Issues Forum guide alternatives and councils
See blog post for context.
Alternative Methods and Forum Technology As this Issues Forum Guidebook makes clear, technology is only a tool and not the foundation of a Local Issues Forum. While E-Democracy.Org builds its Local Issues Forums using enhanced e-mail list "GroupServer" technology, a local authority (government) may want to run a local forum using alternative web forum software. This can be done. Using a web forum may significantly change the dynamic of the online space in terms of citizen use and expectations. A local authority, or any organisation for that matter, may also use any of the alternative open source e-mail list tools we list below. Key differences between e-mail lists and web forums must be overcome for a web forum to work as an issues forum. For a local authority with a web forum, the issues forum could become a special section within their forum using some of the special rules and facilitation techniques we've found essential to sustain citizen-to-citizen dialogue online.
Key differences to overcome:
1. Location - Push not pull - Daily/regular access to citizens who agree to participate is essential. It is location, location, location. Most citizens spend far more time in their e-mail inbox than anywhere else online. With e-mail lists, the organiser only needs to convince the citizen to say "yes" once. Once subscribed, they can only leave by turning off e-mail delivery. With web forums, the citizen must decide to visit the web forum each time they are online. A forum host must integrate such visits into a citizen’s regular web browsing behaviour - a substantial challenge. The key technical feature a web forum platform must support and have turned on by default is basic e-mail notification of new posts and/or full text digests of new posts. A newer feature an acceptable web forum system should support is RSS headlines. Like many do with blog headlines, this allows people to the scan subject lines of new posts from their own "newsreaders." The forums are then only a click away from participation.
2. Audience Dissipation - E-mail lists can be like a fire hose - it is on or it is off. Normally giving citizens the ability to read only what interests them is considered valuable. Most online communities are focused on highly specialized interests, so web forum technology tends to reinforce a bias that it should be easy to avoid lesser interest topics. Issues forums are designed with a different perspective. Citizens must become exposed to diverse local issues in the "common interest" not just their own special interests. Citizens need to see their pet cause in relation to or in competition with other ideas and priorities in the local community. From a technical perspective, with threaded web forums (where you click to see each post following a tree of sorts) or linear forums (where each post on a topic is places one after another) with lots of topics, actual readership normally declines with each page requiring a click to read. This has a political effect. The deeper you go into a forum, the motivation to post by experts or politically powerful individuals declines due to the perceived lack of audience. People understand that few may be reading a particular post and often look for the “action.” From our experience, with e-mail lists, the active dissemination of posts tends to motivate greater responses from those who are normally too busy to go to a web forum. (However, with email you cannot measure what percentage of posts are read or deleted without opening. We do know from surveys that Internet users are more likely to access their e-mail each day than use the web.) We feel web forums with a linear format are most appropriate for the Local Issues Forums concept and suggest that a special topic or forum section apply a version of our special rules.
3. Access - While more and more people have broadband or always-on Internet connections, quick and economical access to the content along with the ability to easily publish is key. Pressing reply to 53 an e-mail, whether you are a citizen or elected official, is the easiest way to publish online. With e-mail people can compose their message off-line before locking up their phone line. This can help citizens limit local telephone toll charges where they exist, therefore keeping the cost of participation to a minimum. While it is easy to suggest that citizens should be able to post to a web forum via e-mail, most web forum tools require people to post via the web. We highly recommend that you choose a web forum tool (or adapt one) that sends the full text of posts or digests of posts to those who dial-up, download, and disconnect. If your web forum tool has a feature that allows e-mail posting, we encourage you to use that feature.
4. Real Names, Rules, and Facilitation - The use of aliases in web forums are part of the Internet culture. People choose cute or quirky logins (e.g. twinkletoes) that are not particularly meaningful to a local councillor, journalist, or other active citizens. Those with power and influence tend to value statements from people willing to sign their own names. Names also provide average citizens context, and with our local geographic approach protecting one's offline and online reputation promotes more civil discourse. While a local authority could require real names on their whole web forum system (a system they might use for online consultations, as well), we understand that this may be difficult and with some sensitive topics, undesirable. E-Democracy.Org chooses to use real names as an option. We oppose any government-mandated requirement for the use of real names online with political speech. We also acknowledge that the Local Issues Forum model was born in a "safe" democracy where fear of retribution or sanction for ones public expressions from government or others is minimal. However, we do not feel the fear of being ostracised or looked down upon by one’s peers for expressing unpopular political views justifies the anonymous posting in an official E-Democracy issues forum. Those significantly concerned about being held accountable for their public expressions, should express their views in the multitude of online forums with no or different rules. To adapt the Local Issues Forum model to a web forum, a section of the web forum would need additional rules and some level of facilitation. We recommend that you simply require in this section of the web forum, that everyone sign their real name to posts and limit the number or daily posts by one person to two or three per day. Facilitation is key and could come from a citizen volunteer or a civil servant with a special and understood role. We support governments that provide a real names space along side online spaces that support pseudo-anonymity or anonymous speech.
5. Citizen-to-Citizen - The biggest challenge for government-hosted open web forums are the citizen posts that say, "where is the government" or "who is reading our posts." We've seen this "build it they will come and it will run on its own" scenario a number of times. Government "technically" established a web forum but did not prepare for human aspects of the effort. A government forum host must establish realistic expectations among citizen participants. Fujisawa, Japan uses an innovative web forum approach. Their forum topic index uses two columns. The first column offers government initiated topics. The other column contains citizen-determined topics. The government is clear from the start - these are topics on which they need input. Then, with other topics, they note that citizens may choose what to discuss and the government will only participate when they have the time or interest. For a Local Issues Forum to succeed it must be viewed by the citizens as something that they create and are ultimately responsible for in terms of its value to the community. This is true of a government hosted Issues Forum or one that is citizen-based. Citizens must not be placed in a client or service position where the government or host organisation is viewed as having a special obligation to post. The need or motivation to post by public leaders and others should be generated based on political and community value, as well as understanding that participation in the forum "matters" in what they perceive as the "real world." This is what makes an issues forum fundamentally different from a government online consultation where the government's policy or proposal is on the stage and the success of the online event is squarely on the shoulders of the organisers. 54
6. Governance - With E-Democracy's local self-governance model, the local forum manager is accountable to a local steering group of citizens. We feel it is essential to create a political buffer between issues forum administration and top decision makers in government. With technical control of a forum comes the ability to remove or alter posts. This power must be exercised based on agreed policies and practices known to the citizen participants or trust will be undermined when or if discussion altered for any legitimate or illegitimate reason. See our Cost and Benefit appendix in this guidebook for an extended discussion.
7. Open Source Forum Tools - Our project mandate is to list interactive tools that may be installed at no charge on an open source basis by local authorities. Free, but proprietary packages are not listed. Sometimes you get what you pay for and we encourage every organisation to carefully evaluate non-proprietary and proprietary forum and e-mail list packages based on the cost to administer and adapt, not just install.
Open Source Web Forum Tools 1. PHPBB - Mysql/PHP-based - We are monitoring the beta Mail to Forum add-on. http://www.phpbb.com http://www.mail2forum.com 2. MVNForum - Java-based http://www.mvnforum.com/mvnforumweb 3. Snitz Forums - Microsoft ASP-based http://forum.snitz.com
Again, with web forum tools, we recommend that a special topic or space within the forum be declared the Local Issues Forum. You may govern the entire forum system with an issues forum-style rule set, but unless you deploy the forum in such a way that people are exposed or "teased" about issues they might not seek out, the forum system will not bring people together in the common interest. A systemwide technique might be to automatically generate e-mail digest of posts or topic links so people are exposed to activity across the forum. Open Source
E-mail List Tools with Web Archives
1. Mailman - Used widely, poor web archive usability. Used previously by E-Democracy.Org. http://www.list.org
2. Sympa - Slightly more web-integrated. http://www.sympa.org If you are a citizen group with few resources and an interest in creating your own independent forum, you can check out advertising-based "free" forums like YahooGroups, Google Groups, and MSN Groups.
Combined Tools 1. GroupServer is now being released as an open source package under the GPL framework. It uses Zope and advanced XML standards. In order to provide ease of use for users, this sophisticated software is designed for expert level installation. A technical discussion of further e-mail/web forum issues is on our eWeb page. http://www.groupserver.org http://www.e-democracy.org/groupserver http://www.e-democracy.org/center/eweb.html
A comprehensive review of online conferencing tools is available from E-Democracy.Org Board Member David Woolley: http://www.thinkofit.com/webconf
Benefits and Costs Discussion
The main individual stakeholders that naturally do a cost-benefit analysis about their participation in a Local Issues Forum are citizens (active and "average"), local councillors, journalists, and civil servants.
