The Dos and Don’ts of Seeking Public Opinion via the Web
New communication technologies can increase citizens’ understanding of policy issues and the quality of their participation in policy making. As online public consultation is becoming widespread practice at the Organisation, the OECD has developed the following guidelines with a view to making online public consultation as transparent and productive as possible.
LEADING UP to the consultation:
1. Begin the consultation process long before the consultation per se.
- Advertise upcoming online consultations several months in advance of the actual consultation so that organisations expect and prepare for it.
- Ask civil society organisations (CSOs) which follow your work to help circulate the information.
- Ask Permanent Delegations to help identify appropriate CSOs and to advertise the consultation.
- Ask for suggestions about appropriate organisations to consult.
- Identify the international newsletters that treat the subject and ask them to advertise the consultation.
- Relay the information via communication channels (news releases, etc.).
2. Identify organisations with the appropriate expertise and maintain an up-to-date database.
- Tap every resource – Internet, CSOs, OECD committee members, Permanent Delegations – to ensure that you reach the most appropriate interlocutors. Keep an updated database. Include CSO information centres and regional centres in your database and on your distribution lists. Ask them to publicise the information on their own websites.
LAUNCHING the consultation:
3. Explain the consultation procedure and how you will treat responses.
A consultation document should be sent out to your contacts at the time of the launch of the consultation and posted on your website. It should:
- Explain who will use the responses and for what purpose.
- Explicitly state to whom to respond to direct queries to, giving a name, address, telephone number and e-mail address (the project manager), and highlight the information.
- Clearly state the deadline for responses, any alternative ways of contributing and the language(s) in which responses are preferred.
- Make it clear that responses, including the names and addresses of respondents, may be made public unless confidentiality is specifically requested.
- State the date when and the web address where the summary of responses will be published.
4. Simplify the process; provide all relevant documentation.
- Include relevant documents on the subject along with the online questionnaire or survey. Not only does this lead to a more informed consultation exercise, but it also ensures that stakeholders have a better understanding of the issues.
- Provide a well-written executive summary that covers the main points so that consultees can decide whether the consultation is relevant to them or not.
- Provide material on previous consultation(s) on the same topic, if any.
- Avoid jargon and only use technical terms where absolutely necessary. Explain complicated concepts as clearly as possible and, where there are technical terms, provide a glossary.
- Ask focused questions, and be clear about the specific points on which you are seeking views. Encourage respondents to provide evidence, where appropriate, to support their responses. Make it clear if there are particular areas where their input would be especially valuable. Responses are likely to be more useful and focused if the respondents know where to concentrate their efforts.
5. Allow adequate time for responses.
- Allow 8 to 12 weeks for responses – and, just as importantly, allow enough time between the end of the consultation and the formal discussion of the results to distil the responses and summarise them in a way that is can easily comprehensible. Where a consultation takes place over a holiday, remember to allow extra response time (up to an additional four weeks).
FOLLOWING the consultation:
6. Analyse and summarise responses for formal discussion and publication on the website.
- Complie and analyse the comments, then draw up a short summary, emphasising the main points. This should be presented for formal discussion and posted on the website at the end of the process.
- Do not simply count votes when analysing responses. Particular attention should be paid to possible new approaches to the question consulted on; further evidence of the impact of the proposals; and strength of feeling among similar pressure groups.
- Make every effort to ensure that discussion takes the public input into account.
7. Report back to the public via the website and other channels.
- It is not enough to simply publish the responses on the website. It is also important to present the final product under debate, and, where possible, any impact that the public input may have had on the discussion.
- Aim to publish the summary of public responses on the website at the end of the process. Other forms of feedback might also be considered, such as a note expressing appreciation for the public input and offering any information possible about its impact for publication on the website.
- Information should also be provided on themes that came out of the consultation which were not covered by the questions.
- Wherever possible, a summary of the next steps for the project should also be included.
- Consider sending any or all of the above elements to the organisations that helped circulate the information about the public consultation on their websites.
8. Monitor your effectiveness.
- Invite respondents to comment on the consultation process and suggest ways of further improving it.
- Explicitly state whom to contact if respondents have comments or complaints about the consultation process. This should be someone outside the team running the consultation.
- Look at usefulness, scope and coverage, numbers and types of comments received for future reference.