Three Management Approaches

Based on these definitions, three different managerial approaches to implementation and management can be identified, each reflecting:

The approaches characterised in this guide are:

Active Listening

The desire by some governments to present themselves as technologically advanced and responsive to the community has tended to lead to situations where electronic democracy is interpreted as a ‘thing’ to be delivered to the waiting (passive and presumably grateful) public.

During the late 1990s this was reflected in a tendency for governments to formulate specific eDemocracy policy statements combined with a number of high profile activities. The best example of this approach can be seen in the United Kingdom under the early period of the Blair Labour government.

This can be beneficial in advancing the eDemocracy agenda. However, the approach can be seen to assume that ICTs are a ‘push’ (one-way) medium like television in which information is formulated centrally and then delivered to a passive audience.

The interactive nature of new digital technologies means that one of the important characteristics of the technology is the open participation by citizens and stakeholders in discussions of public interest. These discussions can include:

  • unstructured conversation on email lists, through chat facilities, or on bulletin board systems (for example Yahoo! Groups; http://groups.yahoo.com/);
  • expression of public opinion through alternative and non-profit online news publications (such as the OnLine Opinion magazine [http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/] or more specialist internet media); and
  • the increasing number of ‘citizen journalists’ publishing on personal websites, blogs, or syndicated multimedia (podcasting or video blogging).

Listening management approaches are common throughout the public sector to allow for quick reactions to emerging issues or problems. This is particularly so amongst policy officers who are routinely tasked with monitoring mainstream media on behalf of their agency and Minister.

While this 'listening' is often undertaken in a relatively ad hoc manner, the inclusion of ICT-based listening approaches can be useful in that:

  • information can often travel through electronic networks much faster than conventional media, thereby offering the potential for increased responsiveness;
  • there is a range of commercial and free services [3] that automatically identify key terms and phrases from established media and alternative media and provide instant, or periodic, updates; and
  • the introduction of RSS-type subscription services [4] allows for the customisation of news and information aggregation via desktop and mobile software.

While some might assume that a listening management approach is a euphemism for inactivity, an effective listening approach does require specific planning and management. Active listening requires:

  • an investment in time to undertake environmental scanning to identify important sources of information. These sources need to be refreshed and renewed on a regular basis;
  • a specific allocation of staff time to the collection of information (monitoring);
  • establishing a mechanism by which information can be stored, searched, indexed, retrieved and interpreted in a meaningful way; and
  • some means of establishing and assessing the value of the investment in active listening, either for the purposes of appropriately valuing and rewarding staff time, or as a mechanism for justifying this activity given its relative opportunity cost. One of the ongoing concerns associated with this form of eDemocracy activity can be the high ‘noise to signal’ ratio, being the poor return in terms of valuable information that can be gathered given the investment of time required to sift through irrelevant, uninformed, or misleading views and opinions.

Regardless of these concerns, listening approaches can be valuable precursors to the introduction of more structured eEngagement processes. They can provide the means for understanding the existing tenor of conversation, collecting useful background information and identifying elements of a policy issue that may be particularly engaging to the public.

It is entirely possible that key decision-makers in government will increasingly be as attuned to blog and website discussions of policy as they have traditionally been to television, radio and newspaper reporting.

Listening approaches are often employed following the conclusion of more structured eEngagement processes, either as a means of establishing popular views about the outcomes and impacts of policy decisions, or where the formal process has stimulated an active group of engaged stakeholders to oversight policy implementation.

Exhibit 9: ‘Mass Listening’ as Passive eEngagement Management

Elizabeth Richard of the Public Works and Government Services agency of the Canadian federal government notes that the internet provides public sector managers effective and interesting ‘mass listening’ tools. The proliferation of non-government, public email discussion lists on policy issues can give public sector managers interested in alternative views on policy and program implementation, avenues to undertake informal and unstructured listening to public views without necessarily engaging in formal consultative processes in the first instance.

