North South Exchange Consortium
The political changes in Northern Ireland have led to increased cooperation between the north and south of the island, particularly between education bodies.
The complexity of cooperation has required greater management, a task given to the North South Exchange Consortium (NSEC) by the the Department of Education (Northern Ireland) and the Department of Education and Science (Ireland).
- Increase their capacity to run consultation initiatives.
- Facilitate consultations with large stakeholder groups.
In collaboration with the research team, NSEC set out to develop an e-consultation framework that could mirror the complexity of NSEC's consultation objectives. The framework had to be capable of underpinning different levels of engagement with a diverse number of stakeholders.
Stakeholders would most likely be:
- programme coordinators
- educational managers
- school teachers
- school children
The stakeholder sample was split between participants and non-participants of the North South exchange programmes.
Two key issues arose for NSEC:
- Need for a clear understanding of the consultation aims
- Need for a clear understanding of the potential of available technologies
A planning process began, which addressed NSEC's issues. From the planning process, five objectives were agreed:
- To obtain stakeholders’ views on themes and criteria of the Single Programme Framework (SPF).
- To evaluate exchange programmes and devise ways of optimising the benefits gained.
- To gather input for policy development.
- To capture the attitudes and expectations of stakeholders.
- To identify best practice.
NSEC held several meetings and decided to run a consultation that incorporated both conventional consultation techniques and e-consultation elements. This allowed all channels of communication to be exploited.
The first stages of the e-consultation were launched at the same time:
- A short e-voting session during the presentations (The research team helped to designed a set of questions for the launch meeting).
- The possibility to sign up to an e-newsletter.
- NSEC delivered, and participants completed, a short on-line questionnaire.
Participants who attended the launch were consulted. However, NSEC needed to consult a wider group. These involved:
- Organisations involved in educational exchanges
- Young people
11 types of participant were identified for the purposes of running the e-consultation trial. These groups ranged from Funding Agencies, individuals such as teachers, to Youth Groups.
Appreciating the complexity of e-consultation (especially in a constantly changing political environment) NSEC adopted a multi-stranded plan. Such a plan meant that, each target group involved had to be researched in relation to their experiences with the technology and the best way in which they could be accessed.
Regardless, unforeseen technical issues meant that access became a problem, especially for schools and their students. NSEC changed the technology, which permitted the consultation web sites to be accessed by all.
The consultation also experienced a slow start. Very few people signed up to the e-newsletter or took part in the initial survey. Only when NSEC sent out surveys to more people did responses begin to increase. The launch event saw the most interest in the consultation.
NSEC claimed to be particularly satisfied with the research team’s work, and planned to use the web site and software, which the research team designed for them. Although this software was free, the cost of attending to the software is not.
Although the research team cannot present too many findings (due to the consultation's slow start), the case presents another illustration of running an e-consultation.
For example, although the generated on-line survey data was low, analysis of web traffic indicated that there was increased activity on the NSEC web page. People were using the site to download reports and files, but not completing the survey.
Reflecting on the consultation, it is evident that progress was affected by:
- Resource issues: recruitment to the trials and focus groups were not fully anticipated at the outset of the trials.
- Political considerations: With the Northern Ireland political processes frozen, activity from NSEC might have been seen to be inappropriately creating a new north-south body with no Northern Ireland Assembly to report to
- Calender considerations were ignored, meaning that at certain times consultees were busy or not interested.
- Consultation environment complexity: it became increasingly obvious that to engage with some of these consultees would require specialist strategies.
- Must clearly identify each group of consultees: to determine resources and requirements accurately.
- E-consultation's role in developing an integrated communications strategy, which then needs to be integrated into the overall communications strategy of the organisation.
As a result in the latter stages of the e-consultation project a future work programme was agreed, as follows:
- The e-consultation research team are to brief the new NSEC team members in July 2006.
- The (research team-designed) consultation web sites will be transferred to the NSEC site in July 2006.
- The e-consultation exercise, involving school children and young people who have participated in exchange programmes, is to be initiated in September 2006.
- E-enable focus groups are to be initiated in January 2007.
The initial trial with the NSEC clearly identified some issues:
- Technological, personnel and financial resources. You cannot fully automate a consultation - people still need to manage and run it.
- As has been identified in other trials (Waterways Ireland and The Wheel), the technology proved easier than anticipated but the process more complex than expected.
- The complexity of the consultation domain means there was a need for extensive pre-consultation research.
- Technical issues arose due to the increasing levels of nuisance e-mails and spam, which negatively affected web site usage.