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DG Team Develops a Commons for e-Government
Researchers explore "virtual agora" to give Pittsburgh citizens an active voice in their government
For the DGRC

Creating an Online Agora

Researcher profiles:
Peter Shane
Peter Muhlberger

Project profile: Developing and Testing A High Telepresence Virtual Agora For Broad Citizen Participation

Related: Delibera software

In the recent election, Americans went to the polls in record numbers to decide who would be president.

But there were other candidates on ballots as well: In one small California city, voters elected a city council challenger who had campaigned against an ordinance that had imposed huge fines for untrimmed hedges. That's the side of democracy that's often overlooked: Politics isn't just about big issues like wars or social security, but also about such day-to-day, local concerns as where to put the new grammar school, or whether to allow chain stores in a town's historic district.

How local communities and the federal government can best get input from citizens on both large social issues and the mundane, but essential questions that often preoccupy policy makers is the subject of Digital Government research being conducted at Carnegie Mellon and Ohio State Universities. A cross-disciplinary team that includes technologists, a law professor, a political psychologist and even an applied philosopher is creating an online agora, where citizens can discuss issues of concern.

This Internet update of the ancient Greek marketplace is a mixture of text and audio chat, which allows for both moderated and unmoderated discussions. Dubbed PICOLA for "Public Informed Citizen Online Assembly," this online environment was recently tested among a small group of Pittsburgh citizens, who considered what Pittsburgh should do with the unused classroom space in many of its public schools, says project PI Peter Shane.

In a second phase of the study, a subset of the citizens' group will conduct extended online deliberations concerning Pittsburgh's tax structure and the organization of city, county and regional government.

One especially useful feature of the Delibera software that creates the PICOLA environment is that it supports an online library, where relevant documents can be uploaded either by the moderator alone or by the moderator and participants. Thus, a moderator for a discussion on school usage could put up a professional consultant's report on what to do with the classrooms, as well as photographs and blueprints.

Most people might simply read through them, but it is also possible for someone to upload a detailed counter-proposal. All library material, whether uploaded by moderators or discussants, is subject to comment and rating by deliberation participants.

"Online meetings using Delibera are not intended to be informal chats," says Shane, who is the Joseph S. Platt - Porter, Wright, Morris & Arthur Professor of Law at The Ohio State University's Moritz College of Law. "They are intended to be deliberations, where people stay focused. Our hope is to develop something that could eventually involve citizens and public agencies in real-world public policy collaboration."

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There are intriguing legal questions that arise, says Shane, especially if government agencies are to set up such forums. For example, while the Constitution prohibits the government from restricting speech, what rule would apply in a discussion of community preparations against terrorism should a citizen post a link to a particularly vulnerable spot? What happens if, in a government-sponsored forum, someone makes a comment about a public official that crosses the line from protected speech to libel?

These issues are not intractable, says Shane, but they are as important to consider as any technological challenges. Peter Muhlberger, a Carnegie Mellon political psychologist, and the primary designer of the social science investigation surrounding the PICOLA, notes that this online setting differs in one important respect from real-life town hall meetings. Whereas most town halls feature a separation between officials (often on a stage) and residents, this software is designed to create more of a peer-to-peer situation, where citizens will talk among themselves. The moderator could be an official, but he or she could also be a participant empowered by the other participants to administer the meeting, rather like a jury foreperson.

Muhlberger says that preliminary results from the first phase of their experiment in citizen online participation surprisingly suggest that a theory that is currently popular in the field of political science may be wrong. The theory is known as the Stealth Democracy thesis, after the book "Stealth Democracy: Americans' Beliefs About How Government Should Work," by political science professors John R. Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse.

Briefly, the idea is that citizens feel that government, like dentistry, is best left to professionals. What underpins it, according to Muhlberger, is the concept that people are uncomfortable with conflict and have a "false consensus belief": "They believe that everybody pretty much feels the same way they do, so therefore it's reasonable to assume elected officials do too, and will therefore carry out whatever's best for everybody."

Whether that's a painfully realistic assessment of the general public or a heartbreaking refutation of Jeffersonian ideals is still under discussion in political science classrooms.

But in contrast to the outcome Hibbing and Theiss-Morse's work would have presumed, Muhlberger says that what he observed in the first phase of the recent Pittsburgh PICOLA experiment suggests that people are enjoying the chance to add input on policy issues of local importance. "Online and face-to-face discussion appear to significantly reduce several attitudes that lead people to embrace stealth democracy," Muhlberger says.

The issue of consolidating and closing schools, although not ideologically charged, is still of intense concern to many Pittsburgh residents, yet the discussions remain open and civil, which gives Muhlberger cause for hope:

"Most policy issues are duller than those easily painted as liberal or conservative," he says. "If you get people to discuss less charged things first, then maybe people will talk more reasonably about more controversial, partisan issues." The Pittsburgh results would gratify the Founding Fathers, says Muhlberger: "Citizens enjoy the experience of discussing government and do not lose faith - participation has positive effects as opposed to the pessimism of stealth democracy."