New Community Networks
Wired For Change

Chapter 4


Democracy is the worst system devised by the wit of man, except for all the others. Winston Churchill

Democracy is the art of running the circus from the monkey cage. H. L. Mencken

In the future, political and other decisions will be based completely on opinion polls. David Byrne, "In the Future


As the above quotations suggest, the idea of democracy evokes a spectrum of reactions, each highlighting one aspect. Since there is no formula for two people to solve their problems satisfactorily, there is little hope of discovering a formula for solving problems involving thousands, millions, or billions of people. Thus, democracy will always be messy, uncertain, tentative, and experimental. Democracy is a tool of the people--not of the elite like a guardianship--or of the unaffiliated masses, like anarchy. And since democracy is a tool--one might even call it conceptual technology--individuals, communities, and societies can become more adept at using it, by thinking about it and by using it.

Very broadly defined, democracy is the equitable participation in the affairs of the state at various levels from the neighborhood to the planetary. Although participants in the "affairs of the state" are often motivated by self-interest, democracy is inherently a social endeavor that begins with the individual and extends outwards until it encompasses all of society.

Although generally acknowledged to be indispensable to a modern democracy, political participation is at a low ebb at least in the United States. Many people now speak of a "crisis in democracy." In Benjamin Barber's words, "thin democracy"--a pale substitute for the rich potential, largely unrealized, of "strong democracy," the subject of his influential book (1984)--is endemic. The waning of democratic life is bemoaned by those of a variety of political persuasions. Paul Weyrich, for example, a conservative with the Free Congress Foundation, says, "We're perilously close to not having demo-cracy" (Greider, 1993).

The number of people voting in the United States has been declining steadily for years and is now hovering around 50 percent of those of eligible voting age (United States, 1994). Note also that the 50-percent figure is for a presidential - election year; figures for off-year, nonpresidential-election years are below 40%. It's been pointed out that nonvoters now form a larger bloc than either of the two major American political parties. The number of people who have written a letter or made a telephone call to an elected official is even lower. The number of people signing a petition, testifying for or against legislation, or speaking at a public meeting is lower still. The number of people who have served on a committee, worked on a political campaign, or demonstrated to bring about social change is minuscule. Sadly, with the sometime exception of voting, these varieties of participation, when engaged in at all, are often done for individual or corporate pecuniary gain, rarely for the enrichment of the community.

Coupled with this pathetically low degree of political participation are widespread attitudes that further cripple the prospects for democracy. One such attitude equates political participation with voting, so that participation becomes something that one does in private on an occasional basis at a time and place determined by somebody else. With this view, participation is limited to ratification and, even then, is confined to a small number of decisions. This view of the tip of the iceberg as the iceberg itself effectively cedes power to those few who realize and take advantage of the fact that there is more to political participation and influence than voting.

The other public attitude that limits public participation is the belief that the system is irredeemable. This belief takes two main forms: The first is that all politicians are corrupt and the second is that big money completely controls politics. If all politicians are corrupt and if the situation is hopeless, the only sensible recourse might be to stay uninvolved. While some politicians are corrupt —or unprincipled in large or small ways— and political impact is skewed in favor of those with more economic clout, people holding these views about politicians and the political system are often seeking a rationale to validate their lack of involvement. Unfortunately, those views in themselves are damaging to a democratic society. The attitude that politicians are invariably corrupt paralyzes efforts of democratic reform and ethical maintenance of the system. If a politician or agency is found to be corrupt and there is no public outcry, no efforts will be made to clean house and there will be little deterrent to discourage future wrongdoing. And if those with little or no economic clout choose to keep out of politics because it's dominated by money, then who is left to set agendas and to make decisions?

In an essay on "Conventional Political Participation" (1980), Goel identifies three dimensions of political alienation. The first, "political powerlessness," comes from a feeling that "one cannot affect or influence what goes on in politics." The second, "political normlessness," reflects the view that "the rules governing society are either fraudulent or broken often by the powerful groups and individuals for private gain." The third, "political distrust and cynicism," suggests the attitude that politicians are corrupt, self-serving, and manipulative. While these feelings of political alienation may be rationalizations offered to explain nonparticipation, any approach to strengthening or extending democratic participation through community networks or other means must address these issues of alienation.

William Greider in his "Who Will Tell the People?" (1993) unfortunately confirms many, if not most, of people's nagging suspicions that the process is stacked against them, that it's out of control and corrupt. Greider feels that "the self-correcting mechanisms of politics are no longer working." Thus the poor get poorer and the rich get tax breaks. And the person of average means grows more cynical. Greider feels that elections and political work have become empty, ritualistic charades that are increasingly orchestrated by powerful economic elites. According to Greider, "by the 1980s there were 7,000 interest organizations active in Washington politics, and business's share of this pressure system was overwhelming." He points out that five of Washington's suburban neighborhoods, home to Washington's lobbyists and lawyers, are in the Commerce Department's list of the 10 richest counties in the country. And elections themselves are often "purchased" —in 1994, for example, 86 percent of the House of Representatives victories went to the candidates who had spent the most money (NVRI, 1995).

Without effective two-way communication between people and government, politicians and the media can determine the agendas and the style of political discourse, which increasingly consists of sound-bites and empty rhetoric. Greider provides an illuminating example of this chasm by comparing priorities of ordinary citizens to campaign rhetoric. He cites a 1988 Washington poll in which people were asked what issues they wanted the next president to pursue. High on the people's list was "having large companies pay their fair share of taxes, imposing stricter environment regulations on toxic waste products, and helping the poor and homeless find jobs." Instead nonissues like flag-burning took center stage.


Democracy is not an alternative to other principles of associated life. It is the idea of community life itself . . . [It is] a name for a life of free and enriching communion. John Dewey (Barber, 1984)

Criteria for Democratic Process

Democracy, like mom and apple pie, has few public critics. Even dictators of the most brutal regime claim that they support democracy or that they intend to move towards democracy. But what constitutes a democracy: How do we know when a government is a democracy and when it isn't? If we can identify the ingredients of a democracy, then we can improve our ability to evaluate how democratic a particular process is. Moreover, identifying democratic criteria will help us in our development of democratic technology. Robert Dahl, writing in Democracy and Its Critics (1989), presents five basic criteria for a democratic process that community network developers should keep in mind while developing services that support democratic participation.

Effective Participation

The criterion of effective participation--often lacking or poorly exercised in practice--states that all citizens that may participate in the democratic process do so on an equal footing. This simple criterion has many important and far-reaching implications, which we'll explore further in the next section. Poverty, as we shall see, presents a formidable barrier to effective participation. "If cost is a permanent barrier to democratic expression," Greider maintains, "then democracy becomes a contest merely for organized economic interests, not for citizens." To help ensure effective participation, we need to examine (and change if necessary) the location, method, and timing through which political participation occurs.

Voting Equality at Decision Stage

This one criterion--voting--is often mistaken for the democratic process as a whole. If one were to take this one criterion to extremes, one might sanction occasional voting on issues of little importance, say, in establishing an official song or motto, as evidence of a democratic society. Voting is a necessary, but far from sufficient, aspect of a democratic society.

The criterion of voting is, however, crucial, as it states that all decisions are ultimately in the hands of the citizens. Note that in many workplace settings where "Total Quality Management" or other similar approaches are being used that purport to empower the worker, the other criteria for a democratic process are often achieved, while this one alone is denied to workers. Worker participation (or any type of citizen participation) without voting equality at the decision stage is not a democratic process.

Enlightened Understanding

Dahl's third criterion, enlightened understanding, is, by his own admission, described by "words that are rich in meaning and correspondingly ambiguous." Meeting this criterion is both difficult to assess and difficult to attain. The intent is clear, nevertheless: Citizens who are aware of the facts, players, precedents, related situations, history, and any other relevant information of a given political matter are in a better position to contribute to the democratic deliberation and decision-making in the matter. While enlightened understanding can't guarantee better laws or policies, most people would agree that it helps remove arbitrariness from participation. When people can't achieve "substantive consensus," it is still important to achieve "procedural consensus." In other words, people will still disagree, but they're more likely to agree on where they disagree.

The main implication of this criterion is, of course, in the realm of education. Groups like the League of Women Voters focus on this approach. People need understanding of facts, history, patterns of reasoning, and the political process to effectively participate in the process. A strong general education is certainly important, but civic education is also necessary. This criterion can be used in two ways-- (1) proactively in improving quality and equity of education, and (2) defensively, in holding the line against cutbacks in educational funding.

Control of the Agenda

Citizens, in Dahl's words, "must have exclusive opportunity to decide how matters are to be placed on the agenda of matters that are to be decided by means of democratic process." This criterion--control of the agenda--gives citizens the power to establish and to modify their own decision-making process. This criterion, for example, allows citizens to establish a representative democracy if they want. They could also later replace it with something else. As Dahl makes clear: Any decision regarding "control of the agenda" must be "revocable" in the future. So citizens cannot permanently sign away--even voluntarily--fundamental democratic rights.


This criterion states that "all adult members of the association except transients and those mentally deficient must have all the rights of citizenship." This criterion is based on the experience that "any group of adults excluded . . . will be lethally weakened in defending its own interests." Thus this criterion is one of inclusion, although Dahl feels that the process should deny access to children, transients, and the "mentally defective." Although the trend is towards increased inclusiveness, children and teenagers under 18 cannot vote. Lowering the minimum age still further would help provide useful civic training while helping younger citizens to increase their political clout in an era where their well-being is declining.

Beyond Minimal Democracy

Although Dahl's five criteria do, in fact, perform the important job of sketching the outlines of a more equitable and active democracy than we currently have, they still represent the minimum--almost mechanical--requirements for a democracy. How do we build on these requirements to conceptualize an enriched democracy, a strong democracy, a democracy that not only performs its perfunctory chores but inspires, enlightens, and empowers?


Masses make noise, citizens deliberate; masses behave, citizens act; masses collide and intersect, citizens engage, share, and contribute. Benjamin Barber (1984)

Benjamin Barber's response is that we need "strong democracy," a modern form of participatory democracy, which rests on new definitions of public talk, public action, citizen, and community (1984). These four concepts, Barber believes, can form the basis of new institutions and "public talk," the first of the four concepts, is most relevant to our focus on community networks.

The Functions of Strong Democratic Talk

Strong democratic talk provides the original impetus on which strong democracy is built. Strong democratic talk is talk in which people discuss issues in a way that spawns ideas, builds community, and develops new relationships. It is a rich concept that "always involves listening as well as speaking, feeling as well as thinking, and acting as well as reflecting." That Barber wishes to transcend traditional uses of talk in "thin democracies" is obvious in his description of the nine functions which underlie democratic talk (Fig. 4.1). While the first two are quite familiar, the next six are "muted and undervalued" in weak democracies. The last function, community-building, is the overall function of talk, according to Barber. To the extent that community networks can address these nine functions, they can help in the development of a strong democracy.

The Functions of Democratic Talk

  1. The articulation of interests; bargaining and exchange
  2. Persuasion
  3. Agenda-setting
  4. Exploring mutuality
  5. Affiliation and affection
  6. Maintaining autonomy
  7. Witness and self-expression
  8. Reformulation and reconceptualization
  9. Community-building as the creation of public interests, common goods, and active citizens.

Whither Electronic Democracy?

As we move closer to the twenty-first century, the specter of "electronic democracy," "electronic town halls," and other new forms of technology-mediated practices seem to loom ever more expectantly over us. The 1992 presidential candidate Ross Perot has hosted events on national television with these grandiose taglines, while radio and television programs with listener or viewer call-ins are copious. Do these new formats warrant optimism, or should we approach them with caution? Will they help foster public talk? Or will experiments in electronic democracy prove to be antithetical to democracy and help usher in new authoritarian or chaotic regimes?

There are numerous signs that the public is interested in pursuing new forms of democratic participation using computer networks. For example, we see electronic open meetings, electronic mail to elected officials, government Web pages, and increasing calls for making government information available easily and inexpensively in electronic form. A recent MacWorld poll (Piller, 1994) showed that people strongly desired the ability to participate electronically in the political process. One of the ways in which community networks can promote strong democracy is by providing another point of access to elected officials and agency employees through e-mail and electronic forums. They can also improve access to government information and services and be the home of dozens of community-created forums on local issues. The technology by itself, however, cannot ensure a more strongly democratic culture. The policies and processes that we develop are crucial to that goal and therefore deserve our critical attention.

As we begin to investigate new ways of supporting democratic processes with communications technology, we must be aware that the process itself is open to change and experimentation. It is far from obvious what models of participation are best for what types of issues, constituencies, and technological support systems. Computer networks, it should be noted, could introduce qualitative changes in the process, and these changes could come about through the increased speed of information transmission and through the increased number of participants that are likely to become involved. Since due deliberateness is critical to the democratic process, changes wrought by electronic technology may further reduce the chances for equitable and just democratic governance. Technological advances may be occurring faster than our ability to assimilate them. Moreover, the current rapid changes in technology and the still-developing social conventions may make adoption of any particular model ill-advised and premature.

Since community networks and other computer-mediated systems do offer real promise and raise expectations as to their potential, there will undoubtedly be calls for new approaches to democratic discourse, including calls for "direct democracy" (in which citizens actually propose and pass legislation). The scale and seriousness of the undertaking, however, requires some caution and direct democracy is unlikely to be workable. With each proposed change, we need to assess how well the change would meet democratic criteria and principles.

