Overusing Techniques such as Meetings & Committees for Public Engagement & Decision Making

Following this month’s Brownbag Session, we had a couple of questions that need answering… Feel free to add your own questions or thoughts at any time.

Question #1

Are other forms of Social Media more Useful than a Blog?

Hans recommended moving to virtual advisory committees via a blog; our group liked the idea but some participants suggested that social media such as Facebook have overtaken blogs and would be a better choice. Can Hans discuss this question on the IPMP blog? Thanks! -Karen

You are right that there are many other means of communicating with a group of PAIs (Potentially Affected Interests), that in some ways might be more effective than a blog. We have analyzed what does and doesn’t work through the research I’ve (Jennifer Bleiker) conducted in order to write my Master’s thesis on the various pros and cons of using different forms of Social Media as tools to communicate with various publics.

From what we can tell, a blog tends to be more comprehensive in that you are not limited to 140 characters as you would be with Twitter, or 450 with Facebook (although there are plug-ins which allow users to create longer documents within Facebook outside of status updates).

The major drawback to a blog is that people have to take the initiative to go to YOUR site to read it, rather than opening up a platform (such as Facebook or Twitter) that they are already using, and simply getting an update on your project without any additional effort on their behalf. That being said, in the case of an Advisory Committee that meets in person (and as mentioned by one participant in the Brownbag session as many as 50+ hrs a year), going to a website is a lot less inconvenient than aligning several schedules to meet in person.

While a blog is one of the less convenient Social Media tools you might consider using to communicate with PAIs because it requires them to go to your blog’s page, it is worth noting that it can be somewhat difficult to ensure that PAIs read or are exposed to a status update from a project or agency’s Facebook page or Twitter feed. The reason being is that the timing of the update may not coincide with when they are using or checking that particular medium. In other words, the message sent out might get lost among other status updates unless the user goes to that agency or project’s specific Facebook page or Twitter feed.

As with many of the Citizen Participation tools we discuss in the CPO course, we have found that it appears most useful to use BOTH a blog and other forms of social media. This way, each is supplemented so that the weaknesses are not quite as likely to hinder effective communication, and the strengths can be more fully utilized.

So, in the case of an agency or project that has a blog, we would recommend using that as the place to develop a more thorough discussion on a particular topic. The blog (and associated website) would enable an agency to also post links to relevant video, plans, other websites, contact information, upcoming and past information, etc. that would more fully inform PAIs. Then, we would encourage the use of platforms like Facebook and Twitter to alert people to these blog updates, to give them a sense of what is discussed, and to pique their interest so that they are more likely to follow what is going on with the project.

Micro-blogging tools (such as Facebook, Twitter, Google +, etc.) are just that — great for micro- or mini-blogging. They allow an agency to bring up things that might be too insignificant for a blog, but can be said in a snippet.

As you learned in the SDIC course, it is often imperative that you get bold, or even provocative in your communication with your PAIs so that they are more likely to pay attention and tune-in to what and why things are happening in relation to the project. Using these micro-blogging platforms are a great way to bring up sensitive information, and can be another facet of the tactic of “Public-Hangwringing” (a previous Brownbag topic).

So, in the case of creating a “Virtual Advisory Committee,” we think that using a couple of different and complimentary social mediums is the best way to go. That is, unless the discussions need to be closed to the public. In that instance, creating a Facebook “Group” or a Google + “Circle” might be easier than a blog that cannot be accessed by the general public.

Otherwise, using micro-blogging tools such as Facebook will allow you to reach the folks who will never have or take the time to go to your particular blog or website, and yet you can still alert that via Facebook that an even more thorough and dynamic conversation is taking place on the project’s blog.

Again, we highly recommend that any blog or Facebook page be well monitored. It’s best if folks are allowed to post messages and comments to a blog, but that those comments are either vetted before they go public, or are watched extremely closely. Comments on a Facebook page will be instantaneous, so it’s important to figure out who and how someone will react if something inappropriate or off-topic is posted. Ideally, such guidelines are posted to your website and/or Facebook page well in advance, so that your PAIs are forewarned that not just anything can be posted.

Question #2

How Useful is an Advisory Committee when they ARE the Decision-Makers?

I found yesterday’s brownbag topic to be very relevant and interesting. I was also quite intrigued by the use of virtual meeting and committees. I had a question about the usefulness of an advisory committee when they are actually the decision makers – they are given a set of options or guide lines and as long as the decision is w/in the guide lines it’s approved. If there is any blow back from the public they are given the contact info for the committee members to call and complain because they are responsible for their decisions. Thanks, Brenda

In this Brownbag session, Hans was talking as if there was only one kind of advisory committee, when in our SDIC course we cover 10 different kinds. Most of those we discuss are Content-Type advisory committees, but there are situations when Popularity advisory committees are useful.

To determine if a Popularity-Type advisory committee is warranted, you’d have to be able to determine that it is a situation where all of the different approaches to the project (i.e. all of the solutions) would work technically as well as any other.

For example, a planner who outlined several kinds of playground equipment that would be technically acceptable to meet the requirements for a new children’s’ park, might decide to use a Popularity-Type advisory committee composed of parents to select from the list of equipment because the differences were technically immaterial, but perhaps important to parents.

Another example of when it would be appropriate to use a Popularity-Type of advisory committee would be for wildlife biologists who manage a reservoir used for sport-fishing. While it may be technically insignificant whether the team of biologist stock the reservoir with a small quantity of large fish, or with a large number of small fish (only that it is one or the other, but not both); they may decide to use a Popularity-Type advisory committee to allow the stakeholders (in this case the sports fishermen) to select between the two alternatives.

Hans didn’t touch on this kind of advisory committee, so we are glad you brought it up. The first decision you must make is if an advisory committee is the appropriate Citizen Participation tool to use at all. If so, you must then determine the nature of the advice that you are seeking on your project.

As long as professionally and technically the differences between the alternatives from which a Popularity-Type advisory committee has to choose from is insignificant, then it is fine to use such a technique (instead of a Consent-Type of advisory committee). The result is that Popularity-Type advisory committees make the ultimate decision between the various (technically identical) options, which is very different from the role of Content-Type advisory committees.

Our only warning is that you be certain this is the kind of advice you are seeking, otherwise you’ll end up making the serious, but common, Error #3: of “Confusing Advice-Giving and Decision-Making.”