Category Archives: Speeches

Inclusive Community Engagement Online, Neighbors Online secured a major three year grant from the Knight Foundation. The Inclusive Community Engagement Online project will run at least through the end of 2014.

I am remain available for paid public speaking directly.

Further also provides consulting services and is developing its network of online communities of practices likely of interest to visitors on this site.

If you to view more recent presentations, see my slides from speaking trips to Libya and Kenya as well as these Neighbors Online slides. Go in-depth with the Neighbors Online screencast.

Also note my Episodes of Experience slides for my “lessons” by year from the graduate course I taught at the Humphrey School.

Using Technology for Community Building – Presentation by Steven Clift – 2010

Cross-posted at

I had the honor of being a “virtual” guest of Grassroots Grantmakers recently.

Listen and watch the presentation. Or click through the slides-only further below. The audio alone is available in MP3 format (~90 minutes).

If you are involved in local community building online or want to use these approaches and tools in your neighborhood, be sure to join your peers on our new Locals Online community of practice.

Click the word “Vimeo” to watch a larger version or the four arrows icon to go full screen.

And the slides without audio:

High Tech Meets High Touch: Using New Technology for Community Building (Webinar)
Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Grassroots grantmaking is high-touch work in an increasing high-tech world. We have seen what happens when citizen leaders get together in the same room for peer learning or dialogue on issues. What new possibilities are opening up to further connect residents within and across neighborhoods using new technology? What is happening under the radar today and how can we make it more inclusive and benefit all communities?

Join us to talk with Steven Clift, Executive Director of, the cutting-edge national organization working on this question. For some background now, see: and

Government 2.0 Meets Everyday Citizens and Democracy – Speech to Council of Europe – By Steven Clift – 2008

This article is based on a speech given by Steven Clift with E-Democracy.Org to the Council of Europe’s Forum for the Future of Democracy

Listen to the speech in MP3 


FFD 2008 , Speech by Steven Clift, Concluding plenary session

Government 2.0 Meets Everyday Citizens and Democracy

I started “”, a citizen project whilst working in government, so my perspective was government ‘by day’ and citizen ‘by night’. This dual approach is also taken by this conference with the participation of grass-root citizen activities through the NGOs and with the participation of government representatives promoting democracy in public life.

I have had a lot of dreams about how e-tools can be used not only to give people a voice, but also to really solve problems in communities and to make democracies vastly more engaging. But then my wife and I had a second child and I now experience what most people experience: a humongous time crunch.

E-tools offer the possibility for people to participate from anywhere, at anytime, in a personalised manner. Most traditional political participation at local level is based in buildings and in meetings which take place at specific times. Our modern lives mean that people do not have the time, or maybe the transport, or even the interest, to be as engaged as was required in years past. E-democracy does not aim to replace the town hall meeting or opportunities to be involved in person; nothing beats the power of looking someone in the eye or shaking hands. But ultimately, if democracy is not available to people on their own terms, it will not exist in the long term.

After almost 15 years involvement in e-democracy I would conclude that representative democracy is not adapting. We have early adapters here and experimenters there, but this is a 5% crowd. The focus of our reflections should be on how to involve and include the other 95%.

One of the problems is that Facebook, MySpace and other social networks primarly serve to publicise private life. There is a big difference between publicising private life and having representative democracy online or creating public life amongst people who live near one another.

There are online newspapers and blogs and other information sites which are a form of political engagement. However, these sometimes bring out the worst in us and e-democracy is needed to counter the negative things that are happening on the Internet in the political sphere. E-campaigning, for example, is often about organising people to gain power, money and influence and it can be in conflict with other elements in society.

In the United States there are a few things that we are good at on the Internet and in politics; we are good at making noise through online advocacy, raising money and e-campaigning. However, we have a lot to learn from Europe in terms of e-consultation and e-participation because we tend not to focus on this in between elections.

Ultimately, it is a negative approach to politics if citizens remain limited to the use of electronic tools to politically arm themselves and to fight for influence and power, or if they simply remain hidden behind a disempowering anonymous cloak with online news and blog comments.

Those of us who want to build democratic engagement need to create alternatives to this “default mode.” It is not good enough to say that the Internet is going to be a democratizing medium. We have to make things happen online in order to create a better democratic space. The challenge, as I suggested in my article “Sidewalks for Democracy Online”, is to build real public life online.

I would like to start from the premise that e-government to date is impoverishing democracy. When citizens go to a town hall, there is often a space at the entrance where people can gather or can talk to neighbours while waiting in line. There is perhaps a rack of newspapers, maybe a bulletin board and public meeting rooms. In contrast, when you are on an e-government website it is a singular experience: you cannot talk to the people next to you and say “this line is taking too long”, “we need a new mayor” or “I agree, let’s work together to improve our community”.

In many cases, the number one interface for citizens with the government is now the Internet and I estimate that each day there are more citizens on the city’s website than actually physically go to the town hall. So where are the public spaces? Where are the online consultations? Where are the e-petitions? Where are these aspects of the interactive web in the public authority context?

When I was responsible for the State government portal in Minnesota I realised that e-government is being framed in terms of efficiency, security and transactions. All this is the opposite of democracy which requires openness, transparency and risk-taking.

We need to communicate better with the people who build e-government. Our governments need to ensure that those people who are responsible for the democracy-building side of governance have access to the necessary online tools. E-democracy as a subset of e-government is having a very difficult time and we cannot wait for the e-government team to add those tools because their training and mindset is based on a very different framework.

In most cases, the blogosphere is merely democratising punditry. Previously there were 300 regular guests on 24-hour television news talk shows; today there are a further 3000 bloggers who are essentially trying to get onto television news talk shows. When you bring that model to the local level, it is actually more divisive than the town hall meeting room and the face-to-face type of activity that it may be replacing. I think it is important to understand that what may be good at national level may not be the model we would like to promote in our local communities.

We need to make the Internet a democracy network “by nature.” This is difficult to address because democracy is fundamentally based on geography unlike the Internet. We content on the Internet to be more geographically-based or “tagged.” Technically speaking there are a lot of so-called content management systems, i.e. people producing web pages, but there is no standard way to describe the place that such content is associated with.

In reality, governments, as well as many media sites and place-specific blogs, are generating geographically specific information. However, it is not easy to aggregate that “what’s new” information and this is a crucial. If you are a local official and you have heard about these blogs, are you going to pay any attention to the public-sphere online if you have no idea whether they are your constituents or not? No. However, if content on the Internet becomes more geographically navigable, public officials will pay more attention to their citizens out there across the Web 2.0 environment.

It is important to think more about how governments and others invest in the online world and find ways to make geography a stronger factor. This will make our democracy-building that much easier further down the line. We need to make democratic building blocks an integral part of the Internet rather than something we add on later at a much greater cost. Ultimately, place matters.

Most people when they go online think about going out to the world. But those of us who are building e-democracy need to think in terms of coming home online. The time people spend going out to public meetings is decreasing and if most people’s experience online only relates to going into the world or to private life activities, and not to public life activities, there will inevitably be a decline in democratic public life.

We also need to think about infrastructure, for example why are there are no white pages on the Internet. If my bicycle was stolen I would have previously had to go door to door to my neighbors to collect email addresses to be able to send out a simple note saying “did anyone see anything?” Obviously, you do not want your email address out there for everyone to access, but a site where the twenty-five closest neighbors could see each other’s email addresses would be good. There is the issue of identity and security, but perhaps there is a way to enable people who live with one another to opt into such communication. The fact that there are no white pages means that people have not been thinking about local community when it comes to Internet infrastructure.

It is important to make democracy more efficient for both decision-makers and citizens. But we must not forget that e-democracy is not really about numbers or speed, but about making better decisions and building trust in different types of outcomes. Numbers and speed do not justify investing resources in e-democracy, there must also be more effective outcomes.

We need to look closer at the inconsistencies between public authorities who are trying to attract people to their web sites for interaction, consultations and so on and what citizens are doing in the public sphere. It is important to take this a step further and think about how governments, particularly civil servants, could see reaching out to citizens as an integral part of their job. For example, on a health issue being discussed in a community, the health workers should be able to engage with people where they are online and correct erroneous online information about a flu bug spreading through the town, or provide a web-link to a health clinic. Waiting for people to come to a government website is outdated Government 1.0.

Moving on to regulatory issues and the rule of law, if we look back five years from now and ask for outcomes from this conference, I am going to be looking for Digital Democracy Acts. A number of national parliamentarians and local authorities suggest that if they had the resources they would be able to act on this issue. Indeed, it might be that national authorities are keen to mandate local governments to do things they do not wish to do themselves. But as our representatives, members of parliament have a duty to think about the most important aspects of e-democracy and their universality.

As an example, many public authorities have open meeting regulations which require meetings to be announced in the press, or perhaps on a physical bulletin board outside the building. Regulations should be modified to require such meetings to also be posted on the Internet. This could increase the number of local authorities and national ministries announcing meetings on their websites from half of them to all of them.

Electronic access to information is sometimes seen as an old issue, but the reality today is that citizens want rapid access to information through news alerts and web feeds (e.g. RSS). It is empowering if citizens can find out about a meeting or a news report or a new plan while there is still time to do something about it and react. Rapid information feeds are still very rare in government. If I would look for a quick fix or a quick investment that is technologically driven and does not require legislative change, I would suggest the creation of personalized e-mail notification tools combined with web feeds. (Feed only options will only be useful to less than 10% of Internet users, so don’t limit yourself to feeds.)

MySociety.Org, the UK-based e-democracy effort, does what I call “scrape and innovate”. What I mean by scrape is that they go to the Parliament’s website and take the data off, put it into a useful database format (e.g. XML) and then do really interesting things with it: they create a highly interactive interface to the Parliament. The Parliament itself does not do this, and maybe never will or even never should. But, because the data is available, third parties can innovate with it.

Indeed, one can go beyond “scrape”. In the USA there is a project led by the Sunlight Foundation called the “Open House Project”. It encourages governments to put more decision-making information online in raw format so that other web sites can take that information, organise it and add further interactive services. Such projects can make it easier for national and local media sites to be an access point into public meetings, public documents and decision-making processes. E-democracy should be everywhere, not just on government sites.

To judge the success of this conference, in five years let’s measure how many public authorities have at least one staff person, or even a staff team, whose job it is be to help led e-democracy in government and help the public interact with governance. Such online democracy representatives already exist in, for example, Estonia and Queensland, Australia. Lead civil servants and program funding to help ministries and others move into the e-democracy process and involve civil society is required. How do you foster groups like “MySociety.Org”? How do you find the resources? How do you involve groups like “Catch 21”, a non-partisan, impartial youth video project here at the conference?

As with television and radio 50 years ago, governments need to ask what Internet can offer that the market itself will not provide. We need to know what to invest in. This will not always be on governments’ terms because civil society activities, which may be more impartial than advocacy efforts, already have an incentive to use electronic tools but may also need support.

Regarding accountability and environmental monitoring, there is a growing trend by governments to put real-time data online, for example about pollution. The District of Columbia has real-time feeds of data which they are making available online. The information might include the number of parking tickets issued that day, police issues and service-related information. It can offer a pulse on how well the locality is delivering services to its citizens and that means accountability: accountability for companies and accountability for public authorities.

It is very important for public authorities to address e-inclusion and reach out to the socially excluded. My non-profit “E-Democracy.Org” undertakes a lot of volunteer activities – but there is a limit to that capacity. We have found that real resources are necessary to launch an online community neighborhood forum in a relatively deprived area. The challenge goes well beyond the capacities of volunteers. Hope doesn’t pay the bills.

