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Networking Democracy

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Online Engagement in a National Debate

Steven Clift, of E-Democracy.Org

Typically, online political debate is first about quantity. It raises the voices of those who seek to be heard and is read only by those to seek (click) to listen. It is about disagreement and often disparaging those with whom you disagree behind the cloak of an alias.

If you seek quality, deliberation, representativeness, insight, and more, the resources you would dedicate to an online engagement should parallel those invested in any well-funded gathering of public input such as the envisioned Citizens’ Summit. If you are ready to accept the fact that that online “engagement” is not participation on the cheap, then let’s proceed.

First, an important issue: Promote Real Names - Promote the use of real names and community everywhere. This generates much higher quality submissions, raises the level of discourse, and causes politicians to take notice. If you decided that you need anonymous channels for participation, give people the option to opt-out of using their name in public discussions. but make real names the strong default. This is the number one quality control lesson from E-Democracy.Org. Almost everyone else as bought into the myth that "no one knows your a dog online." It shouldn't surprise us, then, that in political debates online people often act like animals. The rise of Facebook demonstrates the power of identity online. The value of real names does not apply to sensitive topics or places where people face serious threats of retribution or imprisonment for expressing unpopular opinions online. But in “public life” I do not buy the argument that the fear being judged or held accountable ones political views is so negative that the entire online exchange should be oriented toward the use of aliases. Try to imagine how parliament with each speaker talking with a bag over their head. Who would take that seriously?

I recommend a three pronged, evolutionary approach:

  • Distributed Online Survey with Comment Submission and Rating
  • Networked Engagement through Multiple Partners, National Promotion
  • Online Deliberative Participation

In addition, I’ve included a list of frank advice at the end of the scenarios.

To help develop my thoughts on this proposal, I seeded a discussion on the Democracies Online community of practice about e-participation. In summary, building “consensus” online (or offline for the matter) is extremely complicated even if the result is viewed by those who participate as mattering. Since the “intelligence is in the network” please see:

Where you can find: Building consensus online; Building consensus online/definitions?; and Gathering input from online from one million people

Distributed Online Survey – “The Widget”

For the first wave of input I recommend producing a small survey “widget” that is embedded across the home page of all major government websites and available for inclusion on any website or blog. A widget is a small piece of code that allows someone to include syndicated content/applications from another website within their website. (It is how one displays a YouTube video on another site.)

Each day for at least one month a new question selected by a panel of online participants from public submissions would be presented across the network.

Project goals:

  1. Promote mass participation
  2. Acquire opt-in e-mail addresses for further engagement opportunity publicity
  3. Produce quantifiable results while engaging many with a low time commitment

Upon completing the syndicated survey question, people would be taken to a central website where they can, without registration, be:

  1. Given the opportunity to answer “why?” with a comment
  2. Shown five to ten second tier questions selected for that day/week that they can answer
  3. Be given the opportunity to securely share demographic data for use in either weighing a potential display of the results based on census data or, if not saved with the answers, to at least measure outreach to diverse groups in society
  4. Provided an option to rate other comments and view comments (default view +1 or above - “Slashdot” style, which was recently adopted by YouTube to allow the audience bury useless comments below the visibility threshold)
  5. Asked to provide their e-mail address and postal code for a project e-newsletter and other important updates
  6. (Random) prizes should be available for those providing their e-mail address (S. Korea has offered prizes on government-funded voter education websites)

In addition, upon rating X number of comments, participants would be invited to register and join the online group receiving and rating proposed questions (related to British Values) submitted by the public. Assuming that most questions are too biased for direct use (E-Democracy.Org’s experience with online candidate debate questions submissions), these “super” users would be empowered to amend/re-craft the best question topics into a neutral format appropriate for question display across the large syndicated network.

If final editorial control is vested in a government official, make that transparent and clear to participants. By having a channel for top tier daily questions and second tier additional questions on the central site, most of the top rated questions should be accommodated by the second level if found too controversial for placement across government or partner websites.


Networked Engagement through Multiple Partners, National Promotion

After the initial phase of surface level mass engagement via the online survey, you now have an opportunity to leverage this audience (if you’ve aggressively encouraged opt-in e-mail registration in the first phase). In addition to the fresh opt-in e-mail list, promotion of this overall effort should leverage e-mail addresses gathered by government (from e-petitioning, etc.) to the greatest extent allowed by privacy policies/use promises.

I recommend a “thousand flowers bloom strategy.” Invite the public to search and join a local or community of identity/interest online discussion on the British Statement of Values that interests them.

You need a catchy name that says “British Values Online Month.”

Instead of picking one technology or platform, you would encourage partner sites - be they a local media or Council website, the blog of an MP, or a national site oriented toward a socially excluded population - to register the section on their site where they are hosting their own independent British Values online discussion using their own format and style. Imagine hundreds of small (and some quite large) online gatherings leveraging the skills and talents of may different hosts.

Partner sites should be invited to opt-in on a non-exclusive basis, add a logo to their website and link back to the central directory. Most importantly they would be included in a keyword and geographically searchable directory/map of participating sites.

You need a launch date and an end date to generate media attention, provide an incentive to participate “now” as well as to allow the effort to celebrate something with a sense of closure.

After one month or so of distributed participation, partners should be asked to report results using standardized online form. This will guide distribute hosts toward moving their participants from expression toward dialogue and perhaps some consensus building. Gathering public and sharable results from the each group will further allow aggregation of results.

Key to this approach is a significant promotional budget including a mix of television advertising and online advertising to drive traffic to the directory. Major media organisations would make ideal partners.

One of the conditions for partnering should include active promotion of both their British Values website participation section and the overall central initiative website through available off-line means of promotion (if a television network participates they must agree to promote the online event on the air not just on their website).

A variation of this proposal would be to create an online discussion hosting facility for use by multiple organisations as an option (preferably open source so the tool may be extended to future events/existing platforms). MPs or local councils, for example, could register to host an online discussion for people in their area and provide whatever facilitation and recruitment that is required. A fundamental flaw in most nationally conceived e-participation projects is that no politician, be they a local councillor or a MP, has to pay attention to “their constituents” in the typical format where they are often disempowered as representatives. This however does not mean many would jump at the chance to host and guide an open discussion in a medium where they feel (rightly or wrongly) they have less control than with face-to-face participation.

I should offer, that if interest is strong in a distributed approach, E-Democracy.Org would be very interested in how such an online event could leverage our existing geographically-based Issues Forums in England. Further, one might imagine a scenario whereby council or county-level forums could be established across the UK with the participation/promotion of interested local governments for a one-month event (with say at least 100 participants attracted for viability) that could then be turned over to the participants to form a voluntary committee to sustain the online public space for democratic participation in their county/council/parish/neighbourhood on an ongoing basis. See:

Online Deliberative Participation

It could very well be that where my thinking started (the text below) with this request is least appropriate considering the value that will be generated by the in-person representative citizen jury approach.

However, if the goal is deep online engagement in a highly structured and mediated setting (which could be one of the “flowers” if funding was provided) you might go completely the opposite direction of phase one and invite 250 to 1,000 Britons to participate on a competitive basis. Selection could be based on an application process, submission of an essay/video judged in some way, or people invited based on highly rated comments. Another selection model would be to create slots based on demographics and choose participants from a pool of applicants that way.

This approach is completely different than taking a distributed “Web 2.0” approach, but I have yet to see 1,000 monkeys write Shakespeare. When the Bay Area actually delivers stronger local communities based on aggregated hyper-individualistic technological determinism we should take another look.

Below I’ve outlined a two week online event or consultation that could be adapted for our purposes. In general, people vastly underestimate the costs involved with moving online engagement beyond the Hyde Park-style soapbox or stilted “government wants to know X” consultations to something rich, deliberative, and participant driven. I have made a rough outline for a potential project in my home state in the USA called Minnesota listens, you can find it here.

Additional Advice

Some of these ideas are included above, but this is a quick list generated moment after I was first contacted for advice.

If you really want to encourage broad participation/and to quickly answer some of the questions posed:

Partnerships and Prizes - Develop mass media partnerships to help promote the engagement. Consider advertising and definitely have prizes for certain actions be it a ring tone or whatever. (S Korea has used prizes on government funded voter education web sites.)

2. Survey and Show Incremental Results for Immediate Feedback - If you want/expect big numbers, have a light weight online-survey option ... but allow people to publish their input and allow others to rate/recommend responses ± (Slashdot style) - Queensland publishes comments/results thus far with some consultations, they even show the % results for multiple choice questions as results come it ... very good, very transparent.

3. Weigh with Demographics - Ask for census-related demographics as an option (kept private and secure of course) to help you display the results in a weighted manner as an option - there is no way this can be scientifically representative on the input side so drop any illusion BUT mass participation will get you pretty close - Issy France weighs the results of their citizen panel online.

4. Hire Summarizers - Hire people with strict deadlines to distill results as they come in, summarize, and report back publicly to gather more input - taking comments and turning them into survey questions on the fly. Don’t fool yourself with strictly technical solutions. This takes bodies. However, the more structure you put into survey questions and the like, the easier it will be to tabulate high level results.

5. Review Advice - Track down newer and older guides:
New: New Zealand's Guide to Online Participation:

Older: Online Consultations and Events - Top Ten Tips for Government and Civic Hosts


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