Ontario’s Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing (MMAH) recently completed five of six online consultations it conducted over six months in 2004 on issues such as land-use planning, greenbelt protection and rental housing.

Louise Simos, MMAH’s manager of corporate and electronic communications,

says while the online consultations were only one component of the ministry’s efforts to get more public input on policy development, they are an efficient and cost-effective way to gather and analyse data easily. The MMAH has estimated the total cost of the consultations, including staff time, server testing and modifications to the application, at $110,000.

According to Simos, the MMAH received 250 written submissions on the rent reform consultations, an issue which potentially affects 1.2 million Ontarions. But it received 4,800 online and paper questionnaires, 1,200 call centre inquiries and 23,000 views or downloads of the questionnaire or consultation paper.

Cost-effective consulting

“”The advantage of doing all the consultations electronically is you bring all the data together in a database and you can do analysis on that data, especially if you have asked useful questions,”” she says. “”I would argue it’s the most cost-effective way to consult with citizens.””

Simos says the ministry estimates the cost of the rent reform consultations to be less than $10 per citizen online. “”There are two other ways of consulting: one is by people mailing in the surveys and that’s hugely expensive because you’ve got to handle all the paper, and there is huge staff time involved in that,”” she says. “”The other way is to go out and meet with people, and the staff time, travel and room rentals are expensive.””

The e-consultations were developed and delivered in-house using Vancouver-based IronPoint’s Web content management software and Oracle database tools.

“”We knew when we launched the first one that there were more coming, so we wanted to develop the expertise in-house rather than going to a consultant each time,”” she explains. “”Also, we wanted to build internal staff expertise around how to do an e-consultation, what works and what didn’t, and that was a really successful approach. With the first one we had some learning curves, but as we went from one to another we immediately applied the lessons learned from the previous one to the next one, so by the sixth one we had really polished our approach.””

The content management tool allowed authorized employees to look at general trends and browse comments. The Oracle database allowed them to dig deeper for information such as the number of tenants who responded to certain questions or combinations of questions, for example.

To make sure the system could bear the load of thousands of simultaneous downloads as well as denial of service attacks, it was tested by flooding it with multiple submissions to the point where the system broke, says Simos.

Site thoroughly tested

“”They (iSERV Ontario, which provides the provincial government’s mainframe services) then reported back to us at what point it broke, and it broke in various ways. If 10,000 people had submitted e-mails at the same time it would have shut down, but we didn’t reach that level of submissions. Typically, what happens is the government announces something and there’s a big peak in demand on the Web site and the survey, so we wanted to make sure we were ready.””

According to Simos, while the province will always have to provide the more traditional means of allowing citizens to voice their opinions, it is likely to move more towards providing such services online. “”I would argue someone who has worked all day and had an hour-and-a-half commute is not going to show up at a public meeting (in the evening) unless it’s about something really, really in their back yard,”” she says. “”We’re not hearing from those people. But if we make it easy enough for them to go online and make their voice heard there, I think we will get a broader cross- section of people’s opinions.””

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