Finally, I would like to ask how we can restore community bonds. This is a much broader concept than making government more democratic; it is about creating a democratic and inclusive society. It is about making sure that people have real access to each other in public life online. It also relates to the implementation of government programs not just input into policy making. Convening stakeholders online to help government implement their policy and mission – output – is a significant area of opportunity. Such interactivity could be used to help lower costs and engage stakeholders who are often already delivering public services in a different way.

I have addressed the role of civil society mentioning the example of “E-Democracy.Org” and what can happen if we really embrace the Web 2.0 environment. The focus needs to be on enabling public authorities and their decision-making information to enter the data stream and enter this network of networks. When this happens we have to let go a little and understand that people will misrepresent the information from time to time. But 95 % of the time they will not and the fact that the information is reaching so many more people makes e-governance worthwhile.

Citizens do not have a choice for every decision. I can’t pay taxes to another state for services because they have a better website. However, citizens are choosing everyday about how they use their online time. We are losing an access to people if they only go to the media and opinion sites because they think that there is nothing for them on a government or civil society website.

E-democracy in governance is not a choice, it is about the survival of the very democratic society we hold dear.

I would like to conclude with an invitation to continue this dialogue via a blog/e-newsletter I have been running since 1998 called “Democracies Online Newswire – DoWire.Org”. It connects 2,500 members around the world interested in e-democracy, including an special online community of practice for Europe and other regions. For those in civil society who are interested in “local up” approach I also invite you to connect with lessons from E-Democracy.Org’s growing neighbourhood Issues Forum network.

Citizens 2.0 Keynote Speech to IAP2 (International Association for Public Participation) – Text and Audio – By Steven Clift – 2006

Below is the draft text from my 20 minute keynote speech for the IAP2 conference in Montreal on Monday. I even have my practice audio version available. Notice the secret yet to be announced tidbit?

The speech:

Imagine that you are Annie Young, an elected member of the Minneapolis Park Board. As we say in the United States or at least in the White House, you’re a “Decider.”

You’ve just returned home from a Park Board meeting and you’re sitting in front of your computer at 10 p.m. and … where the Board voted to bring Dairy Queen, the first commercial chain, in to run the concessions at Lake Harriet Park – the crown jewel of local parks.

During the meeting you noticed that not many people were in attendance and no one from the daily newspaper was covering the meeting. Oh, and you are a Green Party member and you didn’t agree with the move.

So you fire up your e-mail and post a message to the hundreds of members on the Minneapolis Issues Forum. You share the facts about what was decided and you simply ask “What do people think?”

Bad ice cream.

Don’t commercialize our public spaces.

Hey you white liberals, let us have our soft serve.

If the city is losing money on concessions, why not?

The next day the conversation raged on. The Minneapolis StarTribune realizing that it missed a big story and splashes it in the front of the Metro section, quoting heavily from online participants.

We even discovered via the forum that the reporter with that beat requested to cover the meeting, but was denied by her editor. The sad fact is that media seems to have fewer and fewer resources for in-depth local coverage.

A couple weeks later, something dramatic happened. The Park Board reversed its decision in front of one of the most packed Board meetings in their history.

Where is the online forum for your local community?

A forum that brings together local citizens using their real names from across the political spectrum? A forum for active agenda-setting and facilitation and rules that promote a relatively civil ongoing exchange.

Can you log on from anywhere at any time to have your say locally in your town? A place where “of course” you expect the Mayor and most of the elected officials to be listening? Where “of course” discussions help form public opinion and jump to the mass media frequently?

Perhaps some of you can. Most citizens have no such option. You might have a couple anonymous local bloggers with axes to grind or forums on a local media websites where sports talk dominates.

Just like we now expect most local communities to have public parks or many communities to have Rotary or Lions Clubs, some day we will all, we must all come to expect local online public spaces that helps us not just have a voice but also to help us meet public challenges.

Our challenge is to build that public expectation.

The official title of my speech is Citizens 2.0.

(I’ve been told that IAP2 uses the term public, so I want to clarify that I use the term “citizen” in an empowering and inclusive “citizens of the world way.” To me citizens, even those without “legal citizenship,” own their governments and create power versus being served as customers or clients.)

But before I talk about Citizens 2.0, let me tell you a bit about Governance 2.0.

You might call me a bit confused.

I’ve been on two tracks since the early 1990’s. With other citizens, I founded E-Democracy.Org in 1994. We created the world’s first election-oriented website. When the election was over people kept talking in our forum.

I also worked in Minnesota state government and ran North Star, our state’s web portal.

Up until last month really, I have been government by day and citizen by night.

While I left Minnesota government in 1997, most of my consulting and public speaking was for governments around the world (25 countries now, and with Estonia in two weeks, 26). I’ve worked with governments seriously interested in using the Internet to gather input from citizens – as I say not to just collect taxes online but to also give citizens a say online about how those taxes should be spent.

Perhaps during the Plenary, I’ll be able to share some examples, but I’ve been tracking government e-participation projects and best practices as my “job” and then donating the rest of my time to E-Democracy.Org, E-Democracy.Org is the host of the Minneapolis Issues Forum and 3 other local forums in Minnesota and 3 in England thanks to an exciting pilot project. In fact, you can download for free our 60 page how-to guidebook from

Tomorrow everything changes.

I am heading to the Bay Area, the Google Campus specifically, where I will be inducted as an Ashoka Fellow. This three year social entrepreneurship fellowship will allow me to dedicate myself full-time to E-Democracy.Org.

So before I shift gears and move from holding the hand of government to giving it swift kick from time to time, let me share some of my honest lessons about attempts to foster public participation in Governance 2.0:

1. If the innovation disrupts power, it will not spread without a mandate. The best practices and democracy enhancing services must incorporated into the rule of law.

I’ve seen nothing that indicates that e-democracy techniques and tools adopted by the leading 5 percent of “progressive” governments will spread to others. Other than elections, the vast majority of the public will not have the right or ability to experience democracy in a meaningful way as our time and lives move more and more online. As a starting point, I want to amend open meeting laws to also require online notification of public meetings, electronic distribution of all handouts, and digital recordings of such meetings.

2. Timely access to legally public information is the most cost-effective and transformative e-democracy investment.

In this case, you don’t need to change laws, we simply need to adopt the technology that allows the public to receive personalized electronic notification of new information or events that interest them. Being told of a application for a liquor license in what was the coffee shop next door gives you the power to act while it still matters.

3. Central resources and policy development can prime the pump.

The $10 million Canadian Dollar UK Local E-Democracy National Project of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister that I consulted for recently is a great example. We simply can’t expect one government to subsidize other governments. Central resources for pilots, development, promotion, and research are essential. If your country doesn’t have a well funded e-democracy initiative serving the national or local level, the current generation in power simply isn’t serious about securing a representative democracy that will thrive or even survive the information age. On an international basis I recommend large scale open source efforts that adapt, build and share tools for e-democracy. Technology costs must be brought down and any investment leveraged for the benefit of democracy around the world.

4. Representatives are asleep. Their uniform complaint to me around the world is e-mail management – sorting, understanding, responding to, and tracking electronic communication.

Overall, our parliaments and city councils have approved billions for technology investments for government administration but very little that will help them connect with and better represent citizens. Representatives are ceding technology power and therefore political and communication power to the executive. We citizens gain our greatest voice in governance through our elected representatives. They must invest in e-democracy. As a Canadian parliamentary staff member said to me once, we have shifted from wait and see to anticipate and prepare. But he made it clear the MPs themselves need to lead and to ask for innovations like e-consultation options or “online committee rooms” before they will be provided. As I say to my one year old son – wakey wakey.

5. Finally, a number of countries with in-person policy consultation requirements, like Canada and Australia, have had a number of interesting e-consultation experiments and initiatives. We must learn from them.

E-consultations must more directly engage decision-makers to have an impact. I know this is a central theme in IAP2’s core values. I recommend people check out activities in South Korea where the Seoul Metropolitan government reports back to the online forums they host on actions taken related to discussions. Also check out the State of Queensland Australia for their state of the art shared platform for e-consultation. See the case studies on my Democracies Online website – I have a blog and e-mail newsletter on these topics there as well.

Do I have hope for Governance 2.0, for government-led efforts to engage the public in information-age democracy? Sure.

Now, I’d didn’t say “Sure, Sure.” Which is Minnesotan for “absolutely, you better believe it.”

I’ve come to conclusion that as citizens we will only experience the democracy we demand.

Citizens 2.0 is about creating that demand.

It is also about countering what I guess we can call Politics 2.0, where partisan “politics as usual” has figured out the Internet enough to tear us apart.

If you hang out in national political blogospheres (weird term I know), this democratized punditry, while empowering advocates, feels more like a virtual civil war over the mass media than a place where people have a say and engage one another to solve public problems.

Don’t get me wrong, I support online advocacy and the new speakers corner that blogs represent. But with our governments and representatives ill equipped to “e-listen,” civil society needs to fill void and create places and experiences online that allow people to learn from one another, build respect, influence agendas and over time impact decision-making, and most importantly meet public challenges.

So here is where we are, an empowered political class and disabled outmoded governance.

It doesn’t look pretty.

Imagine that you are being asked to build democracy, local democracy from scratch – that we’ve never had it.

Would you put at the center the requirement that you need to be at a certain place and a certain time to be most effective? Or would you build an anywhere, any time democracy?

I understand the power of face-to-face communication. However, our local communities are desperate for complementary forms of effective participation that are inclusive of people at work, who have children in the home, those unable to attend because of a disability or lack of transportation.

This is what Issues Forums and other e-democracy models offer – any time, anywhere participatory democracy. I am not talking about direct democracy or voting on everything from your couch. I am talking about building out the platform for everyday citizen participation that actively draws people out into the community. The Internet as the ultimate ice breaker to reconnect local communities so we can build capacity and trust.

So to conclude, here is my Citizens 2.0 draft plan – I invite you join me in crafting it:

1. Spread Issues Forums to more communities.

You can bring local citizens together from the center and reach out across the political spectrum to build Issues Forums for your local community (think of how Rotary or Lions Clubs started 100 years ago). We can technologically create top-down “virtual ghost town” forums for every place in the world in minutes – what good is that? These forums, while part of a network, must be locally built. With my Ashoka Fellowship and help from our dedicated volunteers, we invite you to join our class of 2007 for new forums with training and assistance.

2. Deepen activities within our existing communities including neighborhood forums and “citizen media” (We Media) style community blogs that operate from a neutral point of view – you have to check out Northfield.Org for a great example.

We also need to connect participants across our network for knowledge exchange. Put simply, active citizens need to be able to ask questions of other participants on challenges they seek to address. The other month our forum in Newham, England discussed improving glass recycling. Minneapolis is very successful with recycling. Imagine the solution generating power of a network of 100 local forums with 30,000 total participants where people opt-in to receive questions and provide answers on the local community topics that interest them most.

3. Build the demand for e-democracy in government and also, this is very important, the media.

We can empower the local government webmaster by asking for online features like e-mail notification or simple e-mail newsletters. As a former government web manager, outside requests empowered me to get higher ups to become more responsive. I mentioned the rule of law – you’ve all heard of FOI or Freedom of Information – what about IDR or Information Dissemination Requirements. We must create a new moment, new “must do” concepts, to save democracy from the information age. Our local initiatives can help foster this demand in a few places, we need to link up with others to create real demand in the capitols around the world.

4. Finally, while I don’t have time to share my top five list of what individual citizens can do, at last count it had 14 items, here is one small thing you can do to move e-democracy forward – send a personal e-mail to one of your elected officials and let them know that you appreciate the fact that they are willing to engage you electronically.

Ask them to place you on their e-mail announcement list for important updates. Perhaps mention a couple of issues that you’d like to be kept informed on in particular. While many elected officials, will say what e-mail list?, most of the wired elected officials I meet have such a behind the scenes e-lists. They tell me that they have some of their most fruitful exchanges when citizens press reply in response to their newsletter with new information or views they had not considered. While not publicly accessible like an Issues Forum, this is just one small action everyone here can take to build the demand for e-democracy and make Citizens 2.0 a reality.

We started with Annie Young, a elected official who can confidently reach out to the public online for substantial input and ended with what we as citizens can do to build democracy in the information age. Ultimately, each generation has the opportunity to use the new tools before them to make things a little bit better. Let us seize that opportunity.

Thank you.

Democratic Evolution or Virtual Civil War – Speech to World Summit on Information Society in Geneva – By Steven Clift – 2003

Democratic Evolution or Virtual Civil WarRemarks as prepared by Steven Clift for the Promise of E-Democracy WSIS Event, Geneva, Switzerland, December 2003

Event information from:
Event video from:
Watch my speech in Real Video

(Due to time constraints, I saved some of my prepared text below for the lively discussion.)

Join the revolution? 

I don’t believe the Internet is inherently democratic. To me, most people and organizations are fundamentally anti-democratic by nature. Many of those in power and those clamoring for power are self-centered actors. They operate within the miracle we call representative democracy. Most accept the idea that democracy is good, but these actors do little to ensure its strength. 

After a decade working directly with e-democracy issues, I’ve concluded that “politics as usual” online may be the tipping point that finishes off what television started – the extinction of democracy and democratic spirit. 

Those hoping for an almost accidental democratic transformation fostered by the information technology will watch in shock from the sidelines as their favorite new medium becomes the arsenal of virtual civil war – virtual civil wars among partisans at all levels. 

When I open e-mail from all sorts of American political parties and activist groups, I see conflict. I see unwillingness to compromise. 

Let’s be optimists and suggest that the Net is doubling the activist population from five percent to ten percent. The harsh reality is that we are doubling the virtual soldiers, an expendable slash and burn online force, available to established political interests.

As the excessive and bitter partisanship of the increased activist population leaks into the e-mail boxes of everyday people, I predict abhorrence of Net-era politics among the general citizenry. I fear the extreme erosion of public trust not just in government, but also in most things public and political.

Instead of encouraging networked citizen participation that improves the public results delivered in our democracies, left to its natural path, the Internet will be used to eliminate forms of constructive civic engagement by the other 90 percent of citizens. A 10 percent democracy of warring partisan is no democracy at all. 

Compounding the problem, the billions of Euros in e-government focus almost exclusively on one-way services and efficiency. Government makes it easy to pay your taxes online – while doing little to give you a virtual – anytime, anywhere – say in how those taxes are spent. Many elected officials are turning off their e-mail for citizens, leaving it on for lobbyists to reach their staff directly, and building what I call “Digital Berlin Walls” of complicated web forms. One-way “e-governments” based on efficiency to the exclusion of “two-way” democracy are the norm. Unfortunately, most governments are saying e-services first, democracy later.

In summary, online political strife combined with governments that are incapable of accommodating our public will present a dark future for democracy in the information age. 

Join the democratic evolution! 

Everything I’ve just said contrasts dramatically from the exceptional experiences of citizen groups and governments leading the way with the best e-democracy practices.

Everyday in Minnesota, I experience the power of online discourse among citizens. I am impressed by online innovations in many parliaments and government agencies. And I’ve been inspired by the online activism of many groups.

However, we have an enemy. It is not “politics as usual.” They must compete to survive. Our enemy is our indifference to our generational democratic obligations. We have a duty to make the most honorable use of the unique information age opportunities before us. 

We have a choice, we can strategically use ICTs to improve our communities, strengthen society, and address global challenges or we can ride the ICT-accelerated race to the post-democratic bottom.

It is time to give more than lip service to e-democracy experiments, research, and best practices.

It is time to bring the democratic intent and values required to make the demonstrated possibility of the new online medium a universal reality. 

Build the democratic evolution! 

To make what is possible probable, the time for action has arrived. 

The new media, led by the Internet, must be used to help us meet public challenges. It must be used to transform anti-democratic states and break apart hyper-partisan and unresponsive politics at all levels. We must be smarter, faster, and more committed than “politics as usual.” 

How? In the next decade, I ask you to join me in three specific campaigns.

1. The Rule of Law – Mandate the democratic evolution! 

By making exceptional and essential e-democracy best practices universal through the rule of law. 

We know most of what works, the technology exists, and great examples abound. Nothing optional in government will become universal or wide spread if it remains unfunded or a choice. 

Laws must be passed to require that:

A. By 2005 all public meeting notices with agendas and legally public meeting documents must be posted online not just on a cork board in some government office.  No electronic notice, no meeting.

B. By 2006 all representative and regulatory bodies must make all proposed legislation and amendments available online the second it is distributed as a public document to anyone. Once passed, no law, rule, regulation, and budget details not freely available online should be considered enforceable. No transparency … then no authority and no money.

C. Next, citizens have a right to be notified via e-mail about new government information based on their interests and where they live. Timely notification allows people to act politically when it still matters. Governments must fund and implement such systems. Maintaining garbage dumps of government data is choice against openness and accountability. Any government in a OECD country without an online personalization and notification system by mid-2006 will be added to my list of anti-e-democratic governments.

D. By 2007 citizens need access to complete, always up-to-date, local “MyDemocracy” directories of all their elected officials and government organizations. No contact data, no power. A global network of these standardized and networked databases will be a tool from which we can build 21st century democracy.

