Clift focuses on the 'e' in democracy
Democracy advocate promotes e-citizenship skills
- By Dibya Sarkar
- May 09, 2005
Steven Clift anticipates a day when all U.S. citizens will be able to actively engage in facilitated online discussions about local issues through a network of virtual communities nationwide. But that day might be 50 years away.
"I'm serious. Fifty years," Clift said.
The 35-year-old Minnesota native is an international expert on e-democracy. He said slow grass-roots efforts are needed to build citizen participation and discourse the skills of e-citizenship through the use of communications technologies.
In 1994, he formed the nonpartisan E-Democracy.org, which created one of the first election-oriented Web sites. It provided information on gubernatorial and U.S. Senate campaigns. After the success of that project, Clift built an online public forum in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. The forum now has about 1,000 participants.
Pockets of online citizen discussions occur nationwide. But Clift is not naïve or even frustrated about the slow evolution of e-democracy, which has taken root more quickly in other parts of the world.
"Put this down, I'm from fly-over territory," he said, adding that few e-democracy initiatives have taken hold in the nation's heartland. But he has traveled to more than two dozen countries to speak to government officials and others about creating sustainable models and policies for e-democracy.
Last year, Clift went to Brussels, Belgium, to help wrap up a European Union conference on the topic. Then he offered a series of seminars in New Zealand and gave a keynote address to Australian government officials, who have created an intergovernmental e-democracy task force with federal, state and local members. He also visited Mongolia recently to help develop e-democracy policies.
Clift said most U.S. users of public forums are interested in online campaigning and advocacy. But those are only two aspects of e-democracy. U.S. government officials are way behind their foreign counterparts in using the Internet to reach out to the public and get feedback because they fear constituents will bombard them, he said. U.S. officials are "much more sensitive to political noise and probably because Americans are noisier than a lot of citizens in other countries," he said.
Carol Darr, director of George Washington University's Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet, said Clift has essentially created the model for local e-democracy with his work in Minnesota.
E-democracy, Darr said, is "where you're trying to get activists in a community to talk together and try to build a healthier and cohesive body politic at the local level, which Steve is most interested in."
Clift's work for Minnesota's online forum has attracted worldwide attention and dozens of invitations. The forum is moderated by volunteers and costs little to operate. Local politicians and members of the media monitor it. Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak used the online forum to announce his candidacy in 2001.
U.K. officials have enlisted Clift's expertise on projects to develop community Web logs, issues forums and Webcasts in several communities. Clift uses an open-source and Extensible Markup Language application called GroupServer, developed in New Zealand, which combines e-mail list and Web forum functions.
His goal is to have 1,000 online forum chapters worldwide in 10 years. He wants each chapter to be based on the network service model of the Rotary Club and Lions Club organizations.
Clift, who has an undergraduate degree in political science and worked as a congressional intern, was a graduate student at the University of Minnesota's Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs in the early 1990s when he received his first free Internet account.
"In about a week, I decided the Internet would be the most powerful medium in politics ever," he said. "I was wrong. Television is. But the Internet is the most powerful medium for political communication and organizing."
After graduate school, he worked for Minnesota's state government and helped design its first Web portal. At night, he hosted an online public forum. He left state government in 1998 to embark on a world tour, spending a month in Sweden giving speeches about e-democracy for the Swedish government and then traveling to the Netherlands.
During that time, Clift also worked for the Markle Foundation on initiatives promoting universal access to e-mail and online election information.
"What I discovered with technology and the Internet and politics is that it has to be incremental," he said. "You have to celebrate your small successes because momentum is more important than instant success."