Social media and law reform

Presentation given by ALRC Communications Manager, Marie-Claire Muir, to the Federation of Law Reform Agencies of Canada (FOLRAC) in Alberta, via Skype on 2 October 2012.

[Using Prezi: To start the Prezi, click the play/triangle button, then continue to click through or use the autoplay option (under “More”). Alternatively, click on the ‘circle’ you are interested in, then scroll, click or drag to zoom and navigate.] 

Circle 1 – Who we are, what we do

Hello, I’m Marie Claire Muir, Online Communications Manager at the ALRC. Thanks for having me, virtually, at FOLRAC.  I’ve been asked to provide an overview of some of the social media tools and strategies the ALRC has been using to enhance the law reform process.

I’ll start with a little background about the ALRC to provide some context around our online and offline activities. The ALRC was established in 1975. Our mission is the development, reform and harmonisation of Australian laws and related processes through research, analysis, reports and community consultation and education. Inquiries are referred to us by the Federal Attorney-General, with Terms of Reference that stipulate the timeframe for completion.

We are a small agency, currently with 7 legal officers, a handful of corporate staff and a President, Professor Rosalind Croucher (also our only permanent full-time Commissioner). We are from time to time appointed a second full-time Commissioner, based on expertise, for the duration of a particular inquiry. Currently we have Professor Jill McKeough appointed to us to lead the Copyright inquiry.

We are small, but effective. In recent years we have been typically working on two inquiries at any given time, each taking 9-12 months. In our 37 years we have delivered 118 reports, which enjoy an 89% implementation rate. Our two inquiries at the moment are legal barriers to mature-age persons participating in the workforce (which we nickname Age Barriers), and Copyright and the Digital Economy inquiry.

The exact procedure for each law reform project may differ according to the scope of inquiry, the range of key stakeholders, and other factors, but essentially the ALRC law reform process looks like this: Initial research – Issues Paper + call for subs – Discussion paper + call for subs – Final Report. Of course throughout the Inquiry we are also conducting face-to-face consultations. If anyone would like to know more about our inquiry processes, this diagram along with a description of the different stages is available on the ALRC website.

I started as Web Manager at the ALRC in mid 2009, and prior to that no such role existed in the organisation. Beyond a barely functioning website, the ALRC employed no online tools or strategy. Introducing this role reflected recognition from management that there was a lot of scope to update ALRC processes, making them more efficient and economical;  to improve services to stakeholders, making it easier to keep informed about our work, access our publications, make submissions and engage with our work generally, and to increase visibility of our work amongst the general public. The tools we have been using to achieve these ends include: our own website, e-newsletters, blogs, closed social networks, public discussion boards, Facebook, Twitter, and a few others.

Circle 2 – E-newsletters and blogs

Our first key development in digital communications was a suite of dedicated inquiry e-newsletters. Not the brave new world of social media, exactly, but a big step forward for the ALRC. This example from the Discovery inquiry illustrates a typical layout—with a calendar or significant dates, the month in summary, and then a particular topic or question for consideration or discussion.

To complement the e-news, we set up a blog external to the ALRC website, using the free and simple-to-use WordPress platform. This gave us a dedicated inquiry mini website (great for SEO), which people could go to for inquiry news and discussion; and allowed us to capture responses in a format that allowed public discussion.

In the case of the Discovery inquiry, we always knew that a blog on this kind of subject matter would not attract a huge amount of attention or comment. The point was largely about transparency, providing access to the kind of things we were thinking and talking about as the inquiry progressed. In fact for this particular inquiry, because we were keeping the relatively small group of stakeholders informed and we were highlighting all the big issues as went along, we were actually able to skip the formal Issues Papers, saving us time and money, and providing alternative ways for stakeholders to respond and engage with the inquiry. Obviously this isn’t an option for every inquiry, but here it worked really well.

Final stats:

  • 2,331 visits
  • 1,500 unique visitors

We trialled another kind of blog for the Family Violence Inquiry—this was actually the Commission’s first blog. Its launch coincided with the release of the Consultation Paper and comprised all 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.

Like the Discovery blog it was based on WordPress, but with a special plug-in that allowed commenting paragraph by paragraph—much like making notes or comments in the margins of a document or book. The notes are public, so there can be discussion around both the text and the comments.

So, looking at Chapter 1, we can see that within that chapter there were 59 comments.

And looking at the first proposal in that section, you can see there were 2 comments on that one proposal.

To view them, or to add a comment, you simply click on the speech bubble and up they pop.

During the 3 months or so that it was live, the blog was visited about 2400 times by around 1400 people and attracted 167 comments.

We were pleased with this result. Not only did we receive some useful comments via the blog, but it:

  • enabled public dialogue around specific questions
  • provided an 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)
  • was low cost and low maintenance, particularly given there was no need to update the blog with new content. The blog did need to be moderated, but this was neither difficult nor time-consuming.

Circle 3 – Closed social network

At the end of 2009 we began an online consultation pilot for which we received a small grant from the Government 2.0 Taskforce, the grant paying for the services of a social media consultant. 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 each other about any other issues they felt were relevant.

I won’t go into too much detail about this. The consultant’s report on the pilot is available from Gov 2.0 Taskforce website for anyone who is interested. But in a nutshell, the software is called Elgg—a free, open source platform—and essentially it works much like a gated Facebook. You can make ‘friends’, update your status, write a message on someone’s ‘wall’ and, of course, comment on other people’s posts which, in this case, were the topics relevant to the family violence inquiry that we wanted community members to discuss. Of course, unlike Facebook, entry to the community, and access even to the basic interface, is completely controlled by the community administrator/s.

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 consultations;
  • 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, relationship-building—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.

Circle 4 – Online discussion forums

For the Censorship and Classification inquiry, the ALRC ran two online discussion forums on its own website at different stages of the inquiry.

This represented a new strategy for the ALRC. The two forums attracted 200 comments from 32 participants. Because these forums were hosted on our own website, they remain available for viewing along with the formal submissions, media releases, etc. See:

There were a couple of challenges presented by the forums. The most significant was the need to resist a push from within the organisation to close the forum down ahead of time because some of the commentary was critical of the ALRC, its Discussion Paper and processes.  The second issue was that, in a very polarised area, most of the participants were arguing the same ‘side’.  It was easy to imagine that anyone with a very different opinion might have been deterred from joining the conversation by the clubhouse atmosphere that seemed to be developing. The first issue was managed with ongoing reassurances to nervous members that the ALRC has no issue with constructive criticism, and making it clear that shutting the forum down would seriously undermine the legitimacy of our consultation processes. To assist in managing the second issue, we reminded participants, interjecting in the online discussions, that it was important to foster an environment where a diversity of views was encouraged. It was also an opportunity to make the point (to participants, but also to the silent watchers) that we realised the forum itself was not representative of the whole:

Thanks to all who have contributed to this discussion so far. There have been many interesting comments made. However, I do think the point needs to be made that there is definitely a plurality of views on the matters raised. Whether or not that is ultimately played out in the comments on this forum, this plurality is evident from the range of submissions made to the ALRC. We ask contributors to ensure they do not denigrate particular individuals or organisations because of a difference of opinion. We are aiming to foster an environment where a diversity of views is encouraged. (Comment by the Inquiry Commisssioner.)

At any rate it was clear, in hindsight, that we’d worried over these issues more than we really needed to. At no point were any participants uncivil to the ALRC or others (and if they had been, we had clear moderation protocols in place to deal with the situation), and some of the arguments, and criticism, were actually quite instructive. In fact, quotes from both the forums found their way into the Final Report. Furthermore, a number of participants who were critical of the Discussion Paper, or of ALRC reasoning, expressed appreciation nonetheless that we had provided a space where these issues could be openly discussed.

Circle 5 – Facebook and Twitter

The Classification and Copyright inquiries, alongside the broad level of public interest they command, also have in common large numbers of internet-savvy stakeholders, comfortable aggregating their news and engaging in discussion via social media. To increase exposure of the ALRC’s work in these areas, a Facebook page was created for each inquiry. The Classification inquiry Facebook page had been ‘liked’ by 145 people at the close of the inquiry (and the closure of the page). The Copyright Facebook page has, to date, 138 likes.

I admit I don’t get too excited about Facebook pages, and as long as Facebook requires registration, is dogged by privacy issues, and offers little control in terms of moderation, I would not want to be directing people there for the sake of discussion. Rather, I see it as a bookmark, or safety net, to feed information about the inquiry to those who ‘live’ there, and for whom Facebook is an important source of news. Facebook pages are fairly quick to set up and require little maintenance, so why not?

Twitter, on the other hand, I can get quite excited about. In terms of disseminating ALRC news and driving traffic to the ALRC website it packs a big punch; it can be used to foster communities of interest and discussion around ALRC work; it allows for quick and informal engagement; and it has also become one of my most valued media monitoring/current awareness tools.

The ALRC started tweeting around the same time we started out newsletters, so late 2009. In October 2012 we have around 4,350 followers. A significant number of those followers came on board during the Classification inquiry which, it’s worth observing, attracted a record number of submissions (2500+) for the ALRC. There was a lot of discussion around the inquiry, under the hashtag #clasrev. We even had a couple of dedicated followers reading submissions as they were posted on the website and tweeting mini summaries for the rest of the #clasrev “community”!

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

I see the benefits of Twitter to the ALRC being that it’s:

  • Fast – I average about 30-40 mins a day managing our feed and monitoring other conversations
  • Low risk – there’s no issues about moderation. We’ve actually increased risk by allowing all tweets using “@AusLawReform” to display on the website home page. 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. Generally, if I (in my capacity as media and current awareness monitor) think something is relevant enough to be forwarded to the inquiry team, it also shows up on Twitter. In turn that sends a signal that our work is topical and we are engaged with what is really going on.

In the following tweet screenshot you can see:

  • Other people advocating for ALRC reforms, past and present.
  • An example of a simple inquiry about making submissions
  • We have humour – a follower warns others not to confuse our Grey Areas Issues Paper with 50 Shades of Grey
  • ALRC ‘friends’ spruiking our inquiries
  • Praise
  • Not all roses – the occasional criticism. But it’s really not that scary. It’s good for us to know we know where criticism is coming from and why.
  • A tweet you’re always happy to see, that you are trending on Twitter.

Making a difference:

  • On 20 August, with the release of the Copyright Issues Paper, @AusLawReform trends on Twitter
  • Since then, it has remained as the top referrer (discounting the major search engines) of traffic to the ALRC website 
  • Visitors from Twitter spend approximately double the time on the ALRC website as visitors from other major referrers

Circle 6 – What’s next?

In a relatively short period, the ALRC has gone through a significant change as an organisation. We are now using online tools (most of them, it’s worth noting, free or of minimal cost) to engage, educate and consult, and also to improve our own internal procedures. Social media and our online engagement strategies are not only broadening ALRC reach and greatly increasing exposure to our work, but also helping us meet the challenge of a diminishing budget, of doing more with less. We will for the time being, continue to mix and match the various tools and strategies I’ve just described, while keeping an eye on new social media platforms and new opportunities.

Beyond that:


The Copyright Issues Paper, in August 2012, was the first ALRC document to be published as an e-book – for use on tablets, Kindles, smartphones and mobile devices. ALRC consultation documents and final reports are often quite lengthy and we are keen to do what we can to make it easier for people to consume them, even if that’s on their phone while riding the bus to work. Providing alternative electronic formats, where possible, also makes sense in light of the push to reduce reliance on hard copy. We hope to be able to offer more (even all?) of our publications as e-books down the track. However, doing it manually is a very time intensive project and, to speak frankly, we’re making it up and working it out as we go! I’d love to hear from anyone who’s also exploring the e-book option, especially ideas about to improve time- and cost- efficiency.

Accessible submissions

We’re exploring new ways of presenting submissions for public consumption. Since 2010, all public submissions are posted on the ALRC website. However these are often supplied in inaccessible formats and, for anyone keen enough to want to read them all (as we’ve discovered some stakeholders are), it means a lot of downloading. The ALRC produces an online submission form each time it releases a consultation document. One of the benefits of this is it allows legal staff to collate all the responses to a particular question or questions in a Word or html format report. During the current Copyright inquiry, we will trial posting these reports on the website as a service to stakeholders, making it easier to find specific data, and making it available in fully accessible html.

Stakeholder survey

At some stage in the next year we’re keen to run a stakeholder survey—to get real feedback about our publications, our engagement strategies, accessibility and transparency etc—to form a clear idea about where we need to focus our attentions.


Finally, we’re keen to work with other agencies where there is a natural fit in terms of shared goals and/or stakeholders—whether collaborating on social media platforms for engagement, sharing expertise and ideas, or even pooling resources for particular projects. On that note, I’ll finish, with an invitation to please get in touch if you’re interested in any of the above!