The E-Democracy E-Book:
Democracy is Online 2.0
By Steven Clift
Copyright 2000 Steven Clift – All rights reserved. This article may be freely linked to, cited or quoted with simple e-mail notification to the author and a commitment to share copies of any final derivative works. The full text of this article may only be redistributed online or in print with the express permission of the author.
Table of Contents
Online Voting – Just Part of Democracy Online
Democracy Online is Participatory
Election News and Information and Online
Policy and Research Agenda
After the Election – Still Campaigning?
Research and Lessons
Democracies Online – An Incremental Contribution
Let’s Create The Public Internet
Public Internet Consortium
Version 3.1 – Initially prepared for the Commonwealth Secretariat’s Centre for Electronic Governance conference book. This is the same version placed online in June 2000.
The E-Democracy E-Book:
Democracy is Online 2.0
1 – Introduction
The Internet will save democracy. Or so Internet technohype led many to believe. With each new communication medium comes a wide-eyed view about its potential. I’d like to suggest that just as the television saved democracy, so will the Internet. Now that I’ve set a low expectation, anything we do incrementally to improve democracy through the Internet is something we can consider an accomplishment.
Over the last two years since version 1.0 of this article was published in the Internet Society’s OnTheInternet magazine and online, there have been thousands of exciting and important democracy online accomplishments. The pace of change is accelerating, however transforming democracy through the use of Internet has just scratched the surface. I am not interested in simply adapting democracy “as is” to the Internet. Over the next few decades we can change democracy for the better and develop “wired” ways that allow people to improve their lives and the world around them. In our local communities and regions, our nations, and globally we are at the beginning of an era we can define.
In 1998 I concluded Democracy is Online 1.0 with, “Perhaps the most democratizing aspect of the Internet is the ability for people to organize and communicate in groups. It is within the context of electronic free assembly and association that citizens will gain new opportunities for participation and a voice in politics, governance, and society. In the next decade, those active in developing the Internet and building democracy have an opportunity to sow the seeds for “democracy online” in the next century. Like the founding of any modern nation, the choices made today, the ideals upheld, the rules adopted, and the expectations created will determine the opportunities for democratic engagement for generations to come.”
Progress across the democracy online “sectors” is considerable. Using the Internet to further an interactive, engaged citizenry and re-invigorated democratic processes remains an important and unmet challenge. This article will explore the state of the art within the existing institutional frameworks or “sectors” of democracy online. It concludes with a vision building civic life online and online public service through practical steps by developing what I call the “Public Internet.”
Let me get this out of the way, particularly as there seems to be so much myth and misconception developing around this subject. On my speaking trips, I find that journalists in particular like to ask about voting online. I receive press questions about the use of the Internet to vote in the Arizona Democratic Primary. It will happen. It will take much longer than you may think to allow an at-home voter to complete a ballot from home such that the sanctity of the election process is secure. The difference now is that my friends and relatives now ask similar questions.
In time, many countries will allow people to vote via their preferred technology. In the scenario I expect, a citizen will receive a ballot in the mail if they are registered as an “at-home voter.” They will return their ballot through the mail, or use a touch-tone telephone leaving their voice signature, or use the unique information on their ballot to vote via the Internet – leaving their digital signature or PIN number. “Polling place voters” can still vote in-person at the polls. The “at-home” voters who did not vote before the final day can bring their ballots to secure Internet-connected polling locations.
Neither voting nor polling technology justifies either one’s official use by any government. Their technical existence alone will not and should not bring about more frequent use of referenda or a more direct democracy. The possibility of bringing voting into more aspects of citizens’ lives versus the role of representative democracy should become a more high profile issue. The decision to apply technology in official elections will be primarily a political choice. It will have more to do with how those in power feel it will influence voting outcomes than whether the public wants the option. I don’t oppose voting online, I just don’t think it is really all that transformative. Elections are the “white bread” that hold our legitimate democracy sandwich together, but it is what’s in the middle that is most interesting and essential for the health of our democracies and communities.
In the United States, I predict that the first states to allow Internet-based at-home online voting in binding general elections will be forced to do so via citizen-led ballot initiatives. As the costs for transition to at-home online voting are estimated by state government election offices the political momentum for such systems will be dampened considerably. The California online voting study, the Department of Defense exploration of overseas military online voting, and the pending National Science Foundation online voting study requested by the White House along with studies in other countries are building the knowledge required for eventual voting online. Again, it will happen. I must note that I view any attempt to allow Internet voting in binding general elections without a corresponding efforts to increase voting by mail and in-person as fundamentally anti-democratic and exclusionary. I call for a grand compromise that promotes at-home voting through an integrated choice of voting methods – online, by mail, or in-person. The key is to not limit our view of democracy online (also referred to as digital democracy, e-democracy, politics online, e-governance etc.) to just voting and elections. Voting online is a small part of the full democracy online agenda. We must not allow online voting become the sword that the broad democracy online movement falls on. The raised expectations generated by simplistic media coverage will obscure the successes of incremental democracy online development.
We all have different definitions and experiences of democracy. This article focuses on the Internet and participatory democracy within the context of representative democracy. It uncovers exciting developments. The reality is that our many-and quite different-democracies are changing because of the use of information technology and networks. In the long run we don’t know whether the changes will be for the better or the worse. Ready. Fire. Aim.
The fundamental question we must ask ourselves is “As democracy and the Internet converge, how must we be involved now in order to improve both?” The challenge for us, as citizens, is to be engaged in this process of change. We will be engaged through our existing institutions, be they non-profits, universities, the media, companies, or governments. We must be involved as individuals and through the creation of new, mediating citizen organizations that are “of” the Internet, not just “on” it. We are experiencing a convergence of democratic institutions and processes with the Internet. Democracy is online.
The primary democratic sectors that are flooding the Internet with political information are government, the media and .com content providers, candidates and political parties, and advocacy groups. The private sector and others in the information technology industry are developing information and communication tools and standards that fundamentally influence in this arena. Each democracy online sector is making a contribution to democracy online. Based on who is doing what, we need to ask the question “What is missing?”
2 – Government Online – E-Government
Government online, as it is often called, is making democratic information available as never before. Parliaments, legislatures, city councils, and even neighborhood councils are making laws and proposed laws, meeting agendas and minutes, and other reports available online. Elected-officials, be they a head of government or a local councilor are sharing more and more information which brings them closer to the citizen. Government is an important user of the Internet. I am not exploring either the politics of technology or the role of government as an Internet regulator or law enforcer. Too often the “hands off” ethos of government regulation with the Internet inhibits the development of support for public spending on necessary and essential government use of the Internet for improved service delivery and access to information and decision-making processes.
In 1998 the release of the G8 Democracy and Government Online Services Publication <http://www.statskontoret.se/gol-democracy>, of which I served as coeditor, was an early phase of analysis by a number of governments. We are now starting to hear about “e-governance” and not just “e-government services.” From 1994-1997 I coordinated the top-level government online efforts for the State of Minnesota while also staffing the Government Information Access Council. There is a schism between the administrative side of government which controls most public sector IT resources and government decision-making bodies which represent the people. Improved and more efficient service delivery cannot be disconnected from the two-way democratic potential of the Internet. We do not want governments to simply automate services without evaluation of what they might doing right or wrong. Government must take a fundamental reform and interactive approach to develop the legitimacy required to govern in the information age. They need to aggressively compete with the expectations developed by citizens as consumers of competitive commercial web sites.
Democracy is the inefficiency required to make the best public choices. While a call for openness and participatory inefficiency might be considered counter-culture to the administrative side of government, a “Democracy Button” should exist on all government sites. The vast majority of government online users do want quick efficient government online service from a well organized public portal – be it access to a quick transaction or frequently requested information. However, the legitimacy of each government agency must be clearly explained and documented. Citizens must be told how their government works, be given accurate and useful information about how they can provide effective online input and influence, management, and ultimately its funding sources. Citizens must experience responsive government. The online medium allows it. The users of this new medium demand it.
Representatives and Decision-making Online
Services aside, the number one area for advanced development of government online support for democracy is that of representative and decision-making bodies. A substantial investment in the information infrastructure of parliaments, legislature, local councils, commission, task forces, etc. at all levels of government is required. The best way to ensure that online citizen involvement in decision-making is to adapt online tools into the official democratic processes. We need systematic full access to legally public information. We need to encourage complementary online participation based on the way power is structured and decisions are made. The current path of noisy one-way advocacy to government prompted by online protest is simply raising the din of democracy while not adding to the quality of democratic deliberations.
