This lively, information-packed panel explored the newest ways to engage citizens - electronically. Through e-mail and the Internet, millions of Americans are plugging into their communities without ever leaving home. A panel of leading experts shared their knowledge. It was moderated by Jon Gordon, host of Minnesota Public Radio's "Future Tense." Here is a summary of the highlights:
Phil Madsen, Webmaster for Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura, whose stunning, dark-horse victory is often attributed to his use of the Internet to energize thousands of first-time voters:
"In trying to figure out how to speak to this group today, I arrived a few minutes early and scanned your literature table. This is about civic journalism, from what I can gather. There's a couple of things that jumped off the page to me ... Civic journalists believe it is possible to overcome people's sense of powerlessness and alienation.
"It is possible to overcome your sense of powerlessness and alienation. I'd never been in politics prior to 1992. I was, at that time, a certified financial planner.
"I had not been involved in politics because I didn't believe that you mattered. Your vote doesn't matter, you can't make a difference. It's too big, it's corrupt. I was alienated.
"But Ross Perot said something that got me out of my chair. He said, 'If you put me on the ballot in all 50 states, I will run for president.' Now, I can get a petition signature. That's something that I can do that can make a difference. That got me going ... I was given something that I could do that would make a difference. That was cool ...
"A few years later, Jesse Ventura decided to run for governor. It came time to convince Terry, his wife. The reason he gave her was, 'I have to know. I have to know that an ordinary citizen' - although he wasn't ordinary, but - 'that a non-career politician can enter the game and make a difference. I have to know if the American dream is still alive, that citizens can rise up and govern.'
"And we found out. But it was that same thing again: 'I've got to know. I've got to be able to do something that can make a difference.'
"We brought that spirit and that attitude into the Ventura Internet web effort. I'd never done a web site before, but I had been doing political activism for six years, door-knocking and grass roots party-building.
"So we brought in the notion that 'I matter,' that 'I can rise up and make a difference,' that there's something out there that I can do. That's what gave birth to the Jesse Net. It was just logical for me to start this e-mail list that people could sign up on. And then we gave them real stuff to do. All candidates now have their e-mail lists. But the difference is how they are used.
"We give people real information there. We're not giving them a line of crap. We're not giving them scripts. ... We use our e-mail list back and forth with our supporters to maintain a very real relationship with the governor.
"Now that he is governor ... it's providing a way for people to engage. A legislature watch team, you'll see that on the home page now. Local citizens keeping an eye on their local legislators, maintaining direct communications with the governor or at least through our committee about what's going to happen in the legislature next year. That's beginning to bud now.
"So it's the notion of groups of people using the web to communicate with the governor, then being active on the issues that matter to them: I matter. I'm connected to my governor. I matter.
"How is the Internet changing the relationship with the media? It is. The power relationship is shifting. Because we've got the Jesse Net, we can communicate directly with thousands of people. If we're misquoted, we can fix it real quick. We don't have to go begging the press for a correction. We can put the truth out there and the people will chastise the press for getting it wrong in the first place. Different power relationship."
David Brauer, creator of an e-mail discussion list, Minnesota E-Democracy, about life, issues and politics in Minneapolis:
"I am a journalist, but I've got to say that I created this forum under the auspices of Minnesota E-Democracy because of my frustrations with print journalism. I've covered Minneapolis. I've covered city hall for a number of places in town. But as I looked around, I saw less and less coverage of the city as the region grows bigger and the suburbs become more important ...
"So as a citizen, I was frustrated. There was no where to go for sort of ongoing day-to-day inside stuff. Minnesota E-Democracy five years ago created an e-mail-based discussion forum about Minnesota politics. And I thought, 'Gee, this would be a good thing for people who live in the embattled central city to do.' Most of my neighbors are really interested in what's going on. Whenever you get into coffeehouse discussions, they're very intense. Why not try to create sort of an urban coffeehouse on-line?
"It's a free subscription-based service. Anybody can join. We have a two-post per day limit to keep people from dominating but, otherwise, the only rule is no personal attacks and it has to relate to Minneapolis, specifically.
