Is Gannett on right track to figure out online public comment?

If you’ve followed my blog or my tweets, or even come across them randomly, you would know I’m a big proponent of Gov 2.0, particularly in online communication between and among government and citizens. Going back to earlier years prior to Web 2.0, I was speaking and arguing for the need to replicate government online, not reinvent it. At the heart of the replication was to continue online the structure, standards and processes for citizens to convey their thoughts, ideas, criticism and questions to their government, i.e., public comment.

When governments first found their way onto the Internet, they stumbled in a big way. When it came to establishing a citizen-centric institution online, governments fell way short. They took the easy path. They put commerce above communication, data above dialog and reports above relationships.

To this day, government has not succeeded in establishing a successful public comment structure to engage citizens in meaningful dialog around projects, issues, programs and legislation. (Please prove me wrong). In fact, many have taken a step backward erecting new barriers to access state legislators outside your district for example. Other agencies have created inconsistencies for accepting anonymous online comments, while requiring attribution at public forums.

While citizen access and input to government (online or offline) are fundamental parts of our democracy, the challenge does not carry the same urgency to online newspapers and anonymous comments posted to their articles. But Gannett is going to try something different that I hope government will consider. It may not be the solution, but it starts down the right path: comment attribution and validation.

Starting this week and using my local newspaper, the Fort Myers News-Press, the publication will not allow anonymous online comments. Instead the News-Press will be one of two Gannett papers to test Facebook comments. Terry Eberle, executive editor of The News-Press, says they “will begin requiring people to use their names and (we) hope this will restore some civility to the conversation.” Gannett will test it for 60 days and evaluate the results.

Certainly there are pros and cons for using Facebook. One negative is you have to have a Facebook account to comment (not a big deal IMO); although Eberle says people without a Facebook account who want to comment can contact the reporter via email and, I assume, provide some validation or attribution there.

Is if fool-proof? No way. Will it restore some civility to conversations? Let’s hope so. In a governing environment, can this model advance meaningful online G-C, C-G and C-C collaboration? Maybe this model will help online citizen participation and advance knowledge on the issues and public sentiment, and elected and appointed officials may find more insight and good ideas by actually reading constituent comments.

Final thought: Anonymous online comments are akin to a street demonstration or public rally and it’s an exercise of free speech. There should be a way to continue receiving and posting anonymous comments but it should not be the only available format. As an alternative, public or private organizations can set up a forum to receive anonymous comments on their site or using a third party solution. Then people can choose whether they want to read them. Let’s hope governments take notice of Gannett’s move and tries it out on their sites. Do you know of any government agencies that are using Facebook comments or some other form of comment attribution? If so, please let me know.

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Doug Matthews

In Austin, we’ve worked with a local company in the development of icanmakeitbetter.com. It requires user authentication, which can be done using Facebook’s single sign-on function. Those that use the FB sign-on also have the option of sharing comments and ideas on their pages, which helps foster additional conversation on City issues from the users’ Facebook networks. You can see it in action at http://www.speakupaustin.org.

yaron gamburg

Thank you very much for this analysis. Your words about this attitude of “commerce above communication, data above dialog and reports above relationships” are absolutely correct.

Erica Schachtell

“To this day, government has not succeeded in establishing a successful public comment structure to engage citizens in meaningful dialog around projects, issues, programs and legislation. (Please prove me wrong).” Well, we created a social networking site and wiki for forest planning issues. It’s designed to engage citizens in meaningful dialog about forest conditions and trends in California. It’s still pretty new, but feel free to check it out and let us know what you think! http://ourforestplace.ning.com/

Daniel Bevarly

Doug, Yaron and Erica – Thank you for your comments. Doug – agree with your site. It is similar to our social network using Facebook connect for validation. Erica, your process is similar to a conventional town hall meeting. Asking just enough information to attribute the comment, and the opportunity to join and stay connected helps advance the stewardship engaged citizens should have. Yaron, nice blog, you also have a new Twitter follower. Thanks folks. db