E-Consultation as Mediation

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
David Newman
Queen's University Belfast

How can we improve public consultation between citizens and their public servants? How can we facilitate the participation of groups who currently don't take part, and use their input to find policy consensus?

  1. Formal public consultations initiated by government agencies.
  2. Informal communications between representatives (MPs, councillors, ...) and their constituents.
  3. Community and voluntary organisations attempting to consult their members and clients to determine their response to a policy initiative or government consultation.
  4. Media or community sponsored discussions on a local issue.
  5. Mediation between anatogonistic communities who have conflicting interests.

Note that the pattern applies most strictly to the final context, where a government body is mediating between competing interests (e.g. in a planning inquiry). It is one of a number of patterns that can be followed in the other situations.


Current public consultation is deficient in a number of ways. Few people have the time or language skills to respond in writing to 20-page consultation documents. It is mainly professionals with a financial interest who do so. Rarely are public meetings attended by more than a few local retired people. The language of the documents is often obscure and couched in public sector jargon. The questions asked are the ones the officials feel safe asking, not the ones local communities would ask. The style is not one that engages the interest of anyone who is not a committed activist, let alone young people.

This has become very clear in places, such as devolved regions of the UK, where public consultation has suddenly grown very fast. In Northern Ireland, equality legislation forced 120 public authorities to consult on how they were planning to measure the equality impact (gender, race, religion, age, class) of each of their policies over the next 5 years. This led to 120 long documents being sent to the same 80-120 voluntary organizations, with 8 weeks to reply. Their choice was to ignore them (whereupon the officials could continue to do what they had done before) or to spend every day drafting replies, with very little time to talk to the people who would be directly affected.

Contrast this with experimental use of ICTs in public consultations in the Netherlands, the use of Internet chat to hold discussions between young people in East Belfast (the only neutral venue at the time) on human rights, and research into on-line mediation support systems in Germany (for planning disputes).

Can we design an appropriate use of software to support electronic public consultation that improves both its effectiveness in reaching different people, and its efficiency in controlling information overload and consultation fatique?

Consider consultation as an inter-organizational learning process. Knowledge is transfered between citizens and government, as they learn from each other. In particular, the policy makers need to better understand the needs, life experiences, and preferences of different actors in civil society (sometimes called stakeholders). In doing that, they act as both apprentices, learning from citizens, and mediators, managing disputes between different groups of citizens.

When there are strong disagreements between different groups, a mediation or negotiation model is appropriate, based on what we understand about dispute resolution in communities that have been affected by conflict. This can be used to build a pattern of the process, and identify technologies to support different stages in that process.


Considering public consultation as a series of mediation and negotiation processes, it should be possible to participatively design software that supports these human processes, in the stages identified in the table below.The technologies that can be used at different stages are described in more detail in a guide to e-consultation.

Verbiage for pattern card: 

In good public consultations knowledge is transferred between citizens and government as they learn from each other. E-Consultation can be seen as a Mediation process which is run in stages. At the beginning issues and needs can be collected from stories in forums and social media. Policymakers need to better understand people's needs, life experiences, and preferences in order to participatively design solutions to social problems.

Pattern status: