The Waterways Ireland trial was the first of three trials. These trials are part of a wider research project on e-consultation, started in January 2004, by Queen's University Belfast, the University of Maynooth and Limerick Institute of Technology.
The Waterways Ireland case provided learning about what not to do when organising an E-Consultation.
Two very basic problems emerged to counteract the effectiveness of the consultation:
- Insufficient resource allocation
- Complicated legal issue presented on an overly complicated web page
Established in 1999 as one of six North/South Implementation Bodies, Waterways Ireland is responsible for inland waterways throughout Ireland (North and South). These waterways are used for recreational purposes, which is the principle concern of Waterways Ireland.
A need for Equality
In 2005, as part of their ‘Equality Quality Assessment' (EQA), Waterways Ireland wished to establish a process of policy-making and screening in order to evaluate and ensure equality in all its policy operations.
Waterways Ireland decided to embark on an e-consultation process as part of their first Section 75 consultation on this issue. A key reason for adopting e-consultation was to increase engagement with the general public, as well as its usual clients.
The consultation organisers adopted both traditional (non-technological) and technological elements in the consultation process. The technological element would be a website. This element was new to the organisers.
The website allowed potential respondents to browse online consultation documents and leave comments on discussion forums. Consultation organisers could also submit the first questions to discussion forums to start off discussions. Each part of the website was reviewed by the organisers.
Waterways Ireland wanted to utilise e-technology for two key reasons:
- To open up the consultation to the general public.
- To simplify the dissemination of complex and legalistic documentation.
Researchers stressed the importance of publicising the consultation, allocating adequate resources and managing the process.
To manage expectations Waterways Ireland ran advertisements in local newspapers and some specialist publications. Organisers also phoned some clients to encourage participation.
The consultation was launched; however, several concerns were noted by the researchers.
- The consultation document was made into several web pages. Although this ensured everyone responded to the same text it did not account for differences in how people browse and read online web pages.
- Although Waterways Ireland had set up servers for e-consultation, the discussion forums were not ready by the time e-mails were sent to potential respondents.
- Although 12 people registered for online discussion forums, no one submitted comments. The questions on the discussion forums did not emotionally engage potential respondents. Instead, six respondents contributed on paper.
The usability of the Waterways E-Consultation Website was a key concern. Online instructions were unclear, options were confusing, the language was too technical and registration was not user-friendly. The site needed to be more concise and easier to use.
The main areas of concern were:
- Lack of publicity and any review of advertisements.
- Lack of resources allocated to the E-Consultation.
- Nature of the E-Consultation did not make for a user-friendly experience:
- Langauge used.
- Browsing difficulty.
- Nature and volume of questions asked at registration.
- Putting traditional processes on-line, without modification, does not work.
- Simply putting something on-line does not mean people will come. Publicity is still required.