(Editor’s note: The frustration expressed in this column prompted Echo to create a series of forums for an interactive discussion of the Great Lakes Water Quality Initiative.)
By Jane Elder
I suppose in the electronic age that using the Internet to gather public input on major policies decision seems like a good idea. Webinar is one of those words that has emerged in the lexicon of the digital age, but my experience is most do not fulfill the expertise and critique functions of seminars nor do they take full advantage of the capacity of web-based communications to really engage public audiences.
This week’s attempt to cover eight topics of significant import in the Great Lakes water quality agreement in six two-hour sessions over three days is evidence of how imperfect these technologies can be in promoting dialogue and meaningful input, even if the convener’s intent is good.
I’m not a Luddite but I’m no technological whiz. My webinar journey looked something like this. First I had to find the links on the binational.net website to find out how to get into these webinars in the first place. There was no handy link that said “Great Lakes Webinars.” Instead I read through the home page and the various wonky topics on it and had to intuit that the phrase “Bi-national public engagement process – provide your comments” http://binational.net/glwqa_2010_comments_e.html actually meant, “click here to get into a Webinar.” Maybe you are saying “Isn’t this crystal clear, it was in red font!?” OK, my bad.
So, a few clicks later, I got myself in, and then discovered that I needed to download something in order to get in the Webinar game. My computer doesn’t like a lot of downloads. Maybe it is too much spyware software, or just the Microsoft “are you really sure you want to do this?” thing, but it took me about 12 minutes to get through all the downloads. So, of course, when I finally got into the Webinar after also stopping off to fill in the obligatory, name, Email address, nation, state, organization thing, I was late and had missed the introduction.
So, I also had to figure out how to use the Webinar software to electronically raise my hand and lower it. I wasn’t certain I was “allowed” to do this because a pleasant electronic voice at the beginning of the session stated that I was logged on as a silent participant. (I’m not good at silence, but that’s what it told me.) It wasn’t clear to me whether I had the right to raise my electronic “hand” but I boldly gave it a go and found myself “un-muted” at the right moments. I’m presuming others did as well. It usually worked, but once it didn’t, and I didn’t know if repeatedly clicking on the icon made it look like I was frantically trying to get attention, or it all went un-noticed.
I quickly learned that there were two tiers of input in the system. If you had a computer with a headset and microphone and were able to log in directly you went to the head of the line with those raised hands. If you dialed into the 800 number you were a second-tier citizen and were only called on after the web-direct participants were done. There was apparently a PIN number required for phone participants to use. It didn’t work in many instances. This led to multiple exchanges of “can you hear me?” and I felt like I was in a Verizon commercial. Except in this case, the answer was too often: “no” and the call moved on without them. Eventually the lucky or the clever figured out their PIN numbers and were able ask questions or make comments as well.
Perhaps because I missed the first introduction I missed the fact there was something called a deck. In my world a deck is either an outdoor porch, or includes the queen of hearts. For the webinars, the deck was apparently the collection of PowerPoint slides that structured the conversation. (Forgive me, oh Web savvy generations, that I didn’t know this.) I guess if I had done my homework right I would have reviewed my deck before the webinar so I wouldn’t have had to guess what the specific topics were going to be. Without this preview I found myself challenged to make quickly formed comments on major topics and to formulate a meaningful reactions to be summarized in five minutes or less.
Another frustration was the inability to ask for comments and clarifications from other participants and to even know who else was in the virtual room. The negotiating team has our contact information, so they know. Maybe they’ll share it with the rest of us. There were a couple of really great comments where I would love to get in touch with the person, and maybe we could collaborate in the true sense of the word, but I either didn’t take notes fast enough or was trying to formulate my own thoughts and I couldn’t multitask quickly enough to map who was participating and what I wanted to say at the same time.
Anyway, after a day and a half of these, and far too much else on my to do list this week, I opted out of further webinars. While I appreciate the effort the teams are making, let me suggest a few alternative approaches that might help us gather better comments through the virtual world. Why don’t we set up a blog on each one of the main topics? That way a topic can be posted and individuals could raise questions, comment on each other’s comments, and we could identify who is in the conversation so we can follow lines of logic and be in touch. (Echo Editor’s note: Great idea! We’ve set up just such a forum.)
Even Facebook might be an option. Keep virtual elimination? Like! I know that written comments are encouraged in the binational.net process, and the deadline has been extended to July 9, so I will provide some, although it looks like they will have to fit into the comment boxes on the binational.net site. (I wonder how many characters are allowed?) Sigh. I’m not sure what will happen with them but I’ll take the leap of faith.
Surely this process could be better served through some real face-to-face dialogue, (and no, two public meetings with unknown dates this fall are not enough). What if we had teams of leaders focused on specific challenges working with the people drafting those sections. What if we had ongoing posting of content and comments and process and players as the agreement goes forward? Sometimes there is no substitute for human dialogue and even a good robust argument.
When I teach workshops on communications, I tell people that unless communications is two-way you are not communicating, you’re just preaching. We sort of had 1.5-way communications on the Webinars. We have a lot more communicating to do to forge the best possible water quality agreement for the Great Lakes.
Looks like I’ve used up my five minutes on this topic! Next, on to substance.
Jane Elder is a Great Lakes policy analyst, advocate, writer and die-hard fan of big freshwater ecosystems.