The Public Electronic Network (PEN) in Santa Monica

In 1987, Ken Phillips, Director of the Information Systems Department of Santa Monica, California, and Joseph Schmitz of the U.S.C. Annenberg School of Communications began looking into ways that computer technology could help promote community-oriented, participatory democracy in their city. In 1989, with guidance from Phillips and Schmitz, the Public Electronic Network, or PEN, the first city-sponsored public-access computer system in the United States was established in the affluent, Southern California city on the Pacific Ocean. Drawing from a population of 95,000, the system now has over 7000 users and over 4000 user log-ons per month. Since its launch PEN has served as one of the most important prototypes for understanding issues of electronic democracy as it is played out in the real world. In addition to providing service of genuine value, PEN has also provided cautionary tales (discussed later) as a result of being used regularly by a variety of Santa Monicans.

PEN is designed to promote community-oriented participatory democracy. Based on Hewlett-Packard hardware, running the UNIX operating system and Caucus conferencing software donated by Meta Systems Design, PEN provides access to city government information (such as city council agendas, reports, public safety tips, and the library's on-line catalog) and to government services (such as the granting of permits or the reporting of petty thefts). Citizens can converse with public officials and city servants as well as with each other using e-mail and electronic conferences that cover a wide variety of local civic issues. According to Phillips,[1] council members used PEN to collect input from citizens and citizens used the system to gather information and forward it to the city.

The objectives of the PEN system are shown in Fig. 4.2. Because one of the most important objectives of the PEN system is increasing participation in government and since PEN is run by the city of Santa Monica, city government functions are the most prominent of PEN's offerings.

PEN Objectives

  1. To provide easy electronic access to public information for use by city residents.
  2. To provide an alternative means of communication for residents to convey their needs, preferences, and intentions to their local government and to other residents.
  3. To enhance delivery and awareness of public services available to residents, and to facilitate the public service inquiry process.
  4. To provide an electronic forum for participation in discussions of issues and concerns of residents in order to promote an enhanced sense of community.
  5. To extend to all members of the community the opportunity to understand computer technology, and to provide access to the hardware and software needed to learn to communicate via an electronic network.

When a resident contacts the PEN system, he or she first sees the opening screen of PEN (Fig. 4.3) followed by the main menu (Fig. 4.4) , which lists the major categories of service. If a user types a 1 to investigate City Hall, another screen (Fig. 4.5) appears, which lists 11 major city-oriented issue categories. If the user types a 2 at that screen, a City Agendas screen is displayed (Fig. 4.6), which is further subdivided into 17 organizations, including commissions, boards, corporations, task forces, and the Santa Monica City Council.

City of Santa Monica
Public Electronic Network
Main Menu



    City of Santa Monica
    Public Electronic Network
    City Hall

    1. Information Desk
    2. Agendas, Schedules, Notices, and Reports
    3. City Government
    4. Public Works
    5. Planning and Building
    6. City Attorney
    7. Public Safety
    8. Transportation
    9. Rent Control
    10. Environmental Programs
    11. Parking and Traffic

    City of Santa Monica
    Public Electronic Network
    City Agendas

    1. City Council
    2. Planning Commission
    3. Commission on the Status of Women
    4. Rent Control Board
    5. Commission on Older Americans
    6. Recreation and Parks Commission
    7. Social Services Commission
    8. Housing Commission
    9. Personnel Board
    10. Airport Commission
    11. Arts Commission
    12. Library Board
    13. Bayside District Corp.
    14. Pier Restoration Corp.
    15. Task Force on the Environment
    16. Landmarks Commission
    17. Architectural Review Board


    Each city organization has one designated contact person who has pledged to answer all e-mail within 48 hours. This lag allows enough time to frame an appropriate response without the strict demands of a telephone call. Interestingly, this role has often gone to those with high positions in the organizations, people who can in most cases speak for the organization. This reduces the bureaucratic process of filtering of every piece of e-mail through large numbers of people in the organization just to get a response. On the other hand, answering e-mail might not be the wisest (or most economical) use of senior people in an organization. Yet these electronic queries have nearly eliminated the commonplace (and frustrating) experience of a caller being led through a seemingly endless succession of phone calls while attempting to locate information or conduct business with the government. If a PEN user sends a query electronically to the wrong office, the person who has received the mail redirects the response to the correct office. Interestingly, only 5 percent of PEN e-mail was resident-to-government; the remaining 95 percent is sent between nongovernmental users.

Supporting Political Action: The SHWASHLOCK Experience

Besides obtaining basic government and community information and discussing community issues, Santa Monicans also discovered that a community network can support purposeful political action. Michele Wittig a professor at California State University, Northridge (1991) has described how the PEN Action Group, a diverse group of community members and some homeless residents organized themselves electronically using PEN, when they realized the potential for the local system to be a catalyst. In this case, the network provided a convenient medium for group discussion, deliberation, strategizing, and action. In August of 1989, Bruria Finkel, a Santa Monica resident posted an idea to the Homeless Conference on PEN based on discussions she had had with homeless residents. The concept, dubbed SHWASHLOCK (for SHowers, WASHers, and LOCKers) was intended to help homeless people find, and maintain jobs by providing them with morning showers, laundry facilities, and lockers for their belongings.

It is instructive to examine the process that the group followed. First, the PEN Action Group identified a problem. This first identification was followed by a period of self-education in which the group investigated local service organizations and resources. The group identified gaps in service that weren't provided by other local organizations; closing those gaps became the focus of the PEN Action Group. Other concerns surfaced during the process: Philosophical disputes arose as to whether SHWASHLOCK services ought to be provided at all. There were political concerns as well. At one point local social-service providers "expressed unease over the threat that the new group would be competing with them for scarce social service dollars" (Wittig, 1991). This fear was allayed by cooperating with existing agencies rather than starting a new one. Other sectors such as the business community also played a part. A locker manufacturer agreed to provide 30 lockers for seven months without charge. The Santa Monica City Council ultimately allocated $150,000 for lockers, showers, and a laundry facility, demonstrating that using on-line resources for community organizing can work.

Although PEN's SHWASHLOCK experience appears to be a success in electronic grass-roots organizing, it is critical not to underestimate the hurdles that must be circumvented nor think that the magic of community networking will make the job trivial. Commitment, hard work, intelligence, planning, creativity, and luck will still be needed. Being aware of the potential pitfalls and possible misunderstandings as well as the opportunities afforded by the new medium is also strongly advised: Knowing when a face-to-face meeting is necessary can save a committee or group hours of frustrating and useless electronic communication that could jeopardize the entire project.

Also, as the SHWASHLOCK experience suggests, there are always other players involved. In this relatively small example, there were no less than six "stakeholder" groups--the homeless residents, the on-line PEN Action Group, the social service agencies, various businesses, the City Council, and other residents of Santa Monica. The success of any project will often hinge on the relationships among and within various groups such as these.

Sobering Thoughts

Experiences with the PEN system experience also highlight possible shortcomings of the medium. When people use a computer as an intermediary--when people relate to each other only through a keyboard and a computer screen--the quality of political talk can sometimes plummet. Ideally, electronic discussions provide a civil forum of reason, respect, and reflection, but sometimes retort, recalcitrance, and rancor can dominate. Pamela Varley who has extensively observed and written about the Santa Monica system has some sobering thoughts for idealistic community-network developers. In her reports she notes widespread problems and, as a result, "Santa Monica's political movers and shakers have, for the most part, stayed clear of PEN's crucible" because "PENners tend to pounce on any officeholder bold enough to make accusations and demand a response" (1991). On the other hand, according to Wittig[2]several Santa Monica elected officials were unwilling "to participate in written debate on an equal footing with residents," preferring city council meetings "during which residents are strictly forbidden from directing any comment to an individual council member."

Several elected officials who had originally participated using PEN ultimately rejected its use. In Varley's account, Chris Reed, a city council member, quit PEN stating that she was tired of continued abuse: "If people would have been the least bit polite, or respectful of the need for people in democracy to differ, I would have stuck it out." Another Santa Monica council member, Judy Abdo, also stopped using the system after differing with colleagues on the council and with PEN participants. When a government employee or politician takes part in a conference, it may be impossible to participate on an equal and relatively anonymous basis. In the PEN experience the person was unable to blend in, to be just another citizen casually conversing; he or she was apparently marked as an official representative, at least by some people, and became a target for attack. While most of us have made poor suggestions or unwarranted conclusions on occasion, we're usually able to escape without undue damage. The public servant on a PEN-like system may not have the same privilege.

Other officeholders and staff also complained about the heavy time commitment that PEN participation incurred. Mel Levine, Santa Monica's congressman, agreed to sponsor on-line forums, and since Levine did not participate directly, his staff took on the extra burden. Unfortunately, replies sometimes took several weeks, a delay that was unsatisfactory to many PEN participants. Even though increasing access to the political process through access to officeholders is important, these experiences highlight the obvious tradeoffs. If the time spent communicating with constituents goes up due to increased electronic access, more staff people will be needed or time must be redirected from other activities, including time spent with other constituencies using other forms of communication such as the telephone, written correspondence and face-to-face meetings.

Since the medium is new--and still in flux--and people's attitudes and behaviors are still being formed, it is too early to come to definitive conclusions about the relative magnitude of these problems. The apparent vulnerability of the medium to "flaming" (sending harsh and abusive electronic mail or forum postings) and other antisocial behavior is well established. Perhaps this just demonstrates the vulnerability of those people who "play by the rules" in any social setting to those who don't or can't. Perhaps these problems are inevitable. A medium can only reflect, albeit imperfectly, the thoughts and actions of the people who use it. Like democracy itself, a medium that supports democracy will have its shortcomings. These systems, however, provide a vital laboratory for research into democratic talk, processes, and technology, and ignoring the hypotheses and observations of these early experiments would be an unfortunate mistake.

The discussion of PEN and PEN-like systems does not end here. PEN is a government-run community network and, hence, is subject to a host of major questions. These questions hinge on one main issue: What is the proper role (or roles) for the various branches of government in this area? Then, based on that answer (or answers) the important questions regarding how money is raised and spent, and how systems are administered and regulated can be taken up. These questions are discussed in some detail in Chapter 8--the social architecture of community networks.

On-line Democracy: NCF in Ottawa

Community networks offer excellent opportunities to experiment with and learn about new forms of democratic processes. Electronic communication can be used to mediate or augment some of democracy's fundamental aspects: education, discussion, decision, and implementation.

In early 1994, the National Capital Free-Net (NCF), one of the largest of the Free-Net NPTN affiliates (described in Chapter 10) in Ottawa, Canada, conducted one of these early experiments when it hosted an extended on-line meeting. The process was divided into a month of resolution-proposing and discussion followed by two weeks of voting. Every NCF user was considered a "member" and was entitled to vote in the meeting. Each time the users logged on, they were presented with a message exhorting them to participate in the process. If they hadn't yet voted during the two-week election voting period, another message would remind them to vote the next time they logged on. Although member users also elect people (to the NCF Board of Directors), this "meeting" only dealt with resolutions--electronic motions from the floor. These resolutions were nonbinding and were considered to be recommendations to the elected board, which had the ultimate authority and responsibility for the system.

The NCF staff created one general discussion forum and one information-only forum for each new resolution using the standard FreePort forum software. The NCF staff and board used the additional forum to inform the users about relevant NCF objectives, technology, and organizational practices. The staff and board also placed documents such as financial statements in the organizational forum as the need arose.

In addition to the forum software, NCF also used the FreePort voting module, which presented a ballot to the user for voting. Interestingly, voters could revisit the ballot any number of times during the voting period. In other words, they could change their votes as often as they liked, and the pro and con votes could--in theory--fluctuate wildly until the voting period ended, whereupon the software automatically would tabulate the results based on the tally at that moment. Since electronic voting is still a rarity and because it introduces new opportunities for fraud (as well as risks from software bugs), the NCF system administrators kept an archive of all the final votes as a safeguard in case the results of an election were challenged.

As mentioned before, the member-user resolutions were advisory and not legally binding upon the board. That was actually beneficial, according to Dave Sutherland, chairman of the NCF. For one reason, some motions could not be implemented because of limited resources. Interestingly, some board members could not in good conscience implement some of the resolutions because they contradicted the platforms on which they were elected. In Sutherland's opinion, the statements of the candidates were very thoughtful and the best people were chosen by the membership for board positions. Thus, in Sutherland's views, the on-line voting for people was successful while voting for on-line resolutions was less so.

The 17 motions (shown in Fig. 4.7) generally represented users' desires for expanded computing capability (beyond the limitations imposed by the FreePort menuing software) such as UNIX shells, full Internet access, and the like. While expanded service is generally a good thing, demands for resource expenditure need to be considered in the aggregate, and this is the province of the NCF board. For example, full Internet access for all NCF users (14,000 at the time of the meeting; 24,000 at the time of my writing; and an estimated 40,000 or more by the time of your reading) was judged by the board to be too expensive. Although nonbinding, advisory measures are still useful as they provide a guage of users' needs and concerns.

National Capital Free-Net 1994 On-line Annual Meeting Resolutions Motions From Members

  1. Setting Board Priorities
  2. Binary Gopher Transfers
  3. International IRC
  4. IRC 24 hours per day
  5. User Names
  6. Display of NCF Logo Be Optional
  7. Make the Logo Small
  8. High Speed Modems
  9. Announce Newsgroup Be Moderated
  10. Public Discussion of Free-Net Business
  11. Second Elected Board
  12. Sell Internet Services to Local Companies
  13. Group Accounts for Teachers and Classrooms
  14. Thanking the Board of Directors
  15. UNIX Shell Access and Full Internet Services
  16. A Standard Date Format
  17. Make the MOTD Short

Toward an Electronic Town Hall: The OTA/NPTN Teleforum Project

Along with the "information superhighway" and "electronic democracy," the other new metaphorical cliché that many people use but fewer understand is that of an "electronic town hall," which takes its name from the much romanticized New England town meeting in which any citizen can attend and participate in determining how to manage the town's affairs.