The clogged e-mail in-boxes of elected officials without the tools to sort, filter, and respond to incoming e-mail is leading to a situation where e-mail is the least effective way for an average citizen to influence their government. On the other hand, e-mail is an extremely effective tool for an insider who knows staff e-mail addresses or other addresses used by the elected official. This disparity must be addressed head on. The development of democracy online software tools for use by thousands of governments could be launched with the development of e-mail response system open source software (i.e. software that can be developed jointly and shared across the world). If approached strategically, online public input into the government can improve the decision-making process and actually reduce the total administrative load of constituent contact as a whole. A Canadian government survey cited by Michel Cailloux of the Canada Information Office found that while 87 percent of citizens expect a response to a letter in two weeks, 90 percent expect an e-mail response within four hours. The current one-size-fits-all auto-response system (or in many cases no response) is not sufficient.
Whether it be for the public or decision-making bodies themselves, organizing government information-especially proposed laws, rules, and regulations – into a combined pull-and-push system may represent the ultimate online contribution for participation in governance. Government decision-making bodies should have personalized “My Democracy” sections that allow any citizen on an equal basis to search in advanced ways (pull) and receive automated notification (push) of meeting notices and proposals of interest. Citizens could indicate interest in a certain topic area or a specific law and be actively notified whenever changes are proposed. There should be an open standards-based public domain database with contact information for all bodies and their elected and appointed officials as well as a legal requirement to announce all public meetings online within a given jurisdiction. Each meeting should have live and archived audio or video streams available along with minutes and agendas. Wherever there is a legal requirement to audio or video record a public meeting it should be done digitally and placed online for public access. Developing searchable digital archives of key decision-making documents for historical purposes should also be integrated into these systems. This also carries over to e-mail systems – how many backup tapes of important e-mail from the offices of heads of government or state governors are being illegally destroyed due primarily to a lack of will in applying paper-conceived laws?
Decision-making bodies should host well-organized online interactive hearings and events to complement their in-person public hearings. Citizens should be able to testify live via the Internet to in-person meetings. As will be noted later, evolution toward interaction is essential for full realization of the potential of existing and future Internet tools to promote greater public participation in government. Governments do have a special duty to ensure broad access to formal participatory processes. So online interactive events geared toward the general public should complement corresponding opportunities that are available to all regardless of their knowledge of or access to the Internet. If three public hearings are held around a region on a certain topic, hold the fourth one online.
As we go into this new decade, the following examples will become the rule and not the exception. With thousands of governments and public authorities around the world, the opportunity to share stories and motivate collaboration must be seized upon. Some of the best examples to date are:
- Online Input into Formal Decision-making – With the Central Bucks School District redistricting plan in Pennsylvania over 500 comments were received via e-mail – the vast majority of all comments received. As reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer, the chair of the school board commented that, “The majority of the issues raised were dealt with. The online feedback made it easy for us to evaluate where the greatest need for changes was.” Concerns were raised about the lack of public access to the comments received and how quickly the in-person public hearing went based on the changes made due to online input. Another enhanced official input example involves the new Scottish Parliament, working with the International Teledemocracy Center <http://www.teledemocracy.org>. The Parliament has agreed to accept official public petitions via the Internet. Petitions are a formal request from one or more people to the Parliament. Thus far is has been used by the World Wildlife Fund to garner 337 signatures in support of marine parks as part of a national park system for Scotland. Unlike third party petition sites, this is a formal petition to the parliament.
- Online Government Consultations – In The Netherlands an ongoing discussion with Minister Roger van Boxtel <http://www.rogervanboxtel.nl/> has been facilitated by the Instituut voor Publiek en Politiek, (Dutch Centre for Civic Education). Extensive work was done, based on Dutch experience with previous consultations to establish a clear response mechanism and time frame to ensure prompt reply to citizen comments and questions. The key was guaranteed facilitator access to the Minister to develop responses on controversial issues. Many online government consultations place civil service staff in the difficult position of speaking for an agency. This is normally left up to political staff in highly public situations, however the expertise required for online consultation often involves civil service staff. At a minimum staff need prior permission to state existing agency policies and provide factual information. There is nothing worse than an online consultation where the citizens wonder if anyone is listening because no government response is quickly forthcoming. This lesson was learned with the initial discussion forums on UK Prime Minister Tony Blair’s web site <http://www.number-10.gov.uk>. This led to a dramatically better use with the launch of their Policy Forum on Electronic Delivery of Government Services. They first asked people to read the discussion document and then participate in the online discussion. Official posts and responses from Number 10 are clearly marked.
- Online Parliamentary Petitions and Consultations – The Hansard Society for Parliamentary Government <http://www.hansard.org.uk>, the educational wing of the UK Parliament, has hosted a series of invited expert interactive forums <http://www.democracyforum.org.uk> in conjunction with committees in both the House of Lords and the House of Commons. The general idea is that an invited group discusses a topic from which a high-level report is generated at the request of a parliamentary committee. Topics covered thus far include women in science, electronic democracy, and domestic violence. In the State of Minnesota the role of the Internet in Jesse Ventura’s election as Governor prompted the State Senate Democrats to host the first open citizen discussion forum on an official state or national legislative web site. The next step is to integrate the interactive capabilities of the Internet into the official committee hearing process.
- Official Government Exploration – In late 1999 the State of Victoria in Australia <http://www.mmv.vic.gov.au> announced the first government-sponsored “Democracy Online” initiative with the goal of, “how best to use new technologies to open up the processes of Parliament and government to the people of Victoria.” All governments must begin to formally ask themselves the question about their official use of the Internet – including funding requirements and possible law changes that will enhance official representative democracy in the information age. It is important to point out that providing election access to decision-making information and processes requires resources. Representative bodies at all levels seem to have squeezed as much out of their existing IT and communications budgets to provide rudimentary online services for the public. Perhaps the only government funding initiative that expressly includes “online support for democracy” today is the European Commission’s Fifth Framework <http://www.cordis.lu/fp5/> funding initiative. Their first round of grants should soon be announced.
- Wired Elected Officials – As “Weos” take the reins of power the demands on the Internet in official representative democracy will be enormous. There are now a few dozen Weos in the world. In order to promote better representatives in the information age, Weos should be networked and encouraged to provide tips to new and existing elected officials. For example, while she visited Minnesota, I connected Australian Senator Kate Lundy, the only national Senator who does her own web page, with Minnesota State Representative Margaret Anderson-Kelliher, who reports that over half of her total constituent communication is now through e-mail.
Many serious policy questions arise: Should the government help those indicating interest in the same topics or proposals become aware of each other? To what extent should a democratic information system serve the interest of those who govern versus those who want to influence how they are governed? With personalization comes the potential abuse of data on the information seeking interests and behaviors of people – should this data be protected or covered by privacy policies and laws? And how will the Internet public-access infrastructure in libraries, schools, and other locations be part of a democracy network for broader use that includes some training and assistance? If government cannot afford to build this on their own what models can be developed to promote the sharing of tools and costs among governments as well as connections to the commercial Internet?
A comprehensive research agenda for all democracy online sectors needs to be established. Most academic coverage remains theoretical speculation or focused primarily on elections. Comparative qualitative and quantitative research comparing governments and the results of their actions is essential to guide better and more extensive government online support for democracy. Research ideas related to government online include development of a:
- Comprehensive check list of possible and recommended online features for use by decision-making bodies and elected officials in official government online activities. Comparing data on implemented features and lessons learned would allow governments to measure their progress and help others rate government action and plans. A technical review of best practices for each feature would be particularly valuable, promoting technical sharing to help save on implementation costs.
- Comparative survey of specific government actions and the attitudes toward democracy online across government including IT departments, government agency executives, elected officials and their staff, and others.
- Survey of wired citizens and their expectations and attitudes related to democratic engagement as well as their view of government and participation in a “wired” world. Compare responses to the answers of those with less online access or interests. Try to determine how online experiences with commercial and government sites are influencing their expectations and attitudes toward government.
