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Our field’s readiness to engage people online

As part of the Online Facilitation Unconference that’s going on right now in the midst of IAF’s International Facilitation Week, I’d like to engage people around a compelling report produced by our friends at AmericaSpeaks, an NCDD organizational member.

AmericaSpeaks_LogoThe report is nice and short (just 5 pages long!), and focuses on how we might use new forms of media, digital platforms, and citizen engagement principles to reengage the center and those who have turned out due to apathy and disgust.  Download it here.

It’s a good read, but I wanted to encourage us to reflect on / respond to a few points made in the article that question our field’s readiness to move into the online realm.  For those new to NCDD who might be coming in from the unconference, by “our field” I’m talking about the community of practitioners and innovators whose work centers on participatory practices like dialogue and deliberation.

The authors make a compelling and troubling statement about the readiness of dialogue and deliberation practitioners to move into the online realm:

Many resources exist within the field of “deliberative democracy” about ways to create effective and meaningful citizen engagement that is linked to policy making. However, this field is historically linked to in-person, face-to-face engagement and has been challenged to successfully translate to online and digital engagement….

Some efforts have been made from within the dialogue and deliberation community to create online dialogue forums, but they have not been able to attract participants and have not yet proven that they would be effective with large numbers of participants. Could some form of online tool that combines a reputation system, peer monitoring, language processing, sentiment analysis, and targeted interventions by human facilitators overcome this challenge? This is an area that requires considerable experimentation along with some research and development.

Practitioners of citizen engagement have been hampered by their inability to separate methodology from the principles discussed above. It is difficult for experienced practitioners to set aside their traditional methods. In order to find new ways of achieving these principles in online engagement, extensive collaboration with those experienced in digital engagement will be necessary.

Do these statements ring true to you?  A lot of it certainly rings true to me, but I’m curious whether others will disagree.

And if our community needs to separate our allegiance to specific face-to-face engagement methodologies in order to be more successful engaging people online, how can we best do that?  What principles and practices do we need to hold onto, and what can we let go?  Do you agree with the principles the authors cited as needing to be upheld whether engagement happens face-to-face or online — linked to decision making, diverse representation, informed participation and facilitation?  What else would you add?

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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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  1. David O'Neill says:

    Hi, I’d like to join the conversation please

    • Welcome, David. Please add a comment or two and let us know what you think!

    • David Magnani says:

      The authors suggest that we are incapable of understanding and fully embracing the digital paradigm, at our peril. My suspicion is that it is not a matter of capacity, but inclination, and with good reason. My inclination is to focus our attention now on the diminishing degree and quality of face-to-face interactions.

      The power of communicating with many who we may never meet in person is potentially broadening in ways we can not comprehend today – and such digital communication provides the expansion of what Teilhard de Chardin calls the “noosphere” which provides the pre-condition for the kind of global psychological interpenetration that could end war.

      Nevertheless – unless we learn how to “interface” ( note root word here) directly – the digital tracks we form between and among us will, if they become the virtually exclusive vehicle for our interactions, cause our abilities to fully engage, understand, relate to, appreciate and love one another to be attenuated, by necessity of time and space limits. Only when digital means of communication reflect and support face-to face communication, can they fulfill their capacity to extend rather than limit the extent and quality of human communication.


      • True, in-person collaboration offers dimensions not readily available on line. However, judging on-line collaboration with the in-person yardstick will always yield a disappointing result, because that yardstick will ignore the many ways on which the on-line experience can surpass the in-person experience. Here is a non-exhaustive list:

        1) In person, only one person an talk at a time otherwise you have a cacophony of voices that just add up to noise. So, if you are 30 in the room, 29 persons are on standby and the meeting is running at 3.3% efficiency. Online, especially with async collaboration, there is no such constraint.

        2) Since “speak time” is such a bottleneck, everyone wants a piece of it, and there is never enough time to go around. This limits the variety of thoughts and arguments, and keeps the deliberation at a superficial level. Online, you don’t have to give up the conference room at 5 PM and many people can be writing a post at the same time. And you don’t have to read all of them. Skip the boring ones!

        3) In person, there is little time for soak time. You are expected to think on your feet and be swift. Yet some issues need more time to think through, especially when they are emotionally charged. Speaking off the cuff is rarely productive. On line, because events are not as time constrained, the program can easily include soak time, and allow for a deeper level of collaboration.

        4) In person – well sometimes it just doesn’t happen – the meeting that is. The cost, schedule impacts and disruption to rest of life activities can be so great so meetings are avoided, but the problem they were supposed to address doesn’t.

        Here are a few more: http://bit.ly/17CYRn5

  2. The deliberative democracy / public engagement field IS historically linked to in-person, face-to-face engagement. Do you agree that this field has struggled to successfully translate its work into the realm of online and digital engagement? What exceptions would you cite? And can you think of exceptions that engaged large groups of people?

  3. The report says that though efforts have been made to create online dialogue forums, they have not been able to attract participants and have not yet proven that they would be effective with large numbers of participants. Do you agree? If so, why do you think this is the case?

    • Orla Cronin says:

      I think that to be able to answer this question we need to differentiate between ‘top down’ online forums, e.g. those set up by central government, and ‘bottom up’ forums driven by the energy and interests of citizens. Two extreme examples, which are admittedly chalk and cheese: a ‘top down’ initiative was the ‘cones hotline’ of the UK government, where people could report inactive roadworks. 17k calls over 3 years, of which only 5 resulted in the identification of real inactive roadworks. See here for another, anonymised case study.

      By contrast, an online petition to stop the extradition of Richard O’Dwyer to the US garnered 253k signatures (change.org, via this article in the Guardian). The Avaaz site (www.avaaz.org) site, a global site which after 5 years has 27 million members and is reported as being the world’s largest and most powerful online activist network. So we have to ask who are public engagement and deliberative democracy forums run by and for, before we ask whether they’re successful!

    • Online forums don’t “work” for a variety of reasons, most of which are well summarized on page 3 of the report, where it lists the goals of traditional facilitation. Online forums fall short of most of these goals.

      This suggests that as we move online, since we obviously can’t dispatch a facilitator to stand beside each participant, the facilitation must be designed into the online process of interaction, and this design must actually do everything it can to make the facilitator obsolete.

      So the design of the online interaction must explicitly address each of these traditional goals of interaction.

      I wrote a blog that explains how, at e-Deliberation.com, we have explicitly designed the facilitation into the online interaction and the collaborative deliberation process provided by this platform: http://bit.ly/17CUUyG

      Having a good design however isn’t everything. Participants must consent to enter the virtual room and stick with it. With an in-person event, the doors at the back of the room are typically closed to keep the noise out and the participants in. Online, a participant can walk away at any time, unless s/he is highly motivated to stick with it.

      Online forums are usually open ended. Participants act individually, not as a group.

      In e-Deliberation events, participants sign up for a known duration to resolve a clearly stated issue or challenge. They commit to “show up” and there is follow-up to support this commitment. This helps to transform these individuals into a temporary community of interest working together to wrestle down the problem or challenge and define a solution set that everyone has a chance to influence as an equal.

      Note: e-Deliberation™ is documented as a resource in the NCDD database here: https://ncdd.org/rc/item/8455

  4. I’d love also to get people to reflect on their own efforts to engage people online, and explore what hasn’t worked. We’re still very much in early days in online engagement, and I think we’ve all had more failures that successes! I’ll start by reminding people of some of the things we’ve done just within the NCDD community to engage the network.

    • Years ago (2004-2005ish), NCDD experimented with a wiki where we encouraged our community to share their knowledge about different approaches (among other things). Our main problem was that only a couple of NCDDers (Tom Atlee, John Abbe, and me) ever seemed to create or edit the pages! It developed into a great repository, which I translated into the Resource Center once spammers got the better of us — but it was never the collaborative space we hoped for.

      Similarly, the NCDD Forum (bulletin board) never became a popular space. We could get a little interaction going when there were imminent projects (like an upcoming conference), but not a lot.

      More recently, we used Maestroconference and CivicEvolution to encourage teams to form for NCDD’s Catalyst Awards program, and had a very hard time engaging our members even though award funds were involved!

      Do folks remember these efforts and have thoughts on why you weren’t engaged? We do have tons of engagement on the NCDD Discussion list, and some here on the blog and in our social media groups. Perhaps people have enough places to engage already?

    • Another NCDD example that’s interesting is our attempt to engage the community after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting last December, about how our community should respond and what we might need to do in order to respond quickly and effectively to other tragedies. We used Hackpad, which allowed us to have a series of wiki pages where people could address different topics/questions (it’s at https://hackpad.com/National-Dialogue-Possibilities-TH5HW3GpTDt if you’d like to check it out). We got a lot of engagement there, but most of it happened on the page that simply asked which issue we should focus on (gun control? mental health? violence? school safety?) and less activity where I wanted to see it — namely, on the pages focused on how we can better equip our community to respond quickly in the future.

      Still, I count this as a successful engagement activity — it met our community’s need to process and communicate with each other about what was going on and how we might respond; and it generated new knowledge and information (including a resource page on issue guides people could use right away).

      Did it engage large numbers of people? No. We informed our whole list of 32,000 about the project and we might have had 40 participants. Was it deliberative? I think so. There was some good discussion on some of the pages, and people were considering different options. Were clear decisions made? Well, no.

  5. One of the more fascinating conversations I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of over the past few months is the question if and to what extent the group patterns apply to online and virtual environment.

    The outcomes of this exploration will help greatly in creating stronger and more impactful forms of online engagements

    If anyone is interested, I’m hosting a session on this topic at 10am Pacific tomorrow as part of the Online Facilitation Unconference 2013: Group patterns: how do they apply to online/virtual environments?

    • Can you share something interesting that you’ve learned from this exploration, Tim?

      • A couple of things:

        As you go through the list of 91 or so patterns, you see that many of them actually are quite independent of whether you’re in a room together or not. Setting intention, opening and welcome, harvesting? I’d argue the they are equally relevant to both online and offline processes. Of course, that implies that the same careful planning and design work goes into an online process.

        When looking at patterns that are more closely tied to the physical (e.g. gaia, aesthetics of space, breaking bread together), someone recently mentioned the use of invocation or imagination. We haven’t had time yet to dig into that deeper but you get the idea.

      • Tim makes a great point here about preparation. Do we take the same amount of time to prepare for an online engagement project as we do for one that’s face to face? So often, I think the answer is a resounding no!

      • Steven Clift says:

        When it comes to time-limited online events, the only cost yoy really save on the organizers side is travel and food.

        The participants gain the advantage if any time, any where participation which actually makes new work for the organizer who must manufacture a sense of urgency or timeline.

      • Tim, Sandy, and Steve make excellent points. In tracking the field over the past few years, I’ve been impressed by how often practitioners thoughtfully and thoroughly “prepare the field” and “create a container” for face to face discussions. In contrast, it seems that much less attention is paid to online venues (I’m generalizing here, and would be grateful for counter-examples).

        One trend, thus, in discouraging stories is that they contain phrases likes “We tried [Twitter, email lists, Facebook, etc. etc.] and it didn’t work.” What’s most telling is the global dismissal. I.e. in contrast, for f2f tool use, one might find (for example only) “this whiteboard was a bit messy” (or hard to erase, etc.) or “participants didn’t always pay attention to what we wrote on the whiteboard” – and the difference is that practitioners had a clearer sense of how the f2f tool was supposed to help, didn’t assume that it was turnkey or magic, and provided a more nuanced critique.

        A shining counter-example, and someone who uses simple online tools superbly, is Steve Clift. Not surprisingly, he’s written about how one ought to prepare the ground for a successful community email/web discussion, and what to keep in mind when framing and moderating a discussion. Also not surprisingly, he and his teams put a lot of effort into face to face recruiting (e.g. sign-up sheets at street fairs).

    • Tim, that deck is awesome! And you’re right, a lot of these suggestions are applicable in any kind of gathering. I’d even go further – they provide good guidance even in day to day interactions, and yes, both online and in person.

  6. John Eley says:

    It seems to me that the essay fails to address the question of the incentive structure that would have to be in place in order for what they term public media to play the role that is desired here as an effective participant in deliberative processes. The authors make an interesting case about what public media could do but they are essentially silent on what they might be motivated to do. In the past any mediating role by the public media has been conditioned largely by the fact that they are money making entities needing to sell their goods to an interested set of readers or listeners. Any positive impacts on democracy are byproducts of this need. I doubt that the simple normative assertion that any plan impacting on a community should be placed before the public so that various voices can be heard is going to gain much purchase with hard pressed media executives who are struggling to stay alive financially. Owners and manages need to be provided proper incentives to educate the public, support citizen decision making, and promote accountability. Who will pay for all of this and how much return on investment will be required?

    • Gary Robbins says:

      John, I agree. The media and government itself have self-interest. I believe we need a neutral party (a civic sector) to enable such dialog – a citizen-centric party.

      • John Eley says:

        I am not a big fan of the idea of a neutral party as an intermediary between the government and the people. As Nagel put it “there is no view from nowhere” We have learned from the critics of deliberation as conceived of by the liberals such as Guttman and Thompson that all efforts, start from some privileged point of view ofter unstated and even unrecognized (see Fish in Macedo on deliberation for example). I prefer diversity and the free market of ideas instead. We should drop all pretense of neutrality.

    • John, you raise a good point. We can’t ask the media to address by itself the democratic deficit that has emerged over the years where government develops its agenda independently of a public which has been pushed into apathy, evidenced by low voter turnout, distrust of elected officials, etc.

      The elephant in the room is the idea that government needs to be pressured to accept public participation in governance, and that developing this pressure is going to cost something.
      Let’s imagine that this were behind us – that government actively sought the input and even the participation of the public in the process of governance decision making. That would be a game changer.

      Since power would be less concentrated, the money that goes for lobbying and political contributions might flow to different places. Also, we might find that improvements to the governance structure itself would afford some savings by eliminating some of the inefficiencies brought on by partisanship and electoral brinkmanship.

      There is already a lot of money being thrown into the business of governance – we need to imagine how it could be reinvented to deliver more goodness, where citizens can express the “will of the people” more directly in this disruptively interesting 21st century.

    • Daniel Clark says:


      Thanks for pointing out this omission. The incentive would need to be monetary. We have to make the tools for helping people engage with each other around issues interesting enough that people spend time doing it, generating more time on site, more clicks, and more advertising dollars for the media outlet. Easier said than done.


    • John, you raise a good point. We can’t ask the media to address by itself the democratic deficit that has emerged over the years where government develops its agenda independently of a public which has been pushed into apathy, evidenced by low voter turnout, distrust of elected officials, etc. The elephant in the room is the idea that government needs to be pressured to accept public participation in governance, and that developing this pressure is going to cost something.

      Let’s imagine that this were behind us – that government actively sought the input and even the participation of the public in the process of governance decision making. That would be a game changer. Since power would be less concentrated, the money that goes for lobbying and political contributions might flow to different places. Also, we might find that improvements to the governance structure itself would afford some savings by eliminating some of the inefficiencies brought on by partisanship and electoral brinkmanship.

      There is already a lot of money being thrown into the business of governance – we need to imagine how it could be reinvented to deliver more goodness, where citizens can express the “will of the people” more directly in this disruptively interesting 21st century.

  7. Jill says:

    I’m just thrilled that there is dialogue and deliberation about this. As I know you know, I was absolutely enthralled at my first NCDD conference last year in Seattle but as someone who has been comfortable engaging online for more than a decade, in a variety of forums and for a variety of purposes, it didn’t take long to make observations at or after the conference that reflect the pulled out quote in this blog entry.

