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Government departments need to share their experience of online dialogues with the public, according to a new report.

The assertion has come with the publication of an interim report (PDF) on the Digital Dialogues initiative, which is promoting the use of online technology in promoting public engagement in policy making.

It was produced by the Hansard Society's e-Democracy Programme under a commission from the Department for Constitutional Affairs (DCA).

Ross Ferguson, director of the e-Democracy Programme, told GC News: "We've been struck by the lack of knowledge sharing across central government on this.

"There are quite a few initiatives that are more about participative relationships with the public rather than just transactions, but they tend to be structured around the policies of departments, and they are not necessarily talking to each other or sharing practices."

He said this is causing some problems, citing the recent online opposition, directed through a petition on the 10 Downing Street website, to the government's plans for road charging. The Department for Transport is responsible for the policy but had no control over the way the petition was framed, made available, and then publicised.

"It can be a problem for the relationships between departments," Ferguson said. "But if it's done properly it can help in promoting collaboration between departments and engagement with the public."

He suggested that such exercises may work better if managed by parliamentary committees.

The report covers phase one of Digital Dialogues, which took place between December 2005 and June 2006. Among its findings are that:

  • Regular internet users are more likely to take part in online consultations and political deliberation, and the majority have not previously been active in politics
  • Most people who use the relevant websites prefer to spectate rather than participate, but log in regularly
  • A debate needs to be moderated to be successful, just building a website is not enough
  • Online engagement is not a replacement for conventional offline methods, but should be used as a complement
  • Blogs are suitable where engagement runs over a long term, and forums are good for periodic, structured deliberation with large groups
  • Online engagement exercises should start small and be scaled up to meet demand
  • Government and the public have a long term interest in greater interaction online, and technology is now making this possible

Ferguson said that one advantage is that such debates can contribute to an audit trail for policy making, helping to show where the decisive arguments arise.

He also said most of the relevant websites are run on open source software.

"There's no problem with it as far as the studies are concerned," he said. "It provides value for money and the ability to scale up, and helps to make the entry cost fairly low."

A report on the second phase of Digital Dialogues, which began in August and ends this month, is due to be published in May.

This article was originally published at Kablenet.

Kablenet's GC weekly is a free email newsletter covering the latest news and analysis of public sector technology. To register click here.

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