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Online consultation

Introduction

You can use online consultation if you want to give a large number of people the opportunity to comment on an issue or it would be difficult to bring your intended participants together physically because they are either very dispersed or short on time. Electronic processes are very flexible when it comes to the number and location of participants. They allow participants to contribute when they want. In addition, they not only allow you to receive large volumes of feedback, you can also swiftly present back the results of your consultation to the participants online.

Getting started

  • Before you start, take some time to think about your purpose – what do you want to achieve with this consultation and who you would like to be involved.
  • Is online engagement the best way to get input from the intended participants? Are there more suitable alternative methods? You could think about combining online, written consultation methods and teleconferences, for example. Mixed methods give participants the opportunity to choose the way they feel best able to participate
  • Think about what level of complexity you are able to design and deliver both in terms of the consultation and the technology required. Do you have the time and skills to do it yourself? Or could you get a colleague or external expert involved to support you?
  • Will your intended participants have the time and inclination to complete your online questionnaire? You will need to think carefully about how long it will take and what the motivations of the participants are for taking that time. It is often better to reduce the number of the consultation questions to ensure you get more people taking part
  • As with all research, take time to plan your online consultation carefully. If you don’t think it through carefully right at the start, you might end up with unmanageable amounts of material, or miss out something critical to your analysis

Online consultations can take different forms and have different levels of complexity. Different forms of online consultation include:

  • Making an offline questionnaire available online together with an email address to send completed forms to
  • Using an electronic survey programme to construct and distribute a questionnaire, and collect responses, for example Survey Monkey or BOS (Bristol Online Surveys)
  • Use social networking sites to pose questions and promote online discussions, for example Facebook
  • Interactive consultation websites, for which you may need specific software
  • Other online methods you can use to inform and consult the public include, online forums, webchats, wiki’s and new tools that are emerging for gathering detailed comments and discussion (line-by-line) on documents

A useful beginner’s guide on how to use new technologies for engagement, with examples, benefits and disadvantages of a wide range of technologies – from Avatars to Webinars - can be found on the NHS Armchair Involvement website.

What it can be used for

Online consultations can be used for a number of reasons, including to:

  • give large numbers of people, or a group of people unable to meet offline for reasons of time, cost, mobility or geography, the opportunity to engage
  • provide people the opportunity to engage on an important societal issue
  • elicit feedback on a recent study, activity or discovery
  • feed into the direction or priorities of a research process by generating feedback from the interested stakeholders and beneficiaries of the research
  • engage public, students and interested stakeholders in a university policy or strategy

Things to bear in mind

  • How will you promote the online consultation? Think about ways to advertise the consultation widely and give adequate time to respond.
  • Don’t presume everyone has access to the internet or that everybody has the skills to navigate your chosen programme with ease. Make sure your consultation is not excluding those who are not able to engage digitally by providing alternative methods of participation, for instance written questionnaires or telephone surveys.
  • Do participants need to register or apply for an account to take part in your online consultation? Keep in mind that any perceived complexity or initial requirements are often a barrier to participation.
  • Anonymity of the internet may encourage impulsive rather than considered responses.
  • Although online surveys might provide you with data for your research project, digital engagement is not the same thing as using your participants as research subjects. You should always be transparent about how you are going to use the results. This is particularly true where you are using social media or other newer forms of ICT to promote discussion; are participants fully aware and informed that they are taking part in a consultation as opposed to an informal discussion?
  • You may want to follow up on some of the responses – are you asking people to share their contact details and if so will you correlate their responses with their name. However you choose to use this data it is important to be really clear with participants, and get advice about how you store data.

Cost and time requirements

Example costs

Hosting an online consultation cuts costs for venues and postage, but has other costs of its own. These can include process design, technology set-up, or the cost and effort of getting people to participate in online processes. It is still necessary to find, and often recruit, participants in advance of the process. You could make use of free online programmes, but they may not fully meet your needs, or have related issues like the use of advertising that you would not want to be associated with. You may need to build an interactive website yourself to ensure that you have all the features you require, however, these will take up a lot more of your time and finances.

Ongoing consultation panels come with higher costs, but economies of scale can make them worthwhile if used often enough.

Example timings

Time requirements for setting up an online consultation depend on the level of complexity of the method you choose. Most online consultations are only in existence for a few months to engage participants in a specific issue. Shorter than two months doesn't really leave enough time for participants to contribute, while letting the consultation become a permanent feature tends to transform it into an online forum if it includes more interactive features.