The benefit of this approach lies in:

  • the capacity to gather information informally, without the pressures of specific consultative timeframes;
  • the ability to identify potential participants in formal consultative processes;
  • hearing relatively candid points of view which may not be the same as arguments put in formal submissions – particularly where an issue is contested;
  • the ability to absorb the level of debate (complexity, language used, degree of public understanding of policy issues) to allow public documents to be pitched at the right level;
  • relative anonymity (‘lurking'); and
  • the ability to manage information gathering, particularly where there is concern that public consultation will lead to a large number of submissions (volume management).

Cultivating

Like the listening approach, cultivating or ‘facilitative’ management approaches rely on utilising existing skills found in civil society as the basis for successful community participation. Whereas active listening approaches can be valuable where there is an identifiable community of interest around the issue of concern, ‘cultivating’ recognises the need for outside assistance in stimulating participation.

In many policy areas, it may not be possible to identify existing communities of interest with which to engage. The public sector manager may find that the target audience lacks the technical capacity to use ICTs to participate in policy debate (where interested stakeholders are diffused through the society), or there has not been a recognition of a shared issue or concern that has given rise to mobilisation of interests.

Cultivation requires a number of activities:

  • the identification of a specific and definable community of concern based on locale (such as a local community that has high levels of unemployment or crime) or non-geographic factors such as shared experience, or other identifiable characteristics (e.g. during 2005 the Victorian Office of Women's Policy undertook an online consultation associated with the experiences of working mothers across Victoria);
  • definition of the characteristics of particular problems, which may be specific (lack of access to public transport, for example) or generalised (such as issues associated with school retention rates);
  • determination of required inputs to address issue(s) of concern;
  • development of participatory structures to deliver the required solutions;
  • stimulation of collective activity; and
  • development of the skills required to manage within the community (including appropriate governance and reporting requirements).

Depending upon the nature of the specific area of concern, the level of community involvement in initial planning and preparation may be limited or specific. This will depend on the nature of the problem and the existing capacity of local individuals or organisations to participate in early planning processes.

There are distinctly different approaches to ‘cultivating’ community participation, depending on whether:

  • there is a clear recognition of a specific deficit which needs to be countered (the ‘provision’ model); or
  • the community (geographical, policy, or community-of-interest) is active in defining the need, for example, customising a specific response to a social concern (the ‘partnership’ model).

The exact character of the response by the administering agency or agencies (cultivating models often necessitate partnerships across government) can be highly programmatic in character, or may be more intangible. Some programmatic examples include:

  • the provision of ICTs (hardware);
  • skills development;
  • community training programs; and/or
  • volunteering schemes.

It is also important to consider that less formalised activities can also fall under this approach. A good example is capacity-building in community groups that results from their inclusion in consultation and management processes. Inclusion enhances the position of organisations, thereby encouraging growth in membership and enhancing their representativeness. The result can be a stakeholder group of greater value to the public sector manager.

While these approaches can be used cynically,[5] they can be powerful in stimulating active organisations outside of government. Developing long term relations with formative groups can be important for the public sector manager with a medium term objective of creating a future partnership.

Given the nature of this type of management process, cultivation generally focuses on ‘before and after’ comparisons to determine measures of public value. For some projects this can be quite crude (e.g. percentage of free access terminals per capita) and others more complex and sophisticated (e.g. measures of social inclusiveness or similar ‘social capital’ metrics[6]).

Often, the key issues associated with cultivation management relate to the capacity to assess changes over time, particularly where programmatic activities have concluded, but there is an expectation of ongoing value creation.

Steering

In contrast to the above approaches, the final type of management response – steering – reflects a far more instrumental project management approach to policy delivery. Steering management approaches are common in developing eEngagement projects because of the emphasis placed on delivering short-term, specific and instrumental (policy development, acceptance testing and decision-making) outcomes.

Exhibit 10: Cultivating Approaches to eEngagement Management

Cultivating management approaches can yield powerful outcomes in the areas of community development, capacity building and the stimulation of active communities of interest.