"...I love when people rant on this forum. But I also love it when somebody who actually has to make a decision and confront hard policy choices, or who has written a story and had to worry about balancing things, can actually answer those questions and say, 'No, you're not thinking of this enough, you should be looking at this.' Those kind of discussions are, frankly, thrilling for me.
"The first week I set it up I was all nervous, like a new father, that nobody would participate ... until I happened to turn on my city council meeting on Friday morning. Within five minutes, I heard one of the council people reading a letter from her constituent that I had heard before because it had been posted verbatim to the forum in the first few days.
"We got a petition going to help the city retain the 612 area code. We were one of many points that got that started, but that spread the word ...
"You see people listening. You see people in power listening to this ... I can't say that we've influenced any large political decision yet and I don't know if we ever will. But that's one of the beauties of this thing - you don't quite know where it's going to go and people are gaining expertise and insight from one another.
"I would say that, considering all of my journalistic experience, it's been one of the most thrilling things that I've had a chance to participate in - a quick, low-barrier-to-entry thing, where people who are passionate to talk have a place to do so. I encourage everybody everywhere to try it and hopefully a million of these will bloom and they'll all be effective."
Kathleen deLaski, director of news programming at America Online, where she develops AOL's electronic democracy initiatives:
"Our panel is called alternative methods of civic engagement. The provocative question that I would ask is: Is this really the alternative or, at this point, has it become the dominant way that people are communicating? If you look at the numbers, I think you could say yes.
"On-line is where the news audience is today. The news audience is really the best entry way that we find to get to the civic engager, through a particular news story ...
"There are concerns that I'm sure all of you have about using the Internet as the primary tool for civic engagement. What about the digital divide, the have-nots who don't have access to the computer? And that is definitely a strong concern at AOL and other places on-line. But we've got to start somewhere and you've got to prove the model.
"...These are the four most popular things that happen on AOL. This is how they're communicating. This is daily: 28 million e-mails a day. And 200 million instant messages - that's the live thing where you see your friend on your buddy list and you click on their name and then you can just talk live to them. Stock quotes, obviously, is a high one. And then Web URL service, what that means is pages that people look at on the web.
"How we're trying to translate that size of audience into civic engagement is probably best demonstrated in a project that we launched this winter called 'My Government.' What this offers is not geared to the 'junkie.' It's really geared toward the average citizen who might not even know, as someone said earlier, who are the two senators in my state? This is a way you can find out and then get to them. You type in your zip code and up pops your team.
"Then you can look at just a very quick glance the latest votes and the Y or N, yes or no, of how your team has voted. Then you can click right through to send them an e-mail about that issue.
"We have a click-through to tips about how to write an effective e-mail and how not to get your e-mail thrown into the trash bin like most of the spam ones that groups send out to say everybody e-mail this particular senator. Those get tossed for the most part.
"But ones from members' constituents do not get tossed. We're working with Congress - and will work with state legislators when we get to that point - to try to help them tabulate their mail, because e-mail right now is the best way to get on-line for the citizen to talk to his government.
"At the height of the Kosovo conflict about a month ago, we were getting about 20,000 e-mails a week to Congress. During Monica [Lewinsky], it was more like 50,000 a week. But I take heart in that because 20,000 on a serious issue is still a good number ...
"I want to show you how it's actually been very hard to get our membership talking about an issue like Social Security ... we set it up so we could start a debate and discussion. And we've teamed up with various groups. What we found is that our members say most, in responses, please don't make it feel like homework. So if you have the long voter guide or lots of information, it's really too much and they just scroll on to the next news story. We have to figure out how to get these issues to them in bite-sized pieces.
"That may not come as music to your ears in the newspaper business, but that's a way to get to more people.
"The other thing that I want to mention is our election efforts, which I think are instructive, too. Again, in reaching a larger audience, you can do an in-depth voter guide and hope that people will cut it out and hang on to it. But I think the best thing to do is to offer it on web sites where people can print it out, they can refer to it, and they can even find it. The traffic for our voter guide was huge the day before the election. It was huge two days before the election. In October and September not very many people went.
