This article was commissioned by the UK E-democracy National Project for the UK Issues Forum Pilots.
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The well-built online forum:
How Minneapolis boosted civic involvement and social change
E-Democracy.Org Note: This article is written from the perspective of our volunteer Forum Manager in Minneapolis. In each community, our forums have a unique local flavor. Forum Managers use their strengths and styles within a uniform rules framework. There is no single correct way to run a forum, but we hope this this story will give you some honest insight into what a dynamic online forum on local issues can mean for a community.
Also note that the term "list" in the article is interchangable with "online forum." This term comes from our use of e-mail discussion lists for over a decade. With our use of combined e-mail list/web forum tool called GroupServer in the UK and soon with our U.S. forums, we are moving to the generic term "forums."
By David Brauer
In 1998, I was a Minneapolis-based freelance journalist who found my work becoming less local and more national. While the switch was good for my career, it bothered me as a citizen; as a local writer, I could see the change (if any) my stories provoked in the community; now, my work felt more remote with the effects impossible to see.
Also at this time, the dominant local daily newspaper, the Star Tribune, was shifting its local news focus away from Minneapolis (Minnesota's largest city) toward the rapidly growing suburbs. As a business decision, it was defensible - as was my own. However, it meant less local news to help Minneapolitans make informed civic decisions.
Pondering how to counteract the trend (that I was a part of), I remembered an early e-mail discussion list I'd joined at its 1994 birth. The "Minnesota-Politics" forum had been more interesting and in-depth than media sources. The discussion happened in "real time," divorced from commercial "dumbing down" realities and marketing imperatives.
Unfortunately, I had dropped off Minnesota-Politics by 1998 because the discussions became too ideological and often personal - more about intractable disagreements than information, insights and solutions.
Still, I thought a localized Minnesota-Politics might work better. I figured that local issues would be less partisan ("there's no Democratic or Republican way to take out the trash"), and there might be less ideology because actual experience would guide the insights. Fundamentally, in a smaller pond, there was a better chance for the discussions to have a real effect and shape solutions.
There was a media strategy, too. I knew that many of my media colleagues liked covering Minneapolis news, but were having a harder time convincing increasingly suburban-focused editors. My bet was that a "Minneapolis-Issues" forum could bring sources, stories and discussions to these reporters' desktops, giving them richer ideas to sell to their superiors.
MAKING IT HAPPEN
To get the ball rolling, I connected with Steve Clift, the board chair of E-Democracy, the Minnesota-Politics list sponsor. Clift had the wise idea to recruit 100 list members before list discussions went live. This way, a critical mass of people would begin talking and provide interesting information to entice others.
Steve and I devised the "four-legged stool" principle to start the local list. We sought inaugural members from four groups: elected officials, city staff, journalists - and of course, regular citizens.
The hope was that, as with a stool, each leg would reinforce the others. Citizen views are essential, as they are in a democracy. Journalists are there to amplify the most valuable discussions, especially for those without the patience, day-to-day-interest or technology to participate. Elected officials are vital because they have the power to make political change. And city staff are important, both for information on how city government really works, and because they run programs that might come up in the discussions.
We decided to name the forum "Minneapolis-Issues" because we wanted the forum to be about more than politics. The early recruitment tools were crude: my lengthy address book and an e-mail invitation to the Minnesota-Politics list.
It took less than three weeks to get the necessary members. Discussions went live in June 1998.
GOVERNING THE FORUM
In a fit of egotism, I appointed myself list manager (with the concurrence of the E-Democracy board). I felt that my own abhorrence of personal attack and ideological simple-mindedness could help focus the forum on information and issues, not intramural disputes and name-calling.
Forum rules were borrowed from Minnesota-Politics. Some key ones are:
EARLY, SQUIRRELLY SUCCESS
Forum discussions began immediately and participation rose steadily. The original 100 members grew to 900, with countless more reading web archives.
The best early indication that we were on the right track came in the form of a squirrel.
Four months into the list's history, co-organizer Steve Clift made a seemingly innocent post:
It seems that about once a day a squirrel runs across my window screen in my home office. I have never experienced this nor seen so many squirrels in Minneapolis. Here is my public policy question - are squirrels in such density ever considered a public health risk?
"Last winter one came down the chimney and we managed to shoo it down the stairs and out the door (once we got it out of the fireplace after three days!). Who should you contact with the city if this problem occurs this winter? :-)
A list member who wrote for a Minneapolis community newspaper picked up the message. She wrote: "Most days, Mpls-issues is a substantive discussion of important public policy issues... However ...here are a few excerpts from this burning issue:
>Go to hardware store...buy trap...set track...kill squirrel. End of public policy question.
>Grab a trap and KILL the squirrel????????? Why must we destroy a living thing as a solution?
>Quit telling people to move their nasty attack squirrels to wooded areas (i.e., Minneapolis parks) - we already have our fair share.
>I ran on an anti-squirrel platform for Student Legislature at Syracuse University in my freshman year in college. I promised to eradicate the nuisance squirrel population. It was my first election loss.
The author of the final post was a City Councilmember, by the way.
Larger media - including the region's second-largest daily paper - soon called Steve about the "squirrel invasion." Eventually, someone from the Minneapolis Animal Control Division called, asking, "We hear you are having a problem with squirrels."
As Steve notes, "When does the government call you?"
While squirrels still run rampant in Minneapolis (and are not a public health risk of course), the example showed how citizens, their elected officials, the media and city staff could connect through a local forum.
MAKING SYSTEMIC CHANGE
Just as the list can bring different power centers together, it can be a nexus for citizens to organize themselves. A 2001 example changed how the city's dominant political party anoints candidates at the local level.
Several months before the 2001 city elections, a list member complained that the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party's candidate-endorsement rules needed reform. (The DFL is Minnesota's branch of the national Democratic Party.)
In Minneapolis, DFL endorsement is often tantamount to election; at the time, DFLers occupied 12 of the 13 council seats. The DFL party holds precinct caucuses to elect delegates who ultimately confer endorsement. City elections occur every four years, the year after Presidential elections.
The city DFL party used delegates chosen during the presidential-year caucuses to make City Council endorsements the following year. The member argued this was unfair - effectively disenfranchising any Democrat who had moved to Minneapolis in the 12 months following the presidential caucuses.
The member argued that the local party needed a fresh round of caucuses during the city election year. A more open, timely system would depend less on party insiders (who were savvy enough to know that they had to get elected a year earlier). City campaigns would have more incentive to get supporters, old and new Democrats, to the caucuses.
After a multi-faceted list discussion on the merits of change, the member posted a notice about an organizing meeting. About a dozen members showed up to figure out how to change the city DFL constitution at that year's city convention; a few brought non-list-members. Meeting regularly over several months - and posting regular invitations on the list - they built an organization and awareness that produced a narrow win at the 2001 Minneapolis DFL Convention. The 2005 election will be the first with city-based caucuses, which could change the dynamics of the city's top decision-making body.
HOW POLITICIANS REACT
The list had already proven fertile for new candidates. R.T. Rybak was a participating list member years before his election as Minneapolis's mayor in 2001. Rybak claims that list chatter convinced him there were enough like-minded people to make a campaign possible; he has continued to post on the forum since earning the top job.
Rybak's story is both typical and exceptional. In 2001, Rybak defeated a two-term incumbent; Minneapolis-Issues, like many civic Internet forums, is a magnet for critics of city policy. They feel empowered without having to break through media filters or those in the halls of power.
The good news is that the "critic-friendly" dynamic brings new ideas and analysis to the fore, and helps those groups organize so their ideas can be heard in meat-space venues. The bad news is that it can make the list unfriendly for defenders of city policy - or many less-cynical members who want something more than criticism.
I call this underlying dynamic "more fun to play offense than defense" - that is, easier to be a critic than a defender or explainer, where one risks looking like a toady to power.
Those in power (and their defenders) can't be coddled - after all, they have (or defend) power, which should be armor against slings and arrows. Still, if you believe a debate is strongest when it includes multiple viewpoints, a "critic-heavy" environment has its costs.
One cost is that Minneapolis-Issues has seen a slow exit of elected officials posting to the list. Their most common complaint is that repeatedly defending/explaining policies simply isn't worth their time considering the 900 subscribed addresses. The undertone is that many list members don't want to be convinced and won't entertain a rational counterargument. Another explanation, of course, is that the powerful will find excuses not to confront their critics.
Still, just because elected officials don't post doesn't mean they and their staff ignore the list. Few City Hall addresses have been unsubscribed. Politicians are a wary breed, and at the city level, it only takes a handful of constituent phone calls to get a councilmembers' attention. The list still serves as an "early warning system" about new issues and potential challengers.
I've tried to educate politicians about participating more onlist. They don't have to respond to every little thing - but sending even one "statement of purpose" about their actions can often defuse misinformation that will inevitably get into the community. They don't have to become bogged down in tit-for-tat exchanges - especially with list members who are interested in "winning" more than a true discussion.
A key note: those who post are not the same as those who read. In 2001, I did a count of who posted - about 200 members out of 600 subscribed addresses. Posters are only the most motivated to express themselves - but they are outnumbered by so-called "lurkers," those who read and don't post, perhaps because they are not as strongly partisan or ideological, or feel they aren't well-enough informed.
One of the trickiest challenges for any list organizer is to create a climate where critics can criticize but non-critics feel "safe" posting less-negative points of view. (A scornful climate is a major reason members unsubscribe.)
One important thing list organizers can do is create a sort of "ballast" if a debate seems excessively one-sided. This can be anything from posts explanatory sources and links or, off-list, encouraging members with different points of view to post. The goal IS NOT to make every debate artificially 50/50, but to assure that everyone's assumptions and points are fairly scrutinized.
Sometimes, I will be the one making such "ballast" posts. When I have time, I will encourage other members who get the "ballast" concept to weigh in.
A HOSTILE ENVIRONMENT?
Still, I regularly get complaints that people won't post ideas to the list because they are too worried about being attacked.
For example, here's a December 2004 offlist communication from a member to me:
I have been very disappointed that the only constructive comments have been off list by people who are "afraid" to make on list comments.
I will personally do all I can to help improve the quality of the conversation on the list. It is very depressing to me at the moment. Thank you for all the work that you do. There is something worth saving on here.
A little background: the member was helping two Minneapolis Councilmembers construct a separate online discussion on improving citizen engagement with City Hall. However, the member had been one of the fiercest critics of the previous mayor on Minneapolis-Issues - occasionally crossing the line into insult of opponents. In a sense, he was belated reaping what he sowed; at least enlightenment was also part of the payback.
And it's worth noting that while Minneapolis-list posts were not as thoughtful as this member hoped for, he did receive helpful offlist comments by publicizing the effort on the Minneapolis-list. The list can be - in the classic sense - a bulletin board that publicizes other worthy efforts.
CREATING PUBLIC ISSUES
At times, list discussions have become political issues. A classic case is from early 2002 is the so-called "Dairy Queen" incident.
The background: the directly elected Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board, which governs the city's Chain of Lakes, considered contracting its concessions out to a corporation, Dairy Queen. Previously, the Park Board ran the concessions themselves, not always making money. In tight budget times, it was searching for new ways to improve their balance sheet
The discussion started in a way that would make a list organizer proud: an elected official seeking citizen feedback:
Looking for input about the proposed Dairy Queen concession at Lake Harriet and Lake Calhoun. It's on the full Board park agenda Wednesday, March 6th. Please feel free to share thoughts and ideas on or offline
Citywide Park Commissioner
A healthy and fairly typical list discussion ensued - most members against a corporate nameplate coming to the ad-free parks, but a few members suggesting the anti-corporate feelings weren't as important as getting money to the parks.
A month later, the Park Board voted not to do the DQ deal. After the vote, a second commissioner wrote:
FYI - the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board DID NOT approve the contract for Dairy Queen to run the concessions at Lake Harriet and Calhoun at last nights meeting - the motion failed without being brought forward for a vote. A subsequent motion drafted by a number of commissioners, including myself, to direct staff to reopen the process, conduct a user and neighborhood survey this summer, and to establish a far better public input process for this fall was introduced and passed unanimously. Annie eloquently stated her opinions and concerns - which mirrored many of those of the other commissioners. Annie also deserves credit for helping bring this issue to the public - thanks!
Thank you all for your opinions and thoughts on this issue . . . . they were appreciated. I have received well over 140 e-mails and voice mails just on this issue! Your opinions clearly count to all of us!
So, a stunning victory for Internet-fueled participatory democracy? Not so fast.
A few days later, the Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist Doug Grow dissected the vote and quoted Councilmember Barb Johnson, who disagreed with the Park Board's anti-DQ decision. In the column, Johnson accused Parks Commissioners of paying too much attention to Minneapolis-Issues
"They've got public officials twisted around their little fingers," said Johnson of the roughly 800 people who participate on the list, adding that the forum was little more than a source of "e-mail demagoguery."
The first list member responded:
Could Doug Grow be voicing frustration on behalf of the Strib that their role as the "vox populi" is diminishing? Maybe having 800 voices talking about an issue is threatening to an "institution" that seems to want to be the one voice. If this list is not a positive thing, why does the Strib report on its content as often as it does?
The next member noted list views were hardly unanimous, as Johnson implied:
The opinions posted to this list for/against DQ, in my recollection were hardly unanimous. I went back in to the archives, since I apparently have no life... and when Annie initially posed the request for feedback, the initial direct response to her post was 6 for, 4 against, and 1 waffler.
