Whatever Happened to Public Comment?

“Hello. My name is Dan Bevarly. I live at 206 Pleasant View Avenue. My zip code is 40206. I’d like to speak to the Downtown Action plan that is being presented here this evening…”

At 145 characters and still w/o my statement, you can be sure this is not a “tweet” on Twitter. It’s not a blog post or an email. Actually, it was provided verbally, and became part of the public record for citizen comments for the (fictitious) Downtown Action Plan initiative in my community. Hopefully, the elected and appointed public officials in attendance will take it into consideration as they decide policy on the project.

This statement is known as a Public Comment. If it had been an actual public comment, it would have been made in person, at a council meeting or at some other public forum.

Can anyone show me where that kind of formal exchange between citizens and government is occurring today on the Web? Not just some of the components. I mean from “A-Z”: the structure, the standards, the attribution, the recording and the reporting.

We hear more and more about examples of government utilizing Web 2.0 to demonstrate transparency and to encourage more openness to and involvement from citizens. But what about this basic, fundamental step in our republic’s democratic process? Have we skipped “Gov 1.0” and gone straight to adopting “2.0?”

As (some) governments dive into social media technologies as a way to connect with their citizens, what are the reasons for doing it and what do they want to accomplish? If it’s to engage their citizens, then where are they having success? Collecting feedback through YouTube? I doubt it. You should see some of the anonymous comments (if any) left on some of these government-sponsored YT pages. Some are shocking and would get you thrown in jail if spoken aloud at a public meeting. Through email? Show me a public official who has gone through their inbox folder and I’ll show you an over-stuffed “trash” folder. Through written letters? While people still do this, it is a dying art form not practiced enough by the collective in most cases to be effective (except in some controversial cases).

Don’t get me wrong. I am for more civic engagement, more transparency, and more ways to increase participatory government. Yet, there exists a wide chasm between citizens and their government that has deteriorated the relationship to a “we” and “them” mindset instead of a being a representation of the other. Continuing to publish content, albeit in creative formats, is still not going to help get back to the business of meaningful governance.

Thomas Jefferson said, “Information is the currency of democracy.” However, as messages move today at the speed of light, where are the checks and balances, the best practices, the proven models where a rich dialog and exchange of ideas between citizens and their government led to more informed decision making? Where can we find examples? I’d like to hear about them and so would others.

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Daniel Bevarly

Jeffrey – Yes and no; considering regulations.gov allows anonymous comment submissions that would most likely require personal identification or attribution in a public hearing.

From the Privacy Statement: “You also may decide to send us personally identifying information…. Some agencies will require submission of this personally identifying information for a comment to be considered, while other agencies will allow you to comment anonymously.”

I was able to post a comment w/o any attribution. Each of the other dozen or so items I viewed from different agencies required no attribution. In a formal public hearing with me commenting on some of the same docket items on regulations.gov, would I be able to give my comment in person without identifying myself, even submit my “expert” opinion w/o qualifying it? If no, the public comment policy online is inconsistent as defined/required in a public hearing. Thanks for taking time to comment.