Published on 5 November 2010.

Presentation by Sabina Wynn (Executive Director) and Marie-Claire Muir (Web Manager) of the ALRC to the Cebit Australia Gov 2.0 Conference. Canberra, 3 November 2010.Sabina Wynn:

Hello, I am Sabina Wynn, Executive Director of the ALRC and this is Marie Claire Muir, the ALRC’s Website Manager and what we are going to be talking to you about today are the steps that the ALRC has taken over the past twelve months to try and open up lines of communication with our stakeholders and the public, by using online communications tools including blogs, twitter and online forums. In terms of what many of you will be doing, the ALRC is only at the beginning of using these tools, many of you would be already be doing these things and very much more.

But I think what might be interesting is extent to which, over a very short period of time, as I said, probably just the last ten months, these online tools have really changed the way that the ALRC carries out its functions, and very quickly the communications culture in the organisation has radically changed.

The ALRC is a very small agency with only 16 staff we actually only have a 10 legal officers and a small corporate team and a comparatively very small budget. Our job is to research areas of law that are referred to us by the Attorney-General and to produce reports with recommendations for how the government could improve Australia’s laws and legal frameworks.

Our work involves research and policy development, and is very focussed on producing documents, whether they are issues papers, consultation papers, discussion papers and of course final reports.

One of the key processes that we engage in, for researching how to improve our laws is through consultation. Consultation with stakeholders, including the legal profession, government, industry groups and the public.

In fact the first Chair of the ALRC, Justice Michael Kirby, said at the founding of the Commission that, ‘We see it as quite vital that the Commission should not become just an enclave of an elitist, faceless few. ...law reform is much too important to be left to the experts’

In the face of this founding principal, the ALRC had developed over its 30 year history, a very effective and trusted process for law reform based around consultation with stakeholders in a very defined, three stage process.

First we would consult and then produce an Issues Paper, and call for submissions from stakeholders, then we would produce a Discussion paper, consult more and call for further submissions and then finally after more consultation, we would produce final Report with recommendations for reform.

This was time intensive process for us and for our stakeholders, and it was also pretty expensive to produce and distribute all these different printed documents. While the process definitely encouraged a two way conversation, we ask a question and you give us your opinion, what it didn’t encourage was a more dynamic backward and forwards dialogue, and it was a very formal process.

The online tools that we have adopted just in this past year, have started to subvert this three stage process and have allowed us to replace some of the steps and to encourage stakeholders to interact with the ALRC in a more fluid and dynamic way....getting involved at an earlier stage in the process and being able to engage in a more flexible, informal and interactive manner.

The tools that Marie Claire is going to go through briefly – our e-newsletters, blogs, closed social networks and Twitter - encourage a more immediate and dynamic conversation. They have also opened up the ALRC’s own processes more to the public,  so that our inquiry work and the thinking that goes into our the development of our recommendations, is more transparent. 

Adopting these tools  was initially challenging especially to a group of lawyers. Questions were asked about how we’d moderate forums, who could speak on behalf of the ALRC in a blog or twitter post, what would happen if people put something on our website that wasn’t accurate or that we didn’t agree with and how much extra time would it take to be involved in these initiatives for an organisation already under enormous work load pressures.

All important and valid questions that we have had to discuss and nut out. Some of the selling points were that using these tools we would be able to involve a lot more people in our work, that there was an increasing expectation in the community for open government and to be able to engage with us in this way, and that these tools could help us to deal with our reduced budgets and timeframes, without reducing our community engagement, on the contrary we could enhance this engagement. 

These questions and discussions are still continuing and I’m sure would be familiar to a lot of you.

So now I’ll ask Marie Claire to briefly show you some of the tools that we’ve started using.

Marie-Claire Muir:

Thanks Sabina.

I’m going to start with our e-newsletters. I appreciate that technically we’re not talking Web 2 tools when we talk about e-newsletters. But for us they were a big advance in how we communicate with stakeholders, and encouraging discussion and feedback about issues from an early stage in the inquiry.

The ALRC developed its first e-newsletter for the recent family violence inquiry. This Inquiry had a broad range of interest in the community and we needed to make sure it was easy for people to know what was going on and to participate.

Prior to the submission deadline, a newsletter was sent out roughly once a month. Each issue typically included a “month in summary” recapping significant consultations, presentations, etc, and also an “Issue in Focus”, in which we would highlight a topic and present 2-3 questions which readers were encouraged to respond to via an online form on the website.

Now, obviously we’re not talking Web 2.0 at this stage. This issues in focus went to a basic webform, emailed directly to the ALRC with no scope for public perusal. But it was still a shift for us – opening up discussion and telling people what we are thinking about at such an early stage – as opposed to waiting to publish a formal Issues Paper – and we also received some valuable comments and case studies through the issues in focus.

The newsletters also helped extend the ALRC’s reach, witnessed through the fast and significant growth of the subscriber list via website form. The first issue was sent to the ALRC’s contact database comprising less that 290 names/addresses. Within 6 months that list grew to 950.

Given the success of the Family Violence newsletter, we began another dedicated e-newsletter for the ALRC’s Review of Discovery law and practice in the Federal Court.

[CLICK LINK TO ONLINE NEWSLETTER ]

You can see the Discovery newsletter follows much the same format, with a calendar, month in summary, and then a particular topic or set of questions. But this time we set up an external Wordpress blog to capture responses in a format that allowed for public discussion.

[CLICK LINK TO BLOG – ]

In relation to the Discovery inquiry, we always knew that it would not attract the same amount of attention or interest, and that a blog like this was unlikely to attract much comment, in the way that the Family Violence blog did (which I’m going to show you in a moment), but we have had a few comments and regardless of whether people do or don’t choose to actually comment, we see real benefit in the blog even if it only serves as a way to let people see the kinds of things we are talking about, and letting them witness our conversation. In practical terms, because we are highlighting all the big issues as we go along, we’ve realised blogs like this can actually replace the formal Issues Papers we’ve produced in the past, saving us time and money, and providing alternative ways for stakeholders to respond and engage with the inquiry.

While this blog has so far only 5 comments, it has been visited 1300 times by 817 visitors

[BACK TO PPT]

The Family Violence Inquiry blog [LINK TO BLOG ] – the Commission’s first blog, served a different purpose. Its launch coincided with the release of the Consultation document and comprised all of the questions and proposals (over 250 of them!). The purpose of the site was to encourage public discussion and debate of the questions and proposals contained in the Family Violence Consultation Document.

This blog may look familiar to those of you who followed the Gov 2.0 Taskforce’s progress, as the Taskforce published their Issues Paper using the same tool, so I’ll run through this quickly. It is a basic Wordpress blog with a special plug-in that allowed commenting paragraph by paragraph, so much like on a real document, making notes or comments in the margins of an article or book. Of course the notes are public, so there can be discussion around both the text, and the comments.

So, if we look at Chapter 5, we can see that within that chapter there 38 comments. And looking at the first proposal in that section, you can see there were 5 comments on that one proposal. To view them, or to add a comment, you simply click on the speech bubble, and up they pop.

There are a number of ways to sort these comments. If we read, for example, Tbell’s comment and want to see what else she has written, we simply go to Comments, find Tbell, then at a glance we can see all her comments in one go.

[BACK TO PPT] During the 3 months or so that it was live, the blog was visited about 24 hundred visits by around 14 hundred people and attracted 167 comments.

The Commission was really pleased with this result, not only because we did receive some useful, interesting comments via the blog, but because it allowed:

  • Public dialogue around the Consultation Paper
  • Avenue for people to voice frustrations “out loud” (dealing with this kind of subject matter, there were a lot of frustrated people out there feeling they have no voice)
  • Low cost and low maintenance – for relatively “high returns”. Good activity, no pressure on our part to update with new content, free software easy to set up and manage.

At the end of 2009 we began an online consultation pilot quite different to simple bulletin board public forums we’d tried before. The ALRC was assisted in the project by online engagement consultants, Headshift, and was funded by a small grant from the Gov 2.0 Taskforce. The Pilot was a closed online community consisting only of invited participants representing a specific group of stakeholders spread across Australia. The context was, again, the Family Violence inquiry, and the stakeholder group was Women's Legal Services. The community was designed to enable frank and open discussion in a secure environment between participants. The ALRC identified a number of key issues and invited participants to discuss them, give their opinions and talk to the ALRC and other participants about any other issues they felt were relevant.

Unfortunately this site has now been archived offline so I can only show you a couple of screenshots, but hopefully you can get a sense of how it works. It’s basically a social network, much like Facebook, except it’s closed. The main section is devoted to blog or forum type activity – so clicking on Child Protection would take you into to a general description of the topic, and then a number of specific questions.

Similar to Facebook’s ‘friends’, you can find out about other members in the groups – we encouraged participants to upload a photo and write a short bio describing their work situation and personal life. Members you can send each other private messages or post on each other’s walls, etc.

