The Wheel trial on active citizenship was the third and final trial. These trials are part of a wider research project on e-consultation, started in January 2004, by Queen's University Belfast, the University of Maynooth and Limerick Institute of Technology.
The Wheel case provided learning about what not to do when organising an E-Consultation.
The Wheel was established in 2000, as a non-profit body for community and voluntary organisations in the Republic of Ireland.
The Wheel represents, and seeks the views of, the community and voluntary organisations to government.
Following the establishment of the Task Force on Active Citizenship , the Wheel decided to conduct a consultation about active citizenship. The aim was to inform the Wheel of member/non-members' views on different aspects of active citizenship.
The Wheel decided on the use of e-consultation for the first time in an attempt to increase possible participation in the consultation.
The Wheel had little resources to support an e-consultation, such as moderating the online forums, providing and maintaining the technology, and did not have appropriately trained staff.
From further discussions, The Wheel team agreed to incorporate a feedback mechanism into the e-consultation. The purpose of this was to:
- Inform participants of their progress.
- Develop a strategy for recruiting participants.
The e-consultation was structured along four themes:
- Who is an active citizen?
- What should the role of the state be in active citizenship?
- How can The Wheel facilitate active citizenship?
- Reflect on the terms of reference.
Comments were posted on to an online blog for each of the four themes. No registration was required, permitting anyone to post and read stories. In addition, contributions could be made by various means:
- via the website
- using e-mail
- via mobile phone
- via telephone (using a voice mail system)
The design of the web site was built on the lessons learned from the Waterways Ireland case. The end result was a web site that reads well for any level of internet user or experience in consultations.
As this was the first e-consultation conducted by the Wheel, the researcher team were keen to identify initial expectations of the consulters and consultees for the E-Consultation.
The Wheel team expected the e-consultation would provide a good opportunity to learn and experience another method of reaching out the clients. This was important because it was a break from traditional methods, which were viewed as problematic.
Two concerns were:
- Getting enough people to contribute
- Community's and Voluntary sector's access to PCs, internet and other technology
Consultees had mixed feelings about e-consultation; some were positive, others were negative. Their experience varied from simply proficiency in IT to inter-agency consultation. Expectations were also varied. For example, some hoped that everyone's views would be heard and have an affect on planning, whilst others wanted a better understanding of the e-consultation methodology.
Feedback provided suggested that:
- being an active citizen is about, for example, empowering others, being pro-active, and representing the under-represented.
- the state is considered by some to have no role, because it is about individual responsibility, whilst others suggest the state needs to train and educate active citizenship.
After setting up the consultation web site the researcher team took feedback on its usability from Wheel personnel. In addition, participants' views were surveyed. Whilst participants mainly praised the user-friendliness of the consultation web site, Wheel personnel expressed concerns about navigation difficulties and data/blog entry management. The researcher team took concerns on board and modified the consultation web site accordingly.
The technology raised two concerns:
- Spam plagued the site but was not offensive material and was easily deleted.
- There was a general power cut, which affected the QUB PC for a short time.
However, in general, the technology operated satisfactorily.
In relation to participation, two problems and two benefits were identified:
- The Wheel was unable to expend resources on promoting the e-consultation, which resulted in low participation numbers.
- Consulter turnover was high resulting in a knowledge gap at the Wheel. This negatively affected the consultation process.
- In contrast to tradition consultation methods, e-consultation is of lower cost.
- Submissions suggest that, although the participant population was small, the quality of participation was good.
The researcher's report produced five conclusions from this e-consultation case:
- This is an effective way to collect tacit knowledge from people.
- The multiple routes for submission worked, so bridging the digital divide.
- The technological support does not require a lot of work by consulters.
- Publicity is needed to bring people to an e-consultation web site.
- Copy-writing and creating user-friendliness for the web takes skill and time.