Online Moderation Best Practices
Personal connections are important online
It is possible to be personal online. A good online moderator is able to reach out to participants and draw out their experience, which adds authenticity to an online dialogue. This might be a culture shock for public servants trained to be faceless. The younger generation is more comfortable with this role. However, it might be best to have an elected official or a third party act as moderator on sensitive policy issues. Make sure that every participant can reach coordinators or technical support if they need to. Encouraging participants to introduce themselves is a good icebreaker for personal connections.
A good moderator involves all participants
As with in-person consultations, the moderator needs to "shepherd the little guy," the participant whose voice is quiet and who is tempted to remain in the background. Moderate the outspoken participants, by privately invite them to wait 4-5 interventions to let everyone have a chance to express their view. Don't be afraid to promote private conversations through designed opportunities. To help participants from various backgrounds, the moderator can decide that informality is accepted like mentioning to participants that perfect grammar and typing is not necessary. It is also wiser not to use sarcasm.
Moderators sometimes have a different personality online
The online personality of a moderator may be quite different from his/her off-line personality. A moderator may very well be an introvert, not the usual personality type in the consultation/facilitation field. Some moderators say they are much nicer online because they have time to think.
Mirror, mirror, on the wall...
In the online world, it is difficult to see directly the verbal and visual cues necessary for building trust in face-to-face communication. Most online consultation applications offer emoticons to help mirror non-verbal cues in written entries, but it is nonetheless important to be sensitive and transparent. The moderator should foster, among participants, a clear and mutual understanding of the purpose and the process of the consultation, including the provision of feedback.
In order to foster ongoing dialogue and more meaningful participation, a responsive approach to participant input is essential. Online facilitators should acknowledge and respond to participant input in a meaningful and timely manner. A good moderator will make sure that no comment goes unnoticed and each is addressed, even if the response is merely an acknowledgement, keeping in mind that he/she represents the Government of Canada.
Be a "rule-keeper"
Establish a clear "netiquette" and make sure that participants understand this common ground. Quickly refer to it, in a private way, if a participant breaches it. Some flames may occur and they are easier to manage with a netiquette.
Marketing Online Consultations
Online consultation activities require extensive promotion and ongoing support to reach and engage participants. Client loyalty can be fostered by email alerts, indices with relevant personal information and regular updates. The promotional strategy could also include Web site cross-linking, print ads, partner newsletters, and conferences.
Make advance contact to encourage online participation
Client participation should be carefully prepared. You might find that you need to get on the phone first to get participants online. Do not assume people will go online just because a discussion area has been created.
Maintain the contacts database
The contacts database must be in order. No matter how tedious this task might be, databases are power. They allow you to segment your group and create relationships within sub-groups.
Be able to quickly communicate policy issues to relevant stakeholders
A mechanism must be established to bring policy issues to the attention of relevant parties. Quick syntheses are essential in this new environment where speed is the name of the game. Make sure consultation officers understand their limits (how far they can go) on policy issues.
Designing and planning an online consultation: a quick checklist
Be able to articulate the purpose and process
Online consultations must be well planned and well thought-out to achieve success. In addition, since this is a more recent media for the federal government, it is important to articulate and position the online consultation as best as possible to foster senior-level approval and support. To this end:
- Identify all the factors which have made the consultation necessary;
- Define the scope and objectives;
- Identify and justify the use of the online consultation mechanism in relation to other consultation approaches (online or off-line) being used or not being used;
- Identify all stakeholders with a legitimate interest in the issue;
- Consider the time demands of the exercise;
- Detail and justify the technology and any other tools or physical resources needed;
- Estimate costs and factor in uncertainties; and
- Check that enough people, with the right expertise, are involved in preparing and running the consultation.
Keep it simple!
To better encourage broad participation, it is best to err on the side of simplicity in designing online environments. User interfaces and online tools should be thoroughly tested to ensure they reflect standards of accessibility for the selected stakeholder audience.
Selecting Online Tools and Technologies
Make a careful selection of the tool and technology
The goal of an online consultation should be to ensure relevant, accessible and inclusive participation based on consultation objectives. The type of consultation, therefore, should drive technology choices. Some important considerations to examine include the scope of the issue being discussed, the specific sectors being affected, the level of knowledge or expertise required to participate, and the stage of the policy, program, service or initiative being examined.
Factor in the barriers
Other factors to consider are the unique accessibility barriers-both technical and social-to stakeholder participation. Technical planning should include needs assessment of technical challenges facing stakeholders and assume no prior knowledge or experience with online consultations among participants. Establishing a project advisory group with stakeholder representation will aid departments to anticipate barriers and challenges in advance of the implementation stage.
Accessibility and Usability
Keep your participants in mind
Participants in rural or remote regions as well as many voluntary sector organizations may rely on dial-up Internet access. Accordingly, Web site applications may need to be developed with the "lowest common denominator" design and fast-loading options in mind. Participants with broadband access might be better able to take advantage of streamed audio/video.
Make all your information readily available
Participants should not be required to download special software to access and participate in an online consultation; all the information and requirements should be readily accessible through standard Web browsers or email programs. Similarly, background information and discussion papers need to be available in Web pages or through email, not requiring participants to download files to their local computers, especially for those who participate via a public terminal such as in a Library or an Internet Café.
Common Look and Feel
Software and set-up choices need to follow accepted guidelines to ensure a reasonable access for the needs of Canadians with disabilities. For more information consult the accessibility section of the Common Look and Feel Web site at http://www.cio-dpi.gc.ca/clf-nsi/inter/inter-01-tb_e.asp.
Official Languages and Translation
Cross-fertilize ideas in both languages
While all supporting document, official discussion questions and consultation summaries need to be translated, there is no requirement that individual submissions or postings be translated before they can be posted to the site or included on the consultation listserv. It is highly recommended that consultation hosts provide regular translated summaries of content to all participants to encourage cross-fertilization of ideas and promote ongoing participation.
Sparking discussions with documents external to the federal government
Documents or "postings" submitted to a federal institution by persons or organizations not subject to the Official Languages Act do not necessarily need to be translated. These might include references to other Web sites or related documents that participants or an online facilitator could post to a consultation to help generate discussion or provide background. These documents do not have to be posted in both official languages as long as their origin is explained, indicating that the language in question is that of a person or organization who submitted it, that the texts are offered only as a courtesy with no changes and not for the purpose of seeking the views of the public about the documents. As an additional courtesy, the moderator could offer an abstract of the document or reference and, as much as possible, an equivalent article or source in the other official language.