The National Public Telecomputing Network (discussed in more detail in Chapter 8) conducted one of the first examples of an electronic town hall in 1992 for the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) in what they labeled an OTA Teleforum. The purpose of the first teleforum was to help the OTA get an initial feeling for the feasibility and desirability of using networked communications to enable the OTA to perform its role (Beasley, 1994). That teleforum involved three sites representing urban, suburban, and rural populations. It lasted for six weeks and hundreds of people participated.

The second teleforum took place at five NPTN affiliate sites in January 1994 on four issues related to the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA), particularly pertaining to customer relations and the use of telecommunications technology to conduct Social Security business. Each issue was accompanied by one general question and several suggestions that were intended to provoke additional thinking on the issue. A USENET newsgroup was started on each topic, and any responses posted at one site were propagated to each of the other sites (within minutes of original input). Thus the teleforum content was identical at each site, effectively making physical distance irrelevant in this experiment.

The four issues were "social security and customer interaction," "network access to benefit filing services," "distribution of benefits," and "general satisfaction with the SSA" and there were over 240 responses to the four issues during the three-week period. Although the people that participated were not representative of the population as a whole, there was widespread agreement that the SSA should begin exploring the idea of using telecommunications technology to conduct its programs, especially routine business where privacy issues are not likely to come up.

In this case, the results of the teleforum were generally encouraging. It is, however, necessary to point out the aspects of this project which were not addressed. Although the teleforum was not designed to be anything more than what it was, looking at it critically from the standpoint of electronic democracy is a useful exercise. One of the first things to observe is that the issues placed on the agenda were placed there by the teleforum convenors, not the participants. This in no way invalidates the teleforum, but it places it nearer to a focus group than to a New England town meeting. Beyond that, there was no ability for participants to make decisions —one of Dahl's criteria. Participants were free to offer opinions, but there was no guarantee that the SSA would do anything with the information. A final observation —one for anybody that wants to use electronic forums in this way —is that people are capable of generating quite a lot of text, and more people can generate a colossal amount more. Sifting through hundreds or thousands of pages of opinion is an onerous task, and getting the sense of the writings, with their broad and subtle differences, can be extremely challenging.

Future Directions

The Shwashlock project, NCF on-line annual meeting and the OTA Teleforum examples mentioned have been the work of electronic pioneers with uncommon industriousness and ingenuity. However useful, their work--like others who have done similar work--is basically ad hoc. These impromptu experiments in democracy have been largely outside the realm of academia, government, or business and--thus far--have been anomalies that are outside the everyday experience of most people. Since their efforts lack rigorous scientific methodology, "respectable" origins, or widespread familiarity, it may be difficult to capitalize on their trailblazing work.


All the ills of democracy can be cured by more democracy. Alfred E. Smith

Citizen participation in government can be roughly divided into passive and active modes of participation, and both modes suggest new roles for computer technology and community networks.

Passive participation itself can be subdivided into three areas: civic education, doing business with the government, and public talk. For individuals to meaningfully participate in the political process, civic education is vital. One needs knowledge of context, history, and process in order to be involved in addressing issues democratically. Part of the context of a U.S. style democracy is an appreciation of the source documents that help form the conceptual underpinnings of the country. The National Public Telecomputing Network's (NPTN) TeleDemocracy program offers a collection of 30 documents of relevance to U.S. democracy, including the Magna Carta,[3] the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, as well as important modern statements such as Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. The Oneida nation in New York state has made treaties and other historical documents available electronically for similar reasons (see Chapter 2).

In recent years the government--especially at the federal level--has been producing a steady flow of information available electronically, including the full text of all major press releases, executive orders, press briefings, and other presidential documents. U.S. Supreme Court decisions and dissenting opinions are available within minutes of judgment. The full text of representative's bills, floor statements, the Congressional Record, contact information, committee assignments, as well as other legislative information is now available through the Thomas system ( The Internet site, (telnet, or is also available through dial-up; this is essentially a one-stop shopping center for a staggering amount of government information from 130 federal bulletin-board systems (BBSs) and 60 federal agencies.

The Library of Congress operates the gopher-based Marvel system, which provides access to the House, Senate, C-SPAN, and Congressional Quarterly gophers, and contains information about committee assignments, Congressional directories, house legislation, and status, e-mail addresses, and voting records. There is also a large amount of legislative, executive, military, and other information such as the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance Programs, containing information on over one thousand federal programs. The Government Printing Office (GPO), through their WAIS GPO Access system, offers the full text of recent (103rd and 104th sessions) House and Senate bills, the Federal Register, and the History of Bills. GPO Access is available free to the public through various public library systems such as the Seattle Public Library. Additionally, virtually every state government, as well as many county and city governments, are now making information available in electronic form. The Library of Congress Marvel system even supplies links to goverment information in many countries outside the United States.

Other basic information such as how to register to vote and how to contact elected officials is becoming available electronically. The League of Women Voters of Seattle, for example, has posted on the Seattle Community Network an electronic version of their "They Represent You" brochure, an up-to-date collection of information on how to contact elected officials. In preparation for the 1994 election, the League also posted answers to questions that it had asked the candidates, as well as briefing papers that the League had prepared on issues facing the Washington electorate. The national League of Women Voters through their Education Fund has also supported other projects with their "Wired for Democracy: Using Emerging Technology to Educate Voters" program.

The creation and maintenance of the gigantic body of government information has been paid for by American taxpayers, yet a citizen that needs access to this information sometimes finds that it's available from a private vendor or not at all. When the information is available from the government, it is often in some unusable format or has a high user fee attached, even though electronic distribution costs are lower than traditional paper-based methods.

While there are many signs that government is releasing more and more information electronically to the general public, there are still great strides to be made. For one thing, there is no overarching policy or commitment for all departments to provide this service. Consequently, key pieces of government information may be unavailable or available at a price above the reach of many individuals. Moreover, withdrawal of services could come at any time with changes in agency policy or in selected areas of government if we should return to an administration less inclined to public access.

The Taxpayer's Assets Project (TAP), originated by Ralph Nader in 1988 to play a watchdog role for various government assets including land, other property, and patents, is now focusing its attention on securing "better access to the federal government's extensive electronic collections of documents, statistics and technical data." James Love of TAP has identified the "crown jewels" (Love, 1992) of government information and is working to make these freely available in electronic form. Love has been concentrating on information residing in the Securities and Exchange Commission's (SEC) Electronic Data Gathering Analysis and Retrieval (EDGAR) system, The Department of Justice JURIS system, and the Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR) system. Other people have been pushing for more open electronic access. Microcomputer pioneer Jim Warren, for example, has concentrated his efforts at the state level in California. Warren is currently supporting some changes in the California Public Records Act to make all disclosable state information available electronically for incremental costs. Chris Mays, a student at San Francisco State College, in an effort to make government information more widely available to activists and others has created a California Electronic Government Information Web page (Fig. 4.8) on the World Wide Web that contains pointers to important government information caches such as the City of Palo Alto's Web page (Fig. 4.9) and a wide variety of bulletin-board systems (Fig. 4.10).

