A Wired Agora
Minneapolis, Citizen Participation, the Internet and Squirrels

Copyright 1999 Steven Clift - All rights reserved.  Please contact the author via e-mail <clift@publicus.net> for use permissions. Printing for personal use permitted.  This article was downloaded from <http://publicus.net/present/agora.html>. 

All presentation slides may be viewed on the web or downloaded in Power Point An audio file (2.3 MB for download and use with Real Player) from an informal presentation in Iowa is also available.

by Steven Clift
E-mail: clift@publicus.net
Web: http://www.publicus.net
Telephone: +1.612.822.8667

Version 1.0 - Adapted from a presentation given by Steven Clift.

We hear a lot about the potential of the Internet to improve citizen participation in democracy, but no one seems to do much about it. Like the weather, everyone talks about it, but few people try to do anything about it. We'll in Minneapolis, Minnesota we did something about our severe winter weather, we built "skyways" connecting the second floors of buildings downtown. We are also building online public spaces for democratic dialogue on the Internet within the context of a primarily commercial Internet.

The second part of this presentation includes examples from the dynamic Minneapolis Issues Forum, a project of Minnesota E-Democracy. First I want to share my perspective on the current crisis in politics and offer a few background comments.

In my "Democracy is Online" article in the March/April 1998 issue of the Internet Society's OnTheInternet magazine I presented the following thesis - "The most democratizing aspect of the Internet is the ability for people organize and communicate in groups." I am an online builder, speaker, and organizer. I practice democracy and the Internet everyday. I leave it academic researchers and theorists to prove me right or wrong or at least explain what we have done in Minnesota and what actually works according to their perspective.

Over the last few years I have had the honor of presenting in seventeen countries. While you can do plenty of research over the Internet, I have discovered the best stories in person. Over and over again the most compelling use of the Internet in politics center on the role of organizing groups and allowing them to communicate online. Whether online communication helps achieve a specific goal or promotes open public discussions among people with diverse political views, I want to foster a networked world where people, groups, geography, and democracy can come together.

From a basic perspective, many people look at the crisis in politics as a disconnect between the government and the citizens.

My view is that citizens are fundamentally disconnected from one another and hyper-connected through various special interest groups to government. Will the Internet make government more sensitive to well wired interest groups? What can be done online to fundamentally improve citizen input into representative democracy? Can the Internet be used to reconnect citizens within geographic areas based on the common interest?

Over the last five years governments, parliaments, politicians, political parties and just about every established political institution has become increasingly "wired." They must to simply survive. Most information flows from the wired government to the passive citizen receiver of information.

The citizens remain disconnected from each other. How often do legislative or parliamentary web sites encourage you to interact with other visitors interested in the same content or draft legislation? While some citizens may e-mail their elected officials, e-mail without specific postal address information that proves you are a constituent is considered by many to be the least effective way to make your point with government officials. If it is viewed as too easy, it may be thought of as less authentic - I have found this to be particularly true at the statewide and national level in the United States. Not to be that down on the Internet, when are post cards and postal letters really all that effective anyway? There seems to be a fundamental break down in constituent communications regardless of the technology.

As Internet user, citizens are becoming more connected with online groups. This is often at the global level based on hobbies, life situations or within very private social and family networks. Rarely do citizens connected with each other online within the context of local democracy. The fact that city councils, state legislatures, and even national representatives represent geographic areas puts the nature of participation in democracy at odds with the technical ethos of the Internet. With so many people hoping to escape the "accident of geography," how will those who want to use the Internet to "come home" become connected with each other for civic purposes?

Moving on. Let's assume that we now have "wired citizens." And in some parts of the world this is happening. Where home Internet access is affordable the consumer Internet is leading to exciting citizen Internet activities particularly in my home state of Minnesota.

Our "wired citizen" assumption is based on the combination of individual, government, non-profit, and commercial activities that make geography a viable and vibrant part of the Internet experience. With this citizens from the neighborhood level on up are starting to reconnect with each other through the Internet. Now at the corner coffee shop the discussion might go along the lines, "Ya know, I missed that neighborhood meeting on traffic calming the other day, but the e-mail discussion sure brought me up to date. You better believe I'll make next in-person meeting when they take that vote."

Even with out "wired government" and "wired citizens," what is missing? What is missing from our analog democracy is an engaging and participatory governance system that involves citizens and helps elected officials and governments better represent of the needs and desires of the people. What can the Internet contribute to analog democracy? If democracy "as is" is going online what can we add along the way? From an online perspective we need a "wired democracy" with an important addition.

The wired democracy needs an online interactive public commons.

Or we could call it an Agora online… something that leverages the good work of all the sectors of democracy. The non-profit/voluntary/advocacy sector, the media, and the private sector are all crucial contributors to democracy online. These are highlighted in my Democracy is Online article and Democracies Online: Building Civic Life on the New Frontier presentation. They are both available online from <http://www.publicus.net>. From that presentation "democracy online" involves leveraging the good work of all the democracy sectors and plunking an open, interactive, online public commons in the middle that is sponsored by a non-partisan, trusted host or partnership.

Minneapolis, Citizen Participation, the Internet and Squirrels

They look innocent.

In 1994 a group of volunteers created Minnesota E-Democracy and the world's first election-oriented web site. This effort put the position papers for U.S. Senate and Governor candidates online, hosted candidate E-Debates via e-mail, and launched the MN-POLITICS e-mail discussion list. In 1996 Minnesota E-Democracy became a tax-exempt 501.c3 non-profit organization and established its official mission to "improve participation in democracy in Minnesota through information networks." With each statewide election the organization has evolved toward partnership efforts that cross promote and link comprehensively to the best election resources across Minnesota. The candidate E-Debates and discussion forums remain the central election time contribution of Minnesota E-Democracy to the broader democracy online community in the state.

The ongoing miracle of the 1994 experiment has been the sustained discussion on MN-POLITICS. This interactive online public commons provides the most important lessons for those hoping to us the Internet to improve citizen participation. If ninety-nine percent of political discussion on the Internet is junk and disconnected from anything real, then our discussions are half junk. The miracle is that any of our online political discussions have any value whatsoever.

Further analysis is available from Scott Aikens <http://www.aikens.org> whose Ph.D. thesis for the University of Cambridge explored happenings in Minnesota quite extensively. Despite continued development of the forum replication in other places remains limited. Ongoing academic research and analysis seems sparse particularly from a quantitative perspective. Of interest to some may be the recent division of the list into Announce and Discussion versions after a bumpy transition to a new list management scheme after four years of facilitation by Mick Souder, Minnesota E-Democracy's Vice Chair. New rules and guidelines, representing five years of experience can be reviewed from <http://www.e-democracy.org/mn-politics/>.

Based on our experience with the statewide forum we decided to take our model local. In the summer of 1998 we launched the Minneapolis Issues Forum (MPLS-ISSUES). David Brauer, freelance journalist and former talk radio host, volunteered to facilitate the forum. Working with other Minnesota E-Democracy volunteers he developed a list of around 100 key Minneapolitians to invite to join the forum. We also encouraged them to help us promote the forum before we opened it with our 100th member. This one-by-one recruitment is essential to building an online discussion forum in the heart of real politics.

The official purpose of the unmoderated MPLS-ISSUES e-mail list is:

MPLS-ISSUES is an e-mail announcement and discussion forum on public issues in Minneapolis. Discussions of a substantial and respectful nature are expected on this city-wide issue-based forum.

Discussion topics include agenda items or issues that you feel should be addressed by the Minneapolis City Council, the Minneapolis School Board, Minneapolis related items before the Hennepin County Board, and items on the agenda of other publicly elected or appointed boards and councils in Minneapolis. Official bodies and civic organizations are highly encouraged to make meeting announcements, agendas, and information on new online resources available.

Minneapolis is the largest city in Minnesota with a population of 370,000 living with the city limits. The overall metropolitan area has 2.7 million of Minnesota's 4.5 million residents. The city council has 13 single district members and a directly elected mayor.

MPLS-ISSUES is co-sponsored by Minnesota E-Democracy and the Minneapolis Telecommunications Network. MTN is the local public access cable entity and helps cement the notion of community media participation in interactive new media at the local level. The full charter, rules and a link to the web archive is available at <http://www.e-democracy.org/mpls-issues/>.

The 1998 race for Minnesota Governor resulted in the election of former pro-wrestler and radio talk show host Jesse Ventura. (The inside story on the Ventura campaign's use of the Internet is available via the Democracies Online Newswire at <http://www.egroups.com/group/do-wire/107.html?>.) This dramatic event shifted most of the public's attention to statewide politics. The MPLS-ISSUES list was very quiet.

About two weeks after the election I was walking down the street when I saw more squirrels in one glance than I had ever seen before. Inspired I scrambled back to my home office and thought I might spur some local issue discussions with the following post:

From: "Steven Clift" <clift@publicus.net>

To: Multiple recipients of list <mpls-issues@mtn.org>

Subject: Squirrels Attack

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?


Steven Clift
CARAG Neighborhood

Obviously humorous, I imagined being surrounded by dozens of squirrels bearing their teeth. After the Gorbachev Foundation of North America conference in Boston where I first made this presentation, I returned home to another squirrel in my fireplace! It took almost week before we were able to coax it out and chase it outside.

So how does an e-mail list work? Where did my message go? The image below represents the explosive nature of public e-mail discussion lists. From an organizers perspective this works in direct contrast to the passive nature of web sites. With an e-mail list people subscribe once and make a commitment. With a web site citizens must decide to visit the site each time they log-on. For a small local organization it is extremely difficult to get people to come back to same web site on a regular basis. Building an online community requires the commitment of the participants. Hopefully only a few of the participants should be committed, but that is another presentation on how to facilitate online discussions with all kinds of people.

Through our strategic use of e-mail (with web archives) we have also brought publishing down to the lowest common denominator on the Internet - e-mail. E-mail is the most personal space controlled by users on their computer. People care about what comes in and craft the ways they deal with their messages. With web sites we are visitors on someone else's property, with e-mail we are letting people into our homes as citizens.

Back to the example. Via the list server computer at MTN the "Squirrels Attack" message was e-mailed directly to more than 200 people and placed in the web archive at EGroups. Within hours people around City hall, the local media, and average citizens were talking about the message and the discussion exploded with postings. We have found that who reads the messages is often more important than the topic of discussion. Having people in the virtual audience "that matter" will do more to spark interesting and useful discussion than planting topics to attract active members of the community. Finally, squirrels were an issue that most citizens can related to and on which they can share their opinions and experiences. Everyone is an expert.

The following excerpts were selected by Martiga Lohn in her "Eavesdropping on the electronic neighborhood..." article in the local Southwest Journal newspaper:

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?

>Rocky and his friends are out of control. … If you want evidence, try to eat a sandwich on a bench in Loring Park.

>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 anti-squirrel platform post was now former Reform Party Councilmember Steve Minn. He was recently appointed the Commissioner of Public Service by Governor Ventura.

With Minnesota E-Democracy sponsored discussion lists we have two key rules. No one may post more than twice day. And all messages are to be signed with a person's real name and city or neighborhood. Even with these rules over 30 messages were posted by a wide number of subscribers on the squirrel topic in a few days. The two post a day rule helps ensure that more people can participate in a discussion before it is driven into the ground. The tragedy of the online commons is when a two people go back and forth all day driving the audience away. On our forums you have the opportunity to be brilliant or a jerk only twice a day. This rule mediates the message volume while avoiding undesirable content censorship. The current average of 5-7 daily posts is a manageable number for most people.

The key for responsibility of Minnesota E-Democracy is to build and maintain audience while fostering as much list participant self-governance as possible. It is important to point out the Internet discussion are contrairian in nature. People tend to reply publicly to the points they disagree with or take specific points and expand upon them. I have rarely seen anything resembling a consensus develop online, I do however see the foundation of citizenship being built daily. The respect for each other's right to express an opinion and a willingness to listen to others, particularly those with which you disagree. I have seen people shift their opinions over the course of months, but the immediacy of the online medium does not seem to lend itself to quick changes of view, it just gets more of the issue on the table for consideration which may facilitate improved decision-making.

