Issues Forums in the UK, Meet Tim Erickson in November at London E-Democracy 07 Conference

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:

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.

Executive Summary

Issues Forums are a model for community discussion groups and a piece of software supplied by 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.

Steven Clift

9 thoughts on “Issues Forums in the UK, Meet Tim Erickson in November at London E-Democracy 07 Conference”

  1. We, at Gallomanor, wrote the report for ICELE about a year ago. Unfortunately the publication of the report was delayed and the promotion of the publication was indeed low-key.

    Any implicit criticism of Issue Forum in the report was minor. Our criticism was mostly reserved for the lack of understanding that councils had about the role that community discussion boards could play.

    Now we simply tell councils that online discussions will take place. They only have to decide whether to take part in them or not.

  2. Personally I’d agree that local democracy will be significantly strengthened by the launch of an Issues Forum, but I think there is a potential problem for councils if they provide funding for it.

    Steven says that on the Issues Forum model the council is not liable for what happens in the forum. In the UK context that might not be true, for a forum that accepted council funding.

    The legally backed code of recommended practice on local authority publicity says that councils funding others to issue publicity must impose the same rules on them as would apply to the council itself, and monitor their compliance. It’s not clear in law whether what goes on in an online forum is “issuing publicity”, but it’s not surprising if many councils are scared of finding out the hard way.

    If it’s feasible to launch the forum without council money, then simply telling the council that it’s happening, as Shane suggests, looks better to me. I can’t think of a good reason for a council to be scared of taking part in that context.

  3. Can someone remind me whether Tim’s in London before the event, please?

    I thought I saw that emailed somewhere, but I seem to have deleted the mail, can’t find it online and can’t seem to login or do a password reset on the forums site.

  4. The report was originally commissioned for internal consumption by ICELE after inheriting the national project outputs. It was felt that an independent perspective was necessary to balance the internal mindset. The views therein do not necessarily reflect those of ICELE.

    Shane did a very thorough job and it makes for interesting reading. Afterward the board decided to publish the findings for transparency sake’.

  5. MJ, I’ll let Tim blog his schedule. As you can imagine he is on the mad dash to get on the plane Friday evening.

    Pete, since Issues Forums are fundamentally about two-way dialog and not one-way publicity and the code says:

    8. The Code does not affect the ability of local authorities to assist charities and voluntary organisations which need to issue publicity as part of their work, but it requires local authorities, in giving such assistance, to consider the principles on which the Code is based, and to apply them accordingly.

    … I think council interested in funding this voluntary sector-based model are in the clear. The last thing we want is the fear of what lawyers *might* say stopping an in-depth exploration of local council funding for e-democracy models that actually work and save the taxpayers money compared to government-only solutions.

    One of the reasons E-Democracy.Org needs to firm up a path for ongoing council support is that our UK participants made it pretty clear in our participant survey they think council funding is essential and were much cooler to the idea of giving voluntary individual contributions. With UK funding of the BBC it does follow that British citizens have high expectations for what government supports in terms of promoting an informed and vibrant democracy.

    Fraser, thank you for the clarification. When our Brighton forum leaders applied to the Ministry of Justice’s democratic Innovation Fund, they cited the evaluation in follow-up questions to us. So they words written there matter.

    Steven Clift

  6. Steven responded to my comment: “The last thing we want is the fear of what lawyers *might* say stopping an in-depth exploration of local council funding”.

    I absolutely agree – but I think the fear is out there. I’d like to be able to agree with Steven that it’s unfounded, but I don’t. (Can Issues Forums guarantee that nobody will use them for one-way publicity?). I am *not* saying it’s illegal for councils to fund Issues Forums; I’m saying there’s a small risk that it might be, as a side effect of rules that were certainly intended for a very different context.

    So I think the right way to deal with this issue is to encourage councils to understand the risk, face the fear and do it anyway. The benefits are clear enough, and (IMHO) councils should not always be as risk averse as their lawyers might recommend.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *