Google Wave as the future of citizen consultation

ByMichele Ide-Smith

Google Wave as the future of citizen consultation

I’ve been looking around at quite a few emerging ideas and practise for public engagement recently. At the moment consultation processes in local government are generally still fairly archaic and ‘having your say’ might mean filling out a survey or attending a public meeting, exhibition or focus group.

The Power of Information report highlighted a few good examples of online consultations and made a sound recommendation as follows:

Implementing the tools – readily available elsewhere on the internet – which allow people to comment on individual items, to comment on other’s comments and to collaborate in developing and improving the content (perhaps through the sort of collective authorship we see on Wikipedia); the publication by DIUS of the Innovation White Paper and the Cabinet Office New Opportunities White Paper in this way are good examples of what can be done without major investment

I really liked the concept of Big City Talk in Birmingham, which was developed by a group of volunteers using WordPress, and allowed the public to read a lengthy planning consultation document in Plain English and add comments.

But even as Councils are getting themselves up to speed with the idea of responding to (and moderating) online comments within a couple of hours, a new tool is about to appear which demands realtime interaction. Google is due to launch its much anticipated communications tool Google Wave on September 30th and (apparently) it might just change how we communicate online completely.

Now I haven’t actually given Google Wave a go, but I have read lots of hype. So I was thinking about how the future of online consultation in 3-5 years could be a very different ball game indeed. Imagine this scenario…

You are invited to attend an online consultation about the local Council’s plans to build a major new housing development, which will provide affordable housing. The meeting is going to be relatively short, about 45 minutes.You start by viewing a short video about the development proposal and you look at interactive maps of the plans. You read associated snippets of documents. Then as the online consultation really gets underway, you join in discussions in realtime, along with other citizens, councillors, council officers and the developers. During the discussions further snippets of document, images and video are added by the participants relating to the points that are discussed.  The facilitators focus the discussions on key themes. The discussions are fairly open and the facilitators invite you to take part in opinion polls as the discussions progress. The facilitator brings the meeting to a close and thanks the participants for taking part. After the meeting you replay some of the discussions that took place and read through some of the threads that you missed during the meeting. A couple of days later the Council post a formal response to all the points which couldn’t be addressed in the meeting, in context within the original discussions.

Well I might be naive in thinking this type of consultation might actually happen, in such an open and transparent way. Plus it could be a facilitators nightmare! But I can dream a little.

Update 07/09:

I wanted to add an addendum to this post. A friend who recently did an interesting talk on Google Wave at UXCampLondon suggested to me on Twitter “discussion could be hosted on council’s website, so people who are not on #googlewave could also read and comment“. I thought this was a great idea, so wanted to add it to this post.

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11 Comments so far

Dave BriggsPosted on10:31 pm - Sep 6, 2009

Michele – great post, and not naive, I don’t think. The Big City Talk example is important, because it shows that it doesn’t need to be the Council that does this – they just have to listen!

The example you give of a facilitated online multimedia discussion is a good one, and would be a super use of the Wave technology. Something similar could work by hacking WordPress, though, which might end up being a bit more accessible.

I’m interested in consultations – as you know – and am always looking for ideas and inspiration. One to discuss at LocalGovCamb possibly?!

Stuff I’ve seen September 4th through to September 6th | PodnoshPosted on11:01 pm - Sep 6, 2009

[…]   Google Wave as the future of citizen consultation by Michele Ide-Smith – "At the moment consultation processes in local government are generally still fairly archaic and ‘having your say’ might mean filling out a survey or attending a public meeting, exhibition or focus group." […]

Walter NearyPosted on5:00 am - Sep 7, 2009

Really like your vision here. Sites like wet my thirst for what you are describing. What’s most intriguing about your vision is the role of the facilitator … that’s going to be a key because this won’t be done with software alone.

Michele Ide-SmithPosted on7:28 am - Sep 7, 2009

Thanks Walter. I think I’ve seen the ‘Ideas for Seattle’ site before. It is powered by User Voice, software more commonly used to get customers to suggest product improvement ideas (e.g. software feature requests) and vote on them. I had an idea for a similar system for citizen engagement a while back, which allowed citizens to suggest ideas and pose solutions, with the ability to rank/vote on the best ideas. Ideally they would all be represented on a map too!

Walter NearyPosted on7:46 pm - Sep 7, 2009

What’s intriguing about the notion of facilitators is that it follows a model of users helping other users that we see in private business, like what Dell modeled so well in its support forums. The thing that worries me as a local elected official is that if dialogue and discussion take place just on Twitter, FB or something like that, it would only take a percentage of our 60,000 citizens (with maybe 14,000 active voters) to sink me in email, FB, etc. It’s vital to get people talking to each other as we build better public policy.

Tweets that mention   Google Wave as the future of citizen consultation by Michele Ide-Smith — Topsy.comPosted on7:50 pm - Sep 7, 2009

[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Dennis North, Walter Neary and micheleidesmith. Dennis North said: RT @davebriggs: RT @micheleidesmith a rather idealistic vision of what future local gov consultations could be with Wave […]

Sarah Lay » Blog Archive » Wave potentialPosted on7:57 pm - Oct 13, 2009

[…] Ide-Smith mused on how it could be used in a planning meeting and certainly as a consultation tool then it has, you guessed it, potential. The ability for […]

First thoughts on Google Wave « Sharon O'DeaPosted on1:11 pm - Oct 14, 2009

[…] Michele Ide-Smith posits a scenario where technology like Google Wave could really enhance citizen consultation. Online consultation on a housing development, she suggests, could begin with a short video and interactive maps, followed by discussion and debate on the issue facilitated online. Discussions can be replayed and key points responded to during or after the live event. […]

RHPosted on11:26 am - Oct 19, 2009


There is a serious technical hurdle to your vision which cannot be ignored by councils, namely Microsoft.

Despite being the market leader in the browser wars, Microsoft has only recently made any sounds about implementing HTML 5 on which Wave depends in Internet Explorer.

Anybody accessing a “Wave” using even the latest version of IE will find themselves unable to engage. People are notriously slow at upgrading browsers, with most never changing the one which comes installed on their machine. This is why IE6 remains common and Microsoft have just extended support for this old workhorse well into the next decade.

It would clearly not be right for council to use a consultation tool which cannot be accessed by a sizable proportion of their customers. To say nothing of the fact that few council workers are likely to be provided with sufficiently advanced tools (i.e. Firefox, Safari, Opera or Chrome) which will allow them to use Google Wave.

Michele Ide-SmithPosted on12:33 pm - Oct 19, 2009

I completely agree, which is why this was couched as a ‘vision’ rather than a reality! I think accessibility is not likely to be high on the list of priorities for the Google team in Australia who developed Wave either.

But the principle of making online consultation a much more interactive and rich experience for citizens still stands. There have been some interesting discussions on engagement recently (see Dave Briggs and Tim Davies blogs) about who Councils should and could engage.

William Wardlaw RogersPosted on6:08 pm - Nov 29, 2009


Not even slightly far fetched as far as I’m concerned.

Thanks for the heads up to the Bham and Seattle thing.
When you posted this I’d have been scrambling my final draft of an MBA dissertation on the subject.

I ran my case study on a hotel in Egypt as a mock community. Trying to find a means of supporting realtime decision making based on informed consent.

I ran an earlier module project on engaging those with accessibility hurdles – both technical and also sensory…

This was for implementation via a paper based tool – on the end of a tech-touchpoint chain.. For use in community centres and also within emergency relief scenarios to rapidly generate contextual insight.

Would love to discuss – as your latest post on agile development chimes with my use of service design process with user stories.

I’ve been gibbering about ‘Development windows’ as realtime consultation process for a while now – great to hear mirrored sentiments.

And thanks to Dave and Walter for enriching the discussion.

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