The exciting Squirrel saga continues….

The media calls. Our discussion sparked media interest. The second largest newspaper in the state, the St. Paul Pioneer Press asks, "We understand you are an expert on squirrels. We are doing a story." In this case and in many others, the MPLS-ISSUES discussions play an important agenda-setting role with community issues. Most of the quotes in the St. Paul article came from interviews of list members. By participating in an online discussion, new sources became available to local journalists. As it turns out the story uncovered the fact that yes, there are more squirrels in the city than ever before. A drought ten years ago brought rural squirrels into the city and the two warm winters in a row have kept them fat and happy.

Government calls. The City Animal Control Division asks, "We hear you are having a problem with squirrels." When does the government call you? My assumption is that a city council member or staff person forwarded my e-mail and suggested that I be contacted. They provided some tips on what to do if it happens again - useful in my case. I guess this is what they call "responsive government." In this example government service was influenced. I am often asked if the Internet is influencing government decision-making. This is extremely rare or at least difficult to prove particularly with our statewide MN-POLITICS forum. Most statewide posts are focused around agenda setting and the topic space is not granular enough to reach the core decision-makers in a specific legislative committee for example. Taking online interaction into the heart of policy development and citizen participation at the State Capitol may be our next big challenge.

However, the more local the discussion, the more relevant it is to a broader cross-section of the population. Therefore the more likely the Internet will influence actual government decision-making. There are dozens of exciting examples of discussions on MPLS-ISSUES entering what I think of as "real politics." Within two days of opening the e-mail list, Councilmember Lisa Goodman read two posts about zoning for a discount store downtown at the in-person council meeting. A number of online efforts have tried to put elected officials on a virtual stage for interaction with the citizens. While this is sometimes useful, putting the success of a forum on the shoulders of an elected official often leads to a scripted and stale event. We invite our elected officials to participate as citizens with equal status to all participants. As political survivors they have learned when it makes sense to add their comments to an online discussion and when it might not be politically wise. Some politicians are too risk adverse and therefore are missing out on an opportunity to set the agenda and raise their public profile.

As I am editing this presentation, members are currently discussing the proposed tax levy by the Minneapolis Park Board. People are analyzing a recent article in the Minneapolis StarTribune and Councilmember Lisa McDonald has offered her thoughts on the Mayor's veto and the need to coordinate tax proposals from a number of quasi-independent taxing jurisdictions in the city. I just replied with a query about whether any Park Board members are subscribed to MPLS-ISSUES and encouraged others to invite those they know to join our discussions.

Listed below are some examples of more serious or interesting topics on the MPLS-ISSUES list in the last year:

  • Development (or non-development) of Block E downtown
  • Shopping cart problems and policies
  • Crocus crime control (boulevard gardening to reduce crime)
  • Lack of cable modems and the information infrastructure in Minneapolis
  • Saving the 612 area code for Minneapolis
  • Minneapolis school board elections
  • Candidate debate among Hennepin County Commissioner candidates
  • Twins baseball stadium
  • CODEFOR efforts of the Minneapolis police
(Visit the MPLS-ISSUES web archive via EGroups for current messages.)

These examples illustrate how useful discussions can be in both giving citizens a voice and educating the public on the complexity of local issues. I have personally learned more about Minneapolis in the last year through this e-mail list than I did living in the city the last six years.

A the next step for Minnesota E-Democracy to consider is the development of proposals for a Minnesota Communities Forum effort that with a number of partnering public/private/non-profit organizations could lead toward issue forums in local areas across the state. Access to technological resources and discussion facilitators are significant challenges. Our experiments with a St. Paul Issues Forum over the last six months have had marginal results. We are experimenting with the Twin Cities Free-Net's Caucus web conferencing system that has a good e-mail gateway. Ultimately scaling their web system for up to 826 cities across the state is more feasible than creating up to 826 e-mail lists (even 50 e-mail lists for the largest cities) that have a much higher technical administration overhead. However, the simplicity of starting new threads in traditional e-mail lists may make it difficult for us to transfer our e-mail familiar audience to a web/e-mail system that is more complex. With complexity comes added features which in the end may be better for small group work and online special events of a time-limited nature.  (As of October 1999 the St. Paul Issues Forum was moved to an e-mail list at EGroups and a new Duluth Issues Forum was established.)

