Local e-Democracy Project Report: Darebin eForum
This report provides an assessment of the pilot electronic democracy project undertaken at Darebin City Council during 2004.
The Darebin eForum provided Council staff and Darebin residents the opportunity to discuss policy related issues via electronic mail in a structured manner which allowed the Council to summarise topics of interest and concern to feed into pre-existing decision-making processes. Based on research conducted with participants during the pilot project, a number of conclusions can be drawn regarding the value and future viability of the online forum. These are: The pilot project did not attract a wide number of participants from outside of the Council organisation and participants reflected a relatively narrow slice of the diversity within the City of Darebin.
Overall, the average eForum participant was a forty-year-old English speaking, educated, and computer literate woman in full time employment. These participants tended to exhibit characteristics that would classify them as joiners who tend to be in well-developed social and work networks, and tend to have a consociational and communitarian outlook, who would therefore be attracted to discussion lists of this type. This finding indicates that the work of recruitment for the eForum of residence of the city needs to be a priority for future iterations or implementations of this concept. The selection of topics for discussion on the eForum allowed discussion to develop amongst the list participants, even where some topics were outside of the specific knowledge for interest of members. This was advantageous in the development of an active group of participants as topics were inclusive of participation across a number of levels.
The selection of topics, however, may have been overly broad and fail to deliver instrumental outcomes either to participating staff members with responsibility for policy development, or a reasonable minority of non-staff list participants who focus their interest on local government with regards to the delivery of very specific service-oriented outcomes. While the broad nature of discussion topics was seen as favoured by senior managers in the Council organisation, it would appear that list participants require a mixture of broad, generalised discussion topics and specific topics that can deliver short-term policy outcomes. Given the instrumental view of the raison d etre of the eForum, it would appear that this online consultation forum needs to be positioned clearly within the formal policy-making process of the Council, and consideration be given to the structural position the project team occupies in the Council institution. Should the instrumental motivation of some list participants (both Council employees and general members of the community) be accommodated, failure to situate the online consultation method within the formal Council governance policy will undermine ordered policy making processes and structures leading to tensions and invariable conflict over the acceptable role for the eForum.
Given the relatively new and innovative nature of the pilot there was a degree of uncertainty expressed by Council staff about the expectations of their participation in the online arena. For some, this precluded participation (and should therefore be seen as problematic), while others identified a clear distinction between professional and personal participation. Overall, the Council need to determine a set of professional expectations and guidelines for staff to encourage and facilitate their participation in future online consultation or discussion fora. Overall, the pilot project has demonstrated that the online discussion list represents an interesting addition to local government community engagement strategies, and that the approach taken in the pilot project was viable and sustainable over time. Should the City of Darebin continued to invest in online consultation, it is recommended that the organisation considered the structural and technical basis upon which this area of expertise will be sustained, maintained, and promoted over time.
The e-Forum was officially launched in a revised format on March 30, 2006. View the e-Forum here.