Ronald D. Doctor & Christa V. Hardy

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Democracy and Governance in Computerized Community Information Systems

May 14, 1996

This paper examines the governance mechanisms of Community Networks, or Computerized Community Information Systems (CCISs), and compares those mechanisms to established principles and criteria of modern democracy. Although CCISs promote democracy in society-at-large, many are themselves governed non- democratically. Eighty percent of the 25 systems examined in this research-in- progress are governed by self-selecting Boards. Members, or users, have no formal voice in governance of these systems. This loss of democratic control is partially offset by the value of services offered on these systems.

Many proponents of community networks assert that enhancement of democratic practices is one of the primary benefits of these networks. Democratic practices can be enhanced through the use of computerized community information systems (CCISs). These systems can promote effective communication between individual citizens and their elected and appointed officials, help citizens organize and use affinity groups, and are efficient in providing the information flows necessary for a functioning democracy.

However, one can ask if community networks themselves are democratic institutions. Do they conform to recognized principles and criteria of democratic associations? One of our purposes in this paper is to identify the mechanisms by which currently operating CCISs are governed. Another is to compare those governance mechanisms with established principles and criteria for democratic associations.

The investigation is still in progress, so only partial results are presented here. We solicit the assistance of Conference attendees to help us complete this project by providing information concerning the governance of your own community networks. A brief questionnaire is attached to this paper. We would very much appreciate it if you would complete the questionnaire and return it to the authors. We will share the results of the survey on-line and in-print.

Principles & Criteria for Democratic Associations

We will begin with a brief discussion of the principles and criteria that form the foundation of modern democracies. This discussion is based on the work of Robert Dahl (1989, 1990), a Yale University Professor Emeritus, who has devoted much of his professional life to the study and analysis of democracies.

We know that people tend to come together in associations of various kinds. Some associations are governmental; others are not. In democratic societies we strive to ensure that our governmental associations follow certain operating principles. Dahl (1990) proposed three fundamental criteria, two basic principles, and three modifications to the criteria and principles as part of what we might call a taxonomy of democracy. We will first examine the components of this taxonomy, then, in the Findings section of this paper we will apply these components to CCISs.

The three fundamental criteria and two principles are:

  • Criterion of Personal Choice states that "a process may ensure that decisions correspond with my own personal decisions." That is, I have the right to accept or reject decisions of the association depending on whether or not they conform to my personal choice.
  • Criterion of Competence states that "a process may ensure decisions informed by a special competence that would be less likely under alternative procedures." I may consider a decision binding on myself, or others, "if it is made by a person who is particularly well qualified by knowledge or skill to render a correct judgment." (p. 8)
  • Criterion of Economy states that "a process may be less perfect than other alternatives according to the first two criteria but, on balance, more satisfactory simply because it economizes on the amount of time, attention, and energy I must give to it." (p. 8); and,
  • Principle of Political Equality states that "the Criterion of Personal Choice must hold for everyone in the Association.
      "Authority can be applied equally without being democratic, but no authority can be democratic unless it is based on some principle of political equality." (p. 8-9)
  • Principle of Affected Interests Everyone who is affected [to a significant extent] by the decisions of a government or other association should have the right to participate in that government or association. (p. 49)
These criteria and principles are interrelated. For example, in accord with the Criterion of Competence, we delegate authority to individuals whose special competence we recognize (e.g. brain surgeons, airline pilots, etc.). But note the key word. We delegate authority. This is a matter of our free choice, an application of the Criterion of Personal Choice in action. If we were compelled to obey, our Personal Choice would be violated.

Further, the Criterion of Economy states that we may accept a process that does not comply with the Criterion of Personal Choice and the Criterion of Competence if doing so "economizes on my time, attention, and energy" (p. 31), and if the decisions made as a consequence are, on balance, satisfactory. As we will see later, this provides a rationale for accepting what would otherwise be non-democratic practices in CCISs. Whether the 'economies' gained are sufficient to warrant negation of the principles of political equality and affected interests remains open to question.

