Choose Your Digital Tools Wisely for any Collaborative Process

Digital communication has truly transformed public participation but it’s not an automatic or comprehensive solution to working with the public. It does not solve everything. Thus, it is important to choose your digital tools wisely in order to promote the collaborative process.

What’s In Your Toolbox?

collaborative process toolsWhen I look at my digital toolbox I think about five key components:

  1. Electronic Communication: such as email, text, web sites, blogging
  2. Video Communication: such as Skype, Facetime, Webinar
  3. Social Media: such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram
  4. Logistical Tools: such as Survey Monkey, Doodle, Eventbrite
  5. Participation Tools: such as Metroquest, Ehtelo, Peak Democracy

Obviously, there are a lot of great tools out there. However, a great tool does not immediately translate into great or even good public participation. The tools available dramatically enhance and extend a public participation program but do not yet provide a total solution and should not be viewed as such. Part of this lies in the limitations of the tool itself, but much of it also lies with how we currently use digital communication in society and what that means for civil discourse and a collaborative process.

We are barely in the adolescence of the digital age. We still lack many of the conventions and rules that support civil digital discourse. While online interaction is effective in many ways, it also falls short of important conventions needed to engage people constructively. I have no doubt we will get there but eventually, for now we need to be careful in our selection and use of digital tools.

Consider the Goals of Your Collaborative Process

Consider what you are trying to do, as well as the strengths and weaknesses, before using digital technology:

  1. Disseminate information

Good at: getting identical information to a lot of people quickly

Not so good at: Reaching everyone, ensuring the understanding of that information, reacting to misunderstanding

  1. Get public input to decisions

Good at: getting written input, mostly opinions and reactions

Not so good at: understanding who thinks what and why (too easy to stuff the ballot box and too much anonymous input)

  1. Create community dialogue about challenging issues

Good at: reaching lots of people

Not so good at: getting them to really listen to each other

  1. Build the relationships that make society work

Good at: reaching lots of people

Not so good at: making meaningful connections and talking about things with high emotional content

Yes, there are a lot of great tools out there, but you can’t start with the tools. Even the developers will tell you that these tools are intended to be used as part of an overall program in the collaborative process, not as a stand-alone activity.

Instead, you need to begin with clear goals and an overall strategy for engaging your communities. The best public participation programs will then integrate new technology with traditional tools to create an overall approach.

Doug Sarno