Sunday, February 08, 2009

New kind of dialogue with state government

I'm shaking off the tragic metonymy in his title, but Rich Nafziger makes an interesting point here. Despite the Washington State legislature (not "Olympia" sucka) having one of the most open systems in terms of who gets to talk during a committee meeting (first come, first serve) the system still isn't perfect:

The fact of the matter that the public hearing process in Olympia could be improved. Citizens are unable to take time off of work to come down make their opinions. Meanwhile, lobbyist earning 7 figure incomes clutter the hearing dockets and roam the halls. This is broken.

Several committees piloted web dialogues in the past couple of sessions. In the online dialogues, committee chairs ask questions relevant to key bills and citizens can register online and comment on the bills and the ideas. The dialogues provide a string of a conversation where both legislators and the public can raise new ideas, ask each other questions and comment on each others' posts. Unlike newspaper online comments, the tone was always civil and constructive.
In my short experience with the few online forums the legislature sponsored (can't find the link now), I was impressed. The online committee hearings took place outside of session and covered more general topics instead of actual bills. I guess that's one reason the conversation, as Rich says, more constructive than a newspaper comment thread.

I've been toying around with an idea in my mind, a sort of super public comment tool for state government on down. Each level of government in Washington at some point has a need for public comment. It would be interesting to create a system online where a citizen could create a user profile using their voter registration (or some stand in for folks who aren't registered) and then see open public comment processes in the jurisdictions they reside in.

So, in my case, I'd see public comment for the city of Olympia, Thurston County, the local PUD and port and the state of Washington.

I'd be able to post comment to any of the open processes and either have it archived for whatever public official will review the comment or immediately accessible to other users so they could comment back on my comment.

Of course, normal rules like not being able to overuse the system (three comments a week, for example), not being rude and not using particular language, would apply.

For this system, the important thing would be to segregate people into public comment processes that they actually are involved in. So, keeping Kitsap residents from commeting on an interesting issue in Renton would be a priority.

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