Last week, seven e-democracy enthusiasts and practitioners from the UK met in a bar/club/avant garde arts venue called the Shunt Lounge deep beneath London Bridge station (for which fascinating location, our thanks to Manar of UK Citizens Online Democracy).
We were gathered to discuss what shape the UK arm of ‘e-democracy.org’ might take over the years to come. E-democracy.org is a US-based non-profit founded by Steve Clift, the celebrated e-democracy pioneer and innovator and one of the true founding fathers of our field.
A few years ago, a UK government-funded project called the National Project for Local E-democracy (snappy name) brought in Steve and others at e-democracy.org, notably Tim Erickson, to help a few UK communities develop email discussion forums to debate local issues and interact with councillors and other local decision-makers, as part of an experiment with local e-democracy. The group had already established many successful forums in the States.
Forums were duly established in Newham (a London borough), Bristol (a city in the West of England which has been a leader in local e-democracy for some years) and my own home town of Brighton. Others have since been established in Edinburgh and other locations. I and a colleague Mark Walker from the Sussex Community Internet Project were asked to lead the establishment of a small group of volunteers to run the Brighton forum, which has had its ups and downs but has certainly been an interesting trial and may still lead to further work.
Last week’s meeting however was convened in the light of all the UK government money drying up following the winding up of the national project and its successor body ICELE. The local UK issues forums are still pottering along, but there was the feeling that more could be done, and so we met to discuss what form this might take.
The following is a version of my report back to E-Democracy.org, which I thought may be of wider interest to PEP-NET members since it occurs to me that one model for the future of PEP-NET might be (at least partly) as an association of national networks such as the one we might pull together in the UK.
General points made included that:
- A lot of good work has been carried out in the UK issues forums, creating a good network of people with expertise in and knowledge of local e-democracy;
- As far as funding for future work is concerned, there will not be any more forthcoming from the government, and unlikely from councils: we must look to resource work through volunteers; raise money through grants or raise some form of corporate sponsorship;
- It would be great to involve young people in our work, adding an educational element;
- Some interesting things are set to happen in the UK with local e-petitions, and it may be we could tie in with this theme somehow as well.
Given all the above, we decided to try to meet again in a month or two’s time, and in the meantime, to collate as many ideas as possible for practical projects on how to take forward E-Democracy.org in the UK. One possible idea to start us off would be a project to write a book or create a website capturing the essence of what has been learned so far in UK issues forums. This would in essence be a collection of stories, some of success, others of failure, but all interesting and useful.
I will keep PEP-NET informed about how this project develops! It is also great news that Mary Reid, former Mayor of the London borough of Kingston, pioneer of local e-democracy including her own blogging as a councillor and mayor, and former chair of ICELE, has accepted an invitation to join Steve on the international board of e-democracy.org (of which I am also currently a member, though struggling to find the time to do the role justice). Mary’s great energy and expertise will ensure these projects bear fruit, I feel certain.
Best wishes to all PEP-Netters,