A key objective of the e-consultation research group is to develop e-consultation technologies such as the Internet and mobile phones in order to promote the concept of citizens participating in public policy discussions and debates.
The belief that using new technologies creatively can help citizens to get involved and this, in turn, helps policy makers keep informed of what the public think about important issues drives the research. Having on-line discussion forums etc. on matters of public concern offers quick and cooperative ways to develop active citizenry and citizens as partners in policy making.
A key focus is on ways to develop:
- mutual understanding and
- respect between and within communities and traditions
Software can be used to support human mediation, negotiation and decision-making processes. IT can be used to collect issues and needs from many people (e.g. via on-line chats). Other software can be used to map out arguments and possible solutions, as used in Germany by citizens planning circles.
Computers allow quite subtle voting, rating and ranking, allowing us to find out possible consensus between people whose first choice solutions remain resolutely opposed.
IT can be used to allow people to communicate over social and political distances. The virtual meeting places provide a safe space for talk with strangers.
When the East Belfast Partnership Board searched for a neutral venue for discussions between young people about human rights, they found only one: the Internet.
Focusing on Diversity
Each of the previous e-consultation experiments and trials, run by the team, had brought together people from different communities into the same virtual space to deliberate on:
- needs, and,
However, the team decided to trial e-consultation specifically on the issue of diversity.
It was envisaged that youth from diverse communities should be given the opportunity to
- communicate messages on their understanding and encounters with diversity
- to read the messages and encounters of others on the same.
- Could e-technologies help start debate among young people on diversity across borders and across communities?
- Could the knowledges they produced be, when collected on-line, used as a foundation on which to build debate among policy-makers on diversity?
The team were keen to test:
- How quickly can a consultation be run using e-technologies only as a mode of communication?
- What is the effect of a short-time frame on the process?
- How effective can a consultation be run using e-technologies only as a mode of communication?
- How e-friendly is the secondary educational system, that is, are e-technologies a way to communicate instantly and effectively with every secondary child in the North and South jurisdictions?
- Can young people generate creative consultation knowledge using e-technologies?
- Are young people interested in participating in discussions on social issues through e-technologies?
- Can e-technologies access how young people perceive the issue of diversity?
- Can e-technologies help measure how secondary education has dealt with diversity, including issues around conflict resolution, racism and sectarianism?