Civic Engagement 101: Issues Forums
Part 2 of 5 – Building Participation
Editor’s Note: Over the next several months, we’ll be including a short article highlighting all the different aspects of starting and running local issues forum. Have a question you’d like us to address? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It’s an old cliché: if you build it, they will come.
But nothing is that simple. If they don’t know you built it, how can they find it?
Building participation in a local issues forum is the second greatest challenge in the process of establishing the forum. And it’s really important to consider how you will build participation and membership before you build the forum.
In part, it’s those same participants who will provide the momentum that ultimately keeps the forum going, so they should be involved in the beginning stages of the effort.
It’s also important to know three key things:
- Be patient – it may take some time to recruit enough participants to get the forum started.
- You need to demonstrate value to participants – you’re competing with blogs, news sites, and other venues for participation. What separates your forum? Be able to convey quickly why your forum is attractive to participants.
- Building membership and participation is more than increasing the forum’s following and numbers. It’s about increasing participants – those who actively post and respond to posts on the forum – which theoretically will increase the depth and diversity of participation in your local issues forum.
Here’s one way issues forums separate themselves – they offer local, many-to-many discussions. And they are available anytime and anywhere the participant chooses. E-Democracy.Org forums allow participation by email, and by the Web. In addition, you don’t have to show up at 7 p.m. every night to weigh in – you are welcome to read posts and share your insights whenever it’s most convenient for you, and from the comfort of your own home if you choose.
The only gatekeeper in an issues forum is the forum manager – a role designed to assure civility and focus to the conversation. There’s no pre-approval of posting, and your posts will remain available for all the world to see.
Conversations are also inherently two-way – no one individual is the “host” of the conversation, and each participant has an equal ability to post and respond.
So where do you begin? Start with people you know, co-workers, neighbors, family members. You can also attend in-person gatherings to meet people, gauge their interest in an online forum, and sign up new members. In addition, here are four tips to consider, which assist with recruitment, as well as assuring diversity of backgrounds and opinions:
The four-legged stool of recruitment
- Citizens: your neighbors, other average folks in your community.
- Media: local journalists often write articles inspired by discussions, which may attract other participants.
- Elected officials: if an official makes a decision based on his or her participation in the forum, it may attract additional attention from the public. It may also encourage other officials to pay attention to conversations on the forum, for ideas.
- Bureaucracy: consider recruiting people who work for government to join the forum. They typically are already civically engaged, and often have invaluable knowledge about how government works. They will also be interested in assuring good information, rather than rumor and incomplete information, are feeding the conversation.
Meet with individuals who represent each of these groups – participation presents various values to each one – from the ability to gauge public sentiment on an issue, to story tips, to finding a voice on local issues. Set a goal to recruit 100 or more people before your forum begins. And send reminders to the forum membership on a periodic basis (once a week, once a month) that participants can forward to others they know.
One of the most effective tools we have for recruitment is the paper sign-up sheet. Adapt the template and circulate at various community meetings and events. Another tool is a simple flyer for coffee shops and other public locations with a short web address people can pull-off (instead of the typical telephone number. We’ve found these techniques are essential to reach beyond those easiest to recruit online.
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