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Issues Forums for elected officials

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Elected officials thrive on meeting their constituents at community events and meetings. They gather views, answer questions, and provide information.

Dealing with people face to face gives them confidence and the ability to quickly come to a resolution. Unfortunately, due in large part to anonymous online spaces such as online news commenting, applying their democratic skills online is so difficult, online public participation with their (possible) constituents is avoided.

With online "Issues Forums" at the neighborhood and community-wide level elected officials (and their staff) can connect with their constituents online in a setting using real names with a facilitator and rules that foster far greater civility than most places online. These lessons and tips can be adapted to other online public spaces including Facebook Pages, which like E-Democracy.org rather uniquely uses real names.

This article is focused on neighborhood-level forums where participants are typically the constituents or voters of just one or two local elected officials.

Why Effective

  • Follow the pulse of your district - Issues Forums allow you (elected official, staff) to listen to an organic and authentic group public conversation about issues that matter to your constituents. With diverse membership it may be far more reflective of the views of your constituents than any in-person gathering but of course not representative like an election.
  • Discover emergent issues - Within broader "community life" exchange, the emergence of more political topics on the forum provides you an early warning system on issues you may be contacted by about by constituents or journalists.
  • Ready made online audience of your constituents - In most cases the members of a neighborhood-level Issues Forum are clearly "your voters." Gathering a critical mass of local constituents online for ongoing exchange is extremely difficult. E-Democracy with their inclusive outreach techniques has done the heavy lifting by recruiting typically hundreds of people. Only the most Internet savvy elected officials can do that themselves and who has the time anyway?
  • Be an information and community connector - By monitoring discussions, you and your staff can show initiative by providing information or suggesting who in local government or the community might be key to connect with to resolve an issue or solve a community problem.
  • Gather input on a quick and timely basis - Asking a question on an issue where you want or need timely feedback is a highly effective way to use the Forum. Issues Forums are particularly effective at gathering "just in time" input when local impact issues are essentially sprung on you or your district. If your mind is already made up, don't suggest more flexibility in your position when asking for input.
  • Issues Forums are not on your shoulders - Both monitoring and posting to a local Issues Forum is optional. You are not liable for what happens and local E-Democracy volunteer Forum Managers are responsible for enforcing the rules and promoting civility. In an online public space like a blog or Facebook Page that you create and own, you may put yourself in the position of censor and more likely find the work required to successfully generate sustained dialogue too labor intensive.

How

  • Join first - Once you have joined, the features of an Issues Forum become more apparent. Both you and your staff (if any) should join.
  • Optimize delivery settings - If you are worried about the volume of e-mail messages, consider selecting the "digest" setting and you will receive one message a day. If your staff person is also on the forum, one reason to keep at least one person in your office on the full version is that finding e-mails of posters should you prefer to reply privately is much easier via the default e-mail each post setting than via the web where e-mail addresses are not published.
  • Post via e-mail or the web - Press "Reply to All" via e-mail or at the end of a topic (a series of posts with the same subject line) if logged in you can add your group reply via the website. It will instantly be sent to the hundreds of members so be sure to spell check, edit, etc. you post before sending. To start a new topic, post via e-mail to: thegroupnamehere@forums.e-democracy.org. Or via the web, look for the "Start a new topic" link.
  • Add links - Add a visible link like " http://e-democracy.org/guide " in the text of your post to share a link to something on the web - be it your website, the local government's website or some other resource.
  • Add photos, video, documents - Photos attached to an e-mail or uploaded via the web to a topic are automatically resized and placed on the server. Vertical photos should be rotated locally before posting. With video, simply paste the "Share" link from YouTube (or Vimeo). We do not recommend posting video files directly to the forums. Use YouTube. With documents, simply attach to an e-mail or add with a post via the web. Don't worry about file size because files are saved on the server with a simple link provided to end users to click on to access.

Challenges

  • Is it worth it? Joining or posting. - Let's be honest, no politician will participate in something that is not in their political interest. You don't skip community events where the negative consequences of not being there are substantial. Imagine a community event with hundreds of people - when does a politician (or your next opponent) not show up for that? On the other hand if not enough people "that matter" are there, why outside of some sense of democratic obligation would you spend your time on something politically unproductive? With our model and active community outreach, E-Democracy.org does its best to make online participation worth your time. If you remain skeptical about the value of posting, tell us - team@e-democracy.org - why so we can address your concerns or share specific examples of where other elected officials have found real value in full participation.
  • Will I be politically attacked? - With anonymous online news commenting poisoning every reasonable person's view of the Internet's role in local community issues, at first glance it may be difficult to differentiate an Issues Forum from those bottom of the barrel exchanges on other sites. Remember that we require the use of real names, issue warnings for those who violate our civility rules, and when required suspend participants based on violations. At the neighborhood-level "everyday people" participate with 10% of households or more participating in our largest forums. At that level, in general we find Issues Forums to be extremely civil. At the city-wide level where the "political class" is concentrated on our forums, you can expect that those with differing views to be more challenging. We've found that dozens of positive experiences with Issues Forums for an elected official can be soured by just one negative experience. We ask that you remind yourself of the positive uses and compare just how poor completely unregulated online spaces function. Ultimately, the agenda-setting and powerful speech among citizens based on our freedom of assembly that we seek to foster (... and we take it on the chin from some participants who expect absolute individual freedom of speech who do not accept our collective approach) needs to generate value to those in power or those who seek to be in power or elected officials and candidates will not participate online.
  • Ride the wave - In general, if confronted or challenged by another participant (perhaps unfairly or in a quite justified manner), the more political or unfair their response, the better it is to wait for the self-correcting nature of the forum to activate. Avoid getting into a rapid "tit for tat" exchange and instead "ride the wave" which means waiting for the discussion to evolve and then address the topic as a whole instead of just the one attention seeking participant. Remember that we typically limit people to two posts in 24 hours on our forums to reduce the heat generated by those with too much time on their hands as well as to broaden engagement in topics of interest before they ultimately fade.
  • Guiding versus controlling information - The Internet and social media place the public in a sea of information and conversations. Instead of being starved for information, your constituents are often drowning in it and do not know what information is most important. As a leader, we encourage you to see yourself as an "information guide" rather than a selective information disclosure as a more effective path to power and the execution of your influence. Show your value by pro-actively sharing information on a timely basis (when your constituents can still act on it) rather than only posting to an Issues Forum when expressly requested. While these forums are citizen-to-citizen, it is far better to error on the side of sharing too much information than only being reactive. On the extremely rare chance that forum member criticizes you for sharing information (like your newsletter, event announcements, etc.) our volunteers or E-Democracy.org will defend you and make it clear that such active forum engagement is tied to the purpose of Issues Forums.

Examples

Text from Issues Forum Guide

For potential use ...


Why Should/Do Elected Officials and Decision-Makers Participate?

Some decision makers/elected officials may be sceptical about the value of participating in a Local Issues Forum. They are concerned about becoming “too available” or getting “sucked” into another project. Here are some very practical reasons, why they might want to try it out:

Top 5 Reasons, Why An Elected Official Should Participate

  • Fear of being left out of important discussions
  • A great place to float trial balloons
  • Instant citizen feedback
  • Early warning system for “hot” issues
  • Dispel rumours before they do damage


Response scenarios


TABLE-2.1: Different response scenarios to a post from Citizen A

about excessive litter in local park

Action

Response
Result

Citizen B (and others) read message

None
Citizen B (and others) have better understanding of litter problem

Citizen C reads message

Posts public comments to group on the issue
For several days, the issue of litter in parks is discussed – and many citizens become more aware of issue

Citizen D reads message

Publicly responds with similar concern
A group of citizens meet and organise a park clean-up

Citizen E reads message

Forwards to local city councillor – who forwards to Parks Department
A clean-up crew is dispatched to clean up the park

(without any discussion in forum)

Local journalist reads message

Investigates and writes article about budget shortfall in Parks Department
Thousands of citizens read article and are more informed about budget shortfall in Parks Department and resulting litter problem.

Staff person in Parks Department reads message

Staff person contacts Citizen A to ask for more information.
Litter problem in park is added to the Parks Department “to-do” list.

Local legislator reads message

Introduces bill in legislature to hire teenagers for park clean-up program
Teenagers are hired to clean-up parks.


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