Within the space of a year, Forum Gelderland has already proven itself. In this short period of time almost 8000 people have set up a profile on the forum to discuss policy in fields like housing and public space. With these numbers, the platform far surpasses the ‘old-fashioned’ open sessions for the public. I often see initiatives by local councils and counties fail, so what is it that has made Forum Gelderland so successful?
For this article I spoke to Aycha Kleingeld (35, forum team coordinator). The case of Forum Gelderland is an interesting one, since the government is always looking for new ways of involving citizens in the decision-making process. An online community can be very helpful in this process, and I’ll be using this case to illustrate what to do and what to look out for.
It is an unfortunate fact that many initiatives by local councils and counties for co-creation with citizens fall flat. Despite consulting extensively with the public, it is not uncommon for administrators to just draw their own conclusions anyway. This squanders all the amassed goodwill in one fell swoop. Forum Gelderland is different because the county is really prepared to listen to its residents. The county welcomes more input from society (which is also mentioned in the coalition agreement). This gives the forum a concrete mission to enter into conversation.
Join the conversation about 7 different topics
Forum Gelderland has been live since February 2016. Residents of Gelderland can sign up in order to join the conversation about seven different topics: Culture & Heritage, the Future of Mobility, Make Gelderland More Beautiful, Housing & Public Space, Regio Foodvalley, Varik-Heesselt and Nature & Landscape. From December, two more topics will be added (Education and Employment & International). Propositions or ideas are posted in the different topics by the programme managers involved. Participants can then comment thereon, and participants can also contribute ideas themselves by starting new discussions. There is room for participants to discuss more general topics in the main forum, which is not linked to any specific topic. New topics can for instance be posted in the discussion ‘What’s on your mind, Gelderland?’.
Assign different tasks within the team
Aycha’s team includes two webcare associates, a community manager and a functional administrator. The community manager is responsible for coaching and training internal employees and spotting new possibilities, and moderating the forum. Webcare associates ensure social hygiene and distribute content on the social media channels. The functional administrator keeps an eye on technology. The topic forums each have their own community manager and moderator, who make sure that the content and conversations tie in with the different topics. Along with the policy teams, they also provide the content, and they’re responsible for managing topics and keeping them moving.
Aycha and the community manager together train the policymakers and communications advisors. At this point they have trained 32 employees. Training touches upon subjects such as how to start and moderate a community and how to keep it connected in real life and on online platforms. Aycha: “we want people to see the forum as a tool for creating policy together with residents. I want them to open up the events which are relatively closed off at the moment, like meetings or public sessions. To achieve this, they can use their existing networks, for instance on Twitter or LinkedIn, by inviting them to our forum.” Information or inspiration sessions are also held every other week for the topic managers to exchange their best practices. Outside speakers are sometimes invited to inspiration sessions to talk about online communities and community management.
We’d get a reaction from a resident, and everyone would kind of panic. What now? How do we reply?
Use an easy system
The forum has grown rapidly since going live. Aycha attributes this partially to the system they use. All the members find it easy to use without extensive instructions. Aycha: “We tried to find an SAAS solution (Software As A Service; cloud-hosted application) that’s really aimed at building communities. This is why we ended up choosing Mett. It also has functionality for making interactive maps, which was very high on our wish list.”
Regio Foodvalley was one of the first topics to become active online, even before Mett had been put into use. Aycha remembers it well: “We’d get a reaction from a resident, and everyone would kind of panic. What now? How do we reply? Eventually, we found our footing, and now we even encourage participants to reach out more. This has been a wonderful development.”
Don’t ask complicated questions
One of the lessons that the team has learnt is that it is vital that the questions posed on the forum are not too complicated. The jargon usually bandied about in official circles is unintelligible to outsiders, which is why managers read and give feedback on each other’s reports. There are also many subjects which are unsuitable for the forum altogether – sometimes issues are just too complex, or too many interests are at play.
It should be clear to participants what end goal they’re working towards. Aycha: “What we see is that initiatives where we ask members to inspire each other without stating a clear goal solicit fewer reactions and less energy from members of the forum. For example, we once asked members to pin their favourite places on a digital map. Participants were able to place a picture of their spot along with an explanation on a digital map, and this would serve as inspiration to us, other residents and companies. But it didn’t see much use, because many people were unclear as to what the point of it was.”
As open as possible
Forum Gelderland strives to be as open as possible about what is done with the user input. The policy for Culture and Heritage (one of the topics) has been completed. The word document ‘Overzicht van de reacties inclusief antwoorden en verwerking in het beleidsprogramma’, which can be found on the forum, shows how the individual reactions have been used. It explains that the policy text has been expanded with open data, e-culture, and the social function of libraries. All thanks to citizens getting involved.
Maak Gelderland Mooier (Make Gelderland More Beautiful) has been one of the great successes of the forum. On the 21st of April 2016 the county of Gelderland put on the event ‘Gebieden met passie’ around this topic. The focus of the event was an award, for which local councils, organizations and other interested parties were encouraged to nominate areas where residents were going the extra mile for local development. This resulted in a total of 13 nominations, including three true citizens’ initiatives. Entries included areas such as Ooijpolder, Honigcomplex in Nijmegen (see photo above), IJsselstein and Bredevoort.
Aycha: “a total of 7400 residents of Gelderland voted for their favourite project via the forum. Some of these people were also present for the award ceremony at the event. It was amazing to see how so many people can be mobilized in such a short period of time. The winners (the expert jury chose IJsselstein, and the public award went to Bredevoort) were true enthusiasts with a passion for making Gelderland a bit more beautiful.”
Start small and have a clear plan
I ask Aycha if she has any tips for local councils and counties who want to start working with a participation platform? “Yes. Start small. Start with topics that are on people’s minds. And finally: make sure you have a clear plan of what it is you want to achieve.”
Do you have any other examples of successful forums? Let me know in the comments!