    I really like to think of this as being about how to expand the audience with whom we engage and that can be positively affected by D&D practitioners. Something gained, something lost? But maybe just something different? Especially if that something different is preferably to nothing at all, in terms of engagement.

    Thanks for opening this up and sticking with it.

    • Jill, would you mind giving us an example of what you think dialogue and deliberation practitioners need to let go of, and an example of what they might gain in return? I’d love to hear more specifics from you. I know you have a lot to contribute on this subject!

      • Jill says:

        Thanks for the follow up, Sandy.

        I don’t want to be presumptuous about D&D practitioners. My greatest exposure, in person, was the Seattle conference and then continuing to stay in touch and communicate virtually or by phone since then.

        More generally, I would say, to those practitioners with a preference so strong for in-person work that they are uninterested in or perhaps negative toward online engagement, I would say: developing and sticking to norms online isn’t really anymore difficult than doing it in-person. People still need to agree to the ground rules and abide by the ground rules and agree to how they will be enforced, all in the name of creating a safe space to engage that will help move the communicating to whatever the end might be.

        I feel that while there are real and perceived trade-offs in doing this, all for the purpose of having an online engagement, rather than an in-person one, the gain is in being able to reach populations and individuals who might not otherwise have an opportunity to benefit from the skills and expertise of D&D professionals.

        Let me put it this way, maybe: I don’t believe that D&D professionals’ benefits extend only to those who can participate in person. I believe that the benefits of their work and their working with people and organizations could be and it would be great to have them be experienced by people through virtual environments as well.

        Engagement is hard work – in-person or online. Surmounting the challenges of either is what requires attention I think but I don’t think those challenges are insurmountable, in part because I have great faith in people’s ability to express themselves and think critically when they apply themselves to do so for a good end (like engaging on a particular topic toward a particular solution or end).

        So I guess, if I were to be super-succinct (!), I’d say: let go of the idea that D&D skills and expertise are only and best experienced and deployed in-person, and embrace the opportunity that exists to enrich and help advance dialogue on so many topics with so many different communities of people who may in fact only be accessible virtually.

        I’m not at my best thinking and writing after 5pm but one example might be people experiencing mental health issues in the military during overseas service or individuals in the Peace Corps or other kinds of programs that place people in remote and underdeveloped areas, without access to others and in places that by definition have a high likelihood of producing stress or other complications that need attention. Perhaps virtual assistance is far more practical. Wouldn’t that be a worthwhile way in which to extend the D&D work?

        Again – I’m no D&D practitioner really when I think about the folks I’ve been learning about through NCDD, but again, as someone who does a lot around engagement generally speaking and in the civic realm, I’m always looking for more, not fewer venues to connect with people in meaningful ways. So I think turning off to online engagement rather than keeping at it to see what works, what doesn’t and so on would be a loss to everyone.

        Hope that helps a bit!

      • John Backman says:

        Jill, I so appreciate the insights you’ve put forth here; they resonate with the way my thinking goes on this topic. Like you, I’ve noticed a certain resistance to virtual dialogue methods, fueled in part by the belief that face-to-face is always richer and more relational than online (e.g., in terms of reading nonverbal cues). This belief persists among many people I know outside of D&D as well. And while it may hold a lot of truth, it doesn’t address the massive trend toward online interaction via Facebook and similar vehicles. So perhaps we continue to design face-to-face dialogues where possible but pay a great deal of attention to bolstering our virtual capabilities, because the world will go there whether we like it or not.

  8. Gary Robbins says:

    Hello all – my first post here.

    I read the AmericaSpeaks report. We lament the lack of participation by the media in facilitating more public engagement. I find they are trapped in their for-profit model. I believe they can play a pivotal role in enabling more public deliberation (online and offline) – but they would need to be publicly owned, e.g. public radio.

