October 2009 E-Democracy News — From the Executive Director

From the Executive Director

Photo of Steve Clift E-democracy dot Org Executive Director

Participation 3.0 – Big Ideas for Engaging Citizens in Public Participation

Last month, I asked if you’ve exchanged e-mail addresses with your neighbors. I fundamentally believe that building democracy online starts locally – that’s why we’ve invested so much time in growing local Issues Forums.

In the past year, we have significantly expanded the communities and neighborhoods we serve. And the best part of this effort is that it truly starts locally – with individuals from a local community coming together to create a civic forum that addresses the unique needs of that community.

What this shows us is that our Issues Forum model is highly transferable – any community can take the framework we’ve developed and make it their own. It doesn’t happen overnight, but it does happen when a small group of community members commit to the effort.

So what’s next?

With our fundamentally two-way and interactive, user-generated content, we have been part of the “Web 2.0” movement since we created the world’s first election information site in 1994 that accidentally lived on past election day because we allowed participation by design. (We jokingly call ourselves Internet 1.0 before the one-way Web 1.0 messed everything up.) Now after the 2008 election the rest of the “e” world has caught our participation bug, and projects and ideas on how to use the Internet for citizen engagement and government transparency between elections are spreading like wild fire. Most will fail to build an audience before they have a chance to make a difference. But some will succeed, and we want to help the best ideas and project “go deep” and go local.

How does that connect to Issues Forums?

One Minneapolis neighborhood today has 10 percent of households, over 400 participants, interacting every day on a local issues forum.  Every day. Wow.

Is this a success? What we do know is that the majority of online projects seeking to engage people in governance and community fail due to the lack of participants. Where our projects make in-roads, they come through effective outreach and recruitment. The nut we’ve seemed to crack is how to generate real and increasingly diverse participation (see emerging lessons from Frogtown, Cedar Riverside, and Cass Lake). Our recent outreach in the predominantly immigrant neighborhoods gives us a glimpse of what needs to be next. And in the majority Native American area covered by our Cass Lake Leech Lake forum, Patty Smith in a YouTube interview says their local forum has led her to interact more with non-Natives now than at any time since she’s lived on the reservation. Humbling and important work that is making a difference.

So imagine the power of largest base of e-participants as a percent of the local population gathered in an onilne civic engagement project anywhere in the world. Neighbors are starting to knock on our door asking for Issues Forums. That local momentum, combined with your donations, grants, online sponsorship — and perhaps even some ads — to support diverse community outreach, we can reach 10% of households across Minneapolis and St. Paul or 30,000 everyday participants. With time, resources, and partnerships, that is what we can do here and everywhere across our 15 community network together.

Participation 3.0
From this base real participants we’re hoping to blow this whole e-democracy concept wide open with the new Participation 3.0 initiative we’re proposing. In simple terms, the concept involves taking the E-Democracy.Org tools for everyday online citizen participation and combine this audience with emerging, “next generation” online civic engagement features.

We’d like to develop these features in an open, agenda-setting manner that influences opportunities for local online government transparency, media accountability and civic engagement everywhere. Everywhere.

We’re open to using free services that can be “mashed-up” – leveraging third-party tools like Twitter or YouTube as it makes sense – and moving thousands of local people into greater participation that solves public problems and increases public engagement in communities and governance.

We propose to start in Minnesota, where we have the greatest established presence, with future plans to extend our work “locally everywhere” as well as open source our lessons so people in other communities can take our lessons, technology, and “democracy” data we generate/gather and do their own thing if they prefer.

But we can’t get there without you.

We’ve been working to generate interest among foundations to help us deepen our Issues Forums experience with greater outreach and volunteer role development and to fund our new Participation 3.0 effort. But the reality of our depressed economy is that there are social needs which most locally-oriented foundations have deemed more pressing at this time. You can’t blame them. While our “new” project ideas are generating interest from national funders, existing Issues Forums have basic costs that need to be covered. Luckily, our local volunteers cover 90% of the estimated “cost” to bring this network to life. This leaves 10% in real costs that require cash for our technology, participant technical support, basic outreach and forum manager support. With existing Issues Forum grant funded projects coming to a close, in 2010 we need to be a lot more creative in generating revenue that keeps things moving along. We also need to make sure Issues Forums have the dedicated support required to hold their own as we unleash new grant-funded Participation 3.0 projects.

If our Issues Forum participants and general supporters donated at least $10US (6 GBP, $13.50NZ) we’d have at least $60,000 US which with to thrive each year. Even if we average $2 a participant, we can cover our absolute minimal costs next year.

We know everyone can’t afford to donate and regardless of whether people donate, in a “democracy” project everyone must be treated equally. Thankfully, in the UK where we have been told many times that people expect that their taxes have already paid for this kind of activity, the Local Councils in Oxford and Bristol have agreed to a small fee covering part of their forum hosting costs. So initially we will be focusing on the most established U.S. Issues Forums with fund raising. We will actively ask for donations. We may experiment with sponsorship and advertising.

Ultimately, you the participants have the power. You get to “right size” the services E-Democracy.Org provides first to our volunteers who in turn serve your communities with their time. You get to determine the speed of participant technical support, the resources available to support inclusive outreach to raise new voices, and whether together as a network with shared technology and mutual support we are stronger working together than in isolation.

In the coming weeks, we will be responding to foundation interest in our Participation 3.0 draft and we’re interested in your ideas, as well. We propose to collaboratively generate open and detailed specifications so next generation features, inspired or influenced by you can be tested, improved, and then shared. We know local participants have the greatest passion for these tools.  Not only can your support help further direct our efforts, but your insights and donations can make our case to foundations that much stronger.

To be local everywhere, you need to be local somewhere first. By building a deeply participatory and diverse base of “e-citizens,” then new local e-democracy features have a chance.

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