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In Search of Excellence…in Online Engagement

This post was written by Jill Miller Zimon of TheCivicCommons.org, a new organizational member of NCDD…

CivicCommons-logoOnline and offline conversations can differ in some significant ways. For example, you can’t see body language and you can’t hear intonation. But our track record at the Civic Commons has shown us several ways in which we can use an online platform and go where few other dare to tread (including civil digital discourse).

This topic becomes particularly relevant as facilitation practitioners, like those who belong to the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation, examine the potential extension of their work to and through digital media. A recent conversation about tips and tricks for online facilitation highlights areas for further exploration. For example, what substitute skills should be developed and used if we can’t see someone’s body language or hear their voice?

This is not entirely new territory for NCDD by any stretch of the imagination. Previously, NCDD has explored best practices for conducting virtual meetings, situations during which many of us may either evolve into or have to deal with distracted participants. At the NCDD site, you can also access several pages of entries tagged, “online D&D.” And NCDD’s biennial conference in October 2012 included a session called, Demystifying Online/Offline Engagement.

Getting Started

So how might folks already proficient with in-person dialogue and deliberation get the most out of an online platform such as the Civic Commons? Seeing is believing and by all means, give the “Start A Conversation” tool a whirl! The only step necessary prior to doing that is to register on the site (see the upper righthand corner where you can sign up). But once you are registered, you are ready to start dialoguing and deliberating – online.

How might you use the conversation tool? This will depend in part upon the subject matter, the audience and the desired outcome for the conversation, but to get the ball rolling, you would want to:

Develop your desired topic in your mind or in writing, whatever works for you.

Write a framing paragraph. This can be as short or as long as you want it to be, so long as it informs the potential participants adequately. You can post this paragraph with or without links to materials you’d like participants to know are available for them to review should they desire.

Launch the tool to start the conversation: Provide a title, an image, a link, a location and then select the topics which apply to your subject. Last, write a summary. (The link and location are optional.) For the image, I like using Flickr.com advanced search, set to “creative commons” so that I can use photos with no copyright issues.

Spread the word. Use Facebook, Twitter and emails to make sure that you reach out to all those from whom you want to get input and with whom you want to develop the dialogue. Be strategic about whom you’re inviting depending upon your expectations for how the dialogue will unfold. We also have code that can be used on pretty much any online website that allows others to see the conversation developing and then click on that conversation from whatever website the person is on, and go directly to the conversation to read it, review it and hopefully engage with it. (This is just an example of the instruction guide and the code for the embed.)

Post the first contribution. And then keep inviting people. And once you start getting feedback, well…engage!

Some specific examples of conversations that you might start:

-Folks affiliated with universities might want to facilitate an online conversation about a potential policy change or campus issue about which you don’t otherwise have time to discuss and for which you’d like to build an exchange with individuals who come from a variety of departments and settings.

-If you’re already facilitating in-person roundtables or groups for a particular topic or project, you could start an online conversation that parallels the in-person arrangement and then use the conversation tool as a way to 1) reach people who were unable to attend in-person; 2) give those who did attend more opportunity to express themselves 3) give an opportunity to people who were present at the in-person portion to both raise new ideas or issues, and engage with the ideas of those who weren’t able to attend.

-For governmental entities, perhaps you are seeking feedback regarding a proposal related to land use, recreation plans or finance matters. If you launch the conversation tool, you can dialogue directly with those who both have critiques and constructive suggestions.

Best Practices

In terms of best practices for when these tools are used, Dan’s post from just a couple of months ago offers up ideas for how to succeed in online engagement. Most of these can be adapted and adopted by D&D practitioners. I’m going to list a few here but feel free to reference the original post to view more fully the advice we provide to users of this platform.

Set the tone When you launch a conversation, use language that’s authentic and informal.

Maintain the tone Stay a part of the conversation and be interested in what others are saying. The Civic Commonsprinciples help us: we strive to be diverse, credible, transparent, civil, participatory, entrepreneurial, and optimistic.