Having maintained connections with the G8 Government Online effort <http://www.open.gov.uk/govoline> promoting well supported and facilitated peer to peer information sharing across all levels of government internationally on government support for democracy online with the context of other topical service related discussions would be a significant first step. Governments tend not to travel alone, they need the political support of comparative action.
3 – Media Online and the .Com World
Media efforts, especially those of online newspapers, major portals sites, and television networks, have made the largest investment in making content available on the Internet – and it shows. Media and .com content political sites clearly are the most influential and have the most agenda setting power – including those connected to large mass media outlets within more local areas. They receive most of the public Internet traffic from those seeking news and information on the issues and happenings in their democracies.
The major scarcity online from a user perspective is time. From an online business perspective it is attention. With attention come the ability to promote your content, attract banner advertisements, and create opportunities for commerce. In most places the major virtual navigation pathways are consolidating. It is from these media and portal pathways that the public discover essential editorial services that allow them to quickly digest political news and commentary. While there are a diversity of media voices online, the consolidation toward established media brands is much stronger in 2000 than before 1998. However, the pie of Internet users is also much larger leading to an increase in use across many diverse sites. It is just not the Internet revolution some had hoped to see. Sustaining alternative content and user interest is a resource intensive and an extremely competitive activity.
The approaches and contributions of media and major commercial sites to democracy online are incredibly important. How they leverage their audience for their own political content and interactive efforts as well as public service partnership efforts puts them in a strong position. For example, the decision to link directly to the full government report within a story encourages deeper understanding, but also sends them away from the media outlet’s own site. Another contribution is hosting interaction through Web board discussions on stories and local topics in general. Depending on the resources put into hosting such discussions, some are quite successful and others have had great difficulty with sustained participation or with problem-causing participants. In most places, interaction sponsored by a local media site is the only critical mass game in town.
Some of the more successful media-sponsored democracy online activities are live online events such as moderated chats with candidates or elected officials. Like many of these events, AOL’s live online event with presidential candidate George W. Bush for example, the success is often viewed by the candidate based on the free media attention they receive. The Washington Post sponsors lunch hour question and answer guest appearances using a dynamically updating web page. This illustrates the potential for less profile live online events of interest to smaller audiences.
Election News and Information and Online
My respect and understanding of the power of online news grew with my direct involvement in the Markle Foundation’s Web White & Blue <http://www.webwhiteblue.org> election information online public service effort in the fall of 1998. WWB provided the public with quick access to useful election information directories across the Internet. As the Project Coordinator, I coordinated the online development and “participating site” outreach. We create the largest online public service effort to date with hundreds of commercial, non-profit, government, and individual sites participating through placement of the WWB icon and link on their sites. (I continue with a consulting role in election 2000 efforts.) WWB essentially aligned the Internet from October 8, 1998 through the election to celebrate and promote online election information across the United States. While “news” is very much a competitive commercial arena, it was clear that people felt they were involved in something bigger than themselves. They are involved in something historically important.
With the Clinton impeachment and the 2000 election cycle, the climate among commercial news and election sites is much more competitive. However, there remain important collaborative opportunities. It is absolutely essential that these election-oriented partnership efforts be leveraged for ongoing citizen engagement efforts. The new wild card in the 2000 elections in the United States is the introduction of a dozen or so .com political sites and the transfer of the once non-commercial Democracy Network (DNet) to Grassroots.com. The more resources spent to develop and encourage citizen involvement in election and politics generally the better. I often refer to Internet venture capitalists as Internet philanthropists. They are subsidizing all sorts of useful and important activity as they seek to discover profitable new economy business models. While I must admit I am somewhat mystified by the expectation of profitability in the general online civic engagement area, there may be niche markets for services and transactions within the traditional bounds of political services and government transactions. The key it to attack areas of current value and not the creation of new markets based on the need to establish unknown customer or citizen behaviors. A note of caution, if a political information or interactive service is found to be particularly popular or profitable its features will most likely be incorporated or acquired by the incumbent media and portal online players.
From a policy question perspective, what happens after the Presidential election in the U.S. and with future local and state elections will help us figure out what is commercially viable, what needs to be non-profit to work best, and what services need non-commercial funding models in order to exist. The key civic challenge is to fill the public interest gaps in commercial and government online political and election-related activity. It may be that as election information and basic political information is commoditized, foundation (U.S.) and government (most countries) funded partnership efforts can evolve toward promoting online citizen engagement using the Internet in governance and community involvement. The key is to look beyond the hype and not to cede legitimate non-commercial activity based on the crap shoot of potential profitability.
Because online news and .com world is the central player in how most people experience democracy online it is essential that an inter-disciplinary research agenda be established to uncover the lessons and directions of this activity. A substantial amount of “public good” activity once in the government and non-profit realm will find a commercially viable home and much of it won’t if the venture capital flow runs dry. Some research areas include:
- Compare the civic/political news, information, and interactive offerings of .com, .org, and .gov sites. What do users think? How could they be improved? How might public interest election information be aggregated for broad dissemination?
- Survey online editors and traditional journalists on the role of the media in promoting political participation and in the development of news coverage itself. Will the Internet promote forms of “civic journalism” more easily than the traditional media – even within the same media companies?
- Explore the two-way nature of the Internet on media agenda setting including differences among media outlets that make journalist e-mail addresses readily available versus outlets that don’t.
- Compare the differences in market size and commercial viability of online political news, information, and interactive offers. Compare the differences between countries and the actual offerings of commercial, government and non-profit efforts.
- Review the liability laws and potential legal risk in different jurisdictions and countries related to online publishing and specific barriers to media-hosted online public discussions and interactive events.
- Explore the role of privacy policies and user views about the potential use of information on their political information seeking behavior, views, and political involvement.
4 – Candidates and Political Parties Online
The use of the Internet by candidates and political parties has advanced significantly since early 1998. Before then almost all efforts were essentially online brochures. In elections around the world the Internet is becoming an essential strategic campaign communication and organizational tool. While superior use of the Internet to win elections or build political parties remains the exception, the competition among candidates and parties make this a leading area for democracy online development. I am uncertain as to how this activity will dramatically transform the election process, but candidates and parties now have a direct means of communication with their supporters and voters that allows them to bypass the media. The level and depth of candidate/party information and issue positions is a significant improvement. The Internet is like a cluttered county fair booth with a hodge podge of candidate flyers and position papers scattered across a table. However, with the 2000 U.S. Presidential elections, it seems that the most major online happenings involving a candidate is geared to generate free media. I would like to see media coverage of the substance of online candidate exchange not trade press like rah rah about contrived technical firsts.
In the United States most “democracy online” attention is focused on elections. I am interested in how we leverage this activity for sustained efforts that connect citizens to not just candidates, but also to those who win – elected officials.
In 1998, the election of former pro-wrestler Jesse Ventura as Minnesota Governor (my home state) is described by many as the first election that could not have been won without the Internet. Not that he won because of the Internet, just that without it he would not have made it over the top in his close three-way race. I am partly to blame for the resulting hype – I sat down with Phil Madsen after the election and encouraged him to claim his place in history by writing down what happened and the lessons that were learned <http://www.egroups.com/message/do-wire/107>. The number one lesson from my perspective – use the Internet as a strategic communication tool with your supporters. Use it to gather volunteers, seek donations, and go around the media to get your message out at crucial moments in the campaign. The specific tool I see as most essential – a one-way e-mail announcement list with your supporters. In terms of building your e-mail list, early e-mail is worth more than late e-mail.
If Ronald Reagan was a made for television candidate, then Jesse Ventura was a made for Net candidate. You can have the greatest web site in the world, but with the wrong type of candidate it will not play a vital role. The success of John McCain’s 2000 Presidential primary online efforts has as more to do with his position as a reform-minded personality-based underdog than the fact that their online implementation was state of the art in terms of volunteer communication and online fundraising. McCain did successfully capitalize on the Internet opportunity with a first-person direct from the candidate (or his wife) approach to communication with his online supporters.
Overall, it seems that innovative developments in online campaigns are based on necessity not access to resources. In fact, the better funded a campaign the less likely they are to take risks with their Internet strategy. This means they won’t break from their “brochureware” mindset – at least in terms of how they interact with the public. This is a hypothesis that needs testing. I have heard that at least one of the major Presidential communicate privately online with a special web site and e-mail updates for large donors.