Personally I think it IS a good thing that the Minneapolis Issues list is becoming more powerful. The 800 people who are on the list -- and the fact that it's increased from around 200 to 800 in the last 3-4 years also shows increased citizen participation and civic awareness. Most people can't spend their time going to the city council meeting, and lobbying council meetings -- and having this vehicle is a good thing that way.Few people have publicly seconded Councilmember Johnson's view that the list is too powerful - which could be because the view is overblown, or the circumstances limited. My view remains that the list is not perfectly representative, but it has earned whatever influence it has through respectful dialogue, substance and broad participation. I hope elected officials and others have enough awareness to recognize it is but one information artery in the body politic, and factor accordingly.
List membership is stuck around 900 subscribed addresses, a figure it hit during the 2001 city election year. I believe that lists have a certain natural equilibrium - Minneapolis-Issues is a relatively high-traffic list with 25-40 posts per day - and sheer in-box megatonnage naturally limits membership. ("Too many emails" is the number one reason I hear for unsubscribing. I call it "a nice problem to have.")
The 900-address equilibrium could be topped in 2005, the next city election year.
Although complaints about the "digital divide" were heard a lot in early years, such criticism has waned in recent years, perhaps because more than three-quarters of Minneapolitans now have Internet access.
One criticism that can be levied against the list is that it is not demographically representative. There's no sure way to tell since someone's race and income can't be seen over the Internet - a joy, in my view. Except for self-identification and inferences from a post's signature, there's no way to tell ethnicity. (Language, of course, remains a impenetrable barrier for the city's growing Latino population.)
We've done little overt recruiting since 1998, but recently, a group of Somali (self-identified) joined the list after a debate about a Somali business incubator. To me, this indicates Minneapolis-Issues has become a brand, or a public utility, that people find on their own. As a volunteer group, the list must depend on members' word-of-mouth and press reports to get the word out to new members.
Since members are required to post their neighborhood, it is possible to tell where they're from. Thankfully, the four city quadrants (North, Northeast, South and Southwest) are represented; membership tilts a bit Southwest, which is the city's wealthiest and most populous quadrant, but not strongly.
As with many forums, more men post than women - about 60 percent men and 40 percent women. About 100 of 900 members post more than once a week; 200-250 post in any given month.
If anything, geographic dispersal has become more representative over time, and the gender gap has narrowed. (Minneapolis had a majority female City Council for eight years until the 2001 elections; the count is currently 9-4 male.)
Ironically, in the years since I created the list, I returned to local journalism, becoming the editor of two Minneapolis-based community newspapers. My volunteer work as list manager has had an unexpected benefit: many people e-mail me "offlist" with tidbits that become stories for my newspapers. I'm convinced many of those tips are because community members recognize I am not just an "objective" reporter, but a citizen who cares about my community.
Of course, there are costs too: in some sense, the list "competes" with my papers. More than once, one of my reporters has complained that a member has broken a story on the list before the journalist was able to do so.
Journalists elsewhere in town regularly razz me about the list's sillier or more obsessed members, but they are also the first to e-mail him to chew over some particularly juicy bit unearthed on the list - or to discuss a member's review of their work.
I, too, have been occasionally red-faced and defensive reading an onlist dissection of his paper's work...but after deep breathing, usually can see the value in it. Journalists rarely get enough feedback, and it's far worse to be ignored than damned.
More journalists - particularly from non-daily community newspapers, magazines and radio - post links to their stories for comment or publicity. For the smaller media, Minneapolis-Issues has become a way to get the word out, as well as information in.
Among politicians, here's a rough count:
The communication staff of the three bodies regularly posts meeting announcements and other public service announcements.
As said earlier, while many electeds don't post, they are well versed on list topics, based on the complaints or questions I hear when talking to them on various civic subjects.
I have no grand vision for the list going forward, other than to try to replicate it in other cities. For me, the attraction remains part do-goodery, part ongoing sociological experiment. I'm not sure if 900 members is the permanent limit, or if some dynamic among the assembled hoard will shift luring or repelling new members. I enjoy being the volunteer "judge" but has little desire to turn it into a paying gig.
I think the primary threat to the list is that it increasingly becomes a "complaint corner" unmoored to positive change. I struggle to figure out how the rules can be written to permit and encourage criticism without drowning the list in cynicism. One of my Internet aphorisms is that "the angry eventually drive out the rest" from online forums.
For now, there's no evidence that my fear is becoming a reality for Minneapolis-Issues. Although there are occasional complaints about the rules, or my list management, or the list's general tone, membership has not dropped and no one has started a more successful civic-issues list with different rules.
The growth, therefore, will come from other communities that can use Minneapolis-Issues and E-Democracy as their customizable models. With gentle but constant list management and a commitment to substantive dialogue of all stripes, there's vast potential nationally and around the world.