Rate stuff The ratings (persuasive, informative, inspiring) can help you let people know when you appreciate their contribution. You may even find it helpful to explain what you found persuasive or informative or inspiring.

Follow up In regular conversations, as opposed to specifically facilitated ones, because people love to be asked meaningful follow up questions. It can be general, seeking an expansion, or it can be clairfying to better understand the intention of the speaker (who in this case is the writer).

Don’t be afraid of your critics Whether in-person or online, we all can be challenged by others with whom we’re speaking. Here at the Civic Commons, we’ve set the table with everyone agreeing to be civil and transparent, so even the toughest critics are expected to maintain that tone. If someone in your conversation brings up a point of criticism, here are a few of options:

  • thank them for making the point
  • ask them about what’s informing their criticism (for instance, “Was there something you read or heard that influenced how you feel about this?”)
  • ask them a completely other question

Should you get into what feels like an unending back and forth, you may handle that however you would if it was happening in-person during a session you’re facilitating. The online platform at the Civic Commons allows us to give the speaker (or, in our case, writer) the ability to go on as long as they desire, and it relies on the listener aka reader to be thorough in reading what has been written. Or not. These are things you start to glean as a conversation unfolds.

To wrap up? Practice may not make perfect but it probably will make you a lot more knowledgeable and familiar with this intriguing way to connect and interact with others. Hopefully, this post offers some concrete ways to test conversations that can’t happen offline for any one of many reasons (not physicially possible, it’s an alternative setting, and so on).

And remember: Even when we’re having a conversation in the physical presence of someone else, misunderstandings from verbal and non-verbal cues can still occur. And for those times, whether online or off, you may want to speak up and ask a clarifying question, whether through an online comment or an audible question.

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This post was submitted by a member of the NCDD community. NCDD members are leaders and future leaders in the fields of public engagement, conflict resolution, and community problem solving. You, too, can post to the NCDD blog by completing the Add-to-Blog form at www.ncdd.org/submit.

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  1. Nice post, Jill.

    I’d add that some online environments do support other, synchronous communication modalities (audio, video), in which case body language and intonation are (or lack thereof) are less of an issue.

    • Jill says:

      Great point, Tim. It’s important to have those options and also understand what the goals are of any project as it evolves so that the best match or matches can be made re: engagement platform(s).

  2. Another thing that’s needed to achieve excellence are notifications. Due to the asynchronous nature of the exchange, it’s important to provide participants with options to stay on top of the conversation.

    The CivicCommons platform does this pretty well, by the way.

  3. Excellent post thank you!

    If government entities are looking for an online engagement tool specifically built for government, Civic Ideas is a great hosted solution. It allows for citizen sourcing, surveys, featured projects, focused discussions, forums, or directly commenting on an agenda. All feedback mechanisms have easily measurable, searchable, and exportable analytics for deeper insight into the feedback given. This link will take you to the product sheet, case studies, webinars, etc: http://www.granicus.com/Products/Civic-Engagement.aspx

    Also for best practices and compliancy info for government, the social media white paper is free to download on the website here: https://info.granicus.com/2013-Download-Toolkit.html?page=Granicus-Blog


    • Jill says:

      Thanks, Jen. Hopefully the proliferation of opportunities for civil, meaningful online discourse will persuade more people to get engaged, and stay engaged. Sometimes stamina is the thing that’s least in supply, both on the citizens’ end and the elected or governmental decision-makers! We have to stick with a lot of these issues for a long time to see influence take hold.

  4. Will Petrik says:


    This is a very helpful overview. Have you heard of Loomio (https://www.loomio.org/)?

    Loomio emerged when activists from the Occupy movement teamed up with a small team of open-source developers. Their basic goal was to develop a user-friendly and effective way to collectively make decisions online.

    The link above is the main page and the following is a quick 101 on how it works: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZipyebSY2Lo

    I think it could be a great tool for promoting online collaborative decision making.

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