E-Democracy brings new voices to civic tech

Knight supports E-Democracy in St. Paul, Minn., to increase online engagement in lower-income, diverse communities through public neighborhood forums. Below, E-Democracy Executive Director Steven Clift writes about the project. Clift was recently named a “Champion of Change” by the White House. 

How many of your “friends” on Facebook live in your neighborhood? Do you trade email with your neighbors?

For most of us, the social networking revolution is still very much part of our private lives focused on friends and family. It feels safe, warm and trustworthy. In our view this is just the beginning.

Enter public life…

Connecting neighbors online is exciting. It’s fun and important.

Today, online community life exchange is on the move in St. Paul and Minneapolis with E-Democracy’s effort.

With partners like the city of St. Paul, we are inclusively building more informed and engaged communities in public life.

Connecting across our communities online unleashes the capacity of neighbors to help neighbors. It raises new voices at city hall and builds trust across the community through open communication.

Our outreach focuses on how we can bring these new voices into the open government and civic technology movement. Our goal is 10,000 local online participants – that’s about 10 percent  of St. Paul households representing all parts of the community.

Why all?

We are working to turn St. Paul, one of Knight Foundation’s eight resident communities, into the world’s most representative local online community engagement network. With over 46 percent people of color and growing immigrant communities, we’ve targeted outreach across this diversity as well as  across incomes and generations.

The disparity between people of different income levels connecting online is well documented. That inspired us to bring this neighborly awesomeness to everyone. It is a local experiment seeking to spur wide replication.

Today, the recent Pew Internet & American Life Project’s Civic Engagement in the Digital Era report bolsters our resolve as it sparks fresh debate around the country.

This chart shows huge online civic communication gaps based on income, education and race. White adults (43 percent) are around twice as likely as Latinos (17 percent) and African-Americans (23 percent) to be “online civic communicators” – people who contact elected officials online, sign an online petition, etc.

Closing the online democratic divide is essential as the gaps are actually greater online than offline. This fact is the opposite of what many civic technologists assume with the inherent democratizing potential of the Internet

The power of “just asking,” and just posting

The Pew report also shows huge gaps in being asked to take action, so “just ask” in our view is part of the solution. How many of us join something without being asked?

As we go door to door “just asking,” we’re hoping to reach the full diversity of our community with the help of our outreach team. Here are some of our results:

As we’ve crossed the halfway point in our $625,000, three-year grant from Knight Foundation, here are some numbers from our St. Paul inclusive community engagement online effort. Since June 2011, we’ve gone from  three to 14 online Neighbors Forums and increased forum memberships to 7,515 as of this week (up over 650 percent). With teams doing outreach last summer, more than 2,700 people signed up in-person, and 52 percent who filled out the survey were people of color.

Getting people in the “virtual room” is only a starting point. Now we are working on forum engagement strategies so diverse local voices are actually heard. St. Paul posts over the last 12 months are up 252 percent to 5,460 posts. In our most established  Minneapolis neighborhoods we now reach over 25 percent of households.

Opportunities ahead

Every local community can promote aspirational openness, neighborliness, inclusion and integration for all kinds of people and neighborhoods. The challenge is to build new bridges, increase civic trust and embrace public life. As we complete the second half of this grand experiment, we see a number of opportunities and challenges:

  • Open Communities: Local online community engagement is a huge opportunity for our open government peers to embrace to reach many more real, everyday people. Most e-participation projects fail globally based on the lack of participants. Get some, then introduce your civic tech innovations.
  • New Voices: We’ve started connecting with the Sunlight Foundation, Code for America, Open Plans, mySociety and others to propose a collaborative approach to bolstering participation and outreach across the civic tech field to help us collectively reach far more people.
  • Go Deep, Share Lessons: St. Paul is a lesson-generating experiment with national implications. Our very public lessons can be applied to any online community engagement initiative across multiple technology platforms.
  • Next Generation Civic Tech Testing: Our diverse local participant base in the Twin Cities may be the most locally representative anywhere in the world. R+D field-testing the next generation of civic technology well beyond the wired early adopting elite is something we can offer.
  • Better Tech, Code for Neighbors: Combining our successful engagement-first approach with improved open source technology and better design is essential to reaching more people. From hosting Open Twin Cities to leveraging other Knight investments in civic tech, we need to infuse our democratic approaches with more coding for neighbors.
  • Got Neighbors? With my White House recognition, I challenged President Obama in my recent White House blog post to help promote a “Be Neighbors” campaign. I hope he accepts. It could move millions more into local online community engagement across many competing platforms.

By Steven Clift, executive director at

To make inclusive online community engagement a reality in your community follow our blog and @edemo and @democracy on Twitter, join our volunteer network, learn with us, or contact us.