Building Citizen-based Electronic Democracy Efforts – By Steven Clift – 1997

Building Citizen-based Electronic Democracy Efforts


This paper was presented to the Internet and Politics: The Modernization of Democracy Through the Electronic Media conference sponsored by the Academy of the Third Millennium in Munich, Germany on Feb. 19-21, 1997.

The Power Point slides from this presentation are available: Building Citizen-based E-Democracy Efforts – HTML/JPEG Version or Text Slides or the actual Power Point file for Windows for downloading – be sure to save as.

By Steven L. Clift

Copyright 1997, Steven Clift – Non-commercial use of this document is encouraged. It may be photocopied and distributed or linked to for such purposes. Publication or electronic reproduction for public dissemination or general commercial use requires permission of the author.

Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • Organization and Mission
    • Leaders
    • Mission and Outline
    • Geographic Audience Focus
    • Neutral on Positions
    • Core Volunteer Group
    • Focus and Expectations
  • Information Infrastructure
    • Donated Infrastructure and Collaboration
    • Electronic Conferencing for Core Group
    • Announcement E-mail Distribution List
    • World-Wide-Web Site
    • Citizens’ Open Discussion Forum
      • E-mail Lists
      • Newsgroups
      • WWW Conferencing
      • Minnesota E-Democracy’s Implementation
    • Public Access Points
  • Participants
    • Building Audience One Person at a Time
    • Attract People with a Mix of Experience, Backgrounds and Opinions
    • Develop a Media Strategy
  • Conclusion
  • Recommended Further Reading and WWW Sites

Introduction

Over the last century we have witnessed a revolution in communications that has moved much of the public discourse and agenda-setting from the individual and community level to the mass level. As communication technologies and their use by people continues to evolve there are indications that this trend is now reversing with some notable globalization exceptions. With computer-meditated communications, people are reclaiming their communications power from mass institutions. This paper is a concise guide geared toward those who want to build citizen-based efforts that work to ensure that this shift toward many-to-many communication increases the capacity for citizen participation in democracy.

Just as individuals are using the Internet for their own personal interests, so to are traditional political, government, media, and other organizations. Most existing organizations will determine how to use the Internet and electronic communications to represent and further their own interests. Organizations that do not do so within the next few years may not exist a decade from now.

If most of the interests in society “get online,” does that mean that democracy will be improved? Will this by default improve citizen participation, public discourse and public problem-solving? In my general opinion, the answer is no, but it doesn’t have to be.

I work from the premise that technology is essentially neutral, but that strategic and organized use of information technology and networks by citizen-based efforts will make an important contribution to improved democracy at many levels. As a start, information networks hold the potential to raise awareness about elections and candidate positions, but the ultimate benefit will be a more democratic society. A society where more people are able to hear and listen to each other, have a public voice in agenda setting, and have an increased ability to contribute toward the resolution of public problems.

Citizen-based electronic democracy is about creating the online public spaces for interaction among citizens and organized interests (that are for the most part only focused on using electronic communication to further their own goals.) In a simple sense, we are creating an open and on-going town hall meeting where ideas, agendas, personalities, interests, and beliefs may mix dynamically. We are creating an arena for public expression, development of opinion, and accountability.

This paper presents a concise outline of steps one must take in the establishment and carrying out of a citizen-based online citizen participation project primarily from the Minnesota E-Democracy experience. In traditional terms, the is about creating an online combination of a debate society, voter participation organization, and a public policy group (that all happen to be meeting in the same corner coffee shop at the same time.) The three main sections of the paper are Organization and Mission, Information Infrastructure, and Participation. Much of what is covered will come across as “Organizing 101.” These lessons will help move us from individuals with heady goals toward a global association of individuals and organizations dedicated to building online citizen participation in our own communities, regions, and nations.


