Online Consultations


Online consultations or e-consultations refer to an exchange between government and citizens using the Internet. Online consultation consists in using the Internet to ask a group of people their opinion on one or more specific topics, allowing for trade-offs between participants. Generally, an agency consults a group of people to get their thoughts on an issue when a project or a policy is being developed or implemented, e.g. to identify or access options, or to evaluate ongoing activities. This enables governments to draft more citizen-centered policy.

As the Internet gains popularity with the public for voicing opinion, citizen participation in policy development through cyberspace is changing the face of democracy. The rise of the Internet has given way to buzzwords such as e-democracy, referring to citizen participation in politics, government issues and policy development through electronic technologies and the Internet, and eGovernment, pertaining to providing citizens with government information and services online. Online consultation is an element of these concepts. Through online engagement, government is enabled to hold interactive dialogues with the public as they have a more direct route to citizen opinion via the Internet.

Countries like the UK, Denmark, Scotland, Canada, the US-state California, and Australia can be considered leaders in the field. These and many other countries are integrating online consultations and engagement using various methods and for a range of purposes. The European Union also utilises online consultations. These complement face-to-face consultations and help to create greater transparency of the democratic process. Online consultations are also increasingly being used by the United Nations and its Specialized Agencies. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN hosts online consultations to allow for more inclusive drafting processes of policy guidelines, reports and strategy papers. The Global Forum on Food Security and Nutrition (FSN Forum) is tasked with carrying out many of these consultations.

Problems and Purpose

The problem targeted by online consultation consists of representative democracy's division of labour between the electorate and political decision makers. Government officials tend to come from a higher income, higher education strata of society. This renders insights and everyday perspectives of many citizens excluded from legislative processes.

Online consultations aim at including a wider public in legislative processes, increasing transparency of government activity, and moreover have a learning effect on participants. The main goal consists of making legislation accessible to a wider public and including insights and everyday knowledge from those affected by legislation.

Participant Selection

In principle, most online consultation processes are completely open to everyone who wants to participate. However, governments initiating entities have some influence in targeting certain groups in population by advertising the consultation on websites frequented by certain societal groups. Moreover, some consultation processes might be might only include certain groups, like fora for victims of rape or sexual harassment sharing their experiences in order to influence new legislation in the field.

Deliberation, Decisions, and Public Interaction

Deliberation mostly takes place in online fora provided by initiators. Here users can leave comments and react to the comments of others. Other quantitative features might be employed like surveys ranking preferences, or like and maybe even dislike buttons. Voting procedures between several options might also be employed.

Influence, Outcomes, and Effects

Online consultations, like face-to-face consultations or written petitions, are of advisory character. They are meant to inform political decision makers of the public opinion, so they can take a considered decision.

Analysis and Lessons Learned

Online consultations fruitfully make use of new means of online communication to make legislative processes more transparent and informed by public opinion. They can, however, be criticised from various angles.

First, while striving to include all strata of society and lowering the barrier for participation, the digital divide and digital inequalities show that the Internet might not be the right tool to do so. Several studies show that the people with higher income and education participate more than those with lower incomes and education, men more than women, young more than old, white more than those of other racial backgrounds. Thus outcomes of online consultation are heavily biased.

Second, as online consultation is only advisory, it is up to political decision makers to make the decision whether to execute outcomes of consultation or not. This might result in "cherry picking" with only those outcomes executed that would have been executed anyway, which implies faking participation in order to gain legitimacy.

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