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Featured Catalyst Awards Proposal: e-Liberate

NCDD’s Catalyst Awards process is in full swing, with 10 projects posted so far up at ncdd.civicevolution.org for your consideration for the two $10,000 prizes. Feel free to ask questions, share your reactions, and offer support here as well as at CivicEvolution!

e-Liberate, online support for civil society using Roberts Rules of Order

Proposed by: Doug Schuler
Project home: http://ncdd.civicevolution.org/proposal/10105

I’m based in Seattle and I teach at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, a liberal arts college that stresses interdisciplinary teaching and learning and the integration of theory and practice. Everything I do at Evergreen is related to the theory and practice of civic intelligence, which basically explores and describes how smart societies are in relation the problems that face them. I’ve been interested in dialogue and deliberation — particularly online — since the mid 1980s when I worked at Boeing’s Artificial Intelligence Lab and studied computer aided negotiation. In the early 1990s I proposed and helped launch the Seattle Community Network, a free online system that will celebrating its 20th anniversary next year.

I’m currently working with Ele Mooney and others to re-write e-Liberate, an online system that facilitates distributed, online meetings using Roberts Rules of Order. What attracted us to Roberts Rules — an admittedly “old-school” application — was the reality that it’s actually in daily use by millions of people. Besides the obvious advantages of saving time and money by meeting online, we believe that online meetings offer participants some opportunities to become smarter participants through amenities that in-person venues don’t offer. Two such features of e-Liberate include (1) the fact that only the actions that are allowed at any given time by Roberts Rules are made available; and (2) the help system can be used at any time to explain the motivation and proper use of any action (second a motion and call the question, for example) that a meeting participant can ever use.

Besides being an everyday workhorse of democracy, Roberts Rules of Order is the product of over a century of evolution based on actual use in real meetings. On the other hand, we’re aware of its limitations and we know that no one deliberative approach will work for all situations. For that reason, we’re (re-)developing e-Liberate in such as way to promote evolution. We see a thousand intriguing directions that this can take — and we are hoping that NCDD members can help with our visioning. For the immediate future, we’re concentrating on finishing the implementation of a system using basic, unmodified Roberts Rules, which we intend to use to host free meetings with non-profit groups. We are looking for collaboration from other NCDD members in the near future especially in the areas of testing and evaluation.

Soon after that we hope to open a much broader discussion that includes questions as how can other deliberative approaches and systems be integrated, how can other digital objects (spreadsheets, for example) be added, how well does this scale up — could, for example, a federated network of e-Liberate instantiations be linked together together to form a national or international deliberation, and what research about online deliberation should we be asking and how could e-Liberate be used as one site for this?

We’d love to hear from interested people! More information — including a link to a transcript of a meeting (using our previous version) — can be found at www.publicsphereproject.org/e-liberate/. And here’s a relevant book chapter — Online Deliberation and Civic Intelligence, a chapter from Open Government, edited by Lathrop and Ruma.

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Sandy Heierbacher
Sandy Heierbacher co-founded the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD) with Andy Fluke in 2002, with the 60 volunteers and 50 organizations who worked together to plan NCDD’s first national conference. She served as NCDD's Executive Director between 2002 and 2018. Click here for a list of articles and resources authored by Sandy.

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