Remember, we must develop and pass laws that require these things to happen.  I see no short cut without resources and legal mandates from our elected officials.

2. Public Net-Work – Leverage the evolution! 

By building the online infrastructure to help citizens and their governments meet public challenges through a new concept I call “public net-work.”

If e-democracy is primarily about input into government decision-making, “Public Net-Work” is about stakeholder and citizen involvement in the implementation of established government priorities. Leading governments are moving from sole providers to facilitators of those who want to roll up their “virtual” sleeves and solve similar problems. Think e-volunteerism instead of e-consultation. 

The few Public Net-Work projects, like Community Builders New South Wales and the downtown community policing efforts in Minneapolis, use many of the same online tools we need for e-democracy. E-democracy technology investments are really a two for one opportunity – better input and effective output in the public interest.

3. Online Public Issue Forums – Localize the democratic evolution! 

We must establish two-way citizen-based e-democracy forums in every locality and connect them with one another on a national and global basis.

When I travel through a town, I always envision the community bonds among people and think about how the online world might help reconnect neighbors and communities.

In 1994, E-Democracy.Org built the world’s first election-oriented web site. More importantly we built an online forum where Minnesotans -from across the political spectrum- could discuss real public issues. We turned the once a year in-person town hall meeting into a 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year online civic event. 

In 1998 we took our model local. In Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Winona we use e-mail, the tool of choice among most people online, to facilitate many-to-many discussions. We build public space online that has agenda-setting power in real community. These forums work. They work well. I cannot imagine my local democracy without one. What about your local democracy? 

Citizens cannot wait for governments to build or fund these forums. By volunteering and working to pragmatically recruit the participation of elected officials, community leaders, and journalists they will attract diverse citizens and new voices rarely heard in traditional time and place discriminatory forms of democracy. 

On the other hand, governments, media organizations, and civil society groups cannot wait for spontaneous citizen-led e-democracy activity. They need to join together and foster new local democratic institutions “of” the Internet and not just “on” the Internet. Like the creation of public broadcasting by past generations, something new must be created for the public benefit based on the democratic opportunity presented by new technologies. 

Whether started by unaffiliated citizens or fostered by those on the inside who see the big e- democracy picture, an option you can take home is the opportunity to establish a local E-Democracy.Org chapter with an effective online forum “of, for and by” your community.

Long Live The Evolution! 

What is possible with e-democracy is not probable unless we make it happen. Our opportunity to use these tools to raise the voice of citizens, improve representative democracy, and solve public problems is tremendous. And, what currently appears likely is not democratically desirable, unless we, unless we build online public spaces and democratic opportunities online from the center that bring people together and build the democratic evolution. 

E-Democracy: The Promise of the Future is a Reality Today (Speech in Japan) – By Steven Clift – 2002

E-Democracy: The Promise of the Future is a Reality Today

This speech was given as a 30 minute keynote address.  It was received warmly as an “easy to understand speech in English” to over 400 people at Japan’s first conference dedicated specifically to e-democracy.




E-Democracy: The Promise of the Future is a Reality Today

Speech by Steven Clift
NTT Data INFORUM 2002 e-democracy symposium
Tokyo, Japan, May 22, 2002

This speech is available in Japanese from:
Good afternoon.

In the spring we envision many possibilities.  Today we live in a spring with exciting new potential for better  government, for stronger communities, and more participatory citizens. This spring flows from the information and communication technologies (or ICTs) revolution.

However, unlike with technology, we are not experiencing a revolution in democracy.  We are not experiencing a revolution in governance or politics.  Rather, we are in the midst of a ICT-fostered political evolution that will change our leaders and citizens alike. We do not know whether this technology-based evolutionary struggle for political relevancy will strengthen or weaken democracy.

We must ask the questions – Will ICTs build on our humanity and democratic ideals?  Or will instead technology accelerate the pace of life so much that we will no longer have time to contribute to our broader communities or public lives?

I believe that the future of our information age communities, our democracies, it is up to us.  In each of our countries, we must work hard to secure the benefits of ICTs in decision-making, government transparency and government accountability.  It is important to support online citizen participation in order to help solve public-problems. The alternative is to accept weakened democracies, and less responsive governments.

Technology is naturally used for private connections within our families and within our circle of friends.  We hear a lot about e-commerce and online entertainment and other hyped possibilities.  Now it is time to consider “public” uses that go beyond our important private lives.

Even within the public sector all around the world, the use of technology continues to focus overwhelmingly on privately oriented individual and business transaction services without consideration of the potential of “representative e-government.”  With “representative” I am referring to those institutions of government like parliaments or local city councils.  I am concerned that our elected officials will not have access to the information tools required to govern effectively based on citizen needs and input. We need to develop technologies and methods that ensure that citizens are heard by our  representatives in the noisy information age.

There is nothing wrong with using ICTs in our private lives; private communication, since the invention of paper, has been the economic engine of communication systems.  There is nothing wrong with using ICTs to provide government services. I support it. People want convenience.

Our challenge today is to build momentum for the use of ICTs in our public lives.  It is time to connect online with our neighbors and diverse people in our local communities.  We must interact publicly online with civil servants at city hall as well as learn and deliberate on major public policy issues facing our respective nations. Simply put, an information society, requires information age governance and citizens.

There is nothing like spring. Everything seems possible again.  Almost reborn.

Speaking of spring, the introduction I wrote for this speech actually was inspired by an opportunity the other week to fill my lungs with spring air after long cold winter.  I was soaking up the evening sun on Lake Calhoun in my home city of Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Minnesota is right in the center of North America with Canada just to the north.  It is home of companies like 3M.  It is home of the Mall of America.   In fact the mighty Mississippi River doesn’t start in Mississippi, it starts in Minnesota, in the northern part, as a small stream.  It winds its way of 2000km to the Gulf of Mexico, and the process helps to define the center of the of United States.

