The results provided the following feedback:

  • the site was relatively easy to navigate (Although all participants considered themselves as frequent computer and Internet users)
  • the site provided the necessary information needed to engage in the consultation in a straight-forward manner
  • respondents felt most people could learn to use the website very quickly
  • the site was still unnecessarily complex, i.e. the information provided was somewhat opaque, preventing frequent web site use (a minority view)

The Technology

Fighting Spam

Once the site was running, it worked without any major problems. However, because the system accepts e-mails, the researchers had to delete spam every few days. The research team had not included a spam filter in the software set up; however, manual deletion was easy. Spam did not include offensive messages, only a few commercial advertisements.

Extenuating Factors

In general, worries about having to inspect sites for offensive comments are exaggerated. The greater difficulty is getting people to participate. The technology for collecting voice mail and text messages worked surprisingly well. The only problem was a power cut at QUB, which affected the PC plugged in to the mobile phones. The PC had to be restarted when the power came back on. The voice mail, however, kept on working.

Issues of Participation

From an early stage in planning and designing the e-consultation, the researchers stressed to the Wheel that e-technologies were not a ‘magic bullet’ for boosting quality or levels of participation. Two main problems and two main benefits were identified in relation to participation.


Promote the consultation or sink!

It was impressed on the Wheel that in order to engage significant numbers of consultees, resources would to be employed to publicise the consultation. However, the Wheel explained that it was not able to expend any significant resources on promotion activities. They wished to wait until the Task Force on Active Citizenship was formally announced by the Taoiseach, Mr. Bertie Ahern and use the ensuing press coverage to publicise the Wheel’s own consultation on active citizenship. The researchers believe that this had a significant impact on the low quantity of participation in the E-consultation.

Consulter Turnover

There were also problems of participation among the consulters. This was a result of staff changes at The Wheel. Few of the people who started the e-consultation are still in place, which means that people came in half-way through, perhaps not fully understanding what was going on. This knowledge gap would affect any consultation process, electronic or not. Consequently, it confirms the importance of having enough resources for a consultation, as noted in the NSEC trial.


Comparatively Low Cost

The site succeeded in collecting a range of views and experiences from people not normally appearing in formal submissions on consultation documents. In addition, the consultation cost less than running public meetings or focus groups across Ireland (i.e. traditional methods).

Quality of Participation

However, the quality of participation was high. This is evidenced from reading the following samples: