ERCIM News No.48, January 2002 [contents]

Figure 1: Main socio-technical dimensions of internet-based citzien particiaption.
Figure 1: Main socio-technical dimensions of internet-based citzien particiaption.

Internet-Based Public Consultation: Relevance - Moderation - Software

by Oliver Märker, Hans Hagedorn and Matthias Trénel

In the city of Esslingen in Germany, the Internet was used to involve citizens in an informal discussion about plans for a neighbourhood development project.

Between 21 May and 21 June 2001, the city provided – besides extensive information – a moderated discussion forum in which twenty-six people communicated very actively, and approximately eighty participated passively. The case study demonstrates that the potential of the Internet is supported by the following three pillars: external relevance through organisational embedding in the decision-making process, internal relevance through professional facilitation of forum discussions, and its use as a dynamic tool for asynchronous communication.

Design and conception of socio-technical systems for online citizen participation should not be technology-driven but should be oriented towards the basic principles of cooperative planning approaches. These are known as the ‘new planning culture’, and, among other things, they:

  • enable participation at an early stage
  • assure an equal opportunity to participate
  • remain open with respect to both process and results
  • assure communication and dialogue
  • integrate multiple perspectives
  • allow moderation by neutral third parties.

On the other hand, the realities of city politics cannot be ignored; that is, participation procedures usually cannot achieve more than is allowed by the existing context of communication and power relationships. Therefore, concepts which are to involve citizens must make use of elbow room.

Assuring External Relevance
Opportunities for more participation only make sense if they can be made practically relevant to the existing planning process. Establishing and securing this practical external relevance is a key element of every participation concept. In Esslingen, several steps were necessary before, during and after the ‘online public hearing’ to assure its external relevance:

  • Conflict analysis. The analysis of conflicts of interest at the beginning of the project was the starting point for all further tasks.
  • Publicity. The moderation team involved the local newspaper in Esslingen in opening the online hearing to a broader public, with the aim of creating some social pressure for the hearing.
  • Involving decision makers. During the preparatory phase and the entire four-week period of the online hearing, the moderation team repeatedly encouraged city administrators and members of the city council to participate.
  • Securing and applying results. The moderation team documented the entire online hearing and prepared a summary of the discussion in collaboration with and approved by the active participants. The summary was also published on the web and officially handed over to the responsible building committee.

Moderation: Internal Relevance
In addition to embedding the online debate in its administrative environment, it is important to actively structure and manage the debate itself (see Figure 1). As in ‘real’ town meetings and other kinds of discussion groups, competent moderation is decisive for achieving practical results. Therefore, in the online hearing of the City of Esslingen, the tasks of the moderators were not limited to preventing offensive contributions or reminding participants to stay on topic. Rather, the most important tasks of the moderation team included:

  • structuring and focussing the discussion
  • assuring lively debate
  • encouraging and developing argumentation
  • encouraging feedback.

These measures ensured the resulting discussion was of a high quality, a fact evidenced by the relatively high degree of cross referencing among the contributions and a constructive dialogue between the opponents of the development project and the city planning department. However, the measures were not at all effective in motivating politicians to participate.

Figure 2: Part of the main discussion forum.
Figure 2: Part of the main discussion forum.

Software - Dynamic Internet Tool
Besides a good moderation strategy, online participation requires a flexible software tool that should be easy and intuitive to use, and a rich set of moderation tools to dynamically adapt to the emerging discourse requirements. The software of the pilot project in Esslingen presented the content in three main areas:

  • Front page. The front page gave a short introduction to the online hearing, describing its aims, procedure, and timetable, the members of the team of moderators, etc, and was updated repeatedly by the moderators to announce the current status of the online hearing and the follow-up. From the front page, users could access a ‘shared workspace’ and the moderated discussion forums.
  • Public information. In this part of the website, information about the residential development project was made available in a ‘shared workspace’ of the Zeno system. Using the shared workspace, members of the city administration and the moderators were able to easily upload documents and create links, and to organise this information in a hierarchical directory of folders. Zeno’s access control mechanism was used to allow only the moderators and particular registered members of the city administration to make modifications while still enabling everyone, including unregistered guests, to view the information.
  • Moderated discussion forums. Zeno forums were provided for comments on the residential development project and the online hearing. The moderators added brief instructions on how to use the forums and other relevant information, as well as announcements to the ‘description’ fields of the folder containing the forums and to the forums themselves. This ‘description’ provided a convenient place to explain moderation activities, such as the restructuring of message threads, announcements of new sub-forums, ‘mini-tutorials’ about Zeno features, or publications of important dates or events.

Conclusions and Future Work
The concept for the online hearing developed within the case study largely met the new planning culture criteria of dialogical communication, integration of multiple perspectives, and equal opportunity. To what extent this positive experience will have a general impact on the planning culture in Esslingen in the future remains to be seen: ‘The willingness to communicate is a scarce resource, which must used conscientiously if it is to be preserved’. This is also true for Internet participation.
In further projects in co-operation with other German cities, Hammerbacher GmbH, and WZB-Berlin, we will realise further internet-based consultation processes based on the three sketched conceptual pillars. The gained experiences will be taken into consideration in the ongoing development of our new system, Zeno2, which is occurring in close co-operation with the ECCO group of Fraunhofer FOKUS, Berlin.


Please contact:
Oliver Märker, Fraunhofer AIS
Tel: +49 2241 14 2420