Minnesota E-Democracy –

Let me share my direct experience from Minnesota.  Minnesota E-Democracy is today a very small stream, but perhaps its ideas and practices will flow out of our state and help define the future of democracy.

Back in 1994, when I was 24 years old, I sent out a simple e-mail.  I sent it to group of people interested in online community networking. I asked – who would be interested in putting candidates for U.S. Senate and Governor in Minnesota on this new thing called World Wide Web?  I also asked – who would be interested in organizing a public e-mail list, an online discussion, where people could discuss the elections?  The volunteer response was amazing. Early “e-citizens,” as I call them, came from everywhere to help build the world’s first election-oriented web site.

Here are three lessons we have learned over the years:

1. Citizens can make a difference in politics with new technologies.

2. Discussions of state and local issues will continue after the elections are over.  In fact, the quality of discussion improves once citizens can focus on issues and not just electoral  politics..

3. Agenda-setting is key. Generating public opinion through many-to-many communication is a unique strength that ICTs bring to democracy and community.

Today, eight years later, Minnesota E-Democracy, is a thriving non-profit NGO, volunteer-based organization, which helps people navigate political, government, and election information from across Minnesota. Most importantly, we serve as a host for online information exchange and discussions of state and local issues.  Our citizen-to-citizen and citizen with government online discussions prove the democratizing potential of the Internet is not just a myth.  They also prove however that democratic intent in the use of ICTs is required to foster better democratic outcomes. No democratic intent – then I doubt we will see many democratic outcomes.

Our largest forum, the Minneapolis Issues Forum opened in 1998. Over 800 people today including our Mayor, neighborhood activists, journalists and others – participate in daily discussions. This forum has a real agenda-setting impact in our community. The local discussion topics, from parks to police, often show up in the media and go around city hall as well as  community meetings.

The online forum in St. Paul, across the river from Minneapolis, reflects a different style of more personal politics. Volunteers help the forum manager by sharing links to local news stories in order to prompt discussion. Down the  river a two and a half hours drive from Minneapolis and St. Paul, you reach the small city of Winona, and the forum there connects community leaders and citizens for dialogue on local issues as well as organizes in-person events and special events online to talk about issues like education. They had discussions about simple things like where they should put stop signs, is our community a friendly community. This shows that local relevance is key to building an interactive foundation that matters to everyday citizens.

My experience leads me to believe that without e-citizens, there can be no e-democracy.

I know that you will learn more about the Minneapolis Issues Forum during the panel discussion. But in terms of lessons, let me point out that most content on the Internet is one-way, particularly content from government, political groups, and the media. Most online discussions are rarely local or regional, they are often global based on hobbies and unique life situations.

My secret recipe for successful e-democracy  is make it two-way and embrace geography, particularly local geography.

On our forums, people are just as much readers as they are content producers.  By sending a simple e-mail to the group, anyone can share an idea, ask a question, post an event announcement or express an opinion about a local or state issue.

Minnesota E-Democracy’s volunteer forum managers, work to keep discussions issue-focused and respectful. Our guidelines encourage personal responsibility with  advice like, “E-mail unto others as you would have them e-mail unto you.” Civility and respect are essential.

Participants must sign their posts with their real names and may not post more than twice a day. These rules encourage more people to participate in the discussion, they also help ensure that people are accountable to their words they write and share with others.

Let’s be realistic. If you go on the internet today, 99 percent of  the political discussion you will find is disconnected junk, our discussions in Minnesota are only half junk. The miracle is that at least half of our  discussion has real value. Our organization’s mission is to learn about that and build upon that value. We seek to help other communities across our state and beyond build new online forums where none exist today. I hope to return to Japan a year from now in order to connect with dozens of similar forum organizers across your own country.


“Government by day, citizen by night.” That was my motto. While I volunteered for Minnesota E-Democracy in 1994, I haven’t told you about my previous day job.  From 1994-1997, I coordinated e-government for the State of Minnesota and I ran the homepage for our state government.  My past government experience and meetings with government leaders from dozens of countries since 1997, gives me an important perspective I like to share.

E-democracy, the concept – not the organization, is alive and gaining momentum within governments around the world. You must look through the rhetoric about the democratizing potential of the Internet for concrete actions. The use of ICTs can deliver on democratic ideals like transparency, accountability, policy consultation, better representation, and citizen participation.

While I’d like to see civil society organizations like Minnesota E-Democracy in every city, state or prefecture, and country, government-based e-democracy efforts are currently the most sustainable.  Government action and e-democracy investment is vital today.

In a democracy, government is something we all own, something we have a right to influence and change. We want government services anywhere at anytime, we must also ensure effective forms of online and in-person democratic participation on our own time from home, work, school, or on the go.

Speaking of “on the go” – In Japan, where mobile communication is so strong, I hope to learn about your ideas for government-led e-democracy and perhaps mobile or “m-democracy”?

When you first heard the term “e-democracy,” did you think “online voting?” Someday you will be able to vote online. I support it if it is combined with at-home postal voting and the required security.
However, I am skeptical that online voting itself will make government more effective or democratically responsive.

Voting is an act where citizens give their power to others in order to be represented. I fundamentally believe that citizens must be able to participate in governance all the time, not by directly voting on everything, but in meaningful ways that involve their ideas, energy, and abilities. Therefore I encourage governments, as stewards of the public trust, to invest most of their e-democracy resources between elections. This will allow us to reap the benefits of the information society through improved public decision-making and better social outcomes from government work and citizen involvement.

E-democracy as we will experience it exists in bits and pieces scattered across the Internet today. You can read all about it on my website and on my Democracies Online Newswire. But let me share with you today some leading examples.

Example 1 – Policy and leadership

A recent UK report on e-government found that the average UK local government provides only one-fourth of the potential online services that the leading local governments in UK are currently able to provide.  In Sweden, studies have found that having an in-house “champion” or leader. It is a better indicator of e-government success than how large  the city is or how much money they have. Applying the lessons from those studies, it is common sense to conclude that most of the leading government-sponsored e-democracy applications can easily be imagined and likely exist somewhere today. More universal, “more universal” is the keyword, e-democracy in government will thrive at the national and local levels around the world where the “champions” are and political leadership come together to make things happen.

Speaking of political leadership, in the UK, the E-Envoy is preparing a major E-Democracy Policy and the parliament now led by MP Robin Cook has a committee exploring the issue of E-Democracy specifically. In the State of Queensland, Australia, where I was last November, they released their e-democracy policy and are busy building their e-democracy applications. While policy leadership is not required to have exciting government e-democracy developments, it will help secure the resources required to build the next generation of applications.

Example 2 – E-mail Notice and Personalization

While your Prime Minister Koizumi’s e-mail newsletter may seem like old news in Japan, there is nothing like it on the same scale anywhere else in the world. I know of no other world leader who can directly e-mail millions of people. From the local level on up, every elected official should have the ability to send e-mail newsletters to interested constituents.
Moving beyond elected officials for a moment, right now in the City of St. Paul, Minnesota you can subscribe to key documents like public meeting notices and agendas. The moment the staff upload a frequently updated document you can choose to be notified. This is called personalization.

I ‘d like you to imagine a “My Democracy” service where citizens could type in their address, select topics, and be given options for web, e-mail, instant message delivery or wireless notification of important information they care about. This innovation does not change what information a government makes public. It simply unleashes the political power of timely access and use. Unfortunately there are only a few government sites that employ these techniques today.  Luckily there are thousands of the commercial and academic sites from which we can learn

Example 3 – Wired Elected Officials

I travel the world looking for Wired Elected Officials or “Weos” as I call them. I’d like to find out who Weos of Japan are.

If you take a look at Jan Hamming, a local councilor in the Tilburg, The Netherlands, his web site is the closest thing to an online constituent office you would gain access to the information experience available in his physical office. While nothing replaces the value of direct in-person contact, Jan has found  that his online chats and other forms of online constituent input brought him closer to students, low-income citizens, and immigrants. Why? For many people interacting with a politician online is much less intimidating than going to a government office.

Shouldn’t all elected officials have the tools to better represent their constituents? Yes, it is time to invest in real online services for elected officials of all political parties so that our voices may be better heard through them in government decision-making.

Example 4 – Online Consultation

E-Rulemaking by U.S. Federal government and online consultations now being hosted by governments in Canada, Australia, and European countries are working to better connect citizens and diverse interest groups to the administrative policy side of government.  For those interested in  this, I have a “Top Ten Tips” article about online consultation on my web site.

One clever mobile democracy story, perhaps online consultation in its simplest form, comes from Finland.  The transit authority in Helsinki has employed a creative two-way strategy – if you have a suggestion for the bus or tram service you can send it in via text messaging on your mobile phone. It will automatically appear on their public web site for all to see. If the bus drives past you without stopping, perhaps soaks you with water from a mud puddle, you can hold the agency publicly accountable. Interestingly enough, the number of compliments, yes compliments, to their text message system, has positively surprised the transit authority.

Example 5 – Representative E-Democracy

Most e-government resources reside in the administrative side of government. It makes sense that in most countries, this side of government can afford to invest in next generation e-democracy and e-government activities.  While I support this activity, I am concerned about the long-term implications of connected executives and disconnected representatives.

I believe that the online activities of representative institutions must also be accelerated.  We must not allow ICTs to be used in ways that cause unintended shifts of power away from our representatives.  We need to ensure that public bodies can hold each other accountable and not overturn our constitutional designs based on inequitable investments in information and communications strategies and applications.  I expect parliaments, legislatures, and local councils to take up the ICT challenge in order to remain politically relevant and keep what power they have.

Today, in Minnesota, the legislature is leading the way. They are beating the online efforts of the executive, the executive led by Governor Jesse Ventura, former pro-wrestler, you may have heard of him. The legislature streams the debate live on the Internet from the floor of the chamber and also put it on television.  When an amendment to legislation is proposed you can get a copy online from home at the exact same time the legislators get it themselves.

Legislators carry laptops and plug them into the Internet while in the legislative chamber. You can send them e-mail while they are on television and share information they might find useful in the debate. Legislators are also information seekers, they use the web from the chamber to research and hope to find quotations and statistics they can use moment or later in the legislative debate.

Another big step for local councils and parliaments will be the sharing of decision-making input from their public processes with others.  This involves taking place testimony, in-person meeting and put them online for broad access.  We need to take this one step further and encourage people to exchange information on a two-way basis as part of official online public hearings.

Before I conclude I want to share a “bookmark” about the other democratic sectors. Online activism, online campaigning and political parties as well as the role of the private sector and the media also define the future of e-democracy. My “E-Democracy E-Book” on my web site explores these areas in much more detail.  All the sectors of democracy need to come together to do their part.


It is spring, or I guess early summer now in Tokyo, but still spring in Minnesota.  We must dedicate ourselves to meet the public challenges the new season and take advantage of the opportunity before us.

As we move forward, most democratic actors in society will collaborate and compete in a healthy way in order to build a bright future for democracy.  Our information societies will make democracy more real and compelling to the average citizen.  They will transform governance and citizen participation.  They will help us improve our communities and nations within which we live.

The only way to make this vision a reality is to roll up our sleeves and get to work.  Together, we will not allow the use of technology to degrade our democratic ideals and needs.  Instead, we will ensure that ICTs deliver on what is good in our societies. We will use it to bring communities together and strengthen our nations and world in ways we desire and can imagine.
Thank you.