A Comparison of Issues Forums

I am currently the Forum Manager for the E-Democracy.Org project in Roseville, Minnesota (The Roseville Issues Forum). Recently, someone posted a short announcement about another forum that opened in a neighboring community. I took a look and decided to write a short comparison of the projects, which I posted to the Roseville Issues Forum. I thought it might be of interest to readers of this blog, here it is……

[RIF] New Forum in Brooklyn Park

I took a look at this site, it is interesting. I’d encourage other folks to take a look as well and think about the differences between online forums in other communities and the Roseville Issues Forum (RIF).

While, I wish the folks in Brooklyn Park the best in their efforts. I’d like to distinguish our own model for online issues forums with what they have started.

#1) RIF does not allow members to post anonymously. In the Brooklyn Park forum, all posts are anonymous. There is no way to tell who or how many people are involved in the discussion. There is no way to hold participants accountable for the information they post there or to follow up with folks privately.

When you attend a town hall meeting, you look around the room and can see who is there. If someone speaks up in opposition to an initiative, you can see who they are and base your response upon their credibility on the issue or their personal interests in the discussion.

In RIF, you can see who is subscribed to the forum: http://forums.e-democracy.org/Roseville/groups/roseville-issues/members AND, you know who is responsible for each post. Each individual member builds or looses credibility based upon the quality of their posts. There is an incentive to post responsibly, although there is no guarantee that everyone will.

#2) The Roseville Issues Forum was launched with almost 100 local residents subscribed, along with the entire city council, school board, and other local committees (we have now reached 150 regular subscribers, not including those who read via the web but have not subscribed). E-Democracy.Org encourages communities to make sure that they have a critical mass BEFORE launching a forum. Organizers must do the hard work of getting out into the community and signing people up, so that the forum is successful from the start. It appears that the Brooklyn Park forum has launched with just two members http://www.brooklynparkcityhall.com/discussion/memberlist.php

While I wish them luck in attracting more members, its very difficult to build momentum on a discussion started with just two participants (but, it is possible).

#3) Email – The Roseville Issues Forum is set up to allow participation via email or thru a web based interface. This is not typical of most online community forums, where users are generally limited to one option or the other. While some folks INSIST upon participating via a web interface, such as the one in Brooklyn Park, many folks do not have the time nor the inclination to go back to the web site day after day, or week after week. The Email option allows us to deliver RIF directly into the email boxes of participants; including elected officials, community leaders, and other low tech citizens for whom web sites can be intimidating. Responding to a Roseville Issues Forum topic is as simple as pushing the “reply to all” button in your email browser.

#4) Civility – While it might not always feel that way, the Roseville Issues Forum is actively managed to keep things civil and respectful. Occasionally, things get a little crazy, but its the job of the Forum Manager to work with participants online and offline to ensure that folks are nice to each other. This includes elected officials.

The Brooklyn Park forum policy is as follows: “This is a self directed Public Web forum. Any mention of Non-Public Figures (NPF) is strictly prohibited. Mention of Non-Public Figures will be expunged from the forum.” In other words, its against the rules to “attack” other members of the forum by name, but it appears that public figures are “fair game.” We believe, that if we expect elected officials to engage with us in this forum, we need to treat them with the same respect we treat each other.

#5) Participation of elected officials – As I mentioned, Roseville Issues Forum launched with the support of the city council and city staff. Its read by folks in city hall, including many who do not post here. Keys to keeping elected officials and city staff involved are:
– easy access (email for some, web for others)
– keeping discussion focused on local issues
– keeping things civil, not allowing it to become a “rant” space
– good content (that is up to participants)

#6) The Roseville Issues Forum belongs to the community. While the city council supported its launch and E-Democracy.Org is providing technical and organizational support, this forum belongs to the community. In the future, this forum will be maintained and managed by a committee of local volunteers, its “Steering Committee.” We are also looking for a local Forum Manager to take over my job.

If you are willing to help us support and maintain this forum, please contact me at.

Tim Erickson

Also, I’m contacting the organizers of the Brooklyn Park forum with an offer to open a dialogue on the effective use of online tools for citizen participation. It would be great if we are able to support and learn from each other.

Best wishes,

Tim Erickson
Temporary Forum Manager
Roseville Issues Forum

2 thoughts on “A Comparison of Issues Forums”

  1. Any luck on contacting the organizers of the Brooklyn Park site? I actually came across your site while looking for theirs. What a difference!! Why would anyone allow all the negative anonymous posting to occur like that? That’s not what a debate is about. They need some serious help in moderating their site. Hopefully they will find it before their city council implodes.

  2. I got a short “anonymous” response from the organizer of their forum – acknowledging my email but not responding to my invitation to meet or talk further.

    I left it at that. I’ve not been back to their site for a while, so I’m not sure what has happened since then.

    Tim Erickson

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