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eDemocracyCamp part 3: Local Issues

6 March 2008

The final session of the morning that I attended was led by Tim Erikson, of e-Democracy.org. He has spent sevem years volunteering with e-Democracy.org, promoting the growth of local level political involvement and organization through the internet.

He believes that the local level is best place to foster involvement in government, esepcially for people who are not typically inclined to become involved in government. The scale is more reasonable, for both the constituents and the elected officials, so it is much easier to have a tangible impact.

It is easier for the constituents, since it is the community that they live in every day, and are more likely to care about, and know more precisely what they want changed, and convince them they can have an impact. It is a smaller group, so people can know the other participants better, and they are easier to organize.

It is easier for the elected officials, since the number of people they have to pay attention to is manageable, and each person is proportionally more important for his re-election. At a local level an elected official can afford to pay attention to the online going-ons of their constituents. The ideal is not for the constituents to discuss the issue amongst themselves and then bring them to the attention of the elected officials, but rather for the elected officials to be involved in the discussion from the beginning.

Tim’s specific model of e-democracy focuses on a modification the old stand-by of the listserv. E-mail is the lowest common denominator of online communication; people want the issues to come to them. Besides the discussion list for the issues, the e-mails are cross-posted to a forum and visa-versa (He currently finds the open-source GroupServer system best for this). Tim encourages that organizers sign people up for the e-mail list at rallys and other real-life events. Indeed, he stresses that while the issues forum is supposed to provide an easy entrance into involvement in local politics, it is meant to supplement and no means surplant face-to-face interaction.

He also stresses that requiring real identities is important, as elected officials are (justifiably) skeptical of conversations where they don’t know who they’re talking to. There was some debate about whether discussion facilitators and [mild] moderators were beneficial. He thought they were, as to avoid stagnation or flame wars.

E-Democracy.org has prepared a guidebook for setting up, maintaining, and participating in these local issues forums, along with many handy appendicies, such as sample charters, letters, and forms, as well as survey results from e-Democracy.org and a cost/benefits analysis.

If you look on to the site, you notice that to the forums are not pretty, but they are simply designed, and active. They try to make it as simple as possible for community members to start their own forums, and even provide a straightforward ten-step template (with plenty of resource links) for doing so.

e-Democracy.org is going about their mission in a straightforward manner, and they are garnering a lot of support from people who are not the tech-type. It is heartening to hear of it’s success.

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