    • Hi, Gary! I’m uncomfortable ruling out privately owned media as a host for public dialogue and deliberation. In many smaller communities, the local newspaper’s website is one of the only places all different kinds of people gather online. I think there’s an argument to be made that smaller newspapers can host civil discourse, using articles (even strongly biased ones) as discussion starters.

  9. Eric Smiley says:

    Hi Sandy,
    Congratulations on the New NCDD blog.

    There are many online forums available and great potential for summarization of all the various dialogue and deliberation activity. Perhaps not a forum itself but one place to identify what is being discussed where.How to identify proper forums for participation and what abstractions would be most effective in summary would be an exciting and challenging endeavor.

    It may be possible to include some public forums without arrangement but there may be legal issues involved with that.

    Thanks for all your doing,

    • Haha – Eric… we launched the NCDD blog in 2004, back when we had to explain what a “weblog” was to everybody! 🙂

      • Eric Smiley says:

        It somehow seems more active and broadly inclusive and I like the email notifications. There are some discussions I’m having through NCDDs LinkedIn forum which I wished were here.

      • Thanks, Eric! We did just add the email notifications (much-needed!), and we have a new Lead Blogger on staff who has definitely been increasing the frequency and quality of posts on the blog. Thanks for noticing!

    • Eric, You raise a good point, but I’d like to take it to a different conclusion: we don’t want summaries of discussions. Instead, we need convergence and integration of these discussions to expose their agreed upon essentials.

      The problem with summaries is similar to the problem of averages: they lose a lot of information. Plus, the person doing the summary colors the data by making choices about what is worthy of inclusion, despite their very best intentions.

      Discussion forums as a medium don’t allow the participants to achieve convergence and integration – ideas are listed one after another, forming a heap of threads of ideas, but no mechanism to weave them into a robust fabric that is greater than the sum of the parts.

      Discussion forums are like convening a crowd of people into a town hall meeting and asking them to talk to a focus, the only rule being to talk one at a time. It is highly unlikely that a robust, directly usable conclusion would come out of it. It’s a tool that is great for venting and blowing off steam, but I don’t believe that it qualifies for “dialogue and deliberation”.

  10. Steven Clift says:

    Just a quick shout out to say we’ve reach over 12,500 members in the Twin Cities with community online engagement. We engage most participants daily.

    We are so darn busy doing this work that we need partners and researchers to work with us to better document and share/combine lessons.

    I’d love to participate more but ironically we are preparing for a big face to face event.

    More http://bit.ly/edemknight

    Steven Clift

    P.S. We have an updated design coming which we hope will help people “see” the engagement.

    • You are doing AWESOME work in the Twin Cities, Steven! The authors were definitely talking about “deliberative democracy” in the article, though, so I wonder if most of the examples we have of success stories in online engagement are actually outside the scope of the article. I’ll see if I can get Daniel, Chris or Elana to clarify.

      It’s interesting to consider, though, that the authors are suggesting an uber-tool that includes “a reputation system, peer monitoring, language processing, sentiment analysis, and targeted interventions by human facilitators,” while what you’ve done is use one of the simplest but most familiar tools possible (email lists) and open up the tool’s use to pretty much anything people want to communicate with their neighbors about (lost pets, holding vigils, sharing opinions).

      Maybe online deliberation is not something to design for, but something to let happen when it’s what a community needs — but of course to prepare for those instances when it’s needed, so the deliberation can be as high quality and impactful as possible.

      Just thinking out loud here. I’m a big fan myself of creating spaces that can be used for multiple purposes, and then jumping on unique opportunities for deeper engagement as they arise. For instance, NCDD’s main listserv, the blog here, and our social media groups are all places where things happen all of the time, but those things are usually NOT dialogic or deliberative at all (sharing announcements, news, invitations, asking questions that get one answer, etc.), but periodically in all of those spaces we sometimes see amazing discussions happen.

      • Steven Clift says:

        For there to be “deliberation” there needs to be deliberators.

        I’ll leave it to the experts to code what percentage of our dialogue is considered deliberative, but our big lesson is that conversation is cost effective. I think too many translate that into “talk is cheap.”

        So, what we do are create hybrid neighborhood based spaces for both community life exchange and public issues engagement. Some topics are naturally deliberative in the sense that people are talking about an upcoming neighborhood association decision or a city council vote where trade offs are being discussed. Other times a local issue or happening get wrapped in philosophical or ideological connections and we need to intervene as volunteer facilitators to keep it civil. This example from last week could have been a disaster:

        Another great example of a community going deep after a major violent attack with connections to race is summarized here: http://blog.e-democracy.org/posts/2155

        In terms of an uber tool, I have seen this proposed quite frequently over the last twenty years. My take is that no matter what you try, the actual user experience has to be simple and if you drop people cold turkey into a new tool that has a learning curve they either need to be super motivated or paid to be their (there for work). To this point, our simple email/web tool faces generational challenges as more people (particularly lower income users who have come online recently) only conceive of online interaction as something that happens on Facebook. The idea that email can be used to have a discussion with a group of people is no longer “natural” for some. The idea that you would read in-depth comments and expect the input box at the bottom is being eroded.

        However we would looooove to add and experiment with open source features within the platform we use – http://groupserver.org – and offer up our thousands of users as a test-bed. It is our relative inclusive user base – http://e-democracy.org/inclusion – which would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and many years to replicate elsewhere in my view.

        To date in terms of tech, many seem more interested in proprietary approaches that start from scratch or they seem to think Facebook is the only option where you get what you get. An ideal scenario for me is testing new features and then replicating those that work in Drupal, WordPress, and other open source CMSes, with Facebook Apps, etc. in order to get them out into the ecology of sites where deliberative input could be leveraged in democracy. You also want the providers of government websites for example to compete by adding democratic input/delib tools to their offerings. Most governments are simply not going to pay something special for those tools, so we want them bundled.

        It only took us 18 years to bring in the resources needed to add our first in-house technology developer (Bill Bushey) for GroupServer. I like being able to finally shape the tech more easily based on our democratic models. (We don’t own GroupServer.org … We collaborate with a small company in New Zealand and our desired feature list is long, but you can only get so much for free). We have a new design coming which is crucial because new user expectations (and funders) compare you with billion/million dollar experiences. We have someone new with a $500 stipend – seriously – working to present or simplicity in an even more simple way.

        So if someone out there wants to increase the percent of exchange that becomes that “amazing” deliberation Sandy mentions or is interested in exploring how to fund “do something” or “deliberate something” features where conversations can be more organically spun within the context of where thousands are civically gathered, drop me a note. We also would be interested in other open source tech collaborations for deliberation, but they would need to be very well funded with at least a three year timeline for both development and testing.

        Steven Clift

      • Steven Clift says:

        Say, I had a chance to peak at the America Speaks document.

        It is very good except for the tech lines about reputation systems, etc.

        A few other comments:

        – the media would be a good partner, but as the cross roads where Americans of different ideologies meet today online, they aren’t investing in even light civility promotion. It is truly scary out there.

        – as a native online-based project that emerged “of” the Internet and met the D + D community along the way, I’ve been seeing versions of this conversation for years. Why do we have to wait for incumbents in the offline world to get comfortable before we invest in online models that show promise? It still seems to me that too many people want technology to make things easy and want participant bases to emerge online without investing in outreach.

        – I worry that I might come off preachy, but if folks with resources in D+D aren’t ready to invest first in the dialogue part of the medium online is delivering results and instead need to shoot the moon with a high standard of deliberation uncluttered by conversational exchanges, it is going to take another 20 years of bootstrapping to get there incrementally.


      • John Backman says:

        I wish there were a Like button on this thing. Great points, Steven.

