Tim Erickson will be visiting the UK in early November to check in with our growing network of council-wide and neighbourhood level Issues Forums. This includes a pre-conference event tied to Headstar’s E-Democracy 07 conference on November 8. Details were posted to our Liftoff online group. Liftoff is where you join if you are interested in starting a new forum in your community or run something independent and want to trade notes.
Speaking of the UK, an evaluation of the UK Local E-Democracy National Project pilots for the International Centre for Excellence in Local e-Democracy flew by us earlier in the year. Unlike the excellent Bristol report, we missed this one.
Here is what they said in the report on page 19 about Issues Forums:
Once established, Local Issues Forums provide “any time, anywhere” opportunities for local citizens participate in their communities on a sustained basis based on citizen interest. They consist of online discussion boards and accompanying guidance material to make the forum sustainable.
Issues Forums are a model for community discussion groups and a piece of software supplied by e-Democracy.org of Minnesota, USA. As a model they seem sound and successful in Minnesota and Brighton and Hove and the software is simple and impressive.
Both the model and the software have plenty of competition with a plethora of hosted and not-hosted discussion board software and a variety of models which all meet the basic requirement of providing a convenient space to discuss local issues.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Issues Forum is the lack of take-up. Nobody thought discussion forums were a bad thing, (although one respondent was concerned about the potential for abuse), but there is a split between some councils believing “ownership” of the forum is important and those who feel that the council can’t own the Forum. Also the need for forums to fit into a wider engagement strategy has probably held some councils back as they formulate those strategies.
Ultimately though it would seem as one respondent put it “councils are just scared of forums they can’t control and don’t have the resource to pre-moderate”. ICELE’s role should be to help councils get over this fear. Help them to take the risk by promoting the upsides and guiding them on minimizing the potential downsides.
The two main actions that we recommend for ICELE are:
1. Promote the benefits of community discussion forums to Councillors and officers. Make it easier for Democratic Services Officers to get approval for supporting forums.
2. Research and promote alternate ways for councils to support local discussion groups either through providing forums, finance, or
This might seem a bit negative, but in the context of the full report, Issues Forums did very well.
Earlier the report also pointed out “‘golden nuggets’ [that] deserve to be pulled out and published in a more accessible format” including a section of our Issues Forum guide book starting on page 52. So here is the text in a more accessible format on our wiki.
In summary, this section tells local councils in the UK how to roll their own Issues Forum. Why? Because E-Democracy.Org’s Issues Forum are fundamentally a citizen-centered model and not government directed. If a council wants a more controlled model independent from our shared network, they would need to adapt our lessons to their situation.
That said, we’d rather have more councils, just as Bristol and Oxford councils have engaged us post-pilot phase with neighbourhood forums, work with us directly. A council and their local democracy will be significantly strengthened by funding the launch of an Issues Forum in their area. They also have the added benefit of not being liable for what happens nor face the potential political pressure to close it down or be called censors. So the evaluation reports interview quote that “councils are just scared of forums they can’t control and don’t have the resource to pre-moderate,” highlights the misunderstanding that Issues Forum are similar to government hosted consultations. While most of the National Project and today’s ICELE focus is on e-democracy choice of local councils, Issues Forums are a choice of local communities – meaning citizen volunteers and the local council working together in a strictly non-partisan, non-commercial manner to create meaningful online public space that connects citizens to one another within the context of local governance. The reason the model works and is probably the most cost-effective e-democracy investment a council has (we encourage councils to first fund the start-up and recruitment phase (~10K GBP)while we help build the the long-term voluntary sector based support structure, then councils could provide smaller yearly funding for social inclusion outreach in particular) is that from the start we make it clear that the value of the forum is based on what citizens put into it and by attracting a critical mass of participation then local councillors, civil servants, and the local media will engage based on realistic, real-world political considerations. It short, while government can help kick-start the process and from time to time demonstrate that is it listening to the conversation, the success of the forum is in the hands of community as a whole. Local democracy is about everyone in the local community not just formal institutions.
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