Improving trust through digital deliberative dialogue


The Sutherland Shire Council in Sydney’s south is facing one of the biggest and most common challenges for local governments around the world.

The coastal area is experiencing an unprecedented housing price boom due to a sharp uptick in demand and needs to rapidly build more housing to accommodate for this.

But any effort to do this is inevitably met with opposition from the local community, with concerns over the introduction of high-rise apartments and the like.

It’s a fraught issue and one that requires close collaboration and discussion with the local community to ensure they feel involved with the process and the ultimate decision. It’s also a common issue faced by governments at all levels, all the whole from local councils to the federal government.

While local councils may typically engage with residents through social media and public forums, the Sutherland Shire Council took a novel approach, launching a dynamic online tool that allowed individuals to actively plan and accommodate for how they want the target levels of housing to be reached in their community.

Last year, the council became just the third municipality in the world to implement the Balancing Act Housing Simulation tool, alongside the EngagementHQ community engagement portal it has been using consistently.

This helped to fully engage the area’s nearly quarter of a million residents in the process and educate them fully on the issue that is often captured by emotions rather than reason. 

Through the digital tool, an individual is asked to hypothetically develop a housing plan that could deliver an extra thousand homes for the Sutherland Shire, in a mix of housing types of their choosing.

There were eventually 557 participants, with 286 submitting a housing plan through the digital housing simulation tool.

The experiment revealed an unsurprisingly strong view that the existing low-density character of the neighbourhood should be kept, but also an understanding that this can’t be a uniform, blanket approach. Those that participated in the study called for more dual occupancies, villas and townhouses, and an acknowledgment that housing diversity is crucial.

There was also some support for apartment buildings that had fewer than six stories.

These nuanced insights showed that community attitudes can shift when there is a greater understanding of the issue at hand and the options to address it.

Reaching this point requires far more than the use of social media by governments to engage with the community. It requires a true form of digital deliberative democracy, and one that should be used by governments across the country, not just local governments.

Building trust through engagement

Technological innovations such as artificial intelligence and machine learning offer an opportunity for governments to better engage with citizens in a more personalised way, and to ensure their inputs are taken into account and recognised.

This will first and foremost help to deliver better services to the community. But it will also improve the trust in governments of all levels. If individuals feel that they are being listened to and their views considered by those making the decisions, they are more likely to trust these systems.

This is particularly crucial in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and sustained levels of distrust of governments around the country.

There is so much good work done within government and so many dedicated public servants, but we too often have a community where most of their interactions with government are via elected officials, with a layer of deep cynicism in place. New technologies and a focus on deliberative democracy and discussion offer an opportunity to address this.

Australia has been leading the way in terms of better engaging with the community online. Governments at all levels have shown a willingness to use new platforms to do this, and have already reaped the benefits, just like the Sutherland Shire Council did.

There’s been a ready adoption of innovations by Australian councils and state governments in particular, and this has created a formidable base of data and technology.

We’re very good at it, but we could be great, and there’s a long way to go to get there.

And it’s imperative now, as economic headwinds swirl around the world. Governments will continue to invest in tech despite economic turbulence, as seen during the pandemic, and it’s a crucial sector to continue to support to help drive innovation in the wider economy.

Most government bodies in Australia have recognised the myriad reasons they need to move beyond comments on social media platforms to engage with the community. Those which provide a safe, non-commercial space for the community to provide feedback where they can respect community privacy and listen effectively are already seeing the rewards.

Truly listening

We’ve come a long way already.

In the early 2000s, governments would engage with a dozen or so people in face-to-face meetings one time only. We’ve since developed into engaging with a few thousand people in a much broader setting, using new technologies to facilitate this and streamline the process.

But this task is by no means over, and there are still people whose views are not being communicated and taken into account by governments. In the future as technology gets smarter, there will be many opportunities to improve engagement practices, both because of better ways to reach people and get their views and more efficient ways to listen effectively.

Whilst it is difficult to foresee exactly how new technology will impact government engagement, it is hoped that methods of deliberation will be boosted and that far more of the community will be involved in government solutions.

One way technology is already starting to make a difference is enabling government agencies to listen more effectively within existing budgets.

Imagine if governments could look back through all their past engagements with the community, along with other data, to provide valuable context before starting to engage on a new issue. The common refrain of “why are they asking us that again?” will be transformed into “wow, they listened”.

Governments will be more able to look at their previous engagements and extrapolate peoples’ views on different issues, offering an extremely valuable way to build a bigger picture and provide context for further engagement, as artificial intelligence and data science gets smarter in the future. 

With the Sutherland Shire Council, they may be able to use an individual’s proposed housing solution to its density problem and apply this to another policy it is considering, ensuring they are also involved with this process.

It shows that decision-makers are actually listening to the community and taking into account what they think about the policies that impact them.