      • Regarding media promotion of civility – could be straightforward, if a bit labor-intensive. A UT Austin communications researcher, Talia Stroud, has noted (per Wired)

        “…[I]ncreasing the presence of a reporter in the comments section is a good way to change the tone. She tested this theory over two months and an accumulation of 2,500 comments on political stories and found that with no moderator, commenters were at their nastiest, rarely hesitating to use disrespectful phrases. The tone of the conversation improved slightly once a generic, anonymous moderator from the site engaged in the conversation, but it wasn’t until a recognizable journalist … chimed in that the level of incivility decreased by a statistically significant amount. …. [T]he more a journalist highlighted thoughtful, quality comments, the number of strong comments increased, too. ”


      • VERY important point, Chris! I’ve actually been collecting mainstream articles and blog posts that make this point well — and I’ll add this one to my list. I plan to compose a blog post about how some of the key principles of dialogue and deliberation work (ground rules, skilled moderation, and giving people a sense that they’re heard by feeding back, summarizing, theming, responding, etc. periodically) are key to turning around the incivility found in the comments on most news websites.

        I’d like to get a group of NCDDers together to talk about how our field can provide tools, expertise, advice, etc. to newspapers. I think this is a space we can step into quite effectively. Perhaps you’d be interested in being in that group?

      • Sandy – Happy to help, yes. A bit OT from the post, perhaps, but I think it’s also important to consider what the discussants are or might be doing. One example is “crowdsourced document review” as done by the New York Times, Talking Points Memo, and others (http://futureperfectpublishing.com/2009/09/12/the-emerging-future-of-crowdsourced-journalismr/). A second would be integrating the discussion into revisions and improvements of the original article, or further coverage – Wikipedia meets the New York Times. This could be particularly powerful in incorporating multiple diverse values and perspectives into a piece as it evolves. I’ve seen that happen online, but I don’t know of an online news site that makes that standard practice.

  11. Sandy – I’ve paired a quote you didn’t use from the AmericaSpeaks document with one you did use:

    –> “deliberative democracy”… is historically linked to in-person, face-to-face engagement

    –> efforts have been made from within the dialogue and deliberation community to create online dialogue forums, but they have not been able to attract participants

    These related statements are true. The success of “in-person, face-to-face engagement” and the failure of “online dialogue forums” to “attract participants”

    1. The D&D community is not deploying it’s strongest form – in-person, face-to-face engagement – because practitioners continue to think that “online dialogue forums” must be text-based. Now that Google+ Hangouts allow facilitated online in-person, face-to-face engagement, this aspect of the problem can be solved.

    But there is another, greater challenge:

    2. The inability to attract participants, even with efforts that include video. The problem here is a combination of the dispersed nature of Internet participation (a challenge for every form of media and engagement, not just D&D), and a quirk of funding. Let me address the funding quirk. If it can be resolved, D&D will at least be on an equal footing with everyone else struggling to be heard in our digital world.

    A key reality of the online world is that people expect to get what they want when they want it. They want to discuss what is happening NOW, and our decreased attention spans mean anything that is not happening NOW may as well not exist.

    Therefore, an ongoing online space where people can go when they want to discuss what is happening NOW, in a civilized and facilitated process, is essential. And they can do it via facilitated Hangouts, so the delays of finding a venue and inviting people disappear. We’ve been calling the resolution of the problem “office hours” – the creation of a dialogue space where people tell us what they want to discuss, and we turn around very quickly, assign a facilitator and let them do it.

    What does this have to do with funding? First, funding a single topic and expecting a SPEEDY dialogue just won’t work. Second, there needs to be a focus on consolidating efforts, at least for the short term, in order to get a system of “office hours” up and running.

    I’m happy to discuss this with anyone, and would love to hear feedback.

    PS – don’t get me started on what media “should” do. When we succeed, media coverage will follow.

    • John Backman says:

      I like your thinking here, Evelyn, and your “office hours” space leads me to a question. On the one hand, I think you’ve accurately laid out the user requirements for at least a chunk of virtual engagement (i.e., people wanting to engage fast and NOW). On the other, I cannot shake the belief that high-quality dialogue takes time, patience, and attention, none of which our society has in any abundant supply. Is there a way we can provide the “office hours” idea while leading people into the greater depth that dialogue often requires?

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