The availability of pertinent information is critical to a sound democratic system. Without access to the necessary information, participation in the political process is inequitable and ineffective. Of course "availability" is itself a catchall for various other concepts, including cost, timeliness, and usefulness of the information. If the cost is too high, the waiting time too protracted, or the format of the information too indecipherable, the information can be effectively unavailable.

Doing Business with the Government

The government does other things besides collecting and distributing information. In many cases the government is an entity with whom we conduct business. Sometimes this is at our own instigation--obtaining a building permit, for example--and sometimes at the government's--paying taxes, getting drafted, or getting arrested, for example. Community networks and other on-line services can be used to conduct some of these transactions. In Santa Monica, for example, residents can use the PEN system to conduct several types of city businesses from home or from public terminals. These services include submitting petty theft reports with the Santa Monica Police Department and gaining information on how to transact other government business. The U.S. Office of Technology Assessment has produced a report devoted to the "electronic delivery of federal services" in which many important issues in this area are brought out and discussed (U.S. Congress, 1993).

While electronic transactions between citizens and government may be less expensive and more convenient in some ways for both citizen and government (through 'round-the-clock service, fewer car trips to city hall, and less time spent processing forms), there are other important concerns that arise with this style of interaction. The first concern is that of access to the service. If a computer and a modem are required to use the service, then those without ready access to the technology will be forced to use the traditional methods. Faced with this situation the government must now provide at least two methods--electronic and paper-based--by which to access the service, and the cost, necessarily passed on to the taxpayer, may rise. Perhaps more significantly, clients of the new, state-of-the-art electronic service may experience improving service, while people without access to the technology may experience deteriorating service.

There are many related concerns that arise when computers and communication technology are used. While privacy (of personal information), fraud (in vote counting, for example), and security (especially in financial transactions) are foremost among these, the change in the way in which people perceive and interact with the government might also be problematic. Based on their observations of electronic delivery of services in Europe, researchers Ignatius Snellen and Sally Wyatt have noted that "The citizen tends to become more of an outsider for whom the organization is impenetrable" (1993). This bodes ill for those with dreams of reinventing government along more humane lines. Since many people already regard the government as faceless and bureaucratic, an increased reliance on filling out forms at a computer would undoubtedly exacerbate that perception. Furthermore, at a time when government is expected to become more of a partner, it is less likely to be perceived as an organization that needs or could accommodate partners.


Public Talk

The last method of "passive" political participation is "talk." Talk, while fundamental to a democracy, is still "cheap." If people engage in talk —no matter how enlightened— without acting on it, it is useless in the political sense. Talk, however, straddles the line between passive and active participation. When one learns of a situation or important information through talk and is compelled to take action, talk becomes a catalyst for active democracy. An electronic forum can serve as a sounding board and is one way to get a fairly quick feel for a range of opinions. Of course, a forum is nothing more than a straw poll that has very little real validity. There is often no way of knowing just who's participating in the discussion or how representative the responses are to the larger population. Although subject to the same caveats, there are several software packages that are designed to conduct electronic surveys, making it easier to collect and manage large amounts of semistructured information.

A community network should minimally provide discussion on the major issues in the region. In the Seattle area, for example, these issues would include youth violence, growth management, urban villages, the "Commons" issue, the city's information highway plan, and the proposed Seattle-Tacoma airport third runway, among many others. Some issues are short-lived like specific ballot measures, while some topics are perennial: education, recreation, and public health, for example. Since topics are often locally relevant, discussion areas should be associated with that particular region, be it state, county, region, city, or neighborhood. The threatened closing of the Wallingford Library, for example, is probably more important to a citizen of Wallingford than to a citizen of Leschi.

Active Participation

Ralph Nader has said that daily democracy depends on daily citizenship. Hopefully community networks can play a role in that daily citizenship. Community networks and electronic communication have been used in active forms of citizen participation such as in developing or influencing legislation, electing candidates, or passing citizen initiatives. James Love of the Taxpayer Assets Project, for example, has been particularly successful at mobilizing people using the Internet. His remarkable story "Internet Community KO's Anti-FOIA Provision" (Love, 1995) relates how Internet activism helped prevent a special interest provision that would allow private companies (in this case West Publishing) to control access to public information. At the same time, efforts have been made to provide electronic connections between candidates and the citizenry. Both the Center for Civic Networking in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the State of Minnesota have been establishing e-mail accounts for all political candidates in their region.


Voting Electronically

Voting (using Dahl's criterion of "equal participation at the decision stage") is the most obvious form of active participation in a democratic process, and voting could certainly be facilitated electronically. As we saw in the National Capital Free-Net section, the FreePort software used by many NPTN affiliates has a "voting module" that allows users to electronically cast ballots on issues of interest. Use of this electronic balloting is generally confined to straw polls that are not legally binding. Electronic voting could, however, be legally binding for an organization if the legal requirements for voting, for a quorum, and for "meetings" were specified in the by-laws of the association. The Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR) board of directors, for example, has voted electronically for several years. An amendment to the by-laws specifies how board members without electronic mail can participate, the length of discussion period preceding the voting, and outlines other aspects of the process. No national, state, or other governmental entities have allowed electronic voting, but with proper certification the process could ultimately be legally binding, in the same way that absentee voting is today.

However appealing electronic voting may appear, the concept raises some troubling concerns. The first, of course, is the opportunity for fraud. Current election systems are prone to a variety of errors, including software-design flaws, program bugs, security holes, and failure of management controls. The current situation is a "can of worms" according to computer scientist Erik Nilsson who has studied the issue extensively. Nilsson reports that increased reliance on automated systems may exacerbate existing problems (1988). Another concern is that electronic voting may actually increase political disparity while simultaneously providing an additional avenue for participation. This potential for increase in political disparity is due to the extremely unequal distribution of computers and telecommunications capabilities in homes. The wealthier a family is, the more likely it is to have the technology to access a voting service electronically from their homes. Although this problem could be somewhat mitigated by free-access terminals in public places, this new capability would, in effect, make it easier for the well-to-do to participate. While the well-to-do have every right to participate, the barriers to participation generally affect lower income people, and electronic voting from home without universal access would exacerbate an already profound inequity.

