Come Talk To Me

We've looked at how the Law Commission used social media to reach the right audience when consulting on an issues paper about potential law reforms...

issues-paperWhat is the Law Commission?

The Law Commission is an independent Crown entity charged with keeping New Zealand’s laws up to date and relevant. As part of its work, the Law Commission informs and supports discussion of law reform by seeking the opinions of the legal profession, professional and business bodies, and the public.

It’s a relatively small organisation; in 2012, the Law commission's budget was about $4.2 million. It had 25 staff and 4 Commissioners. At any one time, the Law Commission could be dealing with six or more law reform projects.

Why use social media?

Open and transparent consultation is a critical part of the Law Commission’s processes.

Traditional consultative processes can be cumbersome and time-consuming for potential respondents, increasing the risk of a poor response and/or un-representative opinions. The Law Commission could see the potential that online consultation offered, alongside traditional consultation methods, to involve more people and the right people.

In October 2010, the Government asked the Law Commission to review the law that regulates the news media and assess whether that law could deal with digital forms of media (the “new media review”). That meant seeking peoples’ views on the role of the news media and what standards should apply.

In December 2011, the Law Commission published an issues paper about the new media review. The paper asked whether the legal rights and responsibilities traditionally applied to news media should be extended to some digital media publishers, such as current affairs bloggers and web-only news sites. Using social media to consult people on the issues paper made a lot of sense.

What did the Law Commission do to introduce using social media?

The Law Commission experimented with different methods of social media, to consult as widely as possible and stimulate as much debate as possible. The types of social media used included:

  • Twitter and TradeMe forums to promote the consultation;
  • a new way to make a submission on the Law Commission’s website;
  • a version of online “town hall meetings”; and
  • interactive advertising on selected websites to promote the meetings and advertise the call for submissions.
Open and transparent consultation is a critical part of the Law Commission’s processes.

The Law Commission contracted a private media company to signpost that consultation was open. The company provided online advertising to inform visitors to specific websites that the issues paper was available and open for comment. The advertising appeared on several media websites to try and get the most representative sample possible. The advertisements used questions relevant to the new media review to attract potential commenters. As well as the advertisements, Twitter announcements promoted the availability of the issues paper.

The message was that Law Commission was “open for business” and wanted to hear people’s views to help shape the law.

Using virtual “town hall meetings”

The Law Commission was also innovative in using online “town hall meetings”, accessed through a selection of current affairs websites.

Online town hall meeting

The purpose of a town hall meeting - online or in a real town hall - is to allow people to discuss issues, ideas, and topics that affect them. It is a mechanism for members of a community to ask questions and have their say.

These virtual meetings discussed matters relevant to the new media review and were advertised through an online advertising campaign. Advertisements linked to extra information, including YouTube videos of the project’s lead Commissioner. Guest blogs were also written to help stimulate debate.

It got a richer form of feedback because the debate was dynamic.

A range of different politically aligned sites were chosen to host the meetings so that no single political view was favoured. To participate in the meetings, website visitors signed in and could then ask questions and join the discussion.

Afterwards, they were directed to the Law Commission’s website and asked to make a submission.

The Law Commission initiated the debate but chose not to take an active part. It did this to ensure that a full range of views were collected and prevent any undue bias. It felt that it was more appropriate to monitor the debate, and only intervene where necessary (for example to correct factual inaccuracies). However, it did receive some negative feedback about this choice.

Using social media enriched consultation

The online conversations and comments were immediate, which added a self-generating quality to the debate. People posting comments could see each other’s posts, so the debate became dynamic. In the Law Commission’s view, it got a richer form of feedback because of this.

The Law Commission was also clear about the terms of participation. It stated that comments made through blog sites would be treated as official submissions, could be used as part of the Law Commission’s process, and could form part of the final report.

Overcoming the anonymity barrier

The online comments were detailed, challenging, and highly valuable.

Verifying the information and authenticity in an online submission was a significant challenge for the Law Commission. There is an inherent tension between the need for verifiable information and asking submitters to provide personal details. Without personal details, potentially valuable experiences cannot be used in any final report because the people remain anonymous or not contactable. The Law Commission tried, wherever possible, to encourage submitters to include their names and contact details.

Was it successful?

The Law Commission regarded the new media review consultation as a success. It received more than 70 formal submissions on the issues paper, supported by a rich and diverse stream of comments from online forums.

The online advertising and online town hall meetings widened discussion and commentary on the proposals. The Law Commission’s media partner reported a higher response rate than for other advertisements that were running at the same time. Many people had not participated in the Law Commission’s previous consultations, so the Law Commission reached a new audience. Overall participation was higher because many more people contributed through online discussions.

It was important to widen the debate as much as possible because maximising submission numbers can help to deliver high-quality reform proposals. The Law Commission reported that the online comments were detailed, challenging, and highly valuable. The project’s lead Commissioner, Professor John Burrows, said the issues paper about the new media review had attracted many high-calibre submissions from a wide range of new and traditional media organisations, including Google and Facebook.

Finally, the Law Commission considered that the online consultation contributed directly to improving the quality of its final proposals. This is because the Law Commission was:

  • able to access insights that would not normally have been considered; and
  • challenged by online submissions and comments in a different way to more traditional methods.

What did the Law Commission learn?

The Law Commission analysed its experience with using social media for consultation and identified some lessons. It learned to be prepared for negative feedback (even abusive feedback), that using social media can be less expensive than more traditional forms of consultation, and that it can be challenging to get an organisation to consider using social media as “business as usual” rather than as a project.

The lessons the Law Commission learned

  • Risk attitudes – interactive social media can be challenging for organisations that are risk averse.
  • Be prepared – social media can mean an organisation is less shielded from the rough and tumble of public debate. It is important to have policies that state if and when it will respond to negative comments.
  • New audience – social media can reach audiences that traditional consultation proceses might not engage.
  • Rationale for use – not all topics will be suitable for online debate, so thought is needed about the potential audience.
  • Content – social media relies heavily on plain English and user-friendly content, which some organisations can find challenging.
  • Resourcing – social media can be cheaper than other channels but still needs resourcing, and this can be difficult for smaller entities.
  • Embedding in business as usual – getting an organisation to think of social media as business as usual is challenging and needs top-level support and an influential "champion".