From an organisational-hosting perspective, the local authority, citizen organisers, and voluntary associations need to take the benefits and costs of establishing an issues forum into account.
Individual Benefits and Costs
Issues forums represent the collective community conversation capacity generated by hundreds of individual choices to participate. The more readers or "lurkers" the larger the benefit received to all participants.
Active citizens are looking for an audience who will listen to their views. Local councillors and "average citizens" are looking for something highly relevant to their local community and do not want off-topic national or abstract political philosophy discussions to waste their time. Civil servants want to keep in the loop on issues in the community and correct the information record efficiently.
Journalists and others find issues forums to be particularly valuable when the need to take the pulse of the community or discover emerging trends. The process of finding a citizen or councillor with something new or interesting worth quoting is often quite difficult and the usual or known experts tend to be tapped again and again by the local media. Bringing new and unique voices into the mass media coverage of local issues is one of the most important community benefits of a vibrant issues forum.
Ultimately, the entire design of the issues forum, from the use of real names to posting volume restrictions, is meant to increase the "signal" and "reduce" noise. If the forum takes too much time to follow among those who are genuinely interested in the content, the benefits are reduced. Time scarcity must be appreciated by issues forum organisers.
The Local Issues Forum model pays particular attention to ensuring benefits to readers, while with typical political web forums, newsgroups, and e-mail lists those who post the most typically dominate the oversight of a forum. Such typically alias-based or anonymous political discussion spaces do not work well if your goal is to maximize the audience size and provide value to diverse participants in a geographic community. Despite the diversity of posters fostered by our two-post-a -ay rules, there will be a core of "usual suspects" who post often. Efforts should be taken to encourage 20 percent to 35 percent of members to post at least once a month. Forum facilitation and encouragement is always required to bring out new voices or "signal" into any conversation environment be it in-person or online.
Issues Forums Versus Citizen E-mail to Government
Another citizen benefit relates directly to how they spend their time "having their say." From writing a letter to the editor, attending a meeting, creating a blog, sending an e-mail, or simply voting, citizens are looking to generate the most benefit from their participation. Finding the right mix of participation is unique to each citizen. We encourage citizens to reflect on the power of a private e-mail to an elected official versus public forms of engagement. What is more effective for a citizen? Sending a private message to an elected official or writing a solid letter to the editor to the local newspaper? Our issues forums have often been referred to a 24-hours a-day, letter-to-the-editor page. 56 As staff with former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura told us, "E-mail is quiet. It doesn't cause the lights to flash on the switchboard nor does it frazzle the receptionist." We worked out an arrangement with the governor where replies to his e-mail included a note at the bottom encouraging citizens to "discuss issues important to them" with other citizens on E-Democracy's statewide political discussion forum. As Steven Clift, E-Democracy Board chair, noted to the governor's staff, "Wouldn't you rather have citizens e-mailing each other instead of e-mailing you all the time". While a Local Issues Forum will most likely not reduce the total volume of e-mail received by elected officials, the benefit of a 24x7, open and accessible place for the formation of public opinion is quite valuable for a community. Ideas don't require media interest to spread and citizens hold each other accountable for the views expressed. The give and take also builds greater public awareness of and respect for the complex and often competing demands on local authorities and decisionmakers. Organisational Cost/Benefit If your financial costs are extremely low and your model is sustainable, then the benefits of an open community conversation shine through. Compared to online consultations costs, where a topic for consideration is chosen (normally by government), issues forums are much less labor-intensive to run than a time-based, multi-week online consultation. The main resource cost is the participatory approach to forming a local steering committee and the aggressive, often one-by-one participant recruitment process. These are upfront time costs that require dedication, persistence, and optimism. Once a forum is established the main central time costs are bourne by the forum manager. Special community outreach efforts, particularly to less enfranchised communities, will require resources of a fiscal or volunteer nature and will go well beyond the expected volunteer job of the forum manager. Occasional problems with out of line participants who, for example, may appeal a forum suspension to the steering committee also consume volunteer capacity. Providing due process and rights to participants costs more than claiming arbitrary power and control over what happens in a forum. Local Authorities Involvement At a minimum, we suggest that local authorities play a supporting, convening, or endorsing role in the creation of local independent, citizen-run issues forums in the