The recent availability of free e-mail list services through sites like EGroups and OneList have opened up new possibilities for individuals and organizations to start their own lists. We moved our MN-POLITICS lists to EGroups and we are pleased with the service. A number of new independent (non E-Democracy) e-mail lists have been created by individuals active on our forums. This is a great diffusing force that I personally welcome, but it challenges to our model that promotes the idea of a trusted and neutral host organization. Can individuals with strong personal agendas establish open forums that attract a broad sense of participation? Can those discussions function as open online public spaces? Will they successfully engage in the required recruitment and forum promotion? Will the forums last beyond the whims of an individual? Looking beyond Minnesota in places without an existing neutral host organization why should anyone take the time to build one just to start an online discussion that can be set-up in fifteen minutes?

We found our St. Paul effort sharing the same potential audience as with an individually sponsored St. Paul Politics e-mail list at EGroups that was also fairly inactive. That e-mail-based forum closed after we stated our position that we could not consider merging until we followed through on our commitment to make the Caucus system work through at least the summer. Like so many dead local web boards and newsgroups across the Internet, will the additional existence of failing local e-mail lists lead citizens to conclude that using the Internet for local interaction doesn’t work? Or will we instead combine the lessons of successful efforts around the world and start a non-partisan citizen movement to build and facilitate online political forums that work to fundamentally improve citizen participation in democracy.

While from a legal perspective our interactive spaces are owned by Minnesota E-Democracy, based on our mission and structure they function as valuable public spaces. It is our obligation to protect and develop these as real public spaces as well as to develop long-term strategies for the organization's growth and legitimacy. Aside from the extremely open and free nature of newsgroups, the Internet is either individualized or institutionalized. Even most "publicly owned" government web sites only reflect the institution of government and do not have public spaces for citizen use. While existing civic and political organizations are getting "on" the Internet, we need to build community efforts that are "of" the Internet.

Building hundreds of non-profit, non-partisan organizations or broad-based partnerships like Minnesota E-Democracy as new mediating institutions to host online political interaction in democracies around the world is something I hope we can accomplish over the next twenty years. Efforts are now underway in Iowa, the state to the south of Minnesota, to establish a discussion forum about their first in the nation Presidential Caucuses and an Iowa Issues Forum modeled after our statewide discussion and announcement lists. This is a start. The key is to enable grass roots, bubble-up efforts around the world and connect these democracy online builders for resource and experience sharing.

At the national level in the United States, Web White & Blue, sponsored by the Markle Foundation, represents an important opportunity to network the democracy online community for partnership-based online public service efforts. As a consultant working with that project, I feel it should carefully promote easy citizen access to political information and deepen and sustain its private/non-profit/public partnership among election/political/media content community. There are important issues and competitive pressures to balance. Broad partnership efforts in other states may be the best route to promoting regional and local online interaction that matters in "real politics" without proscribing one model for hosting, promoting, or sponsoring discussions. An open question is whether a single general issue commons is viable or required as a center to spark meaningful interaction from across the political spectrum or whether discussions at a local and regional level will be diffused based on topic, interest group, or political positions. We started with the "commons" in Minnesota, but in most places local/regional online political communication travels through private e-mail networks and a limited number of public e-mail lists based on specific agendas.

In this presentation and based on five years of experience I must conclude that a shared general "interactive online public commons" is something we want in every democracy. Every community from your neighborhood up through cities, counties, states, and even countries should build an active and dynamic online public sphere for citizen-to-citizen and citizen-government discussions.

Democracies Online

The Democracy Online Newswire e-mail announcement list covers the topics covered in this article. Send a message to listserv@tc.umn.edu. In the body of the message, write subscribe do-wire Your Name (Place).

Democracies Online promotes the  development and sustainability of online civic participation and democracy efforts around the world through experience, outreach, and education.  For more information, see http://www.e-democracy.org/do.