Government Online Consultations – Clift Presentation to Global Forum – By Steven Clift – 2001

Below is the a written version of my remarks to the Global Forum in Naples in March.  The new bit is a text version of my advice to governments hosting online consultations.

Global Forum
Presented March 2001

Track: Governance Issues in the Online Era

Session: E-Democracy, transparency and consultation in policy making

Presentor: Steven Clift (with Democracies Online, Minnesota E-Democracy and a Consultant to the Markle Foundation for Web White & Blue)

E-Democracy is not E-Government.  E-Democracy is part of E-Government, but also sum of the parts of all the sectors of democracy.  The sectors of democracy we need to encourage “e-democracy” activity include:

1. Government – Both the administrative and representative sides of government

2. Media and Portals Online – Online versions of traditional media and major starting points on the Internet

3. Political Parties and Campaigns – Online campaigning for votes and political support

4. Advocacy and Lobbying – Interest group use of the Internet to organize against or in support of a specific issue or cause

5. Internet Infrastructure and Technical Development – Inherently political choices in technical design, pricing, and standards that effect e-democracy options

6. Networked Civil Society – Organized, non-partisan, non-profit efforts that uniquely use the Internet to build from the online efforts of the incumbent “democratic” sectors

7. E-Citizens – Must expect and use e-democracy in their everyday life, demand side is critical not just the supply of political content

With a full map of the e-democracy landscape, it is then possible for governments and e-government specifically to plot out its essential role. The key is to build incremental efforts that can be built in a reasonable amount of time and be celebrated as real ways for citizens to better understand, engage, and influence their government and democracy as a whole.  A full exploration of the various sectors, with examples, is available online at <>.

Power to the Powerful?

Let’s be honest.  Power is most often based on the information you control and the message you spin through mass media.  Why would any government seek to increase transparency and consultation in the policy process via the Internet when it seems so risky.  I could make the legitimacy argument, it holds weight.  Ultimately the goal of e-democracy should be to actually improve the outcomes of the policy process.  It should be used to help improve the lives of our citizens, communities, nations, and the world as a whole.  That is our challenge.  Can slapping up an interactive web board on your government site do that?  Perhaps not, but if we each see our work as part of an overall cross-society e-democracy strategy it we will make a difference.

E-Democracy for Government

E-Governance?  What does that mean?  When I map out e-democracy, I take the “e-democracy activities” of the first five sectors (Government, Parties, Media, Advocacy, Internet) and place them as circles on a page. I then combine E-Citizens and Networked Civil Society efforts in a single overlapping sixth circle.  From my direct interactive experience in Minnesota, civic efforts are the essential component and multiplier effect that generates deeper activities throughout the sectors. It helps create online places for e-citizens that matter in real world politics and governance.

E-Governance could be viewed as the place where E-Citizens and E-Government overlap.  It is the place where government and citizens can use the Internet within existing political processes to build better policy solutions and legitimacy.  To that end I have developed a “Top Ten E-Democracy ‘To Do’ List for Governments Around the World.” It is complemented by the “Top Ten Tips for Wired Elected Officials” and soon by a top ten list for E-Citizens.  The full text of available articles are online from: <>.

In summary, E-Government’s “E-Democracy” efforts should:

1. Announce all public meetings online in a systematic and reliable way.

2. Put “Democracy Buttons” on the top pages of government web sites.

3. Implement service democracy with comment forms, surveys, and usability studies.

4. End the “Representative Democracy Online Deficit” by investing in Internet use by elected and appointed officials, not just e-government services.

5. Internet-enable existing representative and governance processes.

6. Embrace the two-way nature of the Internet and encourage information dissemination through personalization.

7. Hold government sponsored online consultations.

8. Develop e-democracy legislation to change laws and seek funding required to take full advantage of the information age in democracy.

9. Educate elected officials on the use of the Internet in their representative work.

10. Create open source democracy online software applications and share them among governments and others.

Government Sponsored Online Consultations

As a conclusion to this presentation, let me focus a bit more on government sponsored online consultations.  This is one of the more exciting opportunities for E-Citizens and E-Government to interact with one another.  Activity in the United Kingdom, Canada, The Netherlands and Sweden is leading the way.  Having viewed a number of these events and with my own involvement in the Markle Foundation’s Web White & Blue Online Presidential Debate and other online civic events, I’d like to make the following recommendations:

1. Don’t have an open-ended online consultation like this … “Is anyone here?  Hello.  Where is the government?  Are we just talking to each other?”

2. Develop time-based, asynchronous online consultations that last two to four weeks.  Consider complementing in-person consultations on the same topic.  Ensure that the event is designed to have a real impact on the policy process (often early in the process, not here is what we decided what do you think?). Don’t do this for show.

3. Create a structured online event with specific roles, panelists, and support documents as you would for an in-person event.  (Online consultations can be as much work and in-person events, you just don’t have travel and other physical considerations.  It may or may not cost as much to be done right. Spend your “savings” on #6.)

4. Encourage citizens to become educated on the public policy issues at hand with access to detailed information as well as concise summaries. Ensure broad public interaction with top decision-makers, policy and research staff, and horizontal engagement among all participating based on this common information.

5. Understand the strengths and limits of online consultations. The strengths are that people may participate on their own time from just about anywhere.  The limits are the lack of time to participate on a regular basis, differing levels of access (place, speed, cost), and limited social cues and informal social networking so important an in-person events. Any online consultation plan should address these concerns in the design phase.

6. Recruit. Promote. Recruit. Promote.  Never open an online consultation without the bulk of your intended participatory audience signed up ahead of time. At a minimum, create a one-way e-mail announcement list that you can use prepare your participants for the event and use that list to send event highlights and reminders to the group during the consultation.  Most of your registrants will visit the web site once, explore for a few minutes, perhaps post a comment or question, and then never come back again.  Not that they didn’t like your event.  The problem is that they keep forgetting to make the affirmative choice to visit your site.  Once they fall behind, they won’t invest the time to catch up.  You must get highlights, if not the substance of the event into e-mail boxes of your participants through opt-in strategies.

7. Embrace the diversity of opinions, perspectives, and geographic participation the Internet enables.  Develop ways to channel the “sound off” citizen protest into more open spaces on your consultation in order to maintain the value of the most policy-related dialogue.

8. Ensure a quick response from top level decision-makers and clear management permissions for direct civil servant participation.  Allow government staff, particularly those running the consultation, to handle informational and less controversial queries.  Ensure that staff actively participate and share information on a proactive basis. Have a process to identify and generate a top decision-maker response to more controversial questions and topics within 24 to 48 hours. Make this policy clear and stick to it throughout your consultation.


Government-sponsored online consultation is a part of E-Democracy, E-Government, and E-Governance.  By understanding the broader E-Democracy environment, e-government can charge ahead and work to do its part while also supporting efforts across the sectors of democracy.