Notes from the field of public involvement

Friday, 13 October 2006

Cor, love a lurker

The last post mentioned obsessives - now we are talking about 'lurkers'. Things seem to be getting a bit weird - we probably need to get out more. One of the benefits of logging off and getting out and about is that more people are coming up to us and mentioning that they enjoy our web postings on both our sites - www.mooreadamsoncraig.co.uk and www.publicinvolvement.org.uk.

This is good news but it is a bit puzzling never to hear back via the web or an email perhaps. Now thanks to a posting by well-known web guru Jakob Neilsen http://www.useit.com/alertbox/participation_inequality.html I am a bit the wiser.

In this article, Jakob addresses head on the question why we never hear from readers. "In most online communities, 90% of all users are lurkers who never contribute, 9% of users contribute a little and 1% of users account for all the action". The definition of a lurker is someone who reads and observes but does not contribute.

We have just revamped the way we solicit comments and we will see whether that means we hear from more people. We are thinking about making it even easier to comment by putting a star rating beside a posting and any big paper or article posted on the main site.

We are interested in feedback because we believe in participation and contribution in organisational life and are always looking for new ways of involving people and getting views. See our exchange with Paul Hodgkin the Chief Exec of Patient Opinion.

His organisation will stand or fall by the number of contributors writing about their experiences and he has to find a way past this 90-9-1 distribution ( 90 are lurkers; the 9 are occasional contributors and the one the regulars.). I had not realised that Amazon book reviews were written by a handful of people with the most prolific writing 12,423 reviews. With blogs, the participation ratios get even worse - the rule according to Neilsen is 95-5-0.1.

So it is important to keep looking for new ideas in this area and there is a lot of interesting stuff in a paper "Consumer Engagement Model" (links to PDF file) outlining the Food Standards Agency's new model (approach) for engaging with consumers. It was discussed at a FSA Board Meeting on 12th October 2006. They shut down their old model Consumer Committee, trading it in for a People's Forum and various other initiatives. The Agency also commissioned Demos to do a benchmarking paper on best practice and new thinking.

The first broad concept mentioned in the FSA paper that we can all work with is a definition of civic society developed by the London School of Economics Centre for Civic Society in 2003.

I found this useful because we need a context to think about developments in this area and understanding 'civic society' provides one. It also ties in with the work that Andrew Craig did with his paper on new business structures in health and social care. (Andrew went to a packed out conference on social enterprises this week and stand by for his blog on that.)

Back to the FSA paper and Demos - the FSA wants to move on from the 'interrupted conversation' that it and other organisations have with their consumers and stakeholders to a continuing and more productive dialogue.

The FSA has a particular issue to address. A lot of their work involves scientists - wedded no doubt to the most rigorous evidence-based trials and tests. Indeed the Agency has no less than nine scientific advisory committees advising them on the scientific evidence that in their words 'underpins and drives our work'. Traditionally scientists thought consumers were pretty flakey - swayed by emotion and deeply ignorant of the 'real facts'. Consumer panics whipped up by an equally ignorant and sensationalist media are the antithesis of calm scientific debate and rational decisions. How to reconcile these two views of the universe?

One FSA answer is to set up another committee that will not frighten the scientists because it will look like another scientific advisory committee but this time with the title of the Social Sciences Research Committee safely under the remit (control?) of the Agency's Chief Scientist. At the same time, a new Head of External Affairs will be appointed to take an overview of "all our stakeholder relationships as well as keep abreast of the needs of policy divisions.."

We won't go into the detail of the FSA paper - there is a wonderful diagram on page 6 showing all the ways the External Affairs person will be facing - all at once? However we can anticipate and enjoy from a distance the struggle between these two champions of consumer evidence  - the heart and the head – within the one organisation. It is good to see the FSA's readiness to experiment with new forms and institutional arrangements to inject new life into consumer representative structures as well as addressing the question of how to put consumer-originated evidence on a par of both esteem and utility with data from the lab or field study.

Let battle commence and we will see how this works in practice and who the Solomon-like juggler figure in this new External Affairs post will be. The experiment and the learning will be valuable if perhaps a little painful for the participants. This is the equivalent in the world of consumer representation of the Manichaean struggle if not exactly between good and evil – then between consumer emotion and scientific fact. It never ends – but just occasionally the balance shifts.

Your views please and we will be looking back at our work http://www.publicinvolvement.org.uk/2006-04-April/NewBusinessStructuresinHe.html and at the world of Policy Governance®   to see how we can reflect this new thinking in our view of the world.

What do you think – we challenge our lurkers to speak up.

For more on our understanding of the dynamics of user and consumer relationships, see our main site and in particular our articles on Emotions in Decision Making  and NHS Complaints - My Own Anger Propelled Me.

Colin Adamson | (Problem occured connecting to database: The server requested authentication method unknown to the client