Ontario’s Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing (MMAH) has 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.
Simos, MMAH’s manager of corporate and electronic communications, said 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 analyze data easily.
The MMAH has estimated the total cost of the consultations, including staff time, server testing and modifications to the applications, 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 Ontarians. 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.
“”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 said. “”I would argue it’s the most cost-effective way to consult with citizens.””
Simos said 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 said. “”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 explained. “”Also we wanted to build internal staff expertise around how to do an e-consultation, what works and what didn’t.””
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, said Simos.
“”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,”” she said. “”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, and it turned out we were fine.””
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. Because while some people might not have access to the government via the Internet, for a growing number of citizens that’s all they have.
“”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 said. “”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.””
And while Don Lenihan, CEO of the Crossing Boundaries National Council, lauds the province’s efforts to use technology to strengthen democracy, he said he is increasingly uncomfortable with terms such as e-democracy or e-government.
“”It makes it sound like something different from democracy,”” he said. “”That we can use new technology to complement, reinforce and strengthen democratic practices I think is completely true. In principle I’m all in favour; I think it’s a new tool, it’s a very good tool and used wisely, it’s a good idea.””
But he added, the next step is to use technology increase citizen engagement with each other, not just with government.
“”They’ll engage one another differently than they would engage government, so you’re likely to get a more informed response,”” he said.
Joshua Bixby, president of IronPoint, which has several federal government clients as well as 35-40 provincial and 25 or so municipal clients, said he hasn’t seen much interest in citizen-to-citizen e-consultation yet.
“”There are certainly the early adopting communities and those who are politically active who would engage but we’re finding the majority of people want to communicate directly their concerns,”” he said. “”What we are finding is people are very interested in finding out others people’s concerns, not necessarily communicating with them. People find it satisfying to know the pothole they’re really worried about other people are really worried about too.””
According to Bixby, the Web content management tool the MMAH uses focuses more on data collection than on data analysis.
“”We provide analysis features, but the majority of analysis is done by downloading that information and using very strong analysis tools, so we’re not coming in and saying we provide the answers; we capture the information,”” he said.
IronPoint’s software, he added, is designed to be easy to use not just for citizens trying to communicate their opinions to government, but for the non-technical users in the public sector who are using them.
“”Some of the key people engaged in this project are not technical; they need to be able to do these things quickly they need to be agile,”” he said.