The most troubling aspect to on-line voting, however, is its secondary effects. As Richard Sclove, Langdon Winner, and others have elucidated, technologies affect social relations and structures far beyond their nominally intended purposes. The introduction of the automobile, as we know, brought forth vast changes in virtually all aspects of society, including work patterns, leisure activities, and sexual behavior. Since voting already occupies the preeminent position in the public's perception of the political process, an intensified preoccupation with voting would push the focus farther from agenda building and deliberation more toward the direction of judgment. To direct the focus to decisions rather than deliberation is the heart of the problem according to Lloyd Morriset writing in the president's essay in the 1993 Markle Foundation annual report. Furthermore, voting electronically could help create an "electronic lynch mob," where people could come to a decision within minutes of first hearing about an issue. In an exaggerated scenario —but certainly within the realm of technological possibility— a person could be "tried" on television before an audience seated on couches across America. This jury of couch-potato peers could listen to eloquent testimony from both sides, render a quick judgment, flip to another channel, then return to the "Democracy Channel" for another go at democratic participation.

Although the effects are less obvious and dramatic, a concentration on voting at the expense of other aspects of the democratic process, such as discussion and deliberation, has other more insidious implications. As mentioned earlier, voting is but one aspect of a rich and dynamic process of political engagement. Voting without strong participation relegates citizens to mere ratifiers, reinforcing the presumption of citizen ignorance and sloth, while leaving the texture, subtlety, and ultimate power of the democratic process in the hands of the few.

Finally, it should be noted that we've used the expression "active participation" in political processes to mean active conventional participation. Americans have the right, as well as the responsibility, to resort to unconventional political processes when circumstances dictate. American history is replete with examples of individuals and groups using civil disobedience to fight against the status quo. Without undue extrapolation, we shouldn't be surprised if the future "net" becomes the scene of new varieties of civic cyber-disobedience.

Voluntary Associations and Everyday Democracy

Alexis de Toqueville, the French observer of American democracy, was so profoundly impressed by the numbers and types of voluntary associations in America that he placed the phenomena at the core of American civic life (1945).

Americans of all ages, all stations in life, and all types of disposition, are forever forming associations. There are not only commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but others of a thousand different types--religious, moral, serious, futile, very general and very limited, immensely large and very minute . . . Nothing, in my view, deserves more attention than the intellectual and moral associations in America.

Everyday life is punctuated sporadically with glimpses into the guts of the American democratic process. These glimpses often consist of partisan squabbling or scandals involving sex, money, or both. During an election year the media coverage always escalates, but somehow the quality rarely does. The citizen becomes a spectator to a constant barrage of claims and counterclaims, charges and countercharges. Then, on election day, many Americans vote, discharging in private their sole democratic obligation. It should come as no surprise that so many have opted out of this nearly empty, ritualistic process--the superficial spectacle that politics in America has become.

With the intermittent and nearly meaningless act of voting forming the mainstay of American elections, one wonders where and how Americans might get training or experience in democratic decision making. In the schools? Certainly not. It would be heretical to let students decide where, when and what they'll learn, or who will teach them. And as we discussed in Chapter 3, the broadcast mode of teaching is dominant; students almost invariably are expected to work alone. How about on the job? Nope. The same answer goes for privately owned and publicly owned firms (with a handful of exceptions) and, ironically, for government jobs. In church? With few exceptions—Quakers and Mennonites among them—churches are run like a hierarchy; sermons, not discussions, are the rule. Nor does the family provide fertile ground for growing democratic awareness. Everyday life —from birth to death— in an ostensibly democratic country like the United States is almost devoid of democratic experiences. Sadly, the idea of developing democratic skills with authoritarianism reigning in almost all aspects of everyday life is unlikely.

New communities, however, will depend on democratic principle and democratic skills. As part of this push for new communities we must put pressure--from both the outside and from the inside--on nondemocratic institutions to become more democratic. We must also concentrate on the one institution that does routinely rely on democratic processes to get things done--the voluntary association.

As community activists and others have long acknowledged, voluntary associations in the United States have extensive influence and reach. In Washington State alone there are nearly 33,000 nonprofit organizations (Barber, 1994). These include colleges, churches, day-care centers, libraries, trade associations, social service organizations, museums and many others. The annual payroll is nearly four billion dollars, a sum approximately equal to that of another Washington employer, The Boeing Company. Although not all of these associations are paragons of democratic discourse, there is a strong thrust in that direction. The boards of directors are often elected by the membership, and general meetings are held at regular intervals. Additionally, these associations often address the issues that government has overlooked or cannot address fully, and those that for-profit corporations will not touch. Clearly, voluntary associations are key to the development of the new community and community networks.

Voluntary associations have an additional role to play in the revitalization of democratic participation--that of the mediating institution that Greider and many others have recommended. A mediating institution is one that plays a role in linking two institutions--communities and their government, in this case. Ideally, the mediating institution can articulate needs and demands, promote discussion and awareness on an issue, and present a more coherent, more compelling, and a more feasible case than community members individually could develop.

Since the aims of voluntary associations coincide significantly with the aims of the new community movement, a special effort should be made to develop support of voluntary associations by means of community networks. Strengthening voluntary associations should strengthen the community-network movement and vice versa. Community-network developers should seriously examine the needs of voluntary associations when they are designing new systems for democratic processes. These organizations need support for discussion, for deliberation, and for decision-making that will help them effectively take action on issues that are important to them. These support systems need to be easy to use, and their functions (discussion and decision-making, for example) should be integrated together.[4] Voluntary associations need the new systems and will use the new systems. Furthermore, they will help to uncover any major problems before the systems are used with large populations for significant decisions. Untested "democracy-in-a-box" systems could further degrade America's already ailing political process; voluntary associations could provide the "beta-test" for the new systems.

Additionally, new democratic support systems need to be parameterized so that the features of the particular organization (number of people constituting a quorum, for example) can be changed to match specific needs. Some of the new systems like eVote developed by Marilyn Davis (1994) allow vote changing, voter visibility, proportional voting and other variations. The next section continues this discussion by looking at computer support for on-line meetings.

New Algorithms for Democratic Technology

In 1922, French Strother, writing in The Unfolding Marvel of Wireless, wrote that "Broadcasting has turned the nation into a town meeting. But there is no chairman, and no parliamentary law. This will bring anarchy in the ether" (Czitrom, 1982). Now, over 70 years later, we face a similar situation with cyberspace. What can be done to tame the anarchy that exists there?

Five decades before the problems with "anarchy in the ether" surfaced steps were being taken to curb the anarchy of face-to-face meetings. In 1876, Major Henry Robert of the U.S. Army Engineers first published his set of rules for running orderly meetings in which everybody would have an opportunity to express their own opinions but no one could prevent a deliberative majority from coming to a decision. This seemingly simple requirement occupied Henry Robert for nearly 40 years, demonstrating the inherent complexity of such a goal. His work, which culminated in a relatively thin book called Robert's Rules of Order, Revised (1971) is in daily use by tens of thousands of organizations around the world from the smallest neighborhood organizations to the United Nations, from groups whose members you can count on two hands, to those with membership numbering in the thousands.

