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? By public consultation, I mean any of the ways a policy maker uses to engage the public in the decision-making process. This extends from simple surveys of citizen satisfaction with public services, to full citizen participation in decision-making, such as town budget setting or New England town meetings. But the most common situation is when an official or politician wants to find out citizens views on a proposed new development or policy change, such as producing consensus plans for town and regional developing in Germany or the Netherlands, reorganizing the school system in Northern Ireland, or running an enquiry into citizen's views on active citizenship, or what should be in broadcasting legislation in Ireland. This is not always called public consultation, but processes of engaging stakeholders in shaping the decisions that will affect them exist in every democratic country.

One problem is that current consultation techniques do not reach all groups in society, and do not always produce fair democratic dialogue. A second problem is that current techniques rarely help find consensus between different interests. It is easy to find out what people are campaigning for, but not what they will settle for if they have to compromise.

In short, the problem is: how can we facilitate the participation of groups who currently don't take part, and use their input to find policy consensus?


This pattern applies to any e-participation process that might fall under a wide definition of public consultation. This may be a formal public consultation initiated by government agencies, councils or parliaments on a new policy. Or a regular rule review or regulatory impact assessment required by legislation. But it is not limited to the formal processes required by legislation in many countries. It also covers any process in which an organization seeks to solicit the views of people affected by its decisions and actions (the stakeholders) and engage them in helping improve the organization's policies, decisions and work.

Example contexts include: informal communications between representatives (MPs, councillors, ...) and their constituents; community and voluntary organizations attempting to consult their members and clients to determine their response to a policy initiative or government consultation; media or community sponsored discussions on a local issue; mediation between antagonistic communities who have conflicting interests (e.g. unionists and republicans in Northern Ireland, loggers and environmentalists in British Columbia; drivers and local residents along the route of a new road; employers and workers in Irish social partnership negotiations).

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, research into on-line mediation support systems in Germany (for planning disputes), and electronic public meetings that bring together 6000 New Yorkers to discuss the future of the twin towers site.

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 fatigue?

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.

Level of groupware needed to support stage Stage of process
1. Open discussion 2. Structured problem-solving 3. Evaluation /choice 4. Implement
3. Shared models             Develop into practical plan
        Rank options and synthesize solutions
    Create multiple maps from alternative options
2. Understand others        
What are the issues and needs?        
1. Communicate (exchange messages)        
  debate voting    
        participative design  

The technologies that can be used at different stages are described in more detail in a guide to e-consultation.

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