We’ve now officially closed our Rural Voices grant from the Blandin Foundation and thought we’d share the full 10 page evaluation with you. Our four rural Minnesota forums continue as all volunteer local enterprises within our 15+ community network.
Your further input and comment welcome.
A couple of excerpts …
1. Please restate the goals of your grant.
Promote the voice of rural Minnesotans through the Internet within their local communities…by creating meaningful connections among local people using online tools.
2. What progress have you made toward these goals?
- E-Democracy.org with local volunteers helped launch four local Issues Forums in rural Minnesota successfully:
- Three directly supported by the grant in Bemidji, Cass Lake/Leech Lake, and Cook County
- The fourth in Grand Rapids in conjunction with KAXE’s Northern Community Internet Project
- We demonstrated the value of in-person outreach efforts to reach the 100 members required for successful start-up. This included the effective use of paper sign-up sheets to recruit people for an online forum.
- We introduced the use of “citizen media” to raise rural voices through our regional in-person citizen media outreach meetings/events in Fergus Falls, Winona, Bemidji, Cass Lake, and Grand Rapids. Attendance varied from 5 to 20. Ironically, the smallest event in Cass Lake/Leech Lake led to the most successful forum launch.
- We hosted a citizen media/Issues Forum webinar with over 30 attendees.
- The slides with audio are available on-demand from: http://e-democracy.org/webinars
- Our updated Issues Forum Guide is available as a working draft from: http://pages.e-democracy.org/Issues_Forum_Guide
- We leveraged project outreach to include Issues Forum volunteers in the Blandin-sponsored Minnesota Voices Unconference: http://e-democracy.org/unconf
- Bemidji and Cass Lake received second site visits in fall 2009 that included volunteer interviews, “information seeking” training, and forum picnics.
- Issues Forums are creating meaningful connections that are opening up and influencing the direction of local public life – although it is important to note that these forums are in their early days. As these are designed to last for years at a low actual cost, we expect that future research, and evaluation of the long-term results of this rural expansion and the full Issues Forum network and experience will be extremely useful.
… skipped a bunch …
F. Lessons Learned
1. What lessons have you drawn? What helped or hindered your efforts?
Many of our lessons are interspersed above. Below are a few additional reflections:
- Support for the local Forum Manager is what matters most. Local committees mostly function as start-up teams. The resources to establish them as something more like “service clubs” are more effort than is required for a basic start-up. We are streamlining our model to allow just one person to take charge of this idea locally while focusing the local team on start-up. This new approach is detailed here. While we would like to invest in full local committee activities, during these economic times we do not see the support emerging for that level of effort.
- The tepid response from rural elected officials is the most dramatic difference from our urban experience. Grey-area questions generated by general legal advisories provided by the League of Cities (https://www.lmnc.org/media/document/1/electroniccommunications.pdf) are likely part of the cause. Such commentaries lump public online forums with private group e-mail communications, and suggest the exposure of even one elected official’s interactions with the public to a quorum of members could violate the state Open Meeting Law. With future launches, we recommend making brief presentations to elected bodies and encouraging resolutions that support such online efforts in their community. At various times our forums have been linked to by local government websites and in one case a forum start-up with directly sponsored by a city government as part of its community visioning effort; those kinds of connections should be sought again.
- While not specific to this project, we remain bullish on the value of Issues Forums hosted by E-Democracy.org, but are considering ways to better train and educate others on how to adapt our lessons and techniques to build other types of forums in their own communities. To further our mission, we are exploring a relationship with the http://GroupsNearYou.com site hosted by mySociety.org to promote local online communities, as well as hosting a peer-to-peer learning space for all local forum managers (http://forums.e-democracy.org/groups/localsonline).If 90% of the actual cost of Issues Forums is covered through volunteer capacity, the continued necessary subsidy of the other 10% for 25+ forums across 15 communities must be addressed before we can expand aggressively to new communities. We do not yet have the capital required to experiment with business models that generate sufficient revenue, even $5 per participant per year, through sponsorship, advertising, or participant donations.We are experimenting with a volunteer-built service called Neighborly, at http://e-democracy.org/neighborly, which would allow people to connect privately in small groups with those who live nearest them. We see this working in rural areas as well. This service would connect people into public issues forums where they exist, but going to scale would require a path for local sponsorship and advertising combined with the ability to serve people without needing volunteer teams to get started (you could support them later).
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