The Knight Foundation is beginning to make some waves in local democracy circles. And I am not just saying that because they fund this blog.

Earlier this year they hosted a conference with community foundations on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, then they announced the Knight Center of Digital Excellence focused on universal access to the “digital town square,” and most recently announced a commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy and $24 million in matching funds for community foundations (see my collection of online civic engagement resources for community foundations referenced in a Council on Foundation’s e-newsletter).

These investments represent the largest basket of resources I’ve seen to date on e-democracy/citizen media in the United States focused at the local level. What comes of this matters.

Since I’ve been working directly on local democracy building online for 15 years, I thought I might summarize a few starting-point recommendations:

1. The intelligence is in the network.

Because those delivering on local democracy online are very locally focused, they often do not take the time nor have the capacity to share their story. People on the front lines do not realize they have done something notable because they do not have a reason to compare themselves with communities across the state, much less around the country.

Recommendation: Network local people and project aggressively and create ways to share stories online. While national conferences are nice, really work to use online tools to connect projects without travel resources. Definitely reach out beyond your comfort zone in journalism to include open government advocates, governments themselves, and democracy building/convening non-profits.

2. Gather international lessons.

Like I did for the UK Local E-Democracy National Project with global best practice case studies and briefs, take the time to gather the best domestic and international examples. In the over two dozen countries I’ve visited, local civil society-conceived online community building projects (often government-funded where U.S.-style foundations do not exist) I’ve seen much more development than in the United States. On the other hand, we tend to lead in online advocacy, e-campaigning and commercial local online news projects.

Recommendation: Learn from success and more importantly failures around the world. Document the best examples (steal my past work :-) ) to help Americans realize the train has left the station with local democracy online and now is the time to catch up.

3. Connecting people-to-people.

I’ve come to the conclusion that connecting local people to other local people through online public spaces is the most transformational and powerful thing you can do to build communities with stronger local democracies. As long as there is a civic cross roads online — a there there if you will, information, news, local content of any kind can find a real audience through local conversation. While news and information gets old quickly, the connections among people can be sustained and grown over time.

At E-Democracy.Org we call these local or neighborhood online town halls Issues Forums. Similar people to people models are almost completely opposite from the sad trend in local news online to attach unsigned often nasty reader comments to stories online. Instead of building real community, the main approach is to maximize the number of heat generating comments.

Disappointingly, this eyeball maximization approach is at the expense of the local media institutions public mission and reputation as well as a knock against building social expectations that the Internet can contribute positively to local civic engagement. By placing news items, information items of any kind for that matter, out as the central organizing point for commentary is needlessly splitting local citizens into small completely transitory conversations of limited reach without a sense of accountability and meaning.

Recommendation: Develop public places for sustained online conversations among local people. They are both powerful and cost-effective. Democratic information and news has limited value online with out independent places where it can be used, exchanged, commented upon, and corrected. Explore both city-wide and neighborhood examples.

4. Think transformational informational infrastructure not just news.

While these Knight initiatives can certainly build on the digital future of local journalism and the Knight News Challenge, the other 2/3 of the local democracy equation including local civil society and government/governance provide a strategic opportunity (and a more stark market failure). I have a number of ideas about upgrading local democracy for the information age. Many of them center around systematizing local democratic information — from open source and syndicated local voter guides to the public meeting system of the future.

Imagine the public meeting calendar of the future where local news sites and others provide real-time access into all public meeting schedules, agendas, minutes, handouts, digital recordings, extended online testimony, etc. While the Sunlight Foundation promotes projects like OpenCongress.Org using scraped congressional legislative information, state-level projects could do the same. The problem now is that at the local level governments simply don’t have standardized decision-making process information systems that display the official “democracy pulse” in that community.

Recommendations: The Knight initiatives should explore ways to create a promote open data standards for this kind of information so while governments will use a zillion different systems, like “web feeds” their content can be aggregated nationally and displayed to citizens from their place/perspective on media and other sites. This may be the only way citizens will ever be able to put in their zip code and some keywords and be notified in a timely manner about ALL of the local, regional, state, even Federal government meetings and calls for public input related to where they live and their issue interests.

At some point in 2007, crystallized in part by the Open House Project, a number of Americans began to wake up to the potential of the Internet in “governance.” That is between elections and not just for one-way government (or media) information or protest oriented e-advocacy. This interest was further fed by the second day of the Personal Democracy Forum focused on governance (here’s a video of my speech and New York Times coverage of the conference). The exciting opportunity for Knight is to connect this mostly DC-centered interest with grassroots bottom-up activity at the state and local level to make democracy online a national movement.

Steven Clift
E-Democracy.Org

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