Clift has taken the far-reaching powers of the Internet to act locally. He is the founder of e-democracy, an organization dedicated to using the Internet to strengthen our democracy from the ground up.
What Clift would like to see are communities anywhere in the world bringing diverse minds and opinions together in civil discussions on local issues. The strategy? E-mail combined with the Web.
“E-mail is actually the most democratic medium,” says Clift. Subscribers to e-democracy can receive updates about ongoing discussions they care about in their inbox and instantly join the conversation that’s happening online. “In order to publish all you have to do is push ‘reply,’” he said. Or they can opt out of e-mail updates and keep their participation Web-only.
E-democracy calls these discussions Issues Forums and users have already established 25 of them in 15 communities in the United States, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand.
Some of these online forums bring together members of a neighborhood, others draw residents of a far-flung rural community and some invite the citizens of an entire city. Each one functions like an ongoing town hall meeting where members can express their opinions on local issues or topics in ongoing online discussions, hash out differences, work toward a public goal, and act as a group to effect change.
Unlike many other online groups Clift says, which tend to gather like minds around a common cause, these forums invite and thrive on diversity. On e-democracy’s Minneapolis forum says Clift, Democrats regularly exchange ideas with Republicans, tenants with landlords, long-time residents with new immigrants. No one engages in name-calling or incendiary commenting. And everyone has the ear of local government representatives. Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Ryback actually announced his candidacy on his local e-democracy Issues Forum.
Annie Young, leader of the Minneapolis-St. Paul Parks Board is a regular participant on her citywide forum. She floats ideas on the forum for park initiatives and gets feedback on existing conditions and problems. “E-democracy is an incredible way to be one on one with our constituents,” she says, “it’s a really good way to make government responsive.”
The conversation remains civil with the help of e-democracy’s few simple rules; everyone must use his or her real name for accountability, and each member can post only twice a day to cut down on inbox clutter.
“As long as there is a civic cross roads online, information, news, local content of any kind can find a real audience through local conversation,” says Clift. Online forums keep citizens connected, talking to each other and talking to government about what matters to them, whether it is upcoming local elections or water fountains in their park.
What do you think?
As the former manager of the government site for the city of Minneapolis, Clift’s work at e-democracy is also aimed at encouraging government to make all of its information easily accessible online -- from census data to video recordings of town meetings. How wired is your local government?
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