Moving the Virtual Agora Forward
In addition to the knowledge they yield directly, research and development projects can have far-reaching positive effects for stimulating and supporting related efforts within the larger community of researchers. The VA Project fits this paradigm, having helped to catalyze other research projects and intellectual interactions aimed at developing deliberative democracy as both a theory and as an ideal to be embedded in practice. Todd Davies, associate director of the Symbolic Systems Project at Stanford University, has thus stated:
A very important initiative coming out of the Delibera and PICOLA projects was the convening of the conference, ‘Developing and Using Online Tools for Deliberative Democracy’ at Carnegie Mellon in June of 2003. This free, two-day event brought together for the first time a critical mass of designers, researchers, and users of online deliberation software. The VA team made sure that the momentum was carried forward by securing the commitment of a group of us at Stanford to host a follow-up conference, the Second Conference on Online Deliberation: Design, Research, and Practice, in May of 2005. An edited volume from the conference is planned for publication this fall.
The outcome of the Stanford conference and of the Online Deliberative Democracy Consortium's June 2005 workshop at the University of Minnesota has been a preliminary agreement to form an international organization that will convene future online deliberation conferences on a biennal basis, with the next one tentatively planned for 2007. The Delibera/PICOLA researchers will be an important part of this process. Our intention is to create face-to-face, online, and academic spaces where practitioners, researchers, and designers can all learn from each other.
In what follows, two further instances are presented of research efforts catalyzed by the foundational work of the Virtual Agora Project.
Ohio State Cyberdemocracy Research Group
At Ohio State, Professor Shane hopes to extend the work embodied in the Virtual Agora project through the OSU Cyberdemocracy Research Group (CRG), an initiative convened by the Center for Interdisciplinary Law and Policy Studies. Through its work, the CRG seeks to help public sector agencies in using online tools:
- To gather more easily and effectively the public input necessary to inform agency decision making;
- To increase the percentage of the population they serve that is aware of and contributing to public policy deliberations; and
- To increase public confidence in the transparency, rationality and appropriateness of agency decision making processes.
To facilitate such projects, the CRG offers expertise across a wide range of relevant disciplines: city and regional planning, communication, computer science, law, and political science. The Group has the capacity to assist in the design, implementation and evaluation of decision making processes, communications design (including the use of visualization tools), social research, software design and evaluation, automated workflow tools, and web hosting. In addition to Professor Shane, its members include:
- Stephen R. Acker, Associate Professor, School of Journalism and Communication and Director, Learning Technologies Research and Innovation, Office of Technology Enhanced Learning Research
- Maria Manta Conroy, Assistant Professor, City and Regional Planning, Austin E. Knowlton School of Architecture
- Jennifer Evans-Cowley, Assistant Professor, City and Regional Planning, Austin E. Knowlton School of Architecture
- Matthew Eastin, Assistant Professor, School of Journalism and Communication
- Steve Gordon, Professor, City and Regional Planning, Austin E. Knowlton School of Architecture and Director of Resources and Planning, Ohio Supercomputer Center
- Gerald Kosicki, Associate Professor, School of Journalism & Communication, and Director, Center for Survey Research
- Michael Neblo, Assistant Professor of Political Science, College of Social and Behavioral Sciences
- Rajiv Ramnath, Director, E-Business and Enterprise Systems Initiative, Collaborative for Applied Software Technology, Computer and Information Science, College of Engineering
Government agencies interested in potential collaboration should contact Professor Shane.
Projects at Carnegie Mellon University aimed at extending the work of the Virtual Agora Project are being pursued by Professor Cavalier through the Southwestern Pennsylvania Program for Deliberative Democracy. The Program strives to improve local and regional decision-making through informed citizen deliberations, using, among other forms of democratic dialogue, the protocols of James Fishkin's Deliberative Poll®. It seeks to host several deliberative events per year, which will focus on topics of immediate importance and will be designed not only to inform participating citizens, but to influence actual policy as well. The initiative is housed at Carnegie Mellon University, works closely with the Coro Center for Civic Leadership, and is aligned with local libraries and media outlets to achieve practical results at the local, regional and even national level. The Program is co-chaired by Professor Cavalier and by Gregory Crowley of the Coro Center for Civic Leadership.
“Campus Conversations” is a unique program inaugurated by the SPPDD to bring deliberative polling to the individual college or university level. Issues of relevance to campus governance or policy formation are natural candidates for campus conversations. Carnegie Mellon’s Student Senate used the results of its April, 2006 conversation on the Student Bill of Rights to determine that the current campus policy is sufficient to the needs of the student body. (After deliberation, over 78 per cent of those voting were opposed to the Horowitz recommendation). In Fall, 2007 the Faculty Senate will support a similar poll on Faculty Course Evaluations to help determine recommendations to the Provost regarding delivery formats (online, paper) for, and instrument evaluations of, a newly proposed update to the current FCEs. These Conversations are important testbeds for deliberative democracy in both face-to-face and online environments. An article on this initiative will appear in the Chronicle for Higher Education this fall.