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Newsletter, June 2006

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Contents this month

What exactly is a panel?

Many Local Authorities and other organisations use panels of one sort or another to understand the views and priorities of their residents and stakeholders. But the word “panel” is used in very different ways and we think this leads to confusion.

Can we boil down the main reasons for having a panel to see what the different kinds of panel do and what we would like them to do?

The three key priorities

1. Representation

Traditional Citizens’ Panels have the great advantage that the members of the panel have been recruited to form a representative cross-section of the population and so the conclusions from any survey can be extrapolated to the whole population. If the panel says that the traffic problems in the city centre should be subject to major improvements, then probably that is the view of the residents as a whole. The drawbacks of Traditional Panels stem from their history. Because they were originally developed by the market research companies, they tend to concentrate on quantitative analysis and miss the unexpected insights that can be gained from qualitative methods. Market research companies also, by definition, are more adept at the one-way process of collecting information and have been slow to embrace the more participative two-way communication methods that do more than just gather information. Thirdly, because they concentrate on postal communication they tend to be the most expensive solution.

2. Saving money using electronic methods

E-Panels were developed in an attempt to replicate the tried-and-tested Traditional Panels, simply by replacing expensive postal communication by inexpensive e-mail. This saves money, but unfortunately throws out the baby with the bathwater, as a panel based entirely on e-mail cannot be representative when only 60% of a typical UK population are likely to be on e-mail. Apart from cost, E-Panels suffer from the other disadvantages of Traditional Panels: a concentration on quantitative analysis and one-way information gathering.

3. Deeper, two-way participation

A more recent development of the panel is the Open Web-Panel or "issues forum”. This is so different from a Traditional Panel that many people would say it isn’t really a panel at all: there is no attempt to make it representative, and formal surveys are not submitted at regular intervals. Open Web-Panels have been developed mainly by online community specialists to make use of the flexibility of electronic communication methods and the potential of the web to bring together clusters of people who share a cause. They are sometimes hosted by Local Authorities, sometimes by independent voluntary organisations. They are much more engaging than the older forms of panel and allow the public a more proactive role in putting forward their concerns. BUT (and it’s a big reservation) they have sacrificed representation and even to some extent the reaching of conclusions as they concentrate so much on the earlier stages of discussion. The advantage of their independence is also their chief drawback. By keeping the decision makers in a Local Authority at a distance from the discussion, there can be a feeling that there is lots of talk, but that the “powers that be” aren’t listening.

The solution’s simple

From the point of view of a Local Authority that needs to regularly consult residents or a company or NGO that needs to understand the views of its stakeholders the solution is quite simple really.

1. Use a representative sample of the population so that the collective views of the panel can be regarded as fair.

2. Use integrated communication solutions to allow the members of the panel to communicate in the way they prefer, saving money on the 55% or so who elect to use electronic methods.

3. Encourage deep participation (rather than just market research methods) by feeding back consultation conclusions and by using qualitative and quantitative analysis as appropriate.

We are surprised that no one seems to have followed this through already. The obstacles to putting together such panels have probably been that few organisations have the experience to integrate all communication methods and that an understanding of deep participation is a recent development. Fortunately for us, we do have this experience and this month we are launching Smart Panel, our own panel built to address these three priorities. Click the link to see the details of the system.

Please contact us if you would like to discuss setting up your own Smart Panel.


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