In their report ‘Online citizen panels as an advance in research and consultation: A Review of pilot results’ Anne Sharp and Katherine Anderson from the University of South Australia come to the conclusion that online citizens panel can provide councils with a viable alternative to traditional methods of community consultation and research.
Citizens panels they argue can provide councils with definite advantages for local government because of their ability to engage large numbers of citizens over extended period of times in a very cost effective way.
Consultation and research: A Frustrating Reality
Sharp and Anderson identify what can be the challenging and frustrating reality when local governments undertake consultation and research in their community’s.
They pinpoint the following reasons for why this is so:
- Internal resource constraints that prevent councils from designing or implementing consultation strategies themselves.
- The high cost of commissioning external research providers means that only limited research activities are able to be undertaken.
- Often there are low participation rates when consultation activities are undertaken.
- Frequently there is a vocal minority which dominates the consultation processes.
- Participants to consultation processes can often bring negative attitude with them.
- Surveys are often criticized for being poorly designed.
All the factors outlined above can lead to skepticism that consultation processes will be able to generate new ideas and local government decision makers tend to be dismissive or distrusting of findings gathered through such processes.
Citizens Panels to the Rescue
In their report Sharp and Anderson conclude that a citizens panel can provide councils with an effective tool to avoid the frustrations involved with public consultation and provide community’s with the tools to ‘help shape their city’s future’.
Outlined below are some of the positive aspects which emerged from the citizen’s panels that they observed.
- Citizens panels enable access to the ‘silent majority’ as most panel members have not participated in previous council consultation procedures.
- Panel response rates are generally quite high with some surveys receiving response rates of up to 86%.
- Satisfaction of panel members was also high with 85% of participants indicating that that they were satisfied with the panel experience.
- The panel helped to improve council community relations with 60% of respondents saying that participating in the panel had improved their perceptions of council.
Our own experiences concur with the findings of Sharp and Anderson and we take confidence from the report that the panels we operate will continue to provide councils with an effective consultation and engagement tool.