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Tips from Texas Gov 2.0 Camp: Transparency and a Lone Star Legislator

The Texas Gov 2.0 Camp has been happening yesterday and today and I was lucky enough to be on an email string where I learned from Steven Polunsky, Director of the Senate Committee on Business and Commerce for (Texas State) Senator John Carona that they are engaged in some innovative transparency initiatives in the Texas state legislature. Below is a quick interview with Steven – great notes and insights for other state (and Federal!) legislative communications folks:

1 – You mentioned some “transparency initiatives” in the Texas state legislature and that you are potentially “in the forefront.” Can you tell me more about these initiatives?

Under the direction of State Senator John Carona, in his role as Chairman of the Committee on Business & Commerce, we are working in coordination with other offices to give people access to information so they can form opinions and engage in the process. Strategies include making hearing-related agendas, video, news articles, and other information available together in a timely fashion, giving attention to the information timeline (how and when it is acquired, reviewed, uploaded or otherwise made available, and notice given), letting the individual decide how and when to get notification (Twitter, Facebook, website visit, opt-in email with strong privacy protections, QR codes and URLs on documents), providing multiple feedback mechanisms, and helping potential witnesses with tips on testimony.

2 – What are the biggest challenges to transparency in a state legislature? How do they compare or contrast to the issues faced by Congress?

Like Congress:

• Information – testimony, reports, studies – sits in file cabinets, available to the public only if they know it exists, and how and where to access it.

• Public Information Act/Freedom of Information considerations

• Management of multiple media: phone and in-person, US Mail – to district office, Capitol office, other offices; Member email account(s), Email forms on websites, campaign websites, Facebook pages, Twitter (Replies, DMs, off-site tweets), YouTube, Blogs, other internet-based approaches

• Public awareness/outreach

• Limited staffing and budget

State Level Issues:

• Clear separation of state business and non-state business

• Open Meetings Act, “Walking Quorums,” use of tweets to signal votes

3 – You work for Senator Carona and said he was nominated for a Statesman Social Media Award. What has he been doing to better engage with constituents – not only as a vehicle to share information, but to really learn and respond to the needs of citizens?

From the nomination: “Texas Senator John Carona’s use of Posterous and social media should serve as an inspiration to any elected official. Carona regularly posts timely information providing transparency about his daily activities, facilitating an ongoing dialogue with his constituents. Anyone visiting the site can opt in for an email notification whenever a new post is added, and view previous posted information without having to ask for it. The privacy policy is clearly stated, tips on how to give legislative testimony are shared, and contact information is provided for those seeking more details.” Comments added to the nomination by constituents are uniformly positive. Here’s the link: http://www.statesman.com/marketing/texas-social-media-awards-nomination-1052437.html?NomID=108

4 – Tell me more about the Committee Blog – what are some of the early signs of success in terms of citizen engagement?

The blog, http://bandc.posterous.com, has clocked over 8000 site views. We believe its use is reducing the repetitive requests by phone or other methods for documents or information now available on the blog. We have received positive feedback on the information delivered and the clean design (Headline by Airspace Workshop for Posterous).

5 – What’s next on the horizon? How else do you plan to sustain your status “in the forefront” of transparency and citizen engagement?

A Legislative hearing potentially has 5 distinct audiences: the Legislators, the Witnesses, the Public in the hearing room, the Public at home, and the Media. Senator Carona has directed staff to use available technology to involve all the audiences in the process. Legislators and the Public are beginning to show up with iPads and similar devices, bringing the power of the Internet into the hearing room and challenging us to enable a paperless hearing for those wishing to go fully electronic. We are experimenting with different delivery methods to help citizens get involved, such as this early-stage video on how to testify: http://www.xtranormal.com/watch/6987097/

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