Issues Forums for participants
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Drafting. The draft text came from Appendix 6: Your Local Issues Forum in Practice from the draft Issues Forum Guide. Also see our Why Join Flyer and the draft Issues Forums frequently asked questions.
Why Should You Participate In A Local Issues Forum?
A dynamic community is one in which citizens’ interact and work together in a variety of constructive ways. Unfortunately, we all lead busy lives and it is not always convenient to attend a local meeting or interact with your local elected official. A Local Issues Forum provides an alternative means for you to contribute to the civic health of your community in a flexible manner. Here are some reasons why you might want to participate:
Top 5 Reasons, Why Someone Should Participate
- Keep up with community happenings
- Network with other local citizens
- Ask questions – get useful information
- Share your opinion on important local issues
- Connect with elected officials and city staff
Top 5 Reasons, Why A Community Activist Should Participate
- Place to post announcements about meetings & events
- Network with other community activists
- Keep your local issue in front of the community
- Keep your issue in front of the press
- Keep up with community news missed by the media
Top 5 Reasons, Why A Journalist Should Participate
- Story ideas, don’t be scooped by your competition
- Background info
- Place to find and evaluate new sources
- Keep in touch with entire city/community
- Place to post links to relevant stories you have written
Top 5 Reasons, Why A Community Needs a Local Issues Forum
- Alternative to other online forums, which often lack accountability and impact
- Media accountability
- Build civic capacity among citizens
- Anytime, anywhere – brings in citizens who are otherwise excluded from the process due to time or space constraints
- Public space for competition of ideas. Citizens have opportunity to experience competing demands for public attention/resources
How to Effectively Participate in a Local Issues Forum
People participate in a Local Issues Forum for a variety of reasons, from advocating for a particular project to keeping informed about what is happening in their community. Whatever your purpose for participating, it’s worth thinking about how to make the most effective use of your time reading and posting messages to the forum. Here are some tips that will help you make better use of your time and get better results:
- 1. Keep in mind that you are posting to a forum of several hundred people who have diverse perspectives and interests. Accept the fact that some of them do not and probably never will agree with you. Don’t expect to change their minds. Sometimes, it’s necessary to simply share your point of view and then move on. Avoid acronyms and technical jargon.
- 2. Short messages are the most effective. While it can be tempting particularly on a complex issue you feel strongly about to lay out a lengthy detailed argument of your position, a brief and on-point message is more likely to be read and to generate responses. Participants often feel overwhelmed by long, dense messages and move quickly on to one that is more straightforward and targeted.
- 3. When possible, speak from personal experience rather than from ideology. Talking about your personal experiences in dealing with an issue creates for more compelling and persuasive reading that is easier for people to connect to. It also reinforces the “local” impact of the issue and makes it more likely people will respond in a constructive way even if they don’t agree with you.
- 4. “Listen” and don’t be afraid to ask a question. When you participate in a Local Issues Forum, try to think of yourself as engaging in a dialogue rather than a debate. In addition to stating your opinions, ask questions to try and understand others’ views. People are more likely to pay attention to your point of view if they see that you are willing to listen to others and incorporate new ideas or facts into your perspective.
- 5. It’s OK to delete messages and not read them. Don’t feel that you need to read every message, every day. Having a busy day? Delete. The topic doesn’t interest you? Delete. Some messages look more interesting than others? Delete. The most important thing to keep in mind is that you should use the Issues Forum in a way that works for you and fits with your schedule. It is always OK to take a break and delete messages without reading them and then resume your participation when your schedule permits.
- 6. Whenever possible, add information to the discussion. Local Issues Forums depend upon participants to share information when they have it. The quality and value of the discussions go up dramatically when individuals take the time to share information about a topic. Discussions based upon rumor and speculation are a source of frustration for everyone and damage the credibility of the forum. It’s up to every participant to help raise the quality of forum by sharing facts and information when they are available.