Organization and Mission

1. Leaders – An effort to establish a citizen-based organization requires leadership. In the few places around the world where citizen to citizen online political participation efforts have been established or are under development, someone took the initiative to publicly propose the idea. They found people who were interested and made the personal and public commitment to take the public interest and make the idea a reality. The first step is to determine if you are going to be the person to offer leadership where you would like to see a project established. If yes, then think about your strengths and your limits and then seek help by finding others who are interested. Perhaps your role as a leader is to simply propose the idea and gather those interested. If you don’t see yourself as a leader, then be ready to offer your help as an active volunteer once someone else publicly proposes an effort (but why wait?).

2. Mission and Outline – Develop a clear and concise mission. This mission should lead off a document with a more detailed outline of the project’s ideas, plans, and needs. The outline can then be used to build a base of public interest and awareness through wide distribution. The mission and outline will help develop the needed volunteer base and help others determine what they might bring to the project. Depending upon the reaction and number of interested individuals the effort should be flexible enough to revisit and improve the mission if needed to gain broader consensus and support. Also, while funding might help a project get started, most projects will be started with in-kind donations and support.

3. Geographic Audience Focus – Defining the geographic audience from the start is essential. While the Internet is often referred to as a “global community,” a project geared toward promoting citizen participation in “real” politics needs a geographic focus to become relevant to a broader cross-section of the population. Think of it as the “glocalization” of the Internet. Further, while the culture of a region does vary from place to place, the larger the population and area covered, the more difficult it is to build a sense of place and accountability. The ability to have online discussion participants meet for in-person events and the realization of publicness versus the (false) sense anonymity on global forums can help ensure a more relevant and civil exchange. From neighborhoods and townships to cities and regions to states and provinces to nations and international regions, the potential for projects exists. Over the next decade blocks of more local efforts will become the foundation for regional or national efforts, in other cases national or state-wide efforts will lead to local efforts.

4. Neutral on Positions – Key to a successful project is the broad participation of many individuals and organizations. a citizen-based effort requires a non-partisan approach and no formal political positions should be taken by the effort’s oversight structure. The main purpose of a citizen-based effort is to bring people together with diverse opinions and backgrounds for electronic interaction and discussion of public issues deemed to be important by the participants. Thousands of political, media, government and commercial organizations are now online. Our challenge is to create public spaces where they can interact. The disappointing application of the Internet in politics thus far has been the lack of adaption toward interactive communication among different organized interests. Current use has been focused on traditional message control and prompting of protest from their supporters to various level of representative government or general advocacy/candidate support. While there is nothing inherently wrong with using information technology to put pressure on elective representative bodies, if that is all we use advanced technology for we will simply freeze the process without prompting new avenues for public consensus development.

5. Core Volunteer Group – a core group of 5 to 15 volunteers, depending upon the scope and scale of activities, is all one needs to begin implementing a project. Minnesota E-Democracy, the project I launched in the summer of 1994, currently has around 8 dedicated volunteers with fairly well defined roles and responsibilities. Ensuring that volunteers receive public credit and thanks for their work is very important. Also, in some cases an effort like this might be led by a committee or sub-group of a community network. Involving people active from a mix of political parties, public policy organizations, government, media, non-profits and business sector in the core group will help ensure unbiased project development and increase its credibility. It is important to point out that the Minnesota experience shows the value of formal and informal connection to a variety of groups. As a citizen organization you will have more flexibility than larger institutions. However, you will not always have the resources of an newspaper or established public policy organization for example. If a mix of organizations can take the lead on a project activity as a part of your broader effort it should be seriously considered. I am currently of the opinion that in the end, comprehensive efforts like this require the establishment of new institutions that are “of the Internet” and not simply reconfigured or sub-projects of efforts born of other communication technologies. 

6. Focus and Expectations – Keep the project focused on the agreed upon mission and project outline. Never over-hype the project – raised expectations will never be met. Based on the understanding that the technology for online citizen participation exists, the human implementation and use will take years, one should stretch expectations over the long-term. Only expand your efforts in areas where you have the volunteer support to maintain those efforts. Scan the online efforts of other groups in the target area and highlight their good work from your World-Wide-Web service. This will help bring these groups into your efforts and promote “links” back to your online efforts. Starting “small” with election information and discussions and moving into general citizen participation and public issue discussions has worked well for the Minnesota project. Elections provide a deadline for activity and help a project develop a sense of action and accomplishment.


Information Infrastructure

1. Donated Infrastructure and Collaboration – Work with community networks, educational networks, commercial online services (both content and Internet service providers), and others to develop the technical information infrastructure you need. Minnesota E-Democracy has its WWW pages on the community network called the Twin Cities Free-Net and its major public e-mail list, MN-POLITICS, is hosted by the non-profit, but commercial, Minnesota Regional Network. By clearly identifying your information infrastructure needs you will encourage a bit of “collaborative competition” among groups interested in supporting your effort. Minnesota E-Democracy has received its basic information infrastructure on an in-kind donation basis (for the most part our volunteers are responsible for general infrastructure administration – WWW pages, e-mail list administration, etc.). Now that we have started fundraising from foundations, we are contributing toward the community network for their excellent support. In the fall of 1996 we received WWW support in a crunch from Minnesota Regional Network that allowed us to “virtual host” with the permanent WWW address of: http://www.e-democracy.org – Virtual hosting is important because it allows you to move your WWW site if needed. 

2. E-Mail and WWW Conferencing for the Core Group – The core volunteer group should be connected through a small working group e-mail address. This helps make our in person meetings much more effective and efficient. When anyone sends e-mail to our “e-democracy@freenet.msp.mn.us” address it actually sends a message to our board members. This allows the group to share in responding to questions and suggestions from others. It is primarily used as an internal project communication tool. The core group should also consider using newer WWW-based conferencing tools for organization and volunteer activities. 

3. Announcement E-mail Distribution List – E-mail lists (listservs) are the “heartbeat” of the Minnesota E-Democracy effort. It is essential that a project have a one-way, low volume announcement list that interested people may subscribe their e-mail address to. The “MN-DEMOCRACY” list has over 1000 subscribers. This is a powerful tool for communication of important project updates and solicitation of new volunteers and content needed for the WWW site. Be sure to heavily promote subscriptions to this kind of list from your WWW site and in print materials. 

4. World-Wide-Web Site – The primary place people who are online will discover your project is through the WWW. Your site should be well organized and kept up-to-date. Do not disappoint your audience by placing “under construction” signs everywhere. Use the WWW to provide access to the descriptions, subscription processes, and archives of your public e-mail lists. Use the WWW to present “community content” developed by volunteers. a number of your pages will be directory pages that point to other sites and information resources within your citizen participation, politics, and elections focus. Do this well and your site will generate increased traffic. Your project should be accessible to as many people as possible; therefore it is advised that you use standard HTML (3.2 or lower) for formatting your documents. This will help ensure access for the disabled and through text-only browsers like Lynx that many library systems use. While your “image” and use of graphics is important, use them carefully and be sensitive to the download time of users. 

5. “Citizens’ Open Discussion Forum” – Electronic conferencing among participants in interactive forum(s) is very important. This ensures that your project moves from the publishing/broadcast mentality to one that builds online public spaces whose sense of ownership can be assumed by participants. There are three main Internet-based conferencing systems that allow for ongoing discussion – e-mail lists, newgroups, and WWW-based conferencing. Another system not described here, but worth exploring for special events, like a guest speaker in real time, is chat. Ultimately the user should be able to choose the platform they are most comfortable with, but practical differences in technological implementation lead to different interactive characteristics. Some general comments and reflections are below. 

E-mail Lists – An e-mail list allows people to subscribe their e-mail address to a list server which then forwards them e-mail sent to a single e-mail address. Lists typically have descriptions or charters which limit the scope of discussions and some lists are moderated. They tend to work fairly well when well defined and guided, but have limitation when the membership rises over a certain point. (From my experience, open discussion lists with over 1000 (perhaps even 500) people tend to generate a volume of postings that drive people away or are difficult to manage from a technical perspective.) E-mail lists require the most commitment of participants and are “active” in that once you join a list you have to make the decision to unsubscribe in order to leave that “online public space.” 

Newsgroups – Newsgroups are the backbone for global topical discussions and information exchange that work through a distributed server system. Newsgroups also exist at national and more local levels. It has been estimated that the per message distribution scale of news makes it the most technically efficient mechanism in terms of network traffic. There are more state and provincial level newsgroups on politics than there are e-mail lists, however, they tend to not be sponsored or promoted in the way that e-mail lists are. It is also less likely that rules and guidelines on posting volumes (unless the group is moderated, which takes extensive volunteer time of a person) exist or would be viewed as acceptable. The GovNews effort (http://www.govnews.org) effort may offer newsgroup space for local electronic democracy efforts and organizers to meet. Newsgroups, like WWW-conferencing require a user to go to a conference. Then is a sense newsgroups are “passive,” while the user must be active. Noting that e-mail is the most used online tool, moving strictly to newsgroups would limit your audience. From an organizers perspective “making the sell” once is a lot easier than having to do it every time someone decides to go online. One alternative is to gateway your e-mail lists to newsgroups, but make sure that your rules are available to newsgroup readers who are generally not used to posting limits. Also, the desire to create scores of topical or geographical based “community” or more generalist online discussion spaces will find the economics of news much more to their liking than e-mail lists. Overtime with gatewaying software, hybrid possibilities should be explored. 

WWW-Conferencing – The WWW for conferencing is gaining in popularity and dozens of political WWW conferences have emerged at the national and state level. Like newsgroups they offer the reader the ability to access the “discussion thread” of their choice and allow the creation of highly topical discussions with smaller and likely more interested audiences. WWW-conferencing is still in its beginning phases, but the various competing proprietary systems are making rapid improvements. These systems may offer great tools for organizational development and volunteer activities. It may also become the preferred platform for special online events that are organized by citizen-based efforts. The challenge with this form of conferencing is building and keeping audience and commitment of participants to return to a WWW conference. If the commitment is already there, this might be an excellent platform. However, it must be noted that WWW-conferencing requires a continuous connection to the Internet while e-mail and newsgroups allow the person to download messages and read and compose responses off-line. 

Minnesota E-Democracy’s Implementation – This project is the most experienced in the use of e-mail lists and is biased in that direction. The “MN-POLITICS” e-mail forum has been the heartbeat of the Minnesota E-Democracy process and has around 400 direct e-mail subscribers. It is the largest state-level politics e-mail list in the United States and averages close to 10 postings a day. Subscribers have the options of receiving messages individually (the default) or through a digested version of the posting sen periodically in one large indexed message. All the postings dating back to the start of the list in August 1994 are archived on the WWW.

It is important that a forum of this nature have a well developed charter and that rules and guidelines be developed over time to ensure that this unmoderated “public space” is of ever increasing value to most of the participants. Having a “list manager” or other project volunteers step in from time to time to guide the discussion back to the forum’s focus is very important. The first two or three months of a list is the most crucial time frame to establish a pattern of successful public conferencing. Our two messages per person per day rule helps keep anyone person from dominating the discussion. It does not censor what someone can say, just how often they can say it. This also helps ensure time for discussions that involve more people before they are taken too far or “into the ground.” In terms of mixing discussion with tips on “hard” information resources, it is also helpful to develop a set of volunteer WWW “hunters” who look for interesting content and WWW site references for distribution on the list.

E-mail forums require commitment and so does civic participation! By subscribing to an e-mail list you are essentially saying, “Come into my home. I am interested in hearing what you have to say.” With a good charter and list guidelines subscribers do have the right to say, however, “I’d rather you not wipe your dirty feet all over my carpets and I am sorry but parts of my house are off-limits.”

In the fall of 1996, through the work of our E-Debate Coordinator, Scott Aikens, we reengaged our MN-DEBATE e-mail list for our second, and the only, U.S. Senate candidate e-mail based debate. In 1994 we held online debates for both the Governor and U.S. Senate candidates. In a sense we created an online stage and structure for a week long debate on three questions with designated rebuttal periods. The debate content was fed into MN-POLITICS for public reaction as well as distributed to a number of high profile media-based online efforts in Minnesota as part of the Minnesota Town Hall 1996 effort. The debate feed was then threaded into a number of different WWW conferencing systems. Over the last year, Minnesota E-Democracy has floated a proposal for another list called MN-FORUM which would create an similar structure to MN-DEBATE, but likely be issue based for “organized online moments.” Depending upon resources and volunteer capacity this forum may be launched in the next year.

Some important references for more details on these topics include:

6. Public Access Points – “Electronic Democracy” will forever be elitist without some capacity for people without computers or home Internet connections to participate. This paper argues for leveraging of the necessary information infrastructure from various organizations. Along these lines working with libraries, schools, colleges, cafes, and other current or potential public locations of Internet public access points is an important extension. The online content efforts of the commercial and government sectors have a tremendous interest in promoting public access for their own reasons. Work to ensure that your effort is one of the reasons why such access points gain community support (for the most part free to use Internet public access points require public monies to exist.)


Participants

1. Building Audience One Person at a Time – People will be brought into your efforts, either as volunteers or participants in your forums, one person at a time. There is no short-cut to broad participation, so focus on creating a valuable experience for those you are able to bring in the project. The one-way announcement e-mail list will help with the development of an audience of “civic-minded” individuals and organizations. Many of the people who are interested in your project will be new to the Internet and you don’t want to overwhelm them right away with a flood of messages. It is much more likely that an elected official would appreciate project updates, but initially only a few will take the time to follow the open forum discussions. Overall, be strategic and use “traditional” means of outreach to involve key people, organizations, targeted populations, and the general public. 

2. Attract People with a Mix of Experience, Backgrounds, and Opinions – The key to Minnesota E-Democracy’s early success was that it involved people with a diverse mix of skills and experiences. We had people with political, academic, organizational, non-profit, public policy, business, and technical backgrounds involved from the start. The project outline identified a set of needs that no one person could ever hold – so when we attracted a good mix of people who were willing to commit time to the project we were able to move forward without wearing out any one volunteer. 

3. Develop a Media Strategy – My own quote is that the “Internet has 5 million channels and everything is on.” Build it and they will never come unless you tell them where it is. Currently, the traditional media is the best way to let a population in a specific area know about the project. So write and strategically distribute press releases, collect media e-mail addresses and encourage them to join your announcement e-mail list. When dealing with the media, encourage publication of your general e-mail address, subscription information for the announcement list, the project’s WWW address, and the general open forum’s subscription information. In general under-hype, yes under-hype your project. Letting the reporter decide that your project is newsworthy or some how noble is much better than telling them that it is. In general don’t claim that “citizen-based electronic democracy” is representative or some form of self-selected direct democracy. Instead talk about how you are working to something positive to encourage more purposeful use of the Internet now that more people are going online.

In the end, the real success might be measured in how people begin using the global Internet to come home to their neighborhood or actually getting people out to public meetings (this has happened a number of times on MN-POLITICS where people have reported on meetings they attended). As more and more members of the media have joined our lists to follow our discussions, it has become clear that we have created a new public opinion sphere that has led to a number of topical stories in the traditional media. This has given a number of participants the opportunity to be quoted in the paper or interviewed on the radio. 

Conclusion

This is about real democracy. “Electronic democracy” is not some notion of a future state of affairs, it is simply today’s democracy with an infusion of people using information networks and technology to assist their participation in “democracy.” Information technology is changing our current form of democracy. Will is be for th better? We don’t know. Without the development of online “citizen participation centers” across the world, I think the primary direction will be negative. We know that established interests and organizations will use information technology to further their interests. That is how democracy works. But without an open “public space” online, these interest’s use of technology will simply raise the level of noise and conflict in out traditional political institutions and media. With a well established, neutral, online public space perhaps these interests will enter a circle of accountability and public awareness that will enable everyday citizens to become real part of broad public discussions and hopefully part of future solutions.


Recommended Further Reading and WWW Sites