Except for the perhaps the last days before an election, the web is not like a television ad geared at undecided voters. You do need to help active undecided voters decide by providing extensive issue position information. The Campaign Study Group led by Marty Edlund surveyed users across a number of Republican web sites in 1998.
They found that you can bring different categories of people one step. You can turn an active supporter into a donor or volunteer and move a general supporter to an active supporter armed with information they can share in support of your candidacy. You can also work to convert a possible supporter into a likely vote for the candidate. It remains an open question whether the Internet can be used to prompt a non-voter or potential first time voter to simply vote. Can the Internet actually be used to increase voter turnout? That seems a fundamentally important question.
Another innovation out of necessity with Ventura’s online effort was their use of the Internet to allow distributed data entry via the web from the homes of Ventura supporters. What do you do when you 5,000 volunteer forms and no staff resources to enter the information into a database? The campaign “extranet” or “virtual campaign office” was born. Over the last decade or more political parties in Sweden have used bulletin boards for internal party communication and policy development. I believe that much of the sustained distributed “extranet” work will take place via political party web sites. You see this with the launch of the Republican National Committee’s GOPNet and the Democratic National Committee’s Interactive Party Platform effort.
After the Election – Still Campaigning?
With the Internet playing an increasingly crucial role through out the campaign, the competitive nature of the election will make this an exciting area to watch. What happens when the election is over? Will the winning candidates continue to be aggressive in their use of the Internet to connect with citizens now that they have won? The Jesse Ventura campaign site <http://www.jesseventura.org> continues as an elected official political non-government site. It pushes his agenda and attempts to help build a movement. This is very rare. This may be an area where political parties will play an increasing aggregate technical support role. Most of my examples are based on the candidate-centric model of the United States. However, in parliamentary systems I have noticed that the parties tend to highlight the personality and image of their party leader over the presentation of their party platform. Party lessons, particularly as the to how the Internet is used for the political side of governance, from outside the U.S. would be useful insights. Will the Internet democratize internal party participation? Will it bring divisions to the surface like the experience of the College Democrats of America <http://www.collegedems.com> where a failed effort to impeach their leader was launched in part by the person in control of their 4,000 person e-mail announcement list only to be countered by grassroots support in their much smaller discussion forum?
In the U.S. Congress we are seeing a blurring of never ending campaigning and political advocacy built into government-funded online efforts. The leading examples come from the Republican House, Majority Leader Dick Armey <http://www.freedom.gov> and Representative J.C. Watts, Jr., Chairman Republican Conference <http://www.gop.gov>. Their increasing use of e-mail list services places them in front of the House Democrat Caucus and the Senate as a whole in the strategic use of the Internet as an ongoing communication and constituency organizational tool. On the Democratic side Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. <http://www.jessejacksonjr.org> has established a non-governmental political site that is used quite aggressively to promote his political agenda.
Determining what level of political use of the Internet should be government, party, or candidate funded is a fundamental political and legal issue. It is also a significant ethical choice. My strategic advice to is that political parties should aggregate the information infrastructure requirement to support the online needs of their candidates down the ballot as well as the highly political activities of elected officials who are party members. Every elected official should have a political e-mail account unfettered from legal restrictions that may exist with their government-funded information infrastructure. The fact that most people use their work accounts for personal use does not carry over to elected official staff using their accounts for non-official political work. The government-funded information infrastructure provided to elected officials may become one of the most powerful tools of incumbency.
The pace of adoption of new online election and political initiatives is almost boggling. The challenge of project execution in a crowded political involvement space will be quite significant. It will be important to compare the lessons learned by different candidate and party efforts around the world. Because much of this “politics as it is, not as it ought to be” knowledge will be trapped in the competitive political marketplace, efforts to leverage this activity for broad democracy online improvements will need to be deliberate and aggressive. The Netelection.org <http://www.netelection.org> and the Democracy Online Project <http://www.democracyonline.org> in are researching the current election cycle in the U.S.. I am unaware of major academic initiatives researching online candidate and political party efforts outside the United States. On the other hand, most of the civic and government-oriented “democracy online” research and theory development is active in academic circles outside of the United States. Academic efforts like cross-Europe Government and Democracy in the Information Age (GaDIA) <http://www.cbs.dk/departments/cos/gadia.htm> and the Virtual Society research project <http://www.brunel.ac.uk/research/virtsoc/> in the United Kingdom are important networks.
5 – Advocacy Online
Many advocacy and political interest groups have an online presence. The early adopters rushed online with Web brochures, yet few were kept up-to-date through mid-1998. Most advocacy applications were tied to an in-house champion or dedicated volunteer – this is still true at with small, more local advocacy efforts. Now in 2000, large advocacy organizations around the world have significantly upgraded the attention to their online efforts. They have moved toward a strategic or integrated approach by their organizations as a whole. They must to effectively advocate. The alternative is to lose their voice in society. Some advocacy groups maintain extensive online information. Others take a minimalist public content approach by highlighting action alerts and current priorities. The use of the Internet in behind the scenes organizing and advocacy to government and others is most notable. The use of e-mail and information tools is changing the way these kinds of groups function and interact with their supporters.
We are now seeing the next generation of advocacy efforts migrate from primarily Internet-related advocacy, like the Electronic Freedom Foundation’s Blue Ribbon campaign for freedom of expression online <http://www.eff.org/br/>, toward sustained general advocacy on a myriad of issues. One of the more interesting advocacy efforts supported by the use of the Internet before 1998 was Citizens for Local Democracy in Toronto, Canada <http://www.c4ld.org/>. While hundreds met regularly in church basement meetings to organize opposition to the province-directed amalgamation of six cities into a larger Toronto, the online component used e-mail announcements and discussion lists to accelerate information sharing and strategy development. With the availability of free e-mail list services like EGroups and Topica, thousands of local advocacy efforts are now able to use e-mail to organize. Residents Opposed to Airport Racket (ROAR), primarily based in Minneapolis, Minnesota <http://www.nonoise.org/quietnet/roar/>, used their list to spread the word about their night-time pajama protest at the international airport. These experiences lend support to my conclusion that the Internet is a particularly effective tool for high-energy, short-term opposition efforts or events. It remains to be seen if online advocacy can foster the creation of a successful movement “for” something new – meaning will people come together first online, develop a consensus, and actually do something in the affirmative. It does seem that you need a rough consensus from the start, although in Minnesota a citizen-formed political action committee against public financing for a baseball stadium was conceived on a general online political discussion forum when someone said – let’s do something.
From an organizers perspective, a good Web hit is when someone finds the cause compelling enough to leave an e-mail address for future updates or decides to make an online donation. While online fundraising by non-profit or voluntary organizations (NGOs) tends to be oriented toward support of programs and general activities, specific fundraising efforts tied to political advocacy are emerging. With the attempted impeachment of President Clinton, the Internet was a political blender. While groups on both side of the issue were highly active on the Internet, the MoveOn.Org effort generated $13 million dollars in direct candidate contribution “pledges” from individuals. They pledge to “work to elect candidates who courageously address key national issues, who reject the politics of division and personal destruction, and who respect the voice of ordinary citizens.” While they are not directly collecting those pledges, they point to the potential “flash” Internet campaign in advocacy politics. While not specifically an advocacy effort, I discovered what it was like to be involved in a “flash” of Internet attention when I set up Kosovo-Reports <http://www.egroups.com/group/kosovo-reports/>. This e-mail list allowed first person accounts from Yugoslavia to be shared online to the world media and others during the NATO bombing campaign. In this case individuals in the region were able to share their personal stories and advocate their personal positions directly to the global community. The Kosovar Albanians did not have Internet access so the voices were primarily from Serbs. In this case NATO lost the online advocacy war by not having an Internet strategy that included helping the Kosovar Albanians get their personal stories online.
Successful online advocacy efforts tend to reinforce the problems of noisy, grid-locked, one-way politics. With groups across the political spectrum using the Internet on top of direct mail, telephone solicitation, and other sophisticated efforts to prompt citizen outrage at government, it is no wonder elected officials are being flooded by e-mail and every other form of communication. The Center for Democracy and Technology <http://www.cdt.org> continues to impress me with their ability to educate supporter on issues and help make their voice heards more effectively. CDT encourages their supporters to send telegrams straight to their member of Congress and now has the data-base driven online infrastructure that will allow them to develop more and more grass roots opportunities for involvement. We now see Internet privacy issues being fought out at the level of public opinion. The Center for Democracy and Technology’s latest campaign to discourage the use of data-matching that would connect individual web use to their consumer profiles generated media attention caused Double Click to slow their current efforts until the issue is explored more deeply.
