Online discussion forums

Discussion forums provide an online space for stakeholders to discuss plans, give information, allow stakeholders to discuss ideas and opinions with each other and ensure stakeholders feel listened to. They work best when the organisation's staff can respond quickly to enquiries/requests for information and correct 'factual errors'. They are an opportunity for multi-direction conversations.

In this section:

Benefits of online discussion forums

Discussion forums:

  • allow for multilogue (many to many discussion)
  • can allow for ideation: the formation of ideas or concepts by a group of people
  • allow for ownership and creation of solutions.

Discussion forums work best:

  • with existing communities who already have a relationship with the discussion forum owner and with each other
  • in conjunction with opinion polls and questionnaires
  • great as an online continuation of workshops and other face to face tools.

What to consider when using online discussion forums

  • Resourcing – it won't look after itself.
  • Capture and reporting the participants' responses.
  • User login.

Setting up a discussion forum is fairly straight forward and there are a number of commercial organisations who will do it for you.

The following are some of the key things you will need to consider when using online discussion forums.

The information you provide

This needs to be complete and layered so that participants are able to take part in an informed discussion. Who will provide the information in plain language and any supporting video, maps, pictures?

Expert response providers

Who will you need to call on for expert advice and response to queries from participants? What kind of turn-around times are they willing to commit to? (hint 10 working days will not cut it).

Should you require your users to login?

Mandatory creation of a user account with user name and password and associated email address means that at least contact can be made with anyone misusing the discussion forum. It also makes it possible to feedback to discussion forum users with a summary of comments and eventual results which is the ideal for good engagement practice.

However, requiring users to login can be a barrier to participation. You will need to weigh up the pros and cons of requiring user registration.

At this point you may wish to consider what identifiers you want, for example do you want to limit use to Authenticated Users only. The downside of making user accounts mandatory is that the more you insist on users identifying themselves, the more likely that users may be suspicious about how their information will be used, particularly if the topic is contentious. On the other hand you may want to limit comments on a contentious topic to those who are prepared to be identified – as that does tend to contain the more bizarre comment. On the other hand you may wish to make sure you get comment from as wide a range of people as possible in which case the fewer barriers or steps in the process the more likely you are to allow 'anyone' to comment on the forum.

Capture and reporting the participants' views

Considering how the information collected will be recorded and reported, and how that information will be used to influence the final decision, is vital at the start. Ease of use of the 'backend' of any system needs to be thought about and planned for. Many commercial organisations will allow the client to download input as a CSV file in Excel which makes it simple to collate and analyse in Excel or import into another programme.


The resource needed will depend partly on the mode of moderation you choose and partly on the volume of comment. If participant input is to be encouraged then responsive moderating is key.

Moderation is necessary to:

  • make sure the debate remains focused and on track
  • remove or stop publication of salacious, insulting, personal or profane comments
  • respond to technical or factual queries.

Pre-moderation means that all comments are approved by the forum owner before the posts are able to be viewed in the forum.
Post moderation means that the participants post directly into the forum with no delays, but the forum owner reserves the right to take a post down under certain conditions.
There are advantages and disadvantages to pre and post moderation.

Pre-moderation advantages and disadvantages
Advantages Disadvantages
Only posts in accordance with the moderation policy will be published Delay in posts appearing (may annoy participants and they will stop participating)
Constant moderation required to avoid delays – therefore more resource intensive
Queries can be responded to at the same time as they are made public
Corrections to factual inaccuracy can be made at the same time as the posts appear on the forum
Delays in post appearing can restrict free flow of ideas and conversation Appearance of control does not enhance trust
Post-moderation advantages and disadvantages
Advantages Disadvantages
Clear commitment to encourage robust debate from forum owner Less frequent moderation necessary and hence less resource needed Risk of spam, trolling and unsuitable comments appearing.
More free flowing discussion as response to each other can be immediate (almost like a webinar) and more productive. Forum owner can watch the development of the discussion and multi directional exchange of ideas and opinions.

Moderators can be resourced these from within your agency or you can choose to purchase moderating services from a number of discussion forum suppliers. It is worth considering that the majority of traffic on public discussion forums generally takes place from 8pm until 1am on weekdays and often on Sundays.

When thinking about how you will moderate your online forum consider how you will acknowledge people’s input. See the section on being responsive, demonstrate you’re listening.

Risk Management

There are a number of risks commonly associated with the use of online communications. The table below details the most common recognised risks and makes some suggestions for managing these. The Office of the Auditor Generals' report on social media use by public entities has some very useful commentary and case studies that may be useful in this context.

Risk Description Suggested mitigation Mishap recovery
Spamming or spam (Not canned meat) Here's the definition from Wikipedia:Spam is most often considered to be electronic junk mail or junk newsgroup postings. Some people define spam even more generally as any unsolicited email.
It can also be one person or group posting the same or similar messages again and again with the intention of taking over the forum, drowning out the other voices.
Make sure this is covered in the terms and conditions.
Keep up moderating late at night and in early hours of morning when spammers most often hit.
Block the sender from posting and explain why and what has been done to both the original user and the community.
Trolling or troll (not a cast member of Lord of the Rings) A troll is a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people by posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community. Usually with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion. Media attention in recent years has equated trolling with online harassment Make sure this is covered in the Terms and Conditions. Remove troll posts quickly, give the participant the opportunity to repost more appropriately and warn the poster of your policy (three strikes is a common standard) Follow this link to see the social media guidance webtoolkit advice.

Example conditions of use statement

[Organisation's name] reserves the right to remove contributions and followers on its discussion forum (social media pages) that break the rules stated below. Messages and images on this discussion forum must always be polite, appropriate and relevant.

Users of this discussion forum must never:

  • swear
  • post messages or images that are unlawful, libellous, harassing, defamatory, abusive, threatening, harmful, obscene, profane, sexually oriented or racially offensive
  • post photos or videos of people without their prior consent
  • post protected content copied from elsewhere
  • post the same message, or very similar messages, more than once ('spamming')
  • publicise personal information or contact details
  • advertise products or services
  • impersonate someone else.

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