Start an Issues Forum
Start an Issues Forum in 10 Steps

Issues Forum Diagram

This article is being updated.

Local Many-to-Many Citizen Online Discussions Start Here

For local democracy to survive and thrive, we must create viable "any time, anywhere" participation options that complement time and place restricted forms of public involvement. A quiet model, the Issues Forum, has evolved over the last decade and is now making a splash with 25 forums in 15 communities across three countries.

Despite thousands of political online discussions across the Internet, an active and useful online public commons using real names with basic civility most likely does not -yet- exist for your local community or neighborhood.  

Most online discussions are based on a specific topic, cause, or hosted by someone with an ax to grind or perhaps a secret agenda. Online newspapers host anonymous slug fests that attract only the nastiest among us.  What we need are geography-based, multi-topic, non-partisan online public spaces where citizens with diverse perspectives and backgrounds gather for online discussion, dialogue and deliberation on real public issues. We need an online citizen assembly that brings people together from across the political spectrum.

Unlike most web forums and weblogs, our e-mail enabled discussions sustain involvement because members only have to make a commitment to join once (we do provide a web-only option and headline feeds (RSS) as well). With the web-only forums, people must proactively decide to visit a web forum every time they go online.  The job of the forum manager or facilitator is to build and maintain a participatory audience by keeping message volume in check and mediating disputes in a fair manner.

E-Democracy.Org is building a local steering committee and chapter model, like the Rotary or Kiwanas service club model.  While you can adapt this advice and create something independent for your community, this article presents a way to do this as part of a family of local Issues Forums. Together we can build a stronger future for citizen engagement in our own communities.

Step-by-step.  You can do it.

1. Your Democracy - Pick your geographic area according to a political jurisdiction.  Democracy is based on geography - so your town, county, state/province, or country would work.  Consider starting with an area under 6 million in population. This just seems to work better. Neighborhoods are also a natural starting point, but try starting city-wide first and encourage others to establish neighborhood e-mail lists or online forums.

2. Charter - Draft a discussion charter and rules.  This is essential.  Your two paragraph description of the forum will set the tone for more civil discussions online.  It is much easier to start with good rules than to add them later.  We have found great success with three rules - 1. No one may post more than twice a day.  2. All posts must be signed with the participant's full real name and city or neighborhood. 3. No personal attacks - stick to issues. If started as part of E-Democracy.Org, you simply need to adapt our start a forum templates to your community which builds upon our well crafted and effective rules.

3. Steering Committee and Forum Manager - Create a smalll "club" or steering committee to serve as the non-partisan, non-profit, trusted, neutral host for the discussion forum.  As a host organization we must be issue-neutral for a true online public commons to develop.  Get your steering committee involved to discuss in detail and agree to the draft charter.  Designate a Forum Manager and assign specific forum development roles to others on the team.  E-Democracy.Org can serve as your legal host and provide technical support. Our goal is to transition a steering committee to full "Chapter" status after one year. Also, community organizations including governments can join a partnership to launch an Issues Forum.  We simply need to ensure that the citizen-based steering committee provides legitimacy and serves as an effective buffer between the interests of any one partner and citizen trust and forum management. In short, no organization should be in a position to close the forum based on political interests.

4. Technology - As part of E-Democracy.Org, your community can have access to our installation of the GroupServer technology.  A newly released open source tool, GroupServer combines the best aspects of e-mail lists and web forums.  If you want to apply our ideas indepdently, you can also use services like the free YahooGroups and other online community services. If you use a web forum, it must have a fully integrated e-mail delivery and posting option to be accessible to non-broadband users who  typically log on, grab their e-mail and log off. With any of these services, it only takes a few minutes to technically set-up a forum.  Don't let this fool you. Most of the work is on the human side. Be sure to place a text footer at the bottom of each forum e-mail message that tells someone how to subscribe/unsubscribe.  This will reduce the number of technical requests and turn every forwarded message into a marketing tool to promote the forum. Also if you join our network, along with the GroupServer technology, your local E-Democracy Issues Forum will receive a simple web page your group can maintain at:  - Our high Google rankings will help it rise to the top of search results as well.

5. Recruit - Your discussion participants must be recruited one at a time.  Period.  Build it and they will never come unless you tell them it is there.  Set a minimum number of subscribers you want (E-Democracy requires 100 on most forums) before opening the discussion for postings.  Develop a target recruitment list with advice from those connected in the community.Then e-mail, call, and perhaps physically visit community leaders, elected officials, and local journalists to get them on the forum before it opens.  Consider other in-person recruiting events in the community and have a sign-up sheet with plenty of room to clearly write an e-mail address. The more people signed up when you open the forum for posting, the broader and deeper the sense of community ownership.

6. Community Approach - Take an inclusive approach, not an activist "government or politicians are the problem "approach. Unlike many web forums, the rhetoric we use is not about "sounding off" or complaining, it is about bringing people with diverse views together for a civil discussion. Setting the right tone makes a world of difference. An effective online public space treats all members as equal "citizens," be they public officials, journalists, neighborhood leaders, or the elusive "average" citizen. We need to create relevancy and value in the discussions for busy people in the local community.  If those who already "show up," don't show up in this forum, other citizens, particularly those from less enfranchised groups, will not waste a minute of their time presenting their views if they feel no one who matters is listening.  Also, don't put the success of the forum on the shoulders of elected officials.  Strategic politicians will talk because, like other participants, they will see the discussion as an effective agenda setting tool. In general, while ideally on fourth of members will post at least once in a month, the more readers (or "lurkers") the better.  We've learned that who reads the messages of citizens is often more important than what you have to say. (It's not what you know, its who you know).

7. Launch Publicity - Be sure to open with a coordinated publicity campaign in the early stages.  Use your initial pre-opening recruited members to spread the word.  Send a press release to area media and follow-up with a telephone call - yes telephone. Be sure to get the full how to join instructions everywhere.  You will get one major press hit.  You might try special online events, like a candidate E-Debate or other online events/consultations to generate publicity and awareness of the forum.  

8. Facilitate and Manage - Make all new members feel welcome.  Encourage forum members to help you send occassional private encouragements, thank you notes, or "be nice, be effective" advice to those learning how to participate in this open forum.  You will have much better success gearing the forum toward local issue discussions and away from flame wars if you first get on the good side of participants by building a trusting relationship.  Seed new topics to keep the discussion interesting or to shift attention away from a discussion that turned negative. On rare occasions you will need to publicly ask people to stop or better yet move a discussion to a different forum - provide a link if you can. Send public decorum notes when required, but avoid pointing public finger pointing. Be firm, be fair, but remember the interests of whole over the few individuals who think it is their right to talk about whatever topic they want even if it is well outside the charter scope they agreed to follow when they joined.  In short, some will attempt to use the forum to advocate on national issues because they see a convenient local audience.  With a local forum, only a local event announcement related to a national issues is appropriate.  Without this restriction, the participatory audience will disappear, particularly those most concerned primarily with local issues. Finally, send monthly reminders about the forum rules and encourage the members to recruit more participants.

9. Experiment and Grow - Once the forum is on its feet, its success is largely measured by whether the participants themselves generate discussions.  Some community happening or event will spark a moment where the forum members themselves assume a sense of community ownership and forum destiny.  It is on the shoulders of the citizens themselves to make this a valuable experience and to self-regulate the forum as adults with support from the rules and manager. The Forum Manager and Steering Committee (future Chapter) are there to lightly and sometimes strongly, guide the forum.  Down the road, perhaps six months or year after your launch, consider hosting an "online event" within the forum or hosting and e-consultation via a web forum with partnering organizations. With an active participatory audience already assembled, the opportunity to leverage it in future online engagement activities will be apparent.  Special online events may also be used to bring in new participants to the forum.

10. Celebrate - Celebrate forum anniversaries and encourage in-person picnics and happy hours at local venues to remind people that real people are on the other side of the forum postings. When members come together, this helps humanize the forum despite the use of technology. Connecting geography and a sense of social accountability in the "real world" is vital to the forum. With real people, using real names, in a real place, vibrant and ongoing public discussions  are something to celebrate.


We are working on a number of additional documents, including answers to Frequently Asked Questions.

For now, here are our answers related to the format of forums:
What about newsgroups?
  Political newsgroups do exist in many places around the world. Visit Google Groups to find groups of interest.  While the web has democratized access to newsgroups, local groups tend have a limited audience at the local level.  Few people with political power or influence use newsgroups.  They are the best place to send unruly forum members who can't swallow our usual two posts a day per member rule.

What about web forums? Newspapers tend to host the most active online discussions on local and regional issues.  Discussions tend to be in response to specific stories. These online spaces tend to function as a privatized discussions connected to the news outlet, not full community spaces (a shopping mall versus a public park).  They can be useful, but generally are not a place for people to announce or plant the seeds for new political or civic efforts.  Web forums also are used at a more local level for hosting online events, like "e-consultations" for example.  Read some hosting advice from E-Democracy Board member David Woolley. Our friends with are doing a good job with national policy discussions on the web as of late.

What about chat?  Live chat is almost entirely useless for many-to-many political discussions among people with different, often opposing views.  Useful implementations tend to be moderated live interviews with candidates, elected officials, and guest experts.

What about weblogs? Weblogs that work best are highly individualistic.  There is one owner, sometimes a few, that share their wisdom or stories in mostly a one-way manner.  Some blogs that encourage comments actually receive them, but ultimately this is the personal online space of the owner who has unlimited discretion over any community of frequent commentors that might exist.  If everyone maintained a weblog, then it would be many-to-many, but in reality most (not all) weblogs are one to few, one to some, or with the rare "power law" winners one to many. However, local weblog headlines (new content headlines from local government and the media as well) could be fed into the Issues Forum to spark discussion.  Our friends in Northfield, Minnesota have combined a citizen media blog with a community e-mail list quite effectively. Discussions on our current Issues Forums are sometimes blogged as well.

Updated October 2005
First Version

Discover More Example Forums

More Background

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Issues Forums via E-mail and the Web
Issues Forum Diagram

An online public space between government (and the media) and citizens
Interactive public commons