In late 1999, I helped the Democracy Online Project judge advocacy web sites awards. The award winning HotEarth <http://www.hotearth.net> allows site visitors to not only contact Congress, but also calculate their contribution to global warming by selecting their car and miles driven each year. Their site then provides advice on the choices the user can make to reduce global warming themselves. This is a personalization approach that people will come to expect on the Internet. People want to learn what they can do to solve a problem and not just protest to some distant elected official or government agency.
At the global level, Internet use among efforts generally opposed to economic globalization reached a peak with protest preparation for the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle. Much of this global online network really coalesced with the successful effort to derail the Mutual Agreement of Investment negotiations among national trade ministers. Public Citizen’s Tradewatch site <http://www.tradewatch.org> provides a glimpse into this arena. Within global development circles the issue of governance is also gaining in importance. There is considerable interest in networking NGOs across the developing world to build civil society within their countries and increase their voice collectively in matters of global importance. You see this in development circles related to the Global Knowledge for Development effort <http://www.globalknowledge.org>.
I see a trend toward more and more local online advocacy along side global networking. It may be that forms of advocacy at the national level in most countries are well established and the Internet will be more or less integrated therefore making only a marginal difference. While at the local and global level the Internet is providing a new, relatively cheaper and effective communication infrastructure that enables newly sustainable activity. As interactive advocacy efforts (e-mail discussion lists often with supporting web sites) “colonize” more geographic spaces and topic areas, the connections among those participating in online advocacy spaces will radically change the way agenda, ideas and information flow. An issue that would have taken years to generate significant interest and awareness may now take days to generate a buzz on the Internet and suddenly be taken to the mass audience via global television news networks. The Internet is incredibly “leaky.” You can no longer kill an idea by simply slowing it down in one part of the world hoping it doesn’t jump overseas or across borders.
The internal challenges to advocacy organizations are also significant. People now have the tools to become much more involved in the groups they support. They want to see how their donations are spent. Many are pressing for an increasing say in national organizations despite their geographic distance from the headquarters. The power relationships among individual members, local and regional articles, and national and international headquarters are influx. Democratization within advocacy campaigns, be it a campaign organized by large corporations, fringe groups, or labor unions is an area that requires significant study and analysis. How do you use the Internet to effectively organize? How do you provide organizational leadership when the voices of a disgruntled few reach the ears of the membership so easily? What new models of advocacy can be developed that are “of” the Internet age?
The research agenda could include a comparison of different types of online advocacy appeals and related outcomes. Finding out which online techniques and activities are compelling to different types of citizens would help advocacy efforts develop their online campaigns. Public opinion surveys that measure public interest and attitudes toward Internet use in political advocacy and community activism would be extremely valuable. A technical exploration of how to accommodate online advocacy in governance should involve both the advocates and those in government who need to develop intelligent systems accommodate the voices of the people. Just as physical capitol buildings with public spaces and committee rooms were developed to hear from the people, virtual public spaces need to be created based on the reality of online advocacy.
6 – The Private Sector and Internet Infrastructure
The private sector – in particular, the online services, information technology and telecommunications industry – academic research institutions, and individuals are developing the information and communication tools that provide the infrastructure for democratic use of the Internet. The amazing pace of and competition in development of Internet-savvy applications are based on the business case that profit can be generated by a mix of goods, services, experiences, and content. When it comes to democracy online, a good portion of activity may be sustained through commercial models.
The infrastructure role of the Internet as a technology, the network of networks, in the future of democracy is paramount. The ability to provide access to information by publishing on a web site or to communicate with other individuals or groups via e-mail is having a profound impact on our democracies. We need to ask the question again and again – what can be done to build the Internet as a democracy network in its nature? We also need to be wary of technical developments or standards that may be used primarily for anti-democratic purposes.
While technology may enhance democracy, it takes a democratic people and practice to make it come alive. I do not believe the Internet is inherently democratic – institutions and citizens must make the choice to use it for such purposes.
If we can engineer the best bingo sites that accept paypal for the Internet commerce and entertainment, how can we best engineer the Internet to ensure that important aspects of democracy and community are upheld and cherished? The key is influence the fundamental infrastructure of the Internet – its operating protocols, standards, the user access devices, and the software applications that run on it to ensure that democratic intent and interest can easily take hold and be manifest. We don’t want the Internet to be designed in such a way that democracy is difficult.
The key role of the private sector is to establish the consumer Internet. Without a consumer Internet there can be no citizens’ Internet. I tend to speak in the most “wired” and most democratic places. There are significant and exciting ways that the Internet can enhance democracy in places where the Internet is currently not accessible to the mass population. I want to help promote those developments, while acknowledging from the start that what has been experienced in one country is not automatically transferable to another due to cultural, political, legal, and economic differences.
The largest barrier to a citizens’ Internet is metering of basic Internet access. High telecommunications costs are fundamentally anti-democratic. While efforts to get around local telephone dial-up costs in some parts of Europe are moving forward, no level of subsidy or rhetorical concern about social exclusion will do more than developing flat rate pricing for consumer home Internet use. In the United States, discussions on the “digital divide” are developing momentum. If 70 percent of homes come to access the Internet via the private marketplace through a mix of devices and connections, access for those who would like access but cannot afford it, must be addressed. However, developing democracy online applications on the Internet must not wait for universal access. We are establishing user expectations about what the Internet does. If the democracy and community pathways are not established now they will be much more difficult to establish later. The need to establish democratic expectations strikes to heart purposeful government, foundation, and non-profit initiatives that define and fill the gaps in democracy online activity. Again, the “hands off” ethos of the Internet by government from a regulation perspective should not be used as an excuse to not invest the required public resources to promote good use of the Internet. To compete for user attention, the public and non-profit sector must learn from and adapt private sector use of the Internet. We should never be satisfied with public and non-profit online applications three or four years behind the curve.
Three exciting infrastructure trends are the availability of free or low cost online applications, the development of open source software, and the potential of open standards such as XML for organizing and describing information.
The number one free technology trend that has emerged since 1998 related to democracy online is free e-mail group lists (mailing lists, listserves, etc.). While free web pages allow anyone to publish, group communication via the most tried and effective means – e-mail lists were generally not available on a free or low cost basis. Before sites like EGroups, Topica, and others, setting up an automated e-mail list would often take months to figure out unless you happened to be in an institution with the required technical resources. In 1992, as an online novice, it took me six months to find the place at the University of Minnesota that could host my Public Policy Network list. Now in minutes individuals and small organizations can create their own e-mail lists for announcement or discussion purposes via the web. While the ease of set-up obscures the amount of time required to effectively promote and use this tool, hundreds of thousands of groups are now communicating and freely associating online. Many of these groups related to geographic areas and niche affinity or peer groups at a more national or global level. I started with this article, with the claim that most democratizing aspect of the Internet is the ability of people to organize and communicate in groups. People are used to communicating privately with friends, family and co-workers via e-mail – this is why most people get online. We are now seeing private groups and semi-public groups of people from existing, often in-person groups, now communicating online, the next challenge is to find new and innovative ways to to pull people from private interaction toward fully public online civic discourse.
Most of the institutional democracy online infrastructure cannot rely on what it can cobble together from various “free” remotely served sources. What is free today, may be the commercial model that fails tomorrow. Around half of the web servers in the world run Apache, an open source and free to use application. Of course you need the server to run it and the technical expertise to keep it secure and fully operational. Here is the concept – what online applications and tools could be developed based on an open source model to promote an enhanced democracy online infrastructure? At the 1999 G8 Government Online meeting in Washington, DC I made a suggestion that just 5 percent of government information system/software development resources be put into open source applications. From a taxpayer perspective, it would make sense for governments to share some of the tools they develop to solve the same public or administrative problems. The silent, perhaps puzzled looks, although not negative response indicates that this is a very new question and should be raised with governments around the world. It is in not in any one government’s direct interest to host an initiative that would for the most part benefit other governments. This idea needs a handful of countries to jointly support the creation of a hub project and a mechanism to involve research centers, non-profits, and individual technologists interested these kinds of applications,
Recently, with the European Commission’s Fifth Framework Programme <http://www.cordis.lu/fp5>, proposals were submitted in the area on “online support for democracy.” I am aware of at least two open source oriented proposals. This European fund may present the best opportunity to kick start activities in this area – at least in Europe. It makes sense that government service transactions will attract more public resources because this is an area of high public demand and expectation. If we can lower the costs of service applications and in particular develop a vibrant open source software exchange in the democracy area, the uptake of tools will result in better democracy online services. From an applications perspective the first two-thirds of advanced tools are required within the government online sphere and the other one-third will plug in from the non-profit and commercial area. Besides my call for an e-mail response system other applications such as a virtual public hearing system or public meeting notification system could be developed. An entire “My Democracy” system could be made up of optional component software components that representative bodies could integrate with their legacy systems. With the use of an open standards, open source based “My Democracy” system, third parties could build complementary web sites and further components.
Open Standards – Information Sharing and Geographic Relevancy
The final Internet infrastructure trend I want to mention is the development of open standards. At the more basic level, one open standard is HTML. Hyper-Text-Markup-Language is the way in which information is coded so that it may be made available via the web. Lawrence Lessig, with Harvard’s Berkman Center <http://cyber.law.harvard.edu>, often refers to “code” as the law. To have standing in the Internet standards world you have to have a solid technical base to be viewed as legitimate. You need more than a good idea or ideal to have a voice in this process. You must be able to demonstrate in highly technical terms a solution to the problem you want to solve. I hope to work with a new generation of democracy-minded technologists. The institutions of democracy need to arm themselves with technical experts and engage directly in Internet standards groups – not from an old style government setting standards approach, but from the approach as a user that is trying to have its problems solved. For example, how would the agenda for the development of standards to support electronic commerce be broadened if government service transactions were one of the priority transactions needing support? Why wait to adapt open standards after the fact for public interest use, why not bring down the cost of implementation by making sure the standards processes accommodate public purposes and unique needs?
One exciting area of development is that of XML or Extensible Markup Language. To be honest after reviewing a number of tutorials I know that there is little chance that I will ever “code” XML, but I know that the concept of standardizing the way we describe types of information has tremendous democracy online potential. XML is an open standard adopted by the World Wide Web Consortium <http://www.w3.org> that allows additional groups to create “meta-data” standards that will assist the transfer and presentation of information. There are emerging standards in the area of chemical information and interactive voice response systems. From a government online perspective, I see XML as the future basis upon which “public portals” will be developed. Government jurisdictions will not only be able to build their own “Yahoo” to their corner of the world, but also organize their directory data in such a way that it may be seamlessly combined across governments and made available on sites across the Internet through syndication. If accurate, up-to-date, and essential public interest information is so important it should be made available where most Internet users are and not just in one hard to find online place.
On another track, “All politics is local.” However, the early Internet technical ethos was that geography was something to overcome. XML and other data standards may also offer an opportunity to establish geography as a key organizing principle on the Internet – for those who want it. It is incredibly difficult to navigate the Internet by geography. Have you ever tried to look up e-mail addresses in your neighborhood or find the web site of business down the street? Since involvement in local democracy and community rely on a sense of geography, anything that can make geography a more natural part of the Internet is important. The motivations of early Internet users included escaping the “accident of geography” and it is the “world” wide-web. This isn’t to say that today’s Internet technologists aren’t interested in geography or democracy. There are real social and political perspectives at play when it comes to any attempt to influence the Internet meritocracy where group rights or abstract public interest efforts have little or no standing. By embracing geography as a vital component of the Internet, with real communities using virtual tools we can build a generation of democracy and community online “home builders.”
My primary Internet infrastructure proposal based on the perspective above is Open Groups <http://www.opengroups.org>. Open Groups will make it easier for people to find, evaluate and join online communities. By creating an XML standard for describing online groups accurate and up-to-date directory information will be made available to portal sites and others across the Internet. Making it easy to search descriptions, keywords, and geographical fields, useful (and not so useful) online political discussions will be less obscure and much more accessible. The only way to solve the democracy deficit in online interaction is to make all public online interaction easier to navigate. Initial interest, primarily from the online community industry (e-mail list server, web forums, chat systems, etc.) and leading online community hosts (those who use the tools to facilitate or organize discussions) is very encouraging.
7 – Building Civic Life Online
As the sectors of democracy and the Internet as a whole develop and deepen their contributions to democracy online, we need to ask, What is missing? What is next?
I want to help build the online public commons. I want to help others build them in their own communities and democracies around the world. I also want public and community information and services to be widely available.
In 1998 I shared civic examples from Minnesota E-Democracy, UK Citizens Online Democracy, and Malaysia.Net’s SangKancil e-mail list <http://www.malaysia.net/lists/sangkancil/>. They all presented a foundation for the interactive online public commons. The first two developed an innovative organizational context for new, non-profit, non-partisan, issue neutral trusted mediating hosts for citizen to citizen and citizen to government online discourse. Minnesota E-Democracy remains a dynamic living experiment with a real impact on politics in Minnesota. I see democracy online and public interest use of the Internet as both a big puzzle and a riddle. I take small incremental steps with others (the only viable course with limited resources) to fill out that puzzle and look for answers to the riddle primarily based on experience.
I believe that online public service efforts that are “of” the Internet and not just “on” the Internet are required to serve the public interest. There are unique public possibilities that are enabled by the Internet that cannot be simply manifest through a transfer of existing public goals to the Internet. Based on the evolution of Minnesota E-Democracy since 1994 and my direct experience with the Web White & Blue collaboration, my opinions have sharpened. I seek to foster the “Public Internet.” It is really a simple concept – the private sector, government, non-profits, educational institutions, and others need to work together to develop and apply the Internet in public interest ways that none of them can do on their own. Unfortunately, we are constrained by our notion of public broadcasting as an alternative channel or that government alone is responsible to solve public problems. We have a hard time seeing that a new model – only possible because of the Internet – is emerging.
There are few “market failures” with the dissemination of one-way democratic information in the interest of existing institutions – no shortage of old media content transferred to the online arena. Put another way, the democracy online sectors I covered in this article will use the Internet in their own interests. They must to survive. I want to see them do a better and better job for themselves and their citizens, members, or customers. Official actions and applications that support “democracy online” will be a one step at a time process. While we are seeing more group online interaction hosted via existing institutions, it is extremely rare for any group to build online efforts – at their own expense – that undermine their influence or open themselves up to greater public scrutiny. This does not mean existing organizations will not interact elsewhere online – just not if the interactive host is perceived to hold a position counter to their goals or if an interactive online event’s success is placed totally on their shoulders. How we host and legally position the online public commons such that it is truly “public” is a structural challenge of the disintermediated Internet-era.
I yearn for an extension of the transformative possibilities I have witnessed and directly experienced to other citizens around the world. An online, engaged democratic future is too exciting, too important to leave isolated in Minnesota where the Big Woods meets the Great Plains in the middle of North America. It is not just the water. People should be able to associate online with others in their communities and countries to discuss issues that matter to them. Over time these interactive citizens need to gain access to the online tools and lessons that will help them do something about the public problems that matter to them. I believe that we need to define the online spaces and start with general multi-issue forums based on geography and then over time add topical spaces both within and among places. Let me illustrate.
Minnesota E-Democracy <http://www.e-democracy.org>, an effort with many volunteers, created the world’s first election-oriented web site in 1994. Minnesota E-Democracy is a non-profit 501.c3, non-partisan, issue-neutral organization whose mission is to promote participation in democracy through the use of information networks. I am one of the founders and current volunteer Board Chair. What we pieced together on one site in 1994 is finally emerging across a number of sites nationally in the United States with in 2000 election. Detailed candidate information from candidates and non-partisan sources, official government election information, an online space for people to discuss the candidates and elections issues, and structured online candidate debates will now be available at the Presidential level. Overall, the coverage is excellent at the statewide candidate level with scores of non-commercial and commercial sites, however the more local you go the less likely you will see a full grid of information and interaction.
Minnesota E-Democracy’s “E-Debate” model as first developed by Scott Aikens and refined by subsequent volunteers including Rick Birmingham and Tim Erickson essentially translated an in-person time-based debate model to the Internet. The Democracy Network (DNet) also established an ongoing debate-like question and answer grid for candidates. These models helped me considerably in my early 1999 advice to the Markle Foundation for their Web White & Blue 2000 planning process. This early input will manifest itself to some extent in the WWB 2000 collaboration’s Rolling Cyber Debate among Presidential candidates that is emerging for the 2000 election. This mixed model event should be designed such that it learns from the rare successful experiments in the area of “online special events” as well as create a body of knowledge and software tools for future debates down the ballot.
Almost by accident, we discovered that the most valuable thing Minnesota E-Democracy created in 1994 was the MN-POLITICS <http://www.e-democracy.org/mn-politics> e-mail discussion forum – our online public commons. The forum, then managed by Mick Souder, didn’t close when the election was over. People continued to talk about the issues that mattered to them including happenings in front of the state legislature and local politics. Averaging 400-500 direct subscribers to this day, the forum quickly became a part of real politics in Minnesota. Its agenda setting role became well known as more and more political activists and journalists came online. The heyday of the forum in my estimation was 1996 and 1997 when the open sharing of political information by those who “do” politics was at its peak. You want a mix of exchange between those who “do” politics and those who “talk” politics. Otherwise the forum is nothing better than an obscure newsgroup or web board with little influence on anyone with power. If 99 percent of most online political discussions are pure junk, disconnected from anything “real” then ours is only half junk. The miracle is that any of it has value! This is our very pragmatic approach.
In some cases, our continuing conversations influence elected officials and the media. They make up a substantial portion of e-list subscribers. Most discussions influence the participants as citizens and encourage basic respect for the simple idea that people can hold opinions different than your own – this idea has been generally lost in traditional broadcasting. I say, take an existing power structure and put an interactive online commons right in the middle of it. I have learned that few “average” citizens will waste their time expressing their opinions if they feel that someone who can do something about it is not present. Who is getting the message on our forums is perhaps more important than what people have to say. Relevancy and access to real politics is essential to drive useful discussion. If the world is run by those who show up, lets make it so people can show up from home.
In 1998, we significantly updated our important charter, rules, and guidelines for MN-POLITICS and split the message channels in half – one for discussion and one for announcements. We also took our online commons model more local. The most active and dynamic online community issue discussion space in the world is the Minneapolis Issues Forum. I encourage you to visit my home page <http://www.publicus.net> to access my “A Wired Agora” presentation for the full details and analysis. Let me just summarize – recruitment, broad community participation, effective guidelines, and facilitation by volunteer list manager David Brauer. We continue with efforts to build forums in a few pilot Minnesota cities and are developing extensive outreach proposals to extend even further the diversity of voices in our forums. Outside of Minnesota E-Democracy, I volunteered to host a local forum in my neighborhood and my neighborhood organizer, Zach Korb, is facilitating the Networking Neighborhoods Forum through my Democracies Online initiative <http://www.e-democracy.org/do>. There is no reason to develop these efforts in isolation. I have always tried to network with fellow “builders” whenever possible.
Based on my travel around the United States and speaking engagements in close 20 countries, it is my assertion that Minnesota’s political system is the more online as percentage of total political activity than anywhere in the world – particularly in terms of private and public online political interaction. I’d like to further develop Minnesota as the most comprehensive and cutting-edge democracy online project. We need to pilot test ideas and generate real lessons for other projects and places around the world. Through importing ideas, adapting online technologies, using Internet-era flexible organizational and partnership frameworks, and active research we can take leading actions toward solving the democracy online puzzle. Our main challenge is to define a useful, easy-to-use, open interactive communication system for policy development, community dialogue and public work.
Minnesota Communities Forum
To move the Minnesota E-Democracy model forward we must establish mechanisms to extend the facilitated online community commons’ across the state – the Minnesota Communities Forum. As the population in any given jurisdiction shrinks, discussions become less ideological and the forum is of more interest to a broader cross section of the population. We must fill out our emerging local partnership models and determine the required resources (volunteer and otherwise) to extend the model from a few cities to hundreds across the state. We also need to create statewide online public issue forums for communities based on cultural, ethnic, and language groups .
We need meaningful “virtual corner coffee shops” or logically placed online meeting points that actually get people out of their homes to community meetings and into the real physical world of community affairs and politics. Think of the Internet as the ultimate ice breaker. In Minneapolis a few of the over 80 neighborhoods are now creating their own forums. How do we extend this activity deeply, comprehensively, and cost-effectively within larger communities just as we would city-wide in a town of 5,000 people or perhaps a rural Minnesota county with 5 people per square mile. This would allow both the sharing of meeting announcements and provide a forum for online discussion that complements local in-person meetings. As others lead efforts to ensure high bandwidth directly connected universal Internet access (fighting for dial-up access isn’t enough) and broader socio-economic use, we must ensure that the Internet matters in real local communities before it is too late to define the medium.
Minnesota Capitol Forum
At the state level we must build from our base. MN-POLITICS is our loud, noisy “online capitol rotunda” where in the physical world people hold their rallies and discuss politics. We need to build the “virtual committee rooms” for serious information exchange, deliberation, and citizen involvement. Establishing 30 or 40 ongoing topical spaces useful for real public policy development would be the heart of the Minnesota Capitol Forum. The online spaces would be geared toward those with a specific legislative issue interest. For example, Environment and Natural Resources or Transportation and Transit and be both a practical tool for sharing announcements and a way to involve the interested public in a deliberative manner. Along with announcement sharing and opt-in discussions, each space should have a shared link directory to key resources, a calendar for related in-person and online events sponsored by the many participating organizations, and a member directory.
These interactive spaces need to become a shared community resource that are managed and facilitated in an unbiased manner such that they can become important communications crossroads that improve public policy development and broaden participation. Working closely with the legislature and others, committee agendas, testimony, agency reports, advocacy alerts, and announcements could be actively shared. Web links or integration of the online spaces into partner sites, especially government and media web sites will be required. Interactive spaces without extensive linking from related legislative committee pages and key policy agency sites the Capitol Forum will not attract enough awareness to warrant building it in isolation.
While Minnesota E-Democracy could be a legal host for the forums, real partnerships would have to be developed to have this be truly “public.” An open planning process, substantial resources and formal partnerships with both bodies in the state legislature, the executive branch via the Governor’s Office, and major Minnesota media web sites will be required. Forum content should be syndicatible to allow integration of content into commercial and other sites, therefore addressing their commercial realities. All the Minnesota Forums would have to become the unofficial designated place for citizen-to-citizen and citizen with government exchange. For example, an e-mail reply from the Governor or Legislator to a citizen would proudly mention in their thank you note – “I also encourage you to participate and make your voice heard in the Minnesota Capitol Forum.” As I have noted pragmatically to government and legislative online leaders, “Wouldn’t you rather have citizen spend time interacting with each other rather than just sending you e-mail all the time.” Creating an active public sphere online can stem the tide of the current one-way flow of protest oriented e-mail to elected officials which I feel is a serious threat to deliberative, representative democracy. Let’s encourage the political forces in society to mix it up publicly online within a context that actually matters in real politics. Let’s generate public opinion as citizens and not wait for the headlines the next day to tell us what we collectively think.
Minnesota Commons and Minnesota Open Forum
The state and local civic forums could be complemented by a set of “public practice” spaces where those involved with solving public problems or various kinds of public and volunteer work could trade ideas, experiences, and advice. And finally, some form of completely self-governing “free” space, Minnesota Open Forum, is requiried. It would function without the more comprehensive rules and guidelines currently used by Minnesota E-Democracy. We have developed extensive rules to keep our forums focused (for example, it is against our rules to post anonymously or more than twice a day). To prevent the tragedy of the online commons (when a few people put too many messages into it and drive the audience away) and to accommodate increasing numbers of interactive citizens you need diverse choices and levels of openness and decorum. Invariably certain individuals based on political convictions, personality, or psychological condition will find themselves afoul of basic forum rules in more structured online spaces. The future of the online public commons depend both upon the ability of any citizen to reach their fellow citizens and public leaders in a group communication setting as well as the ability to defend the group space against threats to it existence. It only takes the concerted action of a few people to drive the participant audience away and destroy the forum. Self-governance is best, but it does not always work. Completely free spaces (newsgroups play this role quite well) would ensure that the Minnesota Forums were not to only interactive spaces in town as well as help ensure that charters and rules hold legitimacy by ensuring a “release valve” for occasional discontent.