Most associations use some sort of majority rule to make decisions. But since majority rule means that the three Criteria and the Principle of Equality may be violated for some members of the association, we need to consider ways democracies can protect minorities. Dahl suggests three modifications to the basic criteria and principles:

  • System of Mutual Guarantees which places certain matters outside the reach of ordinary majority decision making.
  • Solution of Consensual Associations which provides the right to form new, more homogenous associations.
  • Solution by Autonomous Decisions (Consumers Choice) in which members of the association can be given the right to make their own decisions in certain specified matters.
We'll return to these modifications in the Findings section below.

The question we must raise is, to what extent should this taxonomy apply to non- governmental organizations like CCISs? Dahl acknowledges that we are able to maintain democracy in governance even though the components of the governing system are non- democratic. Authority should be democratic in the state, but need not be democratic in other kinds of associations. Democracy need not necessarily be a basis for authority in non-state associations.

Nevertheless, when we deal with the applications of democracy, we have to look beyond the "authority of the state". Other institutions play key, and sometimes dominant roles, in shaping the power and control structures of a nation, and many of these institutions are not at all "democratic". Dahl (1990) noted that we have to consider "democratizing social institutions where differences in power, influence, and authority are great both in magnitude and importance" [emphasis added]. He was concerned with non-governmental institutions like political parties, economic enterprises (businesses, industry), trade unions, universities, and religious institutions, but his concerns seem to apply equally to community networks. These, and similar, institutions tend to be oligarchic rather than democratic in democratic nations.

Our tendency in America in recent years has been to demand more democracy within these component institutions. Dahl notes that for some institutions, like political parties, Americans' demand for democracy is based on the assumption that "power can be legitimate . . . [and acceptable] only if it issues from fully democratic processes."

In addition to these conceptual issues of democracy, there are other, practical reasons for striving to make non-governmental associations as democratic as possible. Community Networks can learn valuable lessons from the information and referral (I&R) systems that developed in the 1960s and 1970s. These systems were significant providers of social services information to ordinary people. They continue to thrive today. The 1995-1996 directory of the Alliance of Information and Referral Systems (AIRS) lists 722 I&R systems operating in the U.S. and Canada (including 27 in public libraries).

Under the impetus of federal funding, many public libraries attempted to implement I&R services in the '60s and '70s. Only a few succeeded. One reason for the failures that occurred was that there was a clash of cultures. Libraries tended to provide services on a top-down basis. Traditional I&R agencies provided services based on the stated needs of their constituencies. The most successful systems were those that established mechanisms for their users to provide meaningful input regarding the services offered to them (Kidd, 1976; Kochen & Donohue, 1976; Long, 1971; Wilderom, 1988). That is, the most successful systems were those that operated by democratic principles. It is in this sense that the extent to which CCISs are governed by democratic practices takes on renewed importance.

Survey Methodology

We began with the hypothesis that the governance of CCISs does not conform to key principles and criteria of democracy. We searched for by-laws and other governance information for existing CCISs. Contact information for these systems was obtained from a Directory of computerized community information systems that I have been compiling and maintaining for the past several years (Doctor & Ankem, April 1996). The Directory provides contact information for more than 390 community and statewide systems, either in existence or organizing. Of these systems:

  • 70 are operational NPTN Free-Nets , including 50 in the U.S., 16 in Canada and 4 in other nations;
  • 111 are operational independent CCISs, including 88 in the U.S., 10 in Canada and 13 in other nations;
  • 172 are NPTN and independent CCIS Organizing Committees, including 130 in the U.S., 34 in Canada and 8 in other nations;
  • 14 are NPTN educational affiliates (Academy One) and other educational networks;
  • 25 are Statewide networks;
  • 29 of the systems are library-based;
To date, we have limited the governance survey to the 166 operational community systems in the U.S. and Canada. The survey does not include systems dedicated to K-12 education, statewide networks, nor systems that are in various organizing stages. However, we are considering expanding the survey to networks that are in an advanced stage of development.

We started with electronic sources (WWW, gopher, and telnet) in our search for governance information. This was followed by direct contact via e-mail to key individuals and to the Communet and Free-Net Administrators' listservs, and finally by telephone.


A copy of the survey form is in Appendix A. By early April, when this paper was written, we had received at least partial information for 33 systems. Twenty-eight of these are Free-Nets or are affiliates of the National Public Telecomputing Network (NPTN). A tabular summary of the entire data set is in Appendix B.

All the systems we contacted are non-profit organizations. Those for which we have information are governed by a Board of Directors, an Executive Committee, or a Steering Committee. Board size is highly variable.
  • Fifteen of 18 systems responding were willing to make their By-laws available. Two systems are not incorporated and therefore do not have by-laws. One indicated that their by-laws are not publicly available.
  • For 20 of the 25 systems responding, the 'Board' is 'self-selecting'. That is, when vacancies occur on the Board as a result of expiring terms or resignations, the Board itself fills those vacancies, usually by voting on nominees. In these systems, members or users have only an informal voice in system governance. Only five of the 25 systems provide for election of the Board by members or users.
  • Sixteen of 19 systems responding stated that they use either the Board itself or a Nominating Committee to select nominees for Board positions. Only three explicitly stated that they solicit member or user input to identify nominees.
  • Of 19 systems responding, 13 provide free public access to the system. Three systems charge fees for unlimited access, but provide free access to portions of the system. Three others charge user fees to all users, although in some cases the fees are quite low.
  • Ten systems indicated that they provide Internet access. Of these, seven provide free access and three charge fees.
How do these findings relate to Dahl's criteria and principles for democratic associations? Survey results to date indicate that most of the systems examined conform to neither the Principle of Political Equality nor the Principle of Affected Interest. Clearly, users of these systems are affected by decisions of their governing bodies, yet eighty percent of the systems provide no mechanisms for members or users to vote for or otherwise select the governing body. Board members appear to have more authority and greater personal choice than users of these systems. Thus, the only way for a user/member to exercise personal choice is to opt out of the association. If other electronic sources of local information are not available in the user's community, that 'opt- out' alternative is an empty choice.

As Dahl noted, users may be willing to accept a loss of control over their interests and choices if the governing body demonstrates high competence and/or provides high value. Thus, the Criterion of Competence and the Criterion of Economy seem to be significant factors in the way currently operating CCISs are governed. If their importance diminishes however, users/members may exercise the Solution of Consensual Associations and abandon the system. Indeed, messages on Communet and on the Free-Net Administrators' listservs over the past year have illustrated that the Solution of Consensual Associations is a quite viable option. In some cases, competing systems have been established in the same geographic areas, and in one case, a serious proposal has been put forth to abandon NPTN in favor of a new association.

On a more positive note, existing CCISs seem to compensate for lack of system governance by providing strong mutual guarantees and consumers choices. In a study of services offered by four CCISs, Doctor and Ankem (May 1996) found a wide variety of specialized content and forums available. Some of this material is of interest only to minorities within the community. Its presence on the system indicates accommodation of minority interests as required by Dahl's System of Mutual Guarantees. Similarly, the wide variety of forums available on existing CCISs is evidence that these systems give their members 'the right to make their own decisions in certain specific matters', an evocation of the Solution of Autonomous Decisions.

For those systems that have self-selecting boards, it remains to be seen whether the strengths represented by enhanced mutual guarantees and consumer choices will be sufficient to offset diminishment of personal choice, lack of political equality and loss of control over the user's affected interests. At this point all we can say is that governance of many Community Networks only partially conforms to the democratic objectives that they are trying to promote.

Our study of CCIS governance mechanisms is continuing. Obviously, the small sample of responses reported here provides only indications as to how CCISs are governed. As mentioned earlier, this investigation is still in progress, and we need your help to complete it satisfactorily. Please take a few minutes to fill out and return the survey form in Appendix A. We will continue to compile the results and will share them with you.

Ronald D. Doctor & Christa V. Hardy
( &
School of Library and Information Studies
The University of Alabama
Tuscaloosa, Alabama 35487


Alliance of Information & Referral Systems (AIRS) & United Way (1995). The source for finding help: Directory of Information & Referral Services in the United States & Canada. Joliet, IL: AIRS, 1995. ISBN: 0-9646437. Dahl, Robert A. (1989). Democracy and its critics. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN: 0-300-04938 (pbk.). JC423.D2478 1989. Dahl, Robert A. (1990). After the Revolution: Authority in a good society. New Haven: Yale University Press. Doctor, Ronald D., & Ankem, Kalyani (April 1996). A Directory of computerized community information systems (CCISs). Unpublished. To be published as, Computerized Community Information Services: An Introduction and International Directory. Medford, N.J.: Information Today, Inc. Doctor, Ronald D., & Ankem, Kalyani (May 1996). An information needs & services taxonomy for evaluating computerized community information systems (CCISs). In, Proceedings of the Mid-Year 1996 Meeting of the American Society for Information Science. San Diego: Information Today, Inc. This paper also was presented at the Community Networking '96 Conference, May 14-17, 1996, Taos, New Mexico. Kidd, Jerry S. (1976). Determining information needs of civic organizations and voluntary groups. In, Manfred Kochen and Joseph Donohue (eds.), Information for the community. Chicago: American Library Association. Kochen, Manfred and Joseph Donohue (1976). Community information centers: Concepts for analysis and planning. In, Manfred Kochen and Joseph Donohue (eds.), Information for the community. Chicago: American Library Association. Long, Nicholas et al. (1971). Information and referral centers: A functional analysis. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1971. Wilderom, Celeste P. M. (Fall 1988). Innovative knowledge utilization through information transfer: A new relationship between libraries and user organizations. Knowledge in Society 1(3):57-68. APPENDIX A - SURVEY FORM


Name of System:

Contact Person:

Phone or E-Mail

Organization Type

1. What is the nature of your organization? (i.e. non-profit, for profit)

2. Does your organization have by-laws?

a. Are they obtainable in electronic form?

b. If so, how can we obtain a copy?

c. If not, will you please mail a copy to us?

Governing Body

1. What type of governing structure do you have in place? (i.e. Board of Directors, Steering Committee, Executive Board)

2. What are the qualifications for becoming a Board member?

3. Who designates nominees for the Board?

a. If a nominating committee is involved, who selects committee members?

b. Is the committee made up of Board, or non-Board members?

4. Who votes for new Board members?

Membership Information

1. Does your organization have members?

If not, who selects your governing body?

2. What are the requirements for membership?

3. What is the registration process?

a. Do people have to appear in person to register?

b. Do you allow on-line registration, or do you require a signature?

c. Is there a registration fee?

If so, how much?

d. What acccommodation do you have for people who can't afford the registration fee?

4. Is there a membership fee (as distinct from a registration fee)?

What acccommodation do you have for people who can't afford the registration fee?

5. Is your membership divided into classes or levels?

How do the levels differ?

6. Do members have rights like:

a. voting?

b. advisory capacity to the Board?

c. becoming a Board member?

7. Does a person have to be a member to be a user of the system?

8. Is there a time limit on membership?

9. Is there a minimum age:

a. for users of your organization?

b. members of your organization?

10. Is there a limit on how much Internet access is granted to a member?

. The term "Free-Net" is a Service Mark of the National Public Telecomputing Network (NPTN). The Rural Information Networks (RIN) and Academy One systems listed in this directory also are affiliated with NPTN.