Ben--while the Shared Workspace isn't my area, I do have some rough figures for you:
SW has about 5000 registered users overall, 1500 of which have logged in within the last few months, even with the Christmas break etc.
As for the rest of your comments, I definitely see where you're coming from. I've also had plenty of experience in trying to get people to adopt intranets, online forums and other webtools. The mistake I always made was that I thought I was promoting a 'system' or a 'tool', and I didn't do a very good job of showing the thing as valuable to how people work and what they were working toward (though sometimes there was no hope for whatever tool in this regard anyway). The other thing was that I was usually in a big hurry to get takeup. I had no patience.
The opportunity that we've got right now is to take into account both sides of the equation: what do people need to feel comfortable contributing? What do government agencies need to feel comfortable listening? And how do we make sure everyone is getting something out of the exchange?
We''ve also got a fairly long timeframe. One of the main guiding policy documents for us is the E-Government Strategy. The target we're working toward is our 2020 milestone: "By 2020, people's engagement with the government will have been transformed, as increasing and innovative use is made of the opportunities offered by network technologies."
So hopefully, by starting the discussion now, we can take the time we need to figure out how to do online participation well. No doubt, though, that we've got a lot to learn.
Brent--you make really good points.
One thing we know about web communities is that usually, only about 1% of all users actually contribute to the discussion. That's why online participation should be only one of a number of strategies for getting people's views on issues.
If we're going to ask people for their opinion, then as you say, we need to build in ways that allow the people to put their ideas out there in a way that's comfortable for them.
If ways can be found for web based consultation to increase transparency in decision making, that would be great.
Transparent decision making is good. That's definitely and end for this sort of work. But I think we also need to be looking for ways of using the technology to crank up the quality of the evidence-base for decision-making as well.
There's a couple parts to that problem: 1) Can the collective decide what a quality contributions is (a la Google search) or is it better left to experts? 2) How can those who are in decision-making positions be presented the contributions of the 'crowd' in such a way that it is usable from their perspective?
Yeah...that one might be a tough sell, though it does have a nice Uncle Sammish "I want you" poster feel to it.
If the larger point is about listening, though, then I think it's a good one.
One of the challenges for us is not giving people the impression that they'll be able to get anything they want if they use some future online participation channel to let government know what they think. There is always going to be priority setting and compettion between ideas in public policy, and sometimes that means some contributors just won't be happy no matter what.
What we think we can begin to do, though, is start helping people know where they stand if they do contribute. Then, at the very least, people will have some sense that their voice isn't totally lost should they choose to use it.