The following section outlines the key elements of a successful e-forum. See E-Forums: Step by step guide on how to achieve these elements.
Relevance of topicsEdit
Topics on forums should:
- directly link to current policy issues
- have relevance to a hot issue in society or the municipality
- integrate with the real world - encouraging real-life meetings, when appropriate, or linking to special days eg Environment Week, White Ribbon Day
- support offline community engagement.
The moderator of an e-forum is basically an online meeting chairperson. A chairperson in a meeting will introduce each topic, guide people back on to the topic when they digress, censure offensive comments, stimulate comment when discussion flags by introducing new angles or questions, and periodically summarise discussion. The moderator does exactly the same things, but in an online environment.
You can have more than one moderator. Darebin City Council uses a moderator plus a subject matter expert co-moderator drawn from Council staff, one each topic. You could also have a community member or acknowledged expert in the role of co-moderator (Richards: 2002).
See E-Forums: Moderator guidelines for a detailed how-to guide on moderation.
It is essential that a discussion moves. If there have been no posts from community members for a day or more, the moderator should post something.
Ways to keep discussion moving include:
- have interesting facts about the issue ready to post in a slow time
- send out regular email updates (eg weekly updates) of where the discussion is up to
- highlight questions which have emerged through the discussion
- release new questions as “hot topics” related to the issue periodically during the discussion
- send out email alerts and e-newsletters which direct people to the discussion
- run competitions or regular giveaways, eg free movie tickets
- ensure that your topic is relevant and interesting in the first place, eg directly related to policy
- use polls and surveys to kick off a discussion and add new ones partway through the process
- regularly update your topics and discussions and publish a list of upcoming topics
- organise and promote cyclic events eg a monthly online two-hour debate
- consider holding regular 'board meetings' which create a sense of routine
- host unusual events such as a chat with a Councillor, academic or community expert or celebrity
- have milestones in a discussion and mark them with scheduled activities
You can also use the Forum website to create a sense of momentum by using a communal calendar; reminders about upcoming events; invitations to join in; the use of occasional synchronous events, such as teleconferences, virtual chats and online meetings; and publications of summaries of discussions soon after they happen.
Sense of membershipEdit
It is a good idea to have people register to join your e-forum rather than having an open forum that anyone can comment on without joining. This way you can ask key questions of people useful to evaluate your Forum later, you can identify people and create evolving member profiles.
You can then build a real sense of membership and online community by:
- providing a range of roles, for example by recruiting discussion leaders from within the forum community membership
- enabling people to personalize their posts with an avatar or information in their profiles about themselves
- including an off-topic forum space for discussion of anything outside the formal forum topic list, such as advertising local community events, socializing, exchanging stories.
The Australian government has website access rules at http://www.agimo.gov.au/practice/mws/accessibility. Your e-forum website should comply with the same requirements that your regular website complies with, such as ensuring there are alt tags for non-text elements (an alt tag describes an image or graphic on a web page for those who cannot see the image). There is also an open standards movement and standards such as WSC http://www.w3.org
When designing your forum website, you have to accept that your forum cannot include everyone, but should also not exclude particular groups, for example the visually impaired. You also have to recognize that e-forums will not reach everyone just as a public meeting does not get 100% community attendance.
You also have to take into consideration who is your target audience. For example if you think that the majority of your users will have broadband then you can include larger graphical and video files on your main page. If you want the site to be accessible to those with dial-up, then you would probably link to larger graphical elements such as video files rather than embedding them in the main page, so the main page of the forum does not take a long time to download.
You will probably find that your main Council website already seeks to comply with Government guidelines and your main task will therefore be to make sure that the forum site does as well. For example you might consider delivering the content in your e-Forum in languages other than English. Video or other multimedia files should also have a text-based equivalent describing the content of the files so that those with a slow connection or visual impairment know what is going on.
A usable website is the key to success. The following are questions asked in a story at webreview.com, taken from Bowling Together http://www.bowlingtogether.net which you should ask yourself in designing your Internet forum:
- Is it efficient?
- Can tasks be performed with keyboard strokes?
- Does the site reflect a clear understanding of how users do their work?
- Are response times fast enough to keep users in a flow state?
- Is it intuitive?
- Does it behave consistently throughout?
- Is it visually consistent?
- Is it supportive?
- Does it allow mistakes to be easily undone?
- Does it provide advice/ tools/reference materials?
- Is it engaging?
- Do users feel in control?
- Do users enjoy their experience?
You should user test your forum before you go live with it. Darebin did a four month pilot and evaluation before committing to an ongoing forum with its current website layout which is powered by Groupserver, and a one year evaluation due in March/April 2007.
Always use plain language on your e-forum.
You have to spread the word using offline and online mechanisms, otherwise no one will use your e-forum. A good communication plan that has been acted on in advance of the Forum launch is essential.
Council action on basis of e-forum inputEdit
The Council has to use the input from the e-forum and the community needs to know what the outcomes of their comments and discussion has been, otherwise they will think it has been pointless and will become cynical about your Council’s consultation processes.
The best feedback clearly identifies how the public input has specifically been used or made a difference. A good example (even though it is based on a traditional meeting) is at http://www.aucklandcity.govt.nz/council/projects/churchill/consultation.asp
Given political and administrative processes can be slower than the public expect feedback to the community can be staged, you don't have to wait for the final decision. You should always look to give feedback when you can, this could be as simple as an acknowledgment email, it could also be a short report, an e-newsletter, or an update on the Forum page.
Support from inside and outside CouncilEdit
Your forum needs to be championed by people within the Council and outside the Council in order to get off to a good start. That way you will have people to contribute, getting the discussion going, and people on staff to co-moderate topics with you and ensure the relevance of your forum to the Council from the outset. Ways to ensure support include:
- setting up a project reference group for the e-forum with members of the community and Council
- engaging senior managers with an interest in e-government, communications or with an upcoming consultation
- engaging key community representatives to see the benefits of an e-forum and championing it amongst their sectors
- providing a compelling case of the benefits of a forum to engage other staff.