local issues forum

A local issues forum is another name for an e-democracy version of a town hall meeting. It is sometimes called an electronic town hall. It is one of several means of achieving a continuous municipal performance audit, albeit in a relatively informal way. It complements more formal methods such as CitiStat.

Unlike a Living Agenda which focuses on a group that is widely distributed in time and space and is cooperating on a narrow range of issues, an issues forum is more concerned with people who live physically near each other and thus share at least a common risk of bodily harm.

While a local wiki is the most appropriate means of such consultation and consensus building, there are also attempts to use local blogs, local newsgroups and local mailing lists and even local yahoogroups. In general these technology-dependent terms should be avoided except where emphasizing the use of one technology over another and its specific advantages in some application.

US experience

In the U.S., online Issues Forums have proven a rich source of stories and perspectives for political and media organisations, and journalist reporting helps to inform a wider cross-section of community members.

Local committees are working with the non-partisan community organisation, E-Democracy.Org, to establish a global model for local online citizen participation in the UK and beyond. Minnesota-based E-Democracy.Org has built a cost-effective volunteer-based effort that has engaged citizens for over a
decade. Since then the model has also spread to the UK:

UK experiments

A recent comprehensive study of the use of such forums in the UK claim "some specific benefits identified in the pilot forum process:
* Local authority officials in Brighton & Hove indicated strong optimism that the Local Issues Forum will complement their existing consultation processes.
* Newham local authority officials as well as representatives of the Metropolitian Police and the local NHS branch filled a room to learn about the Issues Forum. Many of Newham's steering committee members work for or have connections to the Council. It is important emphasize the informal connections between the Council and the pilot forum.
* The forums provide an opportunity to build awareness of existing consultations and in-person community participation events. It also can generate additional informal feedback that complements formal consultations.
* Civil servants noted that value of helping councillors be exposed to direct and dynamic public discussions of consultation themes that may not always come across in final reports and summaries.
* Councils are in a stronger position to discover and clarify to inaccurate information flowing through the community. This is particularly helpful where gaps in media coverage of local issues are present."

Gavin Sealy, Newham, UK, Issues Forum Manager, says, "The forum has the potential to build community cohesion with a socially diverse local population, because there is another way for people to get involved. We believe that convenient
Ñany time, anywhere
Ã’ participation is key to the future of local government".

Steven Clift, Board Chair of E-Democracy.Org noted, "We must build e- democracy with the citizens
Ã’ needs up front. That provides real value to local authorities, the local media, and the local community as a whole."

As part of the local E-democracy National Project, the issue-based discussions will allow citizens and officials to communicate, and in many cases set agendas, on a wide range of issues for their localities.

Local volunteers facilitate and co-ordinate the forums based on rules that encourage substantive discussion and ensure that political doesn
Ã’t descend into personal. Volunteer facilitators consult with citizens and officials, but are independent.

The forums aim to empower citizens by giving them a public platform to share their experiences, points of view and questions, as well as helping local authorities provide better leadership and services by connecting with a broader base of diverse citizens.

Fraser Henderson, National Project for local E- democracy Project Officer at NorthLincsNet, commented: "Without debate there is no community; these Issues Forums provide an important set of online deliberative tools that connect

free software

E-Democracy.Org is using free software technology from New Zealand to host the UK forums. GroupServer allows citizens to participate via e- mail or the web by utilizing a number of emerging social networking techniques that effectively bring groups of people together online. It has roughly the same capabilities as yahoogroups.

A pilot forum in the town of Melksham, Wiltshire plans to run through to 15 March 2005. Post-pilot efforts in Blackburn with Darwin as well as other communities are possible based on local citizen interest and formal or informal support from local authorities, community groups, and/or new media initiatives.