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
The three key priorities
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
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.
us if you would like to discuss setting up your own Smart Panel.