Privacy and data security must come first and, ideally, as the technology progresses members of the community will be able to review the data being held on them to amend or update their views.

Individuals also need to be notified that the information they provide on a certain issue may be revisited for another issue and have the option to say no to this happening.

A platform-based approach

Another opportunity presented by this is to reach many more people. Embedding engagement opportunities throughout government touch points with the community will help this to happen.

As governments move from single use solutions to platform-based approaches, communication and engagement will become much easier. The federal government myGov service and various state government apps lead the way here.

We can also incentivise people to become more involved. Using all of that rich data to set the context for engagement allows governments to contact people and tell them what we think their view is based on past data – and what an effective provocation to engage that might be.

Through these processes, governments can facilitate social learning and dialogue, expose participants to new information and enable a higher quality engagement with important public policy, and ensure this policy meets the demands of those directly impacted by it.

Referring back to past answers and using artificial intelligence to adapt these to new issues should be the starting point, the foundation to conduct further deliberation with citizens.

There are already a number of companies offering social media listening services. These provide a good example of how we can set a better context for engagement, but it’s important not to be lulled into using this information as an alternative to engaging the community directly. There’s a big difference between people feeling engaged and feeling like they’re being surveilled.

The importance of deliberative dialogue

True deliberation between governments and the community needs to be a two-way dialogue, with both sides willing to change their views and leave preconceived notions behind.

Deliberation is a best-practice method of public participation and can help to renew democracy. It has the ability to support democratic decision making in Australia governments at all levels by ensuring a range of diverse views and opinions are contributing to policy development in a focused way.

While this may be often compared with debate, it is significantly different to this. While a debate is about standing by your opinion and trying to convince the other person to come towards your view, deliberation is a social process involving several people, and occurs when they are able to think broadly and deeply about the information and views presented to them, in a respectful environment.

Deliberation requires very careful consideration of all of the evidence on offer in relation to an issue and the various positions of all relevant stakeholders, as well as the potential solutions. This is the essence of deliberative democracy, and what should be transferred to the digital world.

Dialogue is something that we all engage in every single day – it’s a core part of human existence. 

In the practice of deliberative democracy, dialogue takes on a much more complex and significant role.

A dialogue in a deliberative democracy sense must be based around a sense of goodwill between those participating and the moderator. The form of communication online must go towards creating something new between people – a new meaning – out of which a new understanding or solution can emerge.

This requires those involved to suspend their existing opinions and preconceived notions, something that is rarely achieved online in this day and age.

In this form, true dialogue is a collective way of opening up judgements and assumptions, and requires the establishment of a considered online deliberative dialogue space, something which is much more than just a simple Facebook post or forum set up by the local council.

Digital deliberative democracy may adopt tools such as quick polls, surveys, idea ranking and digital storytelling. It may have regular newsletters to keep people updated and ensure they continue to engage in the discussion.

Digital deliberation

The basic principles for an online deliberative dialogue largely mirror those in a more traditionally face-to-face model, but this is still a very nascent space. At its base, it requires sound foundations based on a clear set of operating principles.

These principles include all participants in the deliberation having equitable access to online technologies and resources, such as high-speed broadband access and an up-to-date computer.

The participants must be required to enter with goodwill, to suspend assumptions and preconceptions and to be open to a significant change in their views in relation to a solution to the problem.

It’s important to note that consensus isn’t necessarily the objective of a government employing online deliberation. In fact, it may be the most unwanted result. 

Participants must also feel like they are able to trust the moderator and each other. This comes in terms of confidentiality, being empowered to actually influence the process and ample time to respond adequately to the question.

Far too often a government engaging with the general public online can feel like a tick box exercise, one where the decision may have already been made and whatever anyone says will make no difference.

This is the antithesis of true deliberative democracy, and real effort must be made to ensure this doesn’t happen when this is transferred to the online world.

The pandemic has shown us how fast government and its private sector partners can move on technology. As we move to single platform joined-up government communications, a litany of opportunities will emerge for better dialogue, better listening and broader community engagement.

As we embrace and develop these technologies and techniques here in Australia, we will continue to be a leader in the fast-growing government technology sector.

Sally Hussey is a researcher, writer and lead editor who interrogates global challenges in public engagement. Currently Principal Writer and Editorial Director at Granicus, she also works with global experts to inform on-the-ground practitioners, engagement professionals and the wider community on cutting-edge insights and issues in public engagement.

Matt Crozier co-founded Bang the Table to apply technology to giving people a voice on the issues that affect their lives. Between 2007 and 2021 Bang the Table connected with millions of people on behalf of thousands of clients in Australia, New Zealand, the UK, Canada and the USA. In 2021 Bang the Table became part of Granicus and, after spending 12 months as their ANZ MD, Matt recently moved on to take a break and pursue other life goals.

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