Defining sense of community for public value creation in online public engagement
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The potential of Web 2.0 technology to enable online public participation between government and the public has long held promise for governments, civic society and researchers. Public administrations have sought the opinions of the public, wishing to emulate the successes of other areas such as eCommerce and online communities including social media. However, the use of technology in online public participation has not lived up to expectations, online public participation being a complex undertaking due to the unique relationship between government and the public. Within the expectations of the public, online public participation holds the prospect of openness and collaboration. In this context, the lack of responsiveness by government to public feedback undermines Web 2.0 participation values. Little empirical evidence exists on how to conduct successful online interaction between government and the public. In response, the challenge for this study was to look beyond public participation to engagement between staff and public stakeholders. Two research questions were addressed, the first sought to discover the components of successful online public engagement. Using the theory of Sense of Community (SoC), the relevance of the subconstructs sense of belonging, shared emotional connection, influence and needs fulfilment were identified. Two pilot studies examined public and staff users experience of online public interaction; followed by an extended period of observation and qualitative analysis of staff responses to public feedback. The findings from the qualitative analysis identified the importance of government responsiveness, the utility of positive socioemotional language as well as task oriented information sharing along with the perception of safe online space for participation in online public engagement for staff users. The second research question sought to discover the conditions for public value creation in online public engagement. Social processes of online public engagement were explored from the perceptions of both public and government staff, using a quantitative survey with 106 public and 262 staff participants. A unique finding of the study is that despite light participation, SoC was experienced by both staff and public users, this has implications for the design of future online public engagement platforms. The findings highlight the value of high quality government responsiveness using positive social language and provides theoretical support and empirical evidence of a process oriented government responsiveness in online public engagement. Important conditions for public value creation for both staff and public users were found. These include SoC and a new scale of Interaction governance which were empirically validated in online public engagement. Interaction governance describes the management of Web 2.0 technology for online public engagement. As antecedents of SoC in this domain, the importance of Identity sharing and Moderation for staff users and a new understanding of the role of Moderation for public users were identified as pre-conditions for online participation. SoC was used to measure individual user’s cognitive perception of participation and the social and fairness elements of online interaction. The extent that public value was created was informed through analysis of the relationships between Interaction governance, SoC and public values. Well informedness enabled by social interactivity was identified as a key motivating factor for staff use of online public engagement. For staff users all constructs in the model contributed to Trustworthiness, it was found to be the most complex public value for staff users. For public users, the most important element of online public engagement was Trustworthiness. Although their experience of Efficacy was complex and consisted of both social interaction and the perception of the fairness of the online public engagement process. SoC and public value intersect in the concept of shared value and the findings demonstrate how this underpins social process in online public engagement.
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