One of the advantages of the Issues Forum model, that E-Democracy.Org is very proud of, is the fact that Issues Forums are designed to engage elected officials in open community discussions. Often, elected officials are engaged as “lurkers” who read the forum, seldom post, but often respond to participants in private (either answering questions or seeking information on community issues). Participating as an elected official in an Issues Forum, requires some skill, patience, and somewhat thick skin. Skeptical members of our forums have been know to be frustrated at what appears to be a lack of response from elected officials:
“I have decided to leave the list for two reasons – the level of discussion is very weak, with little or no evidence that the elected representatives ever change their opionion or stance as a result of comments, just lurch into defensiveness.” Brighton & Hove: Topic 102975
However, as this Brighton & Hove councilor points out (next quote), Issues Forums can bring attention to issues in the community and help residents organize, but given the diverse and sometimes limited range of opinions that come up in an individual Issues Forums, we must be careful not to expect too much from an Issues Forum alone.
“Councillors do take note (at least those on the list) but it is difficult to “change things” when there is no consensus in the discussions, when opinions are mostly from a very few people who therefore cannot be seen to be representative and when much of the discussion is not as informed as it could be. ……. I see my role (as a local councilor) not as being defensive, but at least trying to pick up specific issues and answer queries when I can, and give information so that people can take the issues further if they wish. I also pass on points when appropriate – eg suggestions about cycling etc. In the end democracy cannot be run as a plebiscite on every issue that comes up on the list.” Brighton & Hove: Topic 103054
In reality, Issues Forums are just one of many mechanisms by which citizens communicate with each other and elected officials. While, ideally a successful Issues Forum will have an impact in the community it serves, its not always as easy to SEE the impact as folks would like. Issues Forums are not designed to solve the problem of citizen participation in local decisions, but they are designed to play an important role in the complex system by which communities discuss issues and make decisions.