- 7. Never post when you are angry. One of the advantages of an online discussion is that it takes place over time. You have the luxury of being able to think about your response before posting it. If something in the forum really gets you angry, wait an hour or two before responding. You’re much less likely to post something that you'll later regret. If you feel an immediate urge to respond, write your reply right away, but hold it an hour before sending it. Reread it one last time and make necessary changes. Most often, you'll find yourself making major changes or even deleting the message entirely.
- 8. Reread your post before sending. It’s always a good idea to read through your post one final time before sending it. You will often catch mistakes or refine your ideas, usually for the better. Unlike a verbal discussion, your posts to an online forum leave a permanent record of your comments, so make sure that you are going to be comfortable with the record that you are leaving.
- 9. Use descriptive subject lines and trim excessive quotations. Many participants decide what messages to read, based upon the subject line. Make sure that the subject line is accurate and up to date. If you change the topic with one of your posts, be sure to change the subject line of your message. However, if you don’t change the topic, then try and leave the subject line the same. Minor changes in the subject line, without good reason, sometimes frustrate other participants’ ability to sort messages by subject and make it impossible for some email software to keep messages in a cohesive “thread.” A good e-citizen always trims the unnecessary remnants of previous posts from his or her message. While it’s nice to include (or quote) a small portion of a previous post, to put your comments into context, leaving too much is nuisance to other participants, especially those who read digest versions of the discussion.
- 10. Whenever possible, support your argument with a link to the source. One of the beauties of the Internet is the ability to link discussions with articles, information, and statistics. You don’t have to ask people to take your word for it, you can actually point them to photos, news articles, or first-person accounts. If you are referencing something that you saw in the paper, provide a link to the actual article, so others have the option of looking it up themselves. This is a great way to boost your credibility and reinforce your point. However, be sure to include a link to the article, not the entire article itself, which might put you in violation of someone else’s copyright.
- 11. Don’t underestimate the power of your written words to hurt or insult others. One of the disadvantages of email or web-based discussions is the lack of body language or visual clues which are vital components of any face-to-face conversation. A few harsh words can do more damage in an email than they might under other circumstances. People are often surprisingly sensitive about things they read in an online forum. So, be careful about what you write and how people might perceive it.
Levels of Participation
At a minimum, you can increase your understanding of local issues simply by reading the forum (daily or weekly) even though you may never post a message. This simple, basic level of participation helps you understand what issues your neighbours are concerned about and helps you gain an appreciation of the competing arguments on controversial issues.
A higher level of participation would be for you to occasionally post a message when you have information that can help clarify what is being discussed. This is a way to share your specific knowledge and expertise with the community in a relatively easy and non-controversial way.
When to Post a Message
Great Reasons to Post a Message:
- Introduce a new topic
- Solicit ideas
- Add/share information
- Explain or clarify
- Provide a personal perspective or reaction
- Propose a solution
- Synthesize ideas
- Facilitate the discussion
Watch Out for Posts That:
- Attempt to discredit others who have opposing viewpoints, through sarcasm, labeling, or by “attacking the messenger”.
- Discouraging expression of alternative viewpoints
The highest level of participation would be for you to regularly engage in discussions and advocate on behalf of issues you think are important. This type of participation provides you with the greatest opportunity to impact the direction and quality of life in your community. However, it is also very time-consuming. Not everyone can or should participate at this level. Find the level of participation that best suits your circumstances at any given time and simply do your best. Even the lightest level of participation is of great value, it’s better to have you there lurking in the forum than not to have you at all.
To maintain levels of interest in your Local Issues Forum, it is helpful to understand why people might wish to participate, as well as to understand good forum participation practice.
In 2002, we asked a sample of forum participants how they thought Issues Forums are most similar (they selected one to three choices). Here is how they compared our forums with other forms of political participation:
- Discussing politics with friends, colleagues or family - 66
- Participating in a meeting with other citizens - 60
- Writing letters to the editor for a newspaper or journal - 33
- Organizing grassroots activities - 21
- Attending a political party meeting - 14
- Contacting politicians by letter - 12
- Contacting politicians in person - 6
We also found that 77 percent of forum participants said they felt the geographic boundaries on discussion topics were positive or very positive, which reinforces our belief in the importance of keeping it local.
Other tip sheets are available: