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Web Dialogues: A New Tool for Connecting People

Greg Keidan is program coordinator of the Institute for Local Government’s Collaborative Governance Initiative and can be reached at gkeidan@ca-ilg.org.

In an ideal world, local officials would be able to meet regularly with each other, policy advisors and constituents. But getting busy people in the same place at the same time can be a challenge.

Internet technology offers some options to meet that challenge. Web dialogues are a convenient and often economical way for local officials to connect with the community and share up-to-the-minute information with each other.

What is a Web Dialogue?

A web dialogue provides an opportunity for a group of people to share information and opinions online. Registered participants are given access to an interactive forum where they can ask and answer questions and read other people’s comments. The site can also offer informational materials to help participants have a well-informed and thoughtful discussion. A facilitator helps keep the conversation moving and on track. Dialogues may include designated panelists to answer questions and share additional resources with participants.

Web dialogues may occur in real time or be asynchronous, allowing people to join in day or night as often as they wish during the time that the dialogue is active. A web dialogue can include small groups or thousands of people. When more than 20 to 30 people are involved, smaller break-out groups may be created to facilitate more personal interaction. A web dialogue is typically conducted in a time frame of a week to 10 days. This helps encourage participation because the opportunity is limited, and people are thus less likely to delay taking part in the discussion.

Some web dialogues incorporate social networking tools similar to those used on the Facebook and MySpace websites and allow people to share their pictures and personal information as well as resources in the form of articles, web page links and videos. Others assign aliases to participants so that everyone is anonymous and equal. Roles such as summarizer, moderator or researcher may be assigned to participants, or the organizers may serve in these roles.

The cost to host a web dialogue can range from free to more than $50,000. The more expensive services may include a team of researchers, graphic designers, facilitators, summarizers, and dialogue and deliberation experts at the host’s disposal. For information about web dialogue technology providers, visit the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation’s resources web page at www.thataway. org/exchange, then scroll down and click on "Collaborative Technologies."

Web Dialogues as a Tool for Information Exchange

Web dialogues can facilitate discussion, networking and brainstorming among busy or geographically dispersed participants. The Institute for Local Government (ILG) has experimented with web dialogues as part of its work in support of youth commissions.

One recent dialogue involved youth commissioners and the people who advise and work with them. The "Crossing Boundaries" dialogue was open from Feb. 19-26, 2008, giving more than 60 participants a week the opportunity to share strategies related to youth engagement and ultimately strengthen the influence of youth on local planning and policy. Crossing Boundaries recruited seven panelists from California and Hampton, Va., known for their innovative work in running active and influential youth councils, to share their experiences and ask substantive questions. ILG staff also monitored the conversation and worked to elicit useful and interesting stories.

The Crossing Boundaries web dialogue was funded with support from the Surdna and Wallace Alexander Gerbode foundations. For more information on this web dialogue and other resources, visit the Collaborative Governance Initiative website at www.cacities.org/cgi.

Web Dialogues as a Civic Engagement Tool

Some web dialogues are designed to help a group reach consensus on an issue or collaborate on a proposal. The new, free tool CivicEvolution (www.civicevolution.org) helps participants explore common ground and develop community solutions through goal-driven dialogue and deliberation. Using this technology, teams of five to 25 people work together in a guided process to develop carefully considered policy proposals. Other web dialogues are designed to gauge public values and support for policy options, or to create a space for peer-to-peer education.

Processes that incorporate both in-person and online opportunities for interaction are a popular trend for large-scale efforts to engage people in local issues. Web dialogues are one element of a three-part civic engagement project in San Mateo County called Threshold 2008, currently under way. The goal is to generate a plan to: 1) address a local housing shortage; and 2) provide affordable housing for current and future residents. Activities to date included a 10-day web dialogue to explore options that had been prioritized by 300 randomly selected residents at an earlier face-to-face meeting. Using both web and in-person dialogues allowed organizers to receive more diverse input, including a greater number of young voices and people who work in the county but can’t afford to live there. More than 700 people have participated in Threshold 2008 so far. For more information, visit www.threshold2008.org.

Like other dialogue and deliberation processes, the idea underlying web dialogues is to:

  • Give people balanced information;
  • Let them ask questions of issue experts; and
  • Expose them to a variety of opinions before asking for their final recommendations.

This allows organizers to get a measure of thoughtful public judgment, which is generally a more solid and long-lasting opinion than those captured by surveys or polls.

Online public engagement isn’t a replace ment for meetings. Any good public dialogue should be inclusive, and not everyone has reliable Internet access. And the personal connections and emotional impact of talking with someone face-to-face cannot be duplicated online.

However, 71 percent of American adults now use the Internet. This creates an exciting opportunity to involve more people in dialogues to learn, share ideas and allow more voices to reach policy-makers.

Web Dialogues on Healthy Communities

Between May and October 2008, the Institute for Local Government is hosting a series of web dialogues on health and the built environment for city and county officials and staff. A number of California cities and counties are pioneering efforts linking land use planning decisions with community concerns about health. Examples include promoting access to fresh nutritious foods and creating more opportunities to exercise and enjoy nature.

Panelists include experts from universities and nonprofit organizations as well as local officials who have worked on healthy community plans in California.

Registration is free. To register and to learn more about healthy communities, visit www.cacities.org/healthycommunities.

Topic

Dates

Planning for Safe and Healthy Walking/Biking Routes to Schools in Your Community

June 16-25
 

Factoring Resident Health Into City and County Planning

July 14-23
 

Neighborhood Access to Healthy Foods

Sept. 29-Oct. 6
 

This series of web dialogues was funded by a grant from AT&T.