Last week, we took an important step towards these goals by asking the public to participate in a discussion about health care on our website.Now, I haven't read the comment thread in question, but I've read lots of comment threads on political blogs, and by and large I have usually quickly wished I hadn't. And so I tend to read that statement as, "There were a few on-topic replies, but our forum filled up very quickly with people going off on tangents arguing with each other. We'd really like to put a positive spin on it, though."
The result was fantastic. Started by a question from our Health Policy Team, thousands of comments poured in over a few days. Some people answered the initial question, but others engaged with one another debating and developing new ideas and approaches to health care reform.
This also raises the rather interesting question of how one would effectively moderate such a forum.
TNH's moderation policy on Making Light works quite well for that forum, but it is a relatively homogeneous group of people (in some senses, particularly in expectations for online conversations, although it's quite heterogeneous in others) and it's a single website that really boils down to the free-speech choices of the very small group of people running it. It's okay for the moderators to be dictators, because conversation works best when the people involved act on similar ideas of what the conversation should be like, and an involved dictator with similar ideas is the most effective way of achieving that ideal. And it doesn't really matter that much that people who have different ideas about what conversation they want are not well served by this, because there's no obligation for it to serve anyone, and if they don't like it they're free to form their own equivalent site.
That sort of moderation has some significant problems for a site like change.org. Starting with the point that a philosophy of "I'm the dictator here and I don't have to defend my decisions on why to kick people off or delete their comments" is just a wee bit less appropriate when the person speaking is acting in an official capacity on behalf of one's government!
On the other hand, I haven't seen any online fora that really work very well that don't have such a policy, save for Usenet. And Usenet, in my experience, seemed to work well because there were a relatively small number of people involved in any given group, and the number of drive-by postings was pretty small just because of (relatively) small overall numbers of participants; I don't think the model is sustainable in a public political web forum.