Visit the Darebin eForum at http://eforum.darebin.vic.gov.au
The Darebin eForum was piloted in 2004 and has been online in its current form since March 2006. It has been approved by Darebin Council as an ongoing project with an evaluation after its first year of full operation. The Darebin City Council established the Darebin eForum as part of its Governing Darebin strategic plan, which recognises greater community participation in local government and better consultation in policy making as critical to good governance.
Darebin eForum is run as an Internet based forum combined with an email list which means that members can post to the Forum via email as well as directly on the website. It uses open source Groupserver software.
Darebin eForum is moderated, which means there is someone who oversees discussion and checks comments before they are published on the Internet. There is a key moderator who oversees all discussions and vets posts before they are published. The moderator sets a topic in consultation with other Council department officers. The moderator remains constant throughout the year, with co-moderator for each topic drawn from the relevant Council department. The moderator consults with the other Council departments via a reference group made up of officers from across the Council in order to choose topics which are relevant to current policy undertakings or hot policy issues in the community.
At this stage, Darebin eForumdoes not allow citizens to create topics or start discussions.
Issues discussed on the Darebin eForum so far have included:
- Community harmony. This was chosen in the aftermath of the Cronulla riots and because Darebin is a multiculturally diverse community
- Key environmental issues. This included bicycle usage and green energy policy.
- Australian citizenship. This topic came about because of the new Federal policy to introduce a citizenship test.
- Arts and leisure strategy. This topic was discussed as part of general public consultation in the development of a new Darebin arts and leisure strategy, linking directly into a current policy process.
Dr Lucas Walsh, Deakin University is undertaking an evaluation of the e-Forum after one year’s operation. The following are his preliminary findings. The final report will be available by April 2007 on the Darebin eForum.
Benefits listed by the Council officers who used the Darebin eForum for consultation on an issue relevant to their policy area:
- Council officers suggest that the type of discussion taking place is good quality deliberation, including informed debate between users and refinement of views that provides useful feedback to Council.
- Council officers entering the consultative process as participants received positive feedback from users. As one officer/ moderator noted, “it’s also good that the community sees that we are councillor officers yes, but we are also humans…and have opinions about things too”. (Example of this is provided below)
- Councils Officers are highly aware of the particular benefits to users who are “time-poor” and who want to participate in Council from home.
Internet-only forum software vs GroupserverEdit
- Groupserver software, which is used by Darebin to power their forum, makes it possible for people to post to the forum and receive all the comments posted via email as well as being able to post directly on the Internet. About 80% of forum comment came on via email, showing it was a well utilised posting method.
- On the downside, Groupserver is not as simple to administer as other forum applications which run solely on the Internet and which do not offer the comment via email capability. However there are many Internet-only forums which offer email notification, which means a Forum member can choose to receive emails telling them if someone has left a comment on the Forum. This kind of forum might be a good compromise.
- Groupserver also enables private discussions. Other Internet forums generally have this capability also by setting permissions for a forum.
- The current release of Groupserver (as at March 2007) requires a fair amount of initial work to make bug-free as it did not comprise a fully tested set of files.
Moderators as Council officers vs private citizensEdit
- Public servants moderating forums need to be clear about their role as public facilitators. For example, if there is an issue or question raised by a user to which the moderator feels it is not appropriate to respond, the relevant person in Council, such as a manager from the subject area, could speak to the participant directly.
- One Darebin eForum moderator cites a specific example of where a participant’s concerns could not be addressed via the online forum because the moderator was concerned about breaching a politically sensitive area. The concern was then forwarded to the relevant Council personnel who chose to contact the citizen directly and in private. Sometimes, information cannot be shared because it may damage a relationship or offend, so moderators have to be strategic.
Providing opinion vs informationEdit
- Darebin moderators have considerable independence in determining what takes place within each topic, occasionally offering personal as well as professional suggestions to users. Personal suggestions from moderators have been well received by users, and have extended and enhanced the discussion. But because moderators provide opinion as well as information, they sometimes encounter challenges as to how they can respond to potentially politically sensitive issues.
Ensuring the representation of interests and technological inclusionEdit
- The forum faces challenges to access, particularly in a community characterised by cultural and linguistic diversity, access to computers and residents with low computer literacy.
- During 2006, the Darebin eForum averaged around 200-300 user hits per month. The typical user to post a message was male. (During the pilot, however, the typical poster was female, middle-aged, professional and working full-time). Efforts will keep being made to ensure that representation on the forum is as wide as possible.
- Darebin City is characterised by cultural and linguistic diversity. 40% of the population is Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) - as many as 140 languages are spoken across the Darebin City area. One eForum moderator suggests that the language barrier is important challenge – especially because of high levels of new migrants and refugees, and older migrants who prefer to communicate in their heritage languages (e.g. Greek and Italian). While the main website for Darebin Council has a multilingual component, the eForum does not have a translation service.
- The effectiveness of any e-consultation requires technological skills and political literacies amongst representatives, constituents and the public service to effectively engage the consultation process.
e-Consultation needs to be integrated into broader consultation processesEdit
- While there is an explicit effort to link discussion topics to policy initiatives, e-consultation needs to be more formally and explicitly linked to the overall consultation or policy making processes within Council. For example, the first topic on Community Harmony was aligned to policy development within the Councils Multicultural Unit.
- e-Consultation needs to find ways of including the active involvement of Council members.
- Online consultation is best used as part of a group of strategies to achieve maximum impact. As one eForum moderator suggests, the type of e-consultation that would ideally take place in future “would have to be within a suite of consultation methods… Just as we do now, we try not to just to do a survey… but we also have a public meeting, and we have a focus group as well…”
Potential benefits of subscriber-only topicsEdit
Darebin is planning to introduce topics on the e-Forum that are subscriber-only, that is, only visible to people who subscribe to the topic, for example in developing volunteering infrastructure in Darebin. These topics will not be moderated. The aim is to enable a virtual space in which people can be more candid and have specific / specialised interests in the topic. Darebin e-Forum structure
Darebin eForum: structureEdit
The Darebin eForumhas the following structure:
- Issues/topics are created as “discussion groups,” for example the community harmony discussion group which is the section of the forum dedicated to discussing community harmony topics.
- Discussion threads within a discussion group are called “topics.” These can be started by the moderators and the group’s members and kickstart discussion of issues, for example related to community harmony.
- Members then post within the thread or “topic.”
Darebin eForum flowchartEdit
The following screenshots match the flowchart steps of how Darebin eForumworks.
1. Darebin eForum home pageEdit
This is the home page. From here you can register and then login to see and contribute to discussion.
Once you have registered and logged in you can access the “Discussion Groups” page. This page takes the forum member to the list of most recent threads and topics as well as previous topics discussed on the forum. From here the member can click on a recent thread to read further or make a post, or read previous discussions (which are listed as read-only.)
“News headlines” is a section making general announcements to Forum members at a glance.
“Latest topics” link to the most recent threads started.
"Discussion Groups available” are the topics/issues which have been discussed on the forum.
Each “topic” is a discussion thread created by the moderators or members of the Forum. Forum members can click on a thread and post their views.
4. Darebin eForum Community harmony discussion topic (thread)Edit
Go to Darebin community harmony discussion topic for an example of a thread. The thread contains the posts made by Forum members, from earliest to most recent.