We found that a closed social network provides a number of opportunities:

  • The ability to communicate with research participants in a secure environment, where opinions are not open for scrutiny beyond the boundaries of the community;
  • Participants are able to reflect on (and in some instances, they clearly drafted) their responses - enhancing deeper levels of thinking than experienced in a face-to-face engagements;
  • Participants can review and comment on other others contributions, creating a level of dialogue that is often not achievable in face-to-face forums;
  • Face-to-face forums and interviews are frequently constrained by time and physical locations, whereas the online engagement for research can be conducted in an asynchronous manner.
  • Something we hadn’t really anticipated as an important benefit, but members of the ALRC team formed connections with participants which carried beyond the forum. Conversations continued with these stakeholders at different stages of the inquiry, even after the forum had closed, and legal staff found that when later some of these women took part in formal face-to-face consultations, the quality of the discussion was enhanced because of that connection or relationship.

Around the same time we started out newsletters the ALRC started tweeting. Our Twitter feed recently turned 1 year old. In that year we’ve tweeted around tweeted around 580 times and have gained about 750 followers.

Apart from promoting our own blogs, newsletters and general news, we also tweet news and media items that are related to our inquiry work. Of course the ALRC doesn’t anticipate meaningful input to inquiries in 140 characters, but people do talk to us and ask questions via the Twitter feed – we even get occasional ‘fan mail’ and our web stats confirm that Twitter is driving traffic to our website, our external blogs and to newsletter subscriptions.

Of course there are other ways to do this, but for me I see the benefits of Twitter to the ALRC being that it’s:

  • Fast – I average about 15-20 mins a day managing our feed and monitoring other conversations
  • Low risk – there’s no issues about moderation. To some extent we’ve actually increased the risk by allowing all tweets using “@AusLawReform” to display on the website home page. But in 12 months there has never been a problem. We feel that it increases transparency and offers the opportunity to follow the conversation. It can be easily and quickly removed if needed.
  • Informal – As lawyers, most of the Commission’s communications are very formal in tone. Twitter tends to enforce a more casual tone because of its 140 character limit, and I think that’s a great opportunity for us.
  • Greater transparency and relevance – As I said before,  apart from the ALRC’s own activities, we tweet any media items about the ALRC or related to ALRC inquiries. If the internal ALRC media monitor thinks something is relevant enough to be forwarded to the inquiry team, it also shows up on Twitter. In turn that sends a signal that not only is our work topical, but that we are engaged with what is really going on.

The tools I’ve shown you all sat outside the ALRC website and were managed as completely separate entities. The ALRC launched its new website in August this year and it incorporates social media tools, such as blogs, online submissions, secure collaboration areas, RSS and the Twitter feed.

We anticipate that this functionality, together with better usability and a much more friendly visual design, will aid in a three-way information flow between the ALRC, its primary stakeholders and the general public. Already we’ve seen that from pre re-launch in July to the past month, unique visits have more than doubled (from 6,300 per month to 14,000 per month), Page views have tripled (from 35,000 to 107,000), and the bounce rate (people leaving after seeing one page) has dropped tenfold (41% to 4%), indicating a much higher degree of engagement.

The ALRC will shortly release its first podcast – about its recommendations in the Family Violence Inquiry Final Report, which we hope will make the report more accessible to the inquiry’s broad range of stakeholders, and we’ll do this via a phonecasting service called Ipadio. This freemium service allows you to record and distribute a phonecast with nothing more complicated that a handset. But what we’re really excited about it the opportunity this service has for use in future inquiries as a means for stakeholders to simply phone in comments or submissions, using their telephone, a freecall number, and a password we provide to them. The software not only creates the podcast, which you can make available to the general public or keep private, but will create an editable transcription using voice to text software.

This potentially provides an easier way for some groups of stakeholders – youth, or people with poor literacy levels, for example - to contribute – groups that might typically not be comfortable, or able, to write long formal submissions.

And with that, I’ll hand you back to Sabina to wrap up.

Sabina Wynn:

Thanks Marie Claire. To sum up, I think its fair to say that in a very short period of time, the ALRC has gone through a major cultural change as an organisation, and now we see online engagement as a key process and communication strategy in everything that we want to do, and that this will only continue to become more important. Of course the formal ways of engaging in ALRC work, in particular of making formal submissions will continue, but increasingly we hope to drive the submission process online because of the benefits that you can get in handling the information when it is received in an online format.

It’s been our experience to date that these various online strategies have allowed us to reach different groups and more people are now engaging with us. For some people these tools are less intimidating than putting together a formal written submission. So we believe that these online tools are going to really improve our relationship with the public, and certainly a lot more people now know what we are doing and how we are going about it, even if they don’t want to formally engage.