DRAFT 1.0 - Steven Clift
Issues Forums received the honour of being choosen for independent evaluation by the Oxford Internet Institute as commissioned by the UK Local e-Democracy National Project. We encourage you to read their findings as we continously work to improve our citizen-based "global model for local e-democracy."
We do want to clarify a some items before you read the full evaluation:
- 2 for 1, not 2 for 4 - E-Democracy.Org was required to launch one pilot local Issues Forum in the UK. We launched two. Citizens in additional communities expressed interest, but were not ready to launch during the pilot phase.
- Training - Training materials built on the 60 page Issues Forum guidebook and multimedia E-Democracy Experience included many one-on-one meetings and telephone conversations were provided to Forum Managers and local steering committee members. We consider this type of training to be more effective than "formal" classroom style training.
- Interview-based evaluation - The Oxford evaluation was based on interviews with both steering committee leaders and councillor participants. The ideals and goals they articulated went beyond the Issues Forum model as imported (we require real names to build social trust for example). The interviews do bring out new ideas and goals that must be considered in future Issues Forum expansions. The evaluation did not evaluate many of the deliverables set out in the Project Initiation Document including the print training and multimedia materials which covered a third of the budget. The evaluation did mention the important open source technology advancement with GroupServer. A future evaluation of the cost-effectiveness (of what we consider is a low cost model) would provide real value. Also, unlike almost all of the other National project pilot projects, this effort was citizen-based and not legally owned or controlled by the local Councils in Brighton & Hove or Newham. While being citizen-led was one reason we were asked to share our model, this difference (what we see as a strength) has led to some confusion and usefu creative tension. (See the end of the guidebook for a full discussion of the potential role of Councils.)
- Social Inclusion - The most important challenge laid out by the Oxford evaluation is around social inclusion. While we pragmatically reach out to active citizens and community leaders in order to place the forum in the centre of real power - the "egg" - what about the "chicken" where the less engaged citizens act and join as well? How should we reach out to those less likely to participate? What resources will be required to do so successfully? We call this New Voices outreach. In our own case study notes released before the evaluation we stated that "The one short coming of our development process that must be shored up is the creation of a temporary recruitment position to assist with the launch of a local forum ... A key assignment of this person would be to lead outreach to diverse communities in order to launch a forum with a broad range of voices in the community."
- Legal ownership and liability - There is no question about who in the end "owns" these forums. They are part of E-Democracy.Org and governed by the local steering committees. This was established in our contract with the National Project. Further our universal rules make it clear that participants are liable for their own posts and we do not pre-moderate posts in order to limit our organisational liability as a potential "publisher." Ultimately E-Democracy.Org is responsible for the direction of these forums and for the support of the local steering committee/chapter governance structure now and after the national project closes.
- English language - None of our Issues Forums have an official language. The topic was discussed at a Newham steering committee meeting, but no action was taken nor were statements made to forum participants or posted in the forum charters.
- Facilitated not Moderated - The evaluation suggests that our Issues Forums are "moderated." To some, facilitated or moderated may seem like different shades of grey. To us it is black and white. Not technically, editorially, or politically moderating posts before they are distributed is central to our facilitation model. We limit our power as hosts by not moderating and therefore avoiding "technical" opportunities to censor. Because members may be sanctioned for violating our rules, we give them the responsibility to be civil and treat people like adults. Participants, therefore have the power to engage in virtual acts of civil disobedience (and risk warnings, even temporary suspensions) in ways that all participants can see.
- Decision-making versus Agenda-setting - We suggest that how you evaluate a government-sponsored and controlled online consultation and its influence on decision-making should be different from a citizen-to-citizen Issues Forum where a goal is the potential to influence public agenda-setting by fostering the creation of new public opinion through many-to-many online public spaces. Influencing the formal Council democratic process is important, but that has never been a core part of the Issues Forum model. Our discussions are more likely to directly influence individual elected officials and public leaders informally than result in some quantifiable influence on a formal decision-making structure. With greater investment and professionalized (versus an all local volunteer) model, Issues Forum might become more like online consultations. However, we've focused on keeping the model low cost and oriented to agenda-setting. On that point, thus far, we are not specifically aware of local UK discussions that have led to local media coverage of issues. This "agenda-setting" leap happens frequently on our Minneapolis and St. Paul forums and it should be fostered in the UK Issues Forum communities.
- Numbers - The evaluation contains results from a March 2005 survey. These are useful numbers. In future evaluation we might recommend a full comparative survey of all our forum members (UK and US) building on the Oxford and these previously asked survey questions. Other chapters of the evaluation contain useful numbers on participants and postings in other pilots. Here are some useful numbers we compiled on July 5:
- As of July 5, 2005, the 184 "direct" members of the Brigton & Hove Issues Forum have produced 979 posts on over 100 topics (192 different subject lines). Via our web interface over 11,000 posts/topics have been viewed to date (including unregistered readers). In the week stretch from Jun 19-25, 29 different people, including three of the six posting councillors, shared messages on seven topics. (As of Oct. 12, there are now 202 members with 1215 posts total. Posting volume in Brighton slowed in August and is now regaining steam.)
- In Newham, with 109 members, postings volume has grown more slowly with 192 post on fewer than 50 topics. (As of Oct. 12, posting volume has grown to 486 posts on about 100 topics with 126 members.)
We thank the Oxford Internet Institute, Prof. Stephen Coleman and Giles Moss in particular, for chosing Issues Forums from so many different pilot projects for evaluation. After over a decade of direct e-democracy practice, we note the lack of research that challenges or guides the real implementation of on the ground e-democracy initiatives that aspire to enhance democracy not just help a candidate or political party win and election. Their evaluation challenges other researchers to not just study "what is," but to create knowledge to help those who are working for "what could be."
You may access the e-Democracy from the Ground Up evaluation from the UK Local e-Democracy National project web site.