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Note: EPA no longer updates this information, but it may be useful as a reference or resource.

Web-Based Dialogue: What is The Next Frontier?

By Authors: Tom Beierle, Ross & Associates Environmental Consulting, Laurie Maak, WestEd, and Sally Hedman, WestEd
Contributors: Don Greenstein - DLG Conflict Management Systems, Nicholas Dewar – CirclePoint, and Patricia Bonner - USEPA

President Obama has directed heads of executive departments and agencies to “… work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration.” Key to accomplishing this goal is using the Internet to broaden informed public engagement. Some challenges to achieving this “Next Frontier” include helping citizens inform themselves about the issue under discussion; tapping diverse perspectives; managing the volume of ideas and information; recognizing and responding to input; and maintaining communication to continue to inform and evolve the web-based public engagement process.

To meet the challenges of the Next Frontier, we envision bringing together a broad spectrum of stakeholders—informed by experts and practitioners—to identify successful practices and define realistic and ideal functions and expectations designed to achieve host agency goals. Through this discovery process, a foundation for developing the Next Frontier—based on stakeholder needs—will emerge. The process will generate the next steps to create an engagement platform and strategy that will be useful to both participants and conveners.

The Next Frontier WebDialogue was an initial step to begin this important process. We used WestEd’s WebDialogues platform, which, for over six years, has been used to successfully convene stakeholders, members of the public, and policy makers. In each case, participants learned about, discussed, and provided input regarding key policy issues in state, national, and international dialogues.

In July 2009, twenty individuals with experience hosting, developing, facilitating, and/or researching web-based public engagement participated in a week-long WebDialogue entitled, “Web–based Dialogue: What is the Next Frontier?” The discussion focused on “Aspects of GREAT web-based engagement” to guide the group’s reflections on what works, unanswered questions, and promising new strategies. The goal was to identify the diverse needs of national and state agencies and organizations as we evolve web-based engagements.

This paper captures the essence of the ideas exchanged in six discussions:

We hope the ideas in this summary paper provide useful guidance for our collective work toward realizing this very important Next Frontier. We welcome additional input on the ideas and concepts presented in this report. Laurie Maak, WebDialogues Developer & Producer, WestEd, lmaak@wested.org


This document describes online dialogues from the perspective of practitioners (organizers, facilitators, and hosts) and identifies best practices developed from their experience with online dialogues over several years. It is motivated by a sense that this approach to public involvement is promising, in need of concise description, and ripe for an articulation of what works and what still needs to be better understood. The initial content for this document was developed through a WebDialogue among practitioners and refined through collaborative authorship using a wiki.

Online dialogues are a structured approach for engaging participants in topical written discussions. They typically involve more people in more places and from more walks of life than could be practically brought together for face-to-face interactions. Conversations are generally through written messages, linked together through threads of related content to which participants contribute over a series of days or weeks.

Text Box: 'Web dialogues offer a tremendous opportunity to open up the process and to allow people with jobs or babies or aging parents or an appointment with their dentist to 'show up' and take part.”Online dialogues provide a number of potential advantages compared to in-person processes, including:

Online Dialogue Process

Online Dialogue Process

What Are Best Practices for Online Dialogues?

There is enough experience with online dialogues that a body of “best practices” is beginning to emerge. This section describes key lessons identified by practitioners—starting with up-front planning, moving into dialogue facilitation, and finally describing how dialogue content affects policy.

Establish a clear purpose––and design the dialogue to accomplish it

The more clearly the purpose of the dialogue is articulated by sponsors and understood by participants, the more successful it will be. Some practitioners feel that establishing a clear purpose is the most important—and most challenging—aspect of dialogue planning. Key questions are:

Hosts—the agencies or other organizations that initiate and sponsor a dialogue—play a critical role in establishing and communicating its purpose. They should begin with an authentic desire to hear from the public and develop a clear statement regarding what difference the input will make. They should plan to report back to participants on what they learned and keep participants in the loop as decisions, policy, or programs evolve. Establishing a compelling purpose may require a “pre-process” with hosts before the dialogue begins.

Text Box: “Participants are hungry for access to information and interaction with [agency] staff. I doubt the agencies realize how powerful their openness and involvement can be.”Some practitioners feel that dialogues are most appropriate for getting a better understanding of people's knowledge about an issue and a sense of what they care about rather than measuring “public opinion.” Dialogues can then surface policy alternatives, trade-offs, innovative solutions, and implementation challenges. By promoting and co-building common knowledge, a higher quality public opinion may emerge.

Just like in-person processes, online dialogues can be designed to accomplish different purposes—from educating and informing participants, to drawing out public knowledge, to influencing decisions. The International Association for Public Participation defines this spectrum as ranging across the following activities: inform, consult, involve, collaborate, and empower.

Although online participation is distinctly different from in-person engagement, a typology of in-person processes can be useful for understanding what online dialogues can be used for, such as:

An articulation of purpose helps inform key design choices, such as who should participate. For example, a dialogue focusing on exploring divergent views on a given topic would ideally involve a large number of people with significant differences in level of subject expertise and experience, while a deliberative dialogue that seeks serious insight and input may focus on involving a select number of people with varied but substantial expertise and experience.

Actively market the dialogue and recruit people to participate

Text Box: “Because we were national in scope, we learned about project operations and perspectives we would have had a difficult time identifying otherwise.”Recruiting for dialogues is most successful when hosts and others involved in the dialogue actively tap multiple local, regional, national, and international communications networks to provide information about the dialogue and recruit participants. This active recruitment helps inform those with the most potential interest about the topic/dialogue and helps bring in participants who are knowledgeable and interested in the topic.

Participant Location Map

Develop a compelling and constructive agenda

A well-framed agenda clearly maps out topics and key discussion points and guides participants’ involvement throughout the process. To make the agenda responsive to the interests of those participating, dialogue participants must be involved in framing it from the beginning—or they may determine the agenda for the last few days of a dialogue based on discussion earlier in the dialogue. This helps build trust for all who are engaged in the process.

For public dialogues, agendas should begin with broad and easily understood concepts that can then be deconstructed as the dialogue proceeds. Baseline polls at the commencement of a dialogue are useful for helping the organizers evaluate basic knowledge and—when combined with a poll at the end—assess how much people learned or revised their thinking as a result of the dialogue. 

Early in a dialogue, the agenda should encourage participants to provide specific examples, experiences, and insights that may serve as a basis of exploration and analysis. Supporting statements with research and experience should be encouraged in online engagements as ways to better understand and experience a process by participants new to the ideas being presented. “Hooks” in the beginning can get people excited about sharing their experiences and can help make them aware that what they say and do in the dialogue will influence and impact others involved. As the dialogue comes to a close, techniques such as summaries, polling, and user-defined discussion topics can be used to construct a new commonly-built and synthesized outcome.

Use effective facilitation techniques to help people participate and keep the dialogue focused

Active facilitation is an important element of online dialogues. Facilitation online, however, differs significantly from facilitation of face-to-face meetings. Some basic values apply to both online and in-person facilitation (e.g., clarity, neutrality), and facilitation has the same fundamental objective (i.e., help participants be effective, make it safe for all involved). There are, however, some unique challenges to online facilitation. These include:

Experience with facilitating online dialogues has led to some useful techniques, such as:

Make it easy for people to get started and stay focused on the topic

In many dialogues, a few people post many comments and many people post only a few (or no) comments. A persistent challenge is encouraging the silent participants to contribute to the dialogue and not allowing the extremely active participants to control the content. A number of techniques can help, including:

Ensure worthy content with lasting value

A key challenge for online dialogues—and many in-person processes for that matter—is capturing contributions from  hundreds of contributions in a concise way that has lasting value. Some best practices include:

Ensure an active and constructive role for dialogue “hosts”

Dialogue hosts play a key role in identifying the purpose of the dialogue and focusing it on a clear topic. When hosts are elected representatives or agency personnel, their active participation in the dialogue provides a unique opportunity for direct interactions between citizens and their government. Hosts should also strive (or be encouraged) to play a number of other roles, including:

Make sure participants are being heard—and that they know it

Most people take the time to participate in online dialogues and other participatory forums because they care about the world they live in and the topic at issue—they also want to make a difference.  Dialogue planners and hosts need to make sure that people are rewarded for their participation by letting them know they are being heard and legitimately considering their input as part of decision-making.  Best practices include:

What Are Key Remaining Challenges and Questions About Online Dialogues?

Although much has been learned about how to make online dialogues effective, there are still remaining challenges to be addressed through refinements to dialogue design, facilitation, and other techniques. Key challenges include:

Where Do We Go From Here?

The evolution of online dialogues has largely been driven by a process of experimentation, evaluation, and “learning by doing.” Practitioners have identified a number of new ideas to try and refine in future dialogues. These include:


It is clear that online dialogues offer a significantly different approach to public and stakeholder engagement from tried and true in-person approaches. Features such as the potential to involve a very large number of people, the ability to engage people from anywhere in the world, and the seamless incorporation of other electronic techniques, such as instant polling, can make online dialogues exciting for hosts, facilitators, and participants. These same features also create new challenges for making online dialogues effective and rewarding for those involved. This document has outlined an emerging set of best practices, some remaining challenges, and an agenda for further inquiry. The time is ripe for further implementation of online dialogues and a continuing commitment by practitioners to hone skills, experiment with new techniques, and offer participants a valuable experience that contributes to the responsiveness and transparency of public policy.


1. It is important to recognize that the First Amendment limits the ability of Federal organizations to censor messages.

2. Federal organizations cannot ask questions unless they have been cleared through the Office of Management and Budget under the Paperwork Reduction Act. Participants can instead be invited to respond to statements.

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