Examples of this type of approach include:

  • The Argyll and Bute Council of Scotland introduced a number of community telecentres in three remote island communities (Islay, Jura and Colonsay) offering personal computers with internet access and videoconferencing. The services have been highly popular, particularly during harsh winter months, with the services used to facilitate business operations, provide personal access to medical consultations (eService outcomes) and have been used extensively by the farming community to lobby the European Union over farm tenancy issues. While some of these applications were planned and expected by project managers, the use to which the videoconferencing service have been employed have been wider than expectations, leading to a multiplier effect of the technological investment.
  • The New South Wales government established the communitybuilders.nsw website as a centralised clearing house for information associated with social, economic and environmental renewal through community-based organisations, non-profit groups and volunteering projects. The website provides information about organisation and management, financial assistance and planning and includes an extensive online discussion forum where people involved in these areas can exchange information and advice. While the Department of Community Services hosts and manages the website, the real value gained is through the interaction between citizens and citizens groups to solve local problems. See: http://www.communitybuilders.nsw.gov.au
  • A variation of the communitybuilders model has been introduced by the British Broadcasting Corporation as its Action Network website (http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/actionnetwork/). While community builders focuses on local renewal projects, Action Network has a more overtly political focus, allowing citizens to chat about political issues, start campaigns and network with like-minded individuals.

While steering approaches generally include participatory design elements appropriate to the anticipated stakeholder community, (either through the establishment of formal reference groups, or ad hoc consultation and negotiation), steering management approaches tend to be agency-driven.

This is due to the agency having:

  • the capacity to develop a comprehensive engagement strategy;
  • the resources to develop or acquire the appropriate technologies; and
  • the ability to provide a ‘hook’ (access point) into the formal process of policy development in government.

Effective steering requires detailed preparation for the development of the eEngagement process, with clear process planning and well-defined timeframes. Flexibility in this approach is normally accommodated through reflective management and contingency planning. This is often important where the engagement process forms part of a specific policy initiative associated with the executive, or, where the consultation must meet the necessary timeframes for parliamentary reporting or legislative drafting.

The key aspects of appropriate steering management are:

  • the integration of project development within wider strategic planning processes;
  • the development of clearly articulated project deliverables, checkpoints and delivery timeframes;
  • the need for specific program evaluation and reporting; and
  • the tendency for these processes to be assessed against very specific outcome requirements (commonly expressed in terms of numerical metrics, such as numbers of participants, or output-based performance criteria).

Exhibit 11: The ‘Electronic Discussion List’ Model as eEngagement

The City of Darebin eForum pilot project in Melbourne reflects a conventional ‘steering’ approach to eEngagement management. The Council undertook to develop a structured online discussion forum which included Council staff and members of the community to discuss a range of local issues over a set period of time. Using basic email management technology, the council developed an engagement and promotional plan. A project officer recruited from local community groups moderated and summarised discussions and fed information collected back into the policy-making officers and Councillors at the end of each structured discussion. This approach was highly programmatic in character, with clear timeframes for action, close management of activities and control of interaction through the process of moderation.

Relationship Between the Three Approaches

While eEngagement activities tend to focus on cultivating and steering, [7] it is highly likely that a single project may require a number of different management approaches at different points of the planning and implementation process. A clear recognition of the relationship between project initiation, development, implementation, evaluation and closeout stages of any eEngagement activity can be extremely valuable in allowing the management group to recognise the appropriate management style for the particular phase of activity.

In addition, some reflection by project team members on their particular strengths and preferences can be useful in managing the transition between management approaches appropriate for different phases of project implementation.

Figure 3: Managerial Approaches Over an eEngagement Implementation Lifecycle
Figure 3: Managerial Approaches Over an eEngagement Implementation Lifecycle

Managers who can recognise their preferred approach, or particular area of competency, are more effective at managing complex project implementations where a range of management styles are required. In some cases this may necessitate different members of the management team taking the lead role at different points in lifecycle of a project.

For example, Figure 3[8] presents a hypothetical eEngagement process that conceptualises the relationship between stages of the policy cycle and the range of different management approaches.