Reader Note: This is the first in a series of blog posts about online public comment forums (OPCFs) – that are becoming increasingly prevalent across the country. Other articles in the series discuss best practices for implementing and leveraging OPCFs. The author, Michael Alvarez Cohen, is a co-founder of Peak Democracy Inc — a company that has powered over 700 OPCFs, with over 70,000 attendees, for about 40 local government agencies and elected officials.
Across the US and in other democracies, public hearings have been a mainstay of civic engagement and feedback to government leaders. Indeed, public hearings are often the most influential channel for feedback to government decision makers. However, this long-standing tradition of democracies has become incompatible with the lifestyles and mindsets of many citizens. This incompatibility is especially problematic for citizens with moderate views or an inclination to compromise, as well as parents with young children, adults with busy work schedules, and people that aren’t too mobile (i.e. sick or incapacitated).
This blog post details a series of problems with public hearings, and then culminates with an explanation of how online public comment forums complement public hearings in ways that (1) address their deficiencies, (2) enhance the insights and deliberations of government decision makers – and ultimately, (3) increase public trust in government.
The conventional approach to making decisions in local governments culminates at the city council meeting (or facsimile). These meetings are typically run under Robert’s Rules of Order, and each issue incorporates a public hearing. This public hearing isn’t the only source of community input to the decision makers, but it’s typically the only channel of public input that is officially unfiltered and open to the public. This transparency imbues the public hearing with extraordinary influence.
As the only official, unfiltered, transparent forum for citizen feedback, many residents, decision makers, and journalists erroneously conclude that the feedback at a public hearing is representative of the community. In other words, if the public hearing is dominated by one-side of an issue, then many mistakenly conclude that the community must be commensurately for that one-side. Likewise, if the public hearing is polarized by uncompromising opposite sides of an issue, then many mistakenly conclude that community must have few if any people that have moderate views on the issue and would advocate for compromise. Without other official, unfiltered, transparent channels of input, it’s hard not to assume that the public hearing is a proxy for the community. However, that assumption can weaken the decision making process and frustrate the public. Why is that assumption risky? Because public hearings have attributes that have become incompatible with the lifestyle and mindset of many Americans.
From a lifestyle perspective, public hearings are typically held in the evening and have agendas that don’t have time allocations and are subject to reordering. Consequently many meetings run late into the night. Perhaps these attributes weren’t a problem decades ago, when life was slower, young children were living with extended families, work schedules were less hectic, and most families had two spouses with only one working full time. But these days, attending public hearings is challenging for adults that are responsible for young kids or consumed by full time work responsibilities.
From a mindset perspective, constituents with an opinion on an issue but who are not passionate about the issue are unlikely to make the commitment to participate in the issue’s public hearing. Likewise, constituents with moderate views and inclinations to compromise are also unlikely to incur the inconvenience to attend the public hearing. This results in public hearings that are frequently dominated by people with extreme views – and that further discourages moderates from attending because the mob of extremists can intimidate the moderates from speaking.
Some might argue that the people who don’t prioritize attending a public hearing are indifferent or apathetic about the hearing’s topic. But that’s an insensitive outlook because it’s tantamount to believing that voting should be more challenging so that only those citizens that feel passionately about a particular candidate should vote in that candidate’s election.
The solution to this community feedback and decision-making problem is straightforward: establish other forums for community feedback that are official, unfiltered, transparent and have attributes that augment and diversify participation beyond public hearings. For example, establish online public comment forums (OPCFs) that emulate the order and decorum of public hearings.
OPCFs enable time-constrained residents to participate at the time and place of their convenience. By emulating the order and decorum of public hearings, OPCFs are fair and enable everyone to understand and learn from other perspectives. Also, integrating OPCFs with online analysis tools enables decision makers to efficiently synthesize voluminous feedback – and thereby enhance their preparation for public hearings.
OPCFs aren’t a replacement for public hearings. Instead, OPCFs complement public hearings by augmenting and diversifying civic engagement. This will enhance the perspectives of government decision makers, lead to more informed deliberations, and ultimately increase public trust in government.
Eventually, the use of OPCFs will become a pervasive best practice in government agencies in all democracies.
Postscript: Providing communities with OPCFs for feedback to government leaders isn’t a radical idea – as a high percentage of Americans (and residents of other democracies) already provide huge amounts of feedback to communities, organizations and companies via popular online services such as Facebook, Twitter, Yelp, and TripAdvisor. However, in contrast to businesses, the challenges for governments are to offer OPCFs that are legal, civil, fair, insightful, cost-effective and don’t usurp the decision-making authority of government leaders (known as the “Referendum Effect”). To learn more about addressing those challenges, contact Mike at PeakDemocracy.com.
One thing to watch for if using OPCF … communication takes two participants. When both parties are not present at the same time, there can be a temptation to not take the time to fully read & understand the posted comments.
Scott, I agree with you. There are tradeoffs between the structure of an OPCF and the structure of a blog. Analogously, there are tradeoffs between the structure of a government public hearing and the structure of a charrette. Peak Democracy Inc has employed subtle techniques in its Open Town Hall OPCFs to encourage government leaders and their constituents to read posted comments. For example, check-out how people read and support other comments on the recently launched OPCF for Arlington VA Public Schools: http://www.peakdemocracy.com/824 .
Michael, thanks for the post and I applaud the effort to enhance public meetings. The points you make about the practical drawbacks to participation are right on.
In addition to the written comments, has Peak Democracy or anyone else you’re aware of tried allowing comments to be submitted by video? A three-minute YouTube video would alleviate some of the issues with misunderstanding written communication.
Scott, Yes — Peak Democracy Inc’s Open Town Hall online public comment forums enable participants to post a video comment using YouTube.