I was part of a break-out group discussion today on making online deliberation tools accessible. We discussed three facets of this challenge: tool design, user training, and motivating participation.

Our conversation began and ended with user training issues, becuase that’s what we came back to throughout our conversation. The question of motivating participation was simply too broad for our group to meaningfully address: ultimately it came down to the same kinds of motivational challenges that affect every form of on- and offline participation, not only in politics but in work, society and personal life. Tool design, on the other hand, seemed to be too specific a challenge for us to meaningfully address: ultimately the design and usability issues have to be addressed tool-by-tool, project-by-project, and developer-by-developer.

Training was the middle ground: an issue with broad applicability to many different kinds of online engagement projects, but an issue where we could perhaps take some concrete and constructive steps. The three possible ideas that emerged for ODDC work were:

  1. Training guidelines for e-democracy: Some sort of written guidelines that might guide training efforts by community networks and other social or nonprofit technology trainers, that would encourage a focus on tools and skills that increase capacity for online civic participation.
  2. Training initiative: Seek a grant or organization to fund a centralized effort at developing training and trainers who could foster online skills for increasing civic capacity.
  3. Grassroots training: Create some tools, like how-to guides or screencasts, to faciliate self-organization by volunteers with some technical skills (like bloggers) who might organize their own community tech training sessions if it was easy and obvious how to do it.

In our plenary discussion we heard that our ideas about training guidelines and materials have been partly fulfilled by the Bristol e-democracy project, which produced some e-democracy training materials.

In the plenary we also talked about what had been done in terms of usability analysis of e-democracy projects. One suggestion was to come up with usability “juries” to get input on usability of different e-democracy projects. Another was to see if we could get a usability lab or studen to do some evaluations. Todd Davies described a recent usability workshop for six teams of open source developers.