"People would type in their zip code and they were going to see where various candidates stood on the issues at their state level. ... We found that that was really the killer app [application]: help people get to the race information and the issue-stand information.
"This presidential cycle, the bar is already being raised ... If you look at, for instance, Steve Forbes' site, I think he's probably taken Jesse's cue, the e-precinct concept, the updating regularly. They send their own campaign workers on the trail and they're sending in digital photos, which compete with the news stories that the newspapers may be doing because they can actually get them up faster.
"That's a really interesting phenomenon, it becomes campaign as publisher. This is another way to bypass the newspaper or the television reporter who's already there. They are going directly to the constituent for feedback. They're allowing secure contributions. And I think that's going to be an interesting thing to watch this year because ... they're raising the bar for the next cycle and other cycles to come."
After the presentations, the panelists took questions. Here are some highlights:
Q: Are we providing more tools and information to those who already have them? Or are we reaching new people?
A: Ms. deLaski: "From what we can tell of our audience stats, we're reaching people who are a new audience because the political 'junkies' certainly are going to their traditional place that the junkies would find information. And I don't mean 'junkies' in the pejorative sense, but they're going to a news site on-line or their traditional newspaper.
"What we have tried to do is to actually put the call to action in a place that you might not normally find it, like on the sports page or in your e-mail. That's where you put a little ad that says 'Get involved,' or 'Do you know who your senator is?' And those people are responding. We can tell what the click-through on those button pushings are.
"So we think we're reaching a larger audience."
Q: I look at the technology and the expense and worry that we are further disempowering poor people.
A: Mr. Madsen: "We're very close, in fact, I think it's beginning to happen in some sectors, where companies are giving people computers. If you sign up for my Internet service and you pay me $30 a month, about what you pay for cable TV, I'm going to put a computer in your house for free or your apartment or wherever you live. As long as you use me as your ISP, I'm going to give you the device by which you can use my service.
"So it's happened with cell phones. You don't even need a computer to get on the Internet anymore. And certainly within a couple of years, this whole notion of a dichotomy between the haves and the have-nots for Internet access is going to disappear."
Q: How can you make it more accessible?
A: Mr. Madsen: "There's nothing to keep you from sending an e-mail to the governor. The problem is, as more and more citizens are doing this, you're making it very easy for millions of new people to communicate easily with their political leaders, which means that we're just getting killed. I mean, thousands of e-mails are pouring in at all times."
Q: I'm from a newspaper and what you're doing scares me because it is direct competition. You are out there on-line capturing our readers.
A: Mr. Brauer: "I think that newspapers that I've seen don't do a good enough job of making their people available to participate on these things. They'll let you chat about what they've written or about anything else, but they don't really give you the sense that it's as much of a two-way mechanism as it needs to be.
"I guess I'm glad you're a little bit scared. You're probably more scared than you need to be. But that's what we want to do. We want to scare you and influence you into covering things that you aren't covering now, because that's where you're exposed, or not covering them in-depth. I would say when the day comes that you're a little less scared about that, you're probably doing a better job of coverage."
Q: What are the public-interest obligations of e-democracy practitioners?
A: Mr. Madsen: "... At some point, somebody's going to rise up and say: Well, this is awful that AOL has all this power to steer public opinion and how do you manage that responsibly? That's a very seasoned question for journalists because newspapers have the same thing. What do we put on our page and what is our civic obligation?
"I enjoy watching that question because, as Jesse Ventura's director of Internet operations and working for his campaign committee not for the government, I'm free of any obligation to be objective. It's my duty to make him look good on-line.
"But it's going to be a real interesting question ... because what's happening on his web site right now ... we're building ourselves like a magazine. We're going to have a photography department, we're going to have editors, we're going to have contributing writers. We're going to have features, columns, publications. Everything that a magazine has. We are restructuring ourselves to run like a journalistic organization because that's the only way we can deal with all of the stuff that's going on out there and around Jesse Ventura.
And we're doing it without any obligation at all to be objective."