Digital consultations and data collection are less time consuming than conducting face-to-face consultations. But meticulous attention to processes, contexts and results is needed.
At the start of 2020, Hunan Province in the People’s Republic of China was locked down like many other areas in order to contain the spread of COVID-19. By mid-January, residents were discouraged from going out of their homes and practically lived online.
In Xiangtan, traffic moved from the streets to the terrains of WeChat, Sina Weibo, Tenent QQ and Xiao Hong Shu. It tended to be teens, gamers and tech folks who crossed the bridge daily, swiping between “in real life” and “online life” with ease. In this time of lockdowns, most residents had only their gadgets and the internet to connect with to make sense of the news or enjoy movies, games and make-your-own-videos.
It was in this environment that we examined whether stakeholder consultations – the process of sharing information and obtaining people’s views about a pending development project – could be meaningful when conducted online during a pandemic. We looked at consultations with stakeholders for the proposed ADB-backed Low-Carbon Transformation Sector Development Program, which seeks to transform Xiangtan from a carbon intensive, heavily polluting city to a low-carbon, climate resilient, and livable one. Here are five key takeaways from what we discovered:
If key stakeholders are online, engage them there. People’s constant online presence was what the Xiangtan local government banked on to reach out regarding the project. In development communication work, the process of involving affected people is as important as the information given them to discuss proposed project designs, risks and benefits. Finding a mutual platform for engagement is key.
Be conscious of representation and inclusivity. The ease of conducting online consultations is counterbalanced by the risk of excluding people and failing to factor in their social contexts. Online platforms straddle the real and not-so-real, and online personas may not reflect the demographics needed to make sure those consulted are project-affected or have a direct stake. Project planners need to verify gender, age, socio-economic status, ethnicity, digital literacy and accessibility to the internet and devices.
If there are existing baselines, use them to find the key stakeholders. How can a project’s key stakeholders be found in an online platform with broader uses than project consultation? In the project we examined, there were baseline and previous face-to-face consultations that allowed project planners to find stakeholders, and get an idea about their behaviors in transportation and energy use, which was the focus of the consultations. Otherwise, online surveys and consultations would have been conducted, possibly with the entire population of Xiangtan with internet access, to engage the project’s key stakeholders.
If key stakeholders are online, engage them there.
Using the results of the previous consultations and baseline, designers of the online consultations involved people in 20 low-carbon communities whose lifestyles could be nudged further to be fully green and energy-efficient. Females made up 48.8% of Xiangtan municipality’s about 2.8 million population and this was reflected in the male-female ratio of respondents. Also, online access and digital literacy was verified for the Tujia, Miao and other ethnic minority groups in Xiangtan.
Choose a user-friendly online software and popular app to disseminate. The choice of online survey software is critical. Not only should platforms be user-friendly and easy to maneuver for respondents, data quality – reliability, accuracy and validity – must also be solid, and data collection has to follow ethical protocols.
Wenjuanxing, a popular online survey application that allows customization of formats and properties, was used in the project we examined. It has a multiple filtering functions and can provide analysis in real-time. To ensure that respondents understood the questions, descriptions were added. For ease of answering, particularly for those using phones, a multiple-choice format with dropdown menu was used. At the end of the questionnaire, an open-ended question gave space for respondents to provide comments on the project’s component.
When the questionnaires were uploaded, the software generated a link and QR code to regulate access and ensure data privacy. WeChat was used to disseminate the link and QR code to respondents since this popular app was being used by almost all of Xiangtan’s residents.
Include a “human” component to build trust. Without the face-to-face cues that traditional consultations enjoy, trust is an issue often faced when using technology in development work. To get authentic answers, respondents need to trust the process of how they are contacted and who contacted them, how they are asked to accomplish the questionnaire, and how their responses will be used.
To accomplish this, 24 focal persons from the community bureaus in the project areas were enlisted, which added a trust-building feature doubling as validation mechanism in the digital procedures. Separate WeChat groups were formed and assigned focal persons according to specific project components. Focal points invited respondents into the WeChat groups and shared the links and codes of questionnaires.
The focal points also built basic demographic profiles of the respondents without their names, which was then randomly validated. This verification layer ensured that the respondents fit the sampling criteria identified through the project’s baseline. Similar to traditional data collection, respondents were assigned codes to aid in analysis, ensuring that answers given cannot be traced back to respondents. These procedures proved successful in using online consultations to augment face-to-face engagements.
The process of digital consultations and data collection for centralized societies is less time consuming than conducting face-to-face consultations. What is more complex though, for consultations to be meaningful in a digital platform, is the meticulous attention to processes, contexts and end results.