As Minnesota E-Democracy approaches the 2000 election we are again promoting election information across the Internet. We like to promote the good work of our partners through our E-Democracy election partnerships. We recently launched our Political Desktop with quick links to a few hundred of the best Minnesota political, government, and media resources and finished a very successful Winter U.S. Senate candidate online debate. We have learned that people turn to the Internet when there is a scarcity of information, therefore online events early in the political process add the most value. These special events require hundreds of volunteer hours to produce. While many good intentioned Internet projects fold when their budgets run out, we don’t fold because we don’t have a budget. We expand slowly based on volunteer capacity, use donated web space from Onvoy (formerly Minnesota Regional Net) and cobble together free services from across the Internet for such things as e-mail lists. As an organization we are now seeking grant possibilities and individual donation options that would move us from a strictly volunteer-based non-profit toward a model that would allow us to extend and deepen our activities as described above. Deepening the practice in Minnesota as pilot to the world is the best way I can think of contributing to the closure of the online interactive civic gap in democracy online. Actions speak louder than words or abstract theories, but will only have a real impact if those actions are based on a deep sense of democratic commitment and purpose.
8 – Conclusion – Now the Big Picture, Make that the Bigger Picture
I presented what I know about the democracy online sectors. I talked about the importance of influencing the Internet infrastructure. I highlighted Minnesota E-Democracy and its possibility. I now want to conclude with a discussion of the “Public Internet” and what I am doing to best contribute to future of democracy online. We each need to do our part.
I helped start Minnesota E-Democracy when I was 24. I recently turned 31. The other week my grandfather died after a happy and hard working 92 years. My cousin prompted a last visit to my grandfather at my aunt’s home with an e-mail a few days before he died. Even in 1940 my grandfather took my grandmother to the midwife via horse and sleigh when my father was born. They lived on a farm in the far north of Minnesota where electricity did not come until my father was a toddler. Despite advances in technology, all they could raise successfully in that harsh climate were new rocks in the fields each spring. Within ten years they had to abandon the farm for carpentry work in the city. I recall showing my grandfather digital pictures on my laptop from one of my speaking trips abroad. I asked myself, what would this medium have meant to a man who was involved in his township board and spent retirement years back on the old farm lands writing letters to editor trying to get a crumbling bridge that connected them to county road replaces. I then think about my grandmother on my mother’s side who at 75 after being on the Internet for two weeks sent me my first web-based birthday card. What can this medium mean to her, my mother’s father and their eight kids and twenty-six grandchildren, and the small community many of them live in and near? What does this mean to people? Real people?
While many rush to change the world or make a billion dollars in a day on the Internet, most end up giving up three hours later. I think a long-term, sustained approach is required to fully realize the potential of the Internet in our public lives. The next few years are absolutely vital in terms of establishing the expectation that Internet is and can be used for public purposes. To make the case that non-commercial applications are essential and as noble as commercial work, I argue for a “radical incrementalist” approach. Whether you work in a “democracy online sector” or come at this from a citizen perspective, what two or three simple but important things can you do to incrementally contribute to democracy online? Quit waiting for the pie in the sky plan to be finished or magic funding to get started. The Internet advances based on trial and error with sudden bursts that lead to major improvements based on simple, yet universally applicable radical innovations.
Over the last few years, most of the “raw materials” I compiled in this article were shared in small pieces over via my Democracies Online Newswire moderated e-mail announcement list <http://www.e-democracy.org/do>. With over 1100 members around the world, this service has brought together the “democracy online community” from across the sectors I explored in this article. Democracies Online is a space where I provide outreach and information sharing services as a “public good.” My consulting work for the Markle Foundation <http://www.markle.org> has in many ways has cross-subsidized this voluntary service. All along I have envisioned a set of public and private online spaces for complementary peer-to-peer exchange. I am slowly but surely developed those forums. The public Networking Neighborhoods Online Forum is now open with 150 participants. The currently government-only forum on Public Portals is under development. And soon the Parliaments Online Forum, open to those who work directly in parliaments, will have its official launch with a letter signed by online staff from over ten countries. Each sector within the democracy online community, whether those who run the web sites of world leaders or political section editors of media and portal web sites, could use an organized forum for ongoing peer-to-peer exchange. We could also use occasional online events and conferences to foster cross sector sharing of lessons and experiences.
What can we do together that won’t happen otherwise? What public goals can we achieve through the Internet that require us to work in different ways? It seems clear that adapting existing institutions, public, private or non-profit will not suffice. We need to create “Public Internet” partnerships and new mediating institutions that allow the advantages of online competition sweeping the world of commerce to enter the public world through the form of collaboration. Collaboration is the disintermediating force that existing forms of public problem-solving resist because it requires change. We need to envision our public goals five or ten years out, set aside our existing institutional frameworks and ask how we might best serve these long-term and Internet-era public goals in the information age. To do this we need to create a mechanism for public leadership in this area and trusted hosts for collaboration without the barnacles of past public interest turf wars. In some sense we need to prevent .com-munism from limiting .org-anizing for public .gov-ernance. Not everything will be commercial nor will all non-profit models survive. One insight – not everything in commercial markets can be supported without collaborative efforts involving non-commercial actors. Cooperation can often take competition to the next level where the pie is much larger.
I have come to the conclusion that the long term goals of Minnesota E-Democracy will require the “commons” to be integrated into a much broader public interest “Public Internet” effort. Reflecting on my government online experience, I see now that it is not just about presenting government as an isolated set of hierarchical agencies through a “public portal.” The motivations behind public broadcasting and things like traffic and weather information services need to be established for the digital era. We need to make broad “public” and community information, services, and interaction available across the Internet. We must create standardized mechanisms to promote the distributed aggregation of public content and public interaction spaces for broad dissemination. And most importantly, like the Netscape Open Directory <http://www.dmoz.org> encourage sites across the Internet to integrate “public” directory information and essential content into their web sites. Non-commercial sites can remain ad free, but the most important public services will now find a distributed home across diverse sites and in some cases the best and most essential public and community content will be broadcast universally via digital broadcasting. I see no reason, other than complacency and an unwillingness to work together for missing children reports, crime alerts, and perhaps school lunch menus to not one day be available to all via digital television datacasting <http://www.egroups.com/group/do-edtv>.
And the truth is that no state or country can go it alone. To serve the public interest online in my home state we need to leverage the trends of the global Internet. This is a completely different way of working than the historical model of the innate “Minnesota model” development. Maybe it is the water? We can do better by importing the best ideas and lessons from around the world, improving upon them and sharing the results.
I am now in the very early stages of developing the Public Internet Consortium concept. This umbrella effort would foster the creation of a well-funded international partnership to promote efforts to apply existing Internet standards and influence emerging open standards in the public interest. This would be a more practical, technology-oriented approach which would complement the other distinct efforts to raise public interest voices in the more political Internet governance debate. The Public Internet could be a host for pilot initiatives, public service-focused open source software applications, and outreach and educational efforts broader than my current Democracies Online effort. Promotional public interest efforts, like my Citizen Forum 21 proposal and the efforts of others might also find a home. Citizen Forum 21 <http://www.publicus.net/cf21> would declare a month for citizen participation across the Internet and promote hundreds of interactive online special events around the world. I’d like to create the organizational capacity to introduce over a million new Internet users to potential on online civic engagement through interactive events sponsored all the democracy online sectors. This may or may not fit my incremental step model, but it would sow the seeds for a whole generation of civically engaged Internet users. This is the conclusion – time to think big.
The Public Internet Consortium would necessarily involve all Internet sectors with distributed efforts based in different countries. It will require extensive start-up funding from foundations, ongoing support by governments and private sector members, and be specifically designed to work closely with and complement the work of broader Internet standards groups or technical developments. This is not about creating a public interest island, but about providing the leadership and support required to fill the giant gap in public interest Internet development.
Through the year 2000 I plan to further develop proposals based on the Public Internet Consortium concept to determine if significant interest exists. We can do this now or wait twenty years. I’d rather act now. Join me.