UK. Ultimately the idea must be compelling, the benefits measurable, and costs low enough to effectively and quickly share this model with communities around the UK and beyond. In the middle, local authorities could fund an issues forum start-up, basic technology costs, and assist with outreach into diverse communities. At this time, we caution against raising the ongoing costs of the model by professional forum facilitation. However, online events on special topics (online consultations organised from a citizen-based perspective perhaps) are highly labour-intensive and do require funding to produce. Online events and consultations complement issue forums significantly and can bring in more participants. In a community with active and linked government online consultations and an issues forum, the sum would be greater than the parts. Maintaining reasonable citizen expectations in a forum is vital. Citizens must see themselves as the ultimate producers of value in the forum and not expect to be served as customers or taxpayers. Any level of funding will require a counter message that makes it clear that an issues forum is about citizens having their say and not something on the shoulders of government. Public institutions, like any organisation in the community, participate because the benefits are perceived and posting is strategic and not an obligation. Through 2005 E-Democracy.Org has agreed to host any Local Issues Forum in the UK organised by citizens as official E-Democracy efforts or by local authorities either as legally E-Democracy.Orgowned forums or as efforts owned and operated by the local authorities themselves. Under the local authority ownership model, all liability and ultimate forum control responsibilities shifts to the authority. 57 Local Authorities as Hosts At a maximum, a local authority could fully organise and technically run an issues forum. Local authorities may also adapt elements of our model for their own needs. There is no one right way, perhaps five good paths to choose from and 95 wrong ways to avoid. The most important policy questions for government-run forums relate to who sanctions members for rule violations, whose public voice facilitates the discussions (civil servant, councillor, outside consultant, or a citizen volunteer), what is the procedure for reviewing and removing libelous posts, and ultimately what powers of control does the local authority reserve up front. These are all challenging questions similar to government deciding to run a community television station - who has ultimate editorial control, ownership of the content (we don't claim copyright on participant posts on EDemocracy. Org, for example), etc. We recommend that issues forum-management have a citizen advisory committee with a clear leadership and accountability role. There should be a buffer between issues forum administration and the political and management structures in the authority. The cost of being accused of content censorship based on political sensitivity is too great to allow that possibility to procedurally exist. Like public access cable television in the United States, appointing an advisory committee that can take the heat "for what went wrong" or inappropriate content every few years is politically important. The goal is to maintain freedom an online public space provides to a community despite suffering a single but extremely negative incident. For independent issues forum, not affiliated with E-Democracy.Org, the local authority could appoint or solicit members for an official advisory committee. This committee should have a clear mandate and responsibilities. They could recruit and hold accountable the forum manager. The forum manager can be a volunteer from the community with the right skills and time capacity, a civil servant with the right touch, or someone on a small contract (something E-Democracy does not do in order to keep costs down and keep participant expectations in proper perspective - we are content producers and participative consumers not passive clients). Issues Forum Compared to Online Consultations We believe that citizen-focused issues forums and government-organised online consultations are the perfect complements. Consultations generate media attention and bring in new people for a short time frame while issues forums support ongoing dialogue and build the skills of e-citizenship. Most online consultations fail based on poor recruitment and limited citizen participation. Building a dynamic issues forum in your community will make it that much easier to spread the word about consultations and bring in active participants. When a successful consultation is over, through links and e-mails, governments can say, "Now that our special event is over, you can continue your online participation in our Local Issues Forum." In summary issues forums are the "egg" of local e-democracy and online consultations are the "chicken." You can't have a chicken without an egg. There is no agreed estimate on the cost to host an effective online consultation, but our sense is that the resources required to host one online consultation is similar to the resources required to launch a new issues forum that will perpetuate itself and generate significantly more citizen dialogue in its first two months than a typical online consultation. E-Democracy.Org estimates that a new forum, assuming basic citizen interest in the idea, a 20,000 person population base, and a volunteer forum manager, can be launched for less than 10,000 GBP. That includes an interim investigation of community interest before using the full budget. Ongoing costs could range between 1,000 and 5,000 GBP a year for a forum established as part of E-Democracy.Org using our low cost model.