“Our Budget, Our Economy” and “BürgerForum” – two large-scale strategies to involve people in an opinion forming process

29. June 2010 – 10:55 by Simone Gerdesmeier

One of the major tasks the organizers of eParticipation projects face is designing workflows to bring thousands of people together in one online discussion - especially when the aim is not only to deliberate about a specific topic, but to produce concrete and useful outcomes. Two projects in America and Germany try to reach out to citizens all over the nation, using two very different approaches: In the US, “Our Budget, our Economy”, organized by AmericaSpeaks, and in Germany, the BürgerForum, initiated by the Bertelsmann Stiftung and Heinz Nixdorf Stiftung and conducted with the help of Zebralog Hagedorn.

“Our Budget, Our Economy” has reached its peak with a series of live events, so called Town Meetings, all over the USA on June 26th.  Here, approximately 3,500 participants have discussed about the federal budget and worked out a message, saying which reforms they find to be most important. As the organizers announced, the project should help the participants to “weigh-in on the difficult choices necessary to put our federal budget on a sustainable path.”

We at Zebralog are currently working on the third edition of the BürgerForum, an online-discussion forum dedicated to produce the so called citizen agenda. In 2011, about 10,000 German citizens are going to join the discussion about the growing diversity in Germany’s society.

Aims: Forming opinions, raising awareness
Both projects combine online discussion with live events and both projects want to produce concrete results, a message that can be delivered into the public and into the political sphere.

AmericaSpeaks announced, that it “will present the priorities that emerge from the National Town Meeting to Congress and President Obama, as well as the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform and the Bi-Partisan Policy Center’s Debt Reduction Task Force.” The BürgerForum´s organizers and its participants will present the results to politicians as well, but set a stronger focus to deliver the citizen’s message into the public, to reach other citizens.


Our Budget Our Economy

Neither of these projects can promise to what extent the results will really influence politics. Instead, they aim at educating the participants as well as the broader public and want to raise awareness for political and social challenges. So, they work as tools for opinion forming, political education, and political vitalisation. This are already a quite ambitious tasks, considering the huge numbers of participants these projects include.

Besides all similarities, the organizers from AmericaSpeaks and the BürgerForum’s initiators have chosen very different ways to reach their goals: Whereas “Our Budget, Our Economy” has been focused on a nationwide live event, the BürgerForum places the main part of the discussion online.

America Speaks: Meeting face to face
On June 26th, AmericaSpeaks organized 19 Town Meetings and several smaller Community Discussions that took simultaneously place all over the country. The discussions were linked to each other via video conferencing and combined with virtual discussions in Second Live and on the “Our Budget Our Economy” website. Several bloggers covered the Real Life discussions from different locations.

Before and after the Town Meetings, online discussion has taken place at the well known social networks like Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and LinkedIn. The live events have been accompanied by online-discussion as well: The project website presented a “Cover it live”-box, were internet uses could insert there comments. The discussion was moderated by a member of the project team, furthermore experts answered user questions. Questions and remarks could also be submitted via Twitter and Facebook. Online participants also had the opportunity to take part in short opinion polls.

BürgerForum: discussing and reaching results online
The approach taken by the BürgerForum´s organizers differs clearly: The former two BürgerForen (2008 and 2009) have started with live events, giving incentives for the following online discussion and giving the participants the opportunity to meet in person, such making the discussion process more personal. In 2011, this structure will be followed again - with one difference: due to the huge number of participants, the online as well as the offline discussions will be organized locally, in about 25 different regions all over Germany.


BürgerForum Europe 2009

The online discussion will be carried out during several weeks, allowing an asynchronous debate. For this debate, the BürgerForum is using a platform which has been specially designed for the task to deliver concrete results. Each local forum will be accompanied by four online-moderators, most of them being former participants who volunteered to work for the new project. With the workflows provided by the website, through a strict timetable and through the helpful attendance of our online-moderators up to hundreds of people work together on a political agenda, comparable to a party programme.

The two projects also have chosen different registration processes - which lead us to the question of inclusiveness. Including a huge number of participants is not enough if you want to present the “nation’s opinions”. You also have to ensure that the participants come from socially diverse backgrounds - and that all these citizens have the same chances to actively participate.

Theoretically everyone could register for a Town Meeting or a Community Discussion with “Our Budget, Our Economy”, answering an online survey giving some information about the personal and economic background. Due to the fact that space was limited, AmericaSpeaks monitored the registration process and tried to ensure that the participants reflect the USA’s diversity. People could also become online ambassadors, educate others, and help other people to voice their priorities and to join organizations that share their points of view.

The BürgerForum organizers instead take another way to recruit a socially diverse range of users, independent from their computer knowledge: A randomly selected sample of citizens is phoned and invited to join the discussion. Participants than get a Log-In and can register themselves. Without quantitative evidence, we assume that both ways of recruiting are able to reach a similar diversity.

AmericaSpeaks has concentrated the most important part of a participation project, the developing of the citizen’s message, on one single day. Thousands of people working in unison deliver a big symbol of unity and joined interest. But on the other hand this workflow fails to use one of the biggest advantages of online discussion: the nature of asynchronous discussion. Participants can log in whenever they want and take all the time they need to read the arguments and to write own comments. Thus, people from very different backgrounds with differences in thematic knowledge and their speed and ability to argue, can participate on a more equal level in an asynchronous setting.

Using known social networks for online discussion and for registration - like “Our Budget, Our Economy” has done - has the advantage that a lot of people are already familiar with the tools and know how to use them. The discussion’s fragmentation on different websites could lead to a wider spreading of arguments - but it also has the disadvantage that it is harder to keep track of all arguments, loosing the possibility to set up a focused online discussion. Another danger: People who are not frequent internet users and not familiar with social networks are more or less excluded.

The BürgerForum’s setting of using a special online platform always carries the slight disadvantage that some people first have to learn how to use it. But this task that can be managed: videos and online moderators help people finding the right way to place their arguments. The design has been chosen to focus the discussion one virtual place, where all arguments are gathered. Furthermore, setting the focus on debating online rather than offline makes discussion independent from place and time.


Hans Hagedorn, Zebralog Hagedorn,  +49 30 497 698 -60

Anna Wohlfarth, Bertelsmann Stiftung,  wohlfarth @ bertelsmann-stiftung.de, +49 5241 81-81425

Tags: , ,

  1. 3 Responses to ““Our Budget, Our Economy” and “BürgerForum” – two large-scale strategies to involve people in an opinion forming process”

  2. By Tim Bonnemann on Jun 29, 2010

    There is a fair amount of discussion happening following Saturday’s “Our budget, our economy” event (across the web and on various mailing lists).

    Three of the major concerns or criticisms that have been expressed so far:

    * Framing/scope (why are certain options/solutions not on the table?)
    * Briefing materials (why don’t certain aspects get the attention they deserve?)
    * Funders (what is their hidden agenda?)

    Did participants or observers during your 2008 or 2009 projects ever express similar reservations? And what is your strategy in addressing them?

  3. By Hans Hagedorn on Jun 30, 2010

    Hi Tim, good to hear from you! I will try to answer your question:

    * Framing/scope: From the very beginning it was a central design principle of the BürgerForum, that the participants decide during the face-to-face kick-off meeting about the agenda of the following discussion. The only framing was done through the topics of the working groups. However those topic are very broad (e.g. “environment” or “social justice”) and are narrowed down only by the participants themselves. This is one of advantages, when you have a full kick-off day just for the agenda setting and can leave the discussion for the following online-debate.

    * Briefing materials: This is always a difficult balance: If materials are specific and informative, they tend to be biased. If materials have to be neutral, they are either shallow or they are overwhelming by volume. Thus we rely more on the participants again, who can research materials during the asynchronous discussion. Additionally we are considering an “scientific service” where experts answer specific questions from the participants.

    * Funders: Participants often ask about the hidden (or open) agenda of the funders. Especially if they find critical texts (some call it conspiracy theories) about one of the funders in the internet. However, participants make their own judgement about the process. Is it open and transparent? Do you feel free from manipulation? Do I gain insight from the discussion? Most times those questions are answered positively.

    Nevertheless, our process is far from perfect. We see many areas of possible improvement. Still, I am looking forward to realise our approach on a large scale. And I believe, that only concrete implementations will bring e-participation methodology forward!

  1. 1 Trackback(s)

  2. Jul 3, 2010: Conversations Elsewhere

Post a Comment

The PEP-NET Blog uses the gravatar service to display your picture next to comments!