If meetings are going to be mediated by computers in any way (allowing impromptu meetings, that are not face-to-face, for example) then something like Robert's Rules of Order (revised again, this time for the electronic age) will be necessary. Since community networks can be used--at least in theory--to support both synchronous communication (like a telephone conversation or a face-to-face meeting) and asynchronous communication (like using letters) as well as to support hybrid modes containing elements of both, modifications to Robert's Rules that address the basic requirement need to be developed.

Software can be used to mediate human communication in many ways; a whole body of work has grown up that addresses this topic. The discipline of Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) has emerged in which computer systems are built to support groups rather than individuals who are working together on shared tasks (see Greif, 1988, for example). These systems are notoriously difficult to design, however, and software that imposes too strict, unnatural, or inflexible structure on the interactions has been labeled "naziware" by those who found its constraining features untenable.

Developing "democracyware" will be challenging. If meeting participants were all available at the same time but at different locations, a close approximation to Robert's Rules could be used using "chat" technology similar to that used in America Online and other commercial services. Without the constraint of all users being stationed at their respective computers at the same time, a variation on Robert's Rules could be used if participants agreed to log on for some minimal number of hours per week or month. An on-going meeting, for example, could be held using electronic mail. It should be noted, however, that these new approaches give rise to new issues and challenges, some of which are quite subtle. A person who was quite adroit in face-to-face meetings might find the situation far different if all input was typed in at the keyboard. In an electronically supported meeting with distributed participants, for example, what happens if one network connection goes down? And without a password or audio or video authentication, how can one guarantee that a remote participant is really who he or she says?

The prospect of electronic support suggests interesting new possibilities for democracy-in-the-small processes. Computer software could, for example, guide, record, and instruct during the course of the on-line meeting. A menu showing the options that were available at any given time (and an on-line help facility to explain each option) could also be incorporated into the system. With this type of computer support, those less familiar with the rules could participate on a more equal footing. The software, for example, might only allow a participant to second a motion after a motion had been made. It could also be "tunable," allowing groups to change parameters to suit their situation and preferences. During a voting period, for example, the software might always make the current tally available. On the other hand, the count could be kept hidden until after the voting period had closed, preventing voters from making their votes based on the likely outcome, as representatives in the U.S. House of Representatives sometimes do.

Government Accountability

Democratic societies require governments. The shape that the government takes depends on the rules and habits that guide it, the people involved in it, and the perseverance and persuasiveness of the people who are trying to influence it. Government accountability is of primary importance to the new community: The government must be made to be increasingly receptive to the people that it both serves and is constituted of. Used this way, government accountability is a catch-all term for the community's "conspiracy" to encourage the government to do its job and to ensure that there is an honest and straightforward connection between government principles and goals to its actions.

Community networks can be part of the campaign for government accountability that proceeds along the two avenues of confrontation and cooperation. The new community needs to confront the government when it is failing--when it's wasteful, unresponsive, secretive or corrupt--and to cooperate with the government when it is succeeding--when it's prudent, responsive, open to public discussion and direction, and honest.

Community networks can play important roles in opening up the governmental process to public view. The new community needs to know what an agency's mission is and how its issues are being addressed. Its activities must be monitored continually, perhaps through associations created specifically to monitor individual agencies. The process of engagement can be initiated through face-to-face meetings. The goal is the creation of mechanisms that facilitate two-way communication, sharing of information, and that facilitate the development, implementation, and evaluation of joint projects.

It may be difficult for people in government--elected or otherwise--to accept a peer-to-peer relationship with citizens. It may also be difficult for citizens to feel equal to people in government. Yet a balanced relationship is required. The size, prestige, available resources, or other characteristics that the government possesses need to be disregarded--by both the governmental and the non-governmental parties--if a meaningful relationship is to develop.

Government needs to be monitored and engaged, but the new community needs to also set its sights on business--particularly big business--to make it more responsive and accountable. Although engagement should not be construed as an attack, it should be construed as a serious challenge. Although the government is unquestionably mighty in terms of resources, influence, and in innumerable other ways, an allegiance of principled new communities can also be enormously tenacious and powerful.


Democracy is the most humane, the most advanced, and in the end the most unconquerable of all forms of human society. Franklin Delano Roosevelt


The challenge of revitalizing the ailing political process in the United States and in other countries around the world is a daunting task, but the consequences of ignoring the challenge could be catastrophic. Community-network developers and new community activists need to work towards opening up the system by "lowering the cost" of political participation. Simultaneously, they need to work with individuals and organizations to develop and implement political strategies that will increase political participation, particularly among those who currently have little or no influence.

While improving access is important, other critical concerns that strike into the core of our national consciousness must also be faced. The first is economic. Since political participation is related to and constrained by wealth or lack of it, improving economic equity and opportunities is required if an equitable and genuine democracy is to be attained. On the other hand, since the political determination to address these issues is currently lacking, it is not practical to wait for economic reforms before developing projects in democratic and other core-value areas. As Robert Putnam has observed, economic vigor is often built on a base of civic associations.

Community networks offer the potential to shift the balance towards democratic participation and away from the powerful government and corporate sectors, yet the balance could very easily move towards increased government and corporate control. Democratic renewal will depend on a transformation of powerful economic forces, and this will require the cooperation of the rich, the poor, and those in between. Unfortunately, the more well-off may not feel the desire nor the need to work together to address this schism. As Robert Reich explains, "Increasingly the fortunate fifth are selling their expertise on the global market and are able to maintain and enhance their standard of living and that of their children even as that of other Americans declines" (Reich, 1992). It is important that we develop programs that engage all sectors of society and create a shared consciousness that makes it important to do so.

While we are improving access to democratic processes, it is also important to provide opportunities and the means by which people can conduct their own civic education. People need to feel inspired to participate. The alienation described by Goel earlier in this chapter will need to be replaced by hope and confidence. The key to this is increased power. Community residents need to have a genuine voice in the affairs of their community and in the broader community. Since people naturally avoid political activities that they feel are fraudulent or exclusionary, working towards legitimate and inclusionary processes will increase political participation. Furthermore, fundamental belief in the viability of the political system will only come after there have been some successes in the political arena. For this reason, working with the disenfranchised for political successes at the neighborhood, community, regional, and international levels will help build both expertise and confidence, as well as help restore the critical "mediating structures" whose absence William Greider has noted.

Alexander Meiklejohn says that "democracy is the art of thinking independently together." At a minimum, this means that a modern democratic society has the responsibility to uphold Robert Dahl's criteria. Working with the new community, it should be possible to create a strong democracy, a democracy that's inclusive and just, a democracy that is greater than the sum of its parts.

1 Personal correspondence, 1995.

2 Personal correspondence, 1995.

3 The original "Magna Carta" that is--not the libertarian manifesto issued by the Privacy and Freedom Foundation.

4 Putnam Barber, private corespondence, 1994.

Vedi intero vokume: D Schuler, NEW COMMUNITY NETWORKS, 1996 Addison-Wesley Publishing Company Inc.