How do you know that you do good work: Consumer participation online

I ran some training a few years ago, where a guest lecturer posed the question: “How do you know that you do good work?”

It was one of those moments in my professional life that has really stuck with me.  Knowing the quality and impact of your work is an important component in any reflective practice.  This knowledge of our  services strengths and weaknesses provides us with a base from which we can improve them.

Often our work is measured in metrics.  In a face to face environment this might mean:

  • counting the number of syringes handed out
  • counting the number of service inquiries
  • counting the number of episodes of care completed

All of these measures are indicative of quantity but do not necessarily indicate quality of a service.

While there are a number of ways a face to face service can measure quality (e.g. rigorous evaluation processes, client surveys, etc.), one of the best ways to ensure feedback regarding quality of service and increase consumer engagement is to incorporate consumer participation in the development, delivery and evaluation of services.

“Building relationships between consumers and health service providers based on trust, respect and the sharing of power and knowledge is an essential foundation for engaging consumers and communities. Consumer participation in health involves a shift in the traditional roles of consumers and providers where knowledge and power are vested in the provider and the consumer is a passive recipient. Establishing better relationships between consumers and providers involves understanding each other’s perspectives, developing a shared understanding of the issues and joint involvement in decision-making. To be effective, these relationships need to be based on trust and mutual respect.”

(AIVL Policy Position Paper: Consumer Representation http://www.aivl.org.au/files/PPConsumerRepresentation.pdf )

Consumer participation in the delivery of harm reduction initiatives online

In a previous blog article  “Where the bloody hell are you? Social Media and Harm Reduction” , I pointed out that the early internet required a passive consumption of materials developed by experts.  With the advent of Web 2.0 (often referred to as the Read/Write Web), the opportunity exists for the dissemination of harm reduction information to be far more interactive, allowing us to include the voices of consumers in the development and delivery of harm reduction information to a much greater degree.

If consumer participation is important to face to face services, then it is absolutely critical to online harm reduction.   With the wealth of information available online and the balance of power more firmly rooted with the consumer (Consumers are far more likely to click on to the next website than they are to walk out of a face to face  assessment interview if they are dissatisfied) it important that we support the self determination and expertise that consumers bring to online environments.   The emergence of Web 2.0 technology greatly assists us to do this.  Alcohol and other drug organisations have been slow to do this however.  In a small experiment I examined the organisational websites of six alcohol and other drugs services located in Melbourne Australia, looking for website features the invited consumer participation.  The results are recorded in the table below:

Of the six websites examined:

  • 50% integrated their websites with popular social media sites such as Facebook or Twitter allowing a measure of interactivity
  • Only two sites allowed public commenting on articles/web pages contained within the website
  • None of the sites visited,  elicited consumer feedback through surveys or polls, or provided feedback to consumers about actions taken in response to consumer feedback.

Obviously with such a small sample size, I cannot state definitively that alcohol and other drug services are failing to incorporate consumer participation in their internet strategies, however it does indicate to me that the sector may need to engage in more work to address this issue.

Four strategies for encouraging consumer participation on your website

  1. Allow public comments to be visible on your website.  Not just the positive ones.  We live in an imperfect world and it is not credible that our service is going to get everything perfect.  Allow consumers to give you feedback through comments and respond to them quickly and publicly, letting your consumers know that their expertise is valued and acknowledged.
  2. Conduct polls and surveys to find out what your consumers want/need. Your consumers are the best source of knowledge about what information is needed, so regularly ask them how you could improve your services or what articles they would most like to see on your site.
  3. Publish feedback to consumers. It’s not enough to collect feedback from consumers.  They need to know that you have heard what they have had to say.  Where possible act on the feedback, where it is not possible to act, let your consumers know that you can’t and why.  Most of all be transparent about it where possible and publish your response publicly on your site.
  4. Integrate your website with popular social media. Popular social media such as Facebook and Twitter allows you to reach a much broader audience and is a two way path of communication.  Even if your current organisational website has very limited functionality in terms of feedback, you will still be able to communicate and collaborate with consumers via these sites.


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