Issues Forums – Evolving for the Future, More Failure = More Served


The Issues Forum model is always evolving. While real names and civility remain central, over the last few years we’ve being going even more local – be that at the neighborhood level or in smaller rural towns.

Now that we have 25 forums across 15 communities, our central support costs are now measurable and growing. The successful fund drive helped secure participant technical support (provided by Ed Davis) well into 2010 and he is now putting in extra hours to help make our forums readable via Twitter and Facebook as well as our standard e-mail, e-mail digest, web forum, and web feed options.

Carol Hayward, formerly an e-democracy expert for Bristol City Council in the UK and now based in New Zealand, helped us rework the text for our Issues Forum Guide for our Blandin Foundation funded Rural Voices initiative in Minnesota. We are cutting it back from the original 60 page version commissioned by UK government and adding new material from our recent webinars.

Let me fess up here and say, I just haven’t dug in with my full edits, but that is no reason not to share the working drafts.

Why? We are adapting the model in real-time.

The reality is this – E-Democracy’s “home office” primarily serves as a support team for our local volunteer Forum Managers. They are the lynch pin. They facilitate each forum and help bring it to life by seeding topics when discussions are light. The local “teams” or committees that we form with start-up efforts – do just that – they help launch a forum and then go mostly dormant. The local committee or chapter model, while still an option for local communities, is far more labor intensive to sustain as a fully functioning “club” than focusing ongoing support on the one person (typically) who does the heavy lifting locally anyway.

We do see a vital need to define and support additional volunteer roles such as outreach and information seeking and discussion seeding, but we are in the process of refining our support materials to acknowledge the primacy of the local Forum Manager as the clear local leader and their discretion in what kind of local support team, committee, or full chapter with elected officers, etc. they desire. If these reforms are adopted by the Board, Forum Managers will be able to replace themselves directly, consult their virtual team (going back to the start-up committee which has an internal online group) on a replacement or local help they need, appoint volunteers with titles or simply just do what they do best – facilitate their local forum and seed topics of discussion from time to time. We will also be considering a network-wide appeals committee on rules violations instead of doing this community by community (we’ve had one official appeal in the last two years).

Over the last year, with over 25 Issues Forum Managers (current and retired) in a private mutual support network, they are providing increasing amounts of advice and support to each other. So, along with our civility/rules framework and technology hosting, the primary reason for a new community to join us is to connect with your forum leader peers to support local online engagement as a team and not in an isolated manner with everything on your shoulders.

What this also means is that we can now open ourselves up to far more failure! And success in more communities.

If you, and you alone, want to try starting an Issues Forum in your community or neighborhood, and are confident you can recruit the required 100 participants to open, go for it. While we prefer a local start-up committee that helps shape your forum’s charter and circulates paper sign-up forms at community events (the easiest way to get to 100 participants by far), the “committee” requirement should no longer be a stumbling block to give an Issues Forum a try. This does mean that we will have many more forum start-up attempts that do not reach the critical mass required to open. We will have forums that are abandoned by their Forum Manager with no local support base to find the next volunteer. However, in the end we will end up serving many more communities and participants successfully by making it far easier to get started. The odds are that if at least 100 people are interested in participating, most of the forums will have ongoing posts and there will be at least one person willing to take over when the current Forum Manager seeks to move on. Whether “most” is 95% or 51% only time will tell.

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