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Crowdsourcing legislation update

Back in October, I noted an effort by the Texas Senate Committee on Business and Commerce, which is presided over by state Sen. John Carona, to crowdsource its upcoming hearings on payday lending. The Statesman has a report on how things have gone so far.

Source: Noise To Signal

Several times in recent months, the Senate panel and the Joint Committee on Oversight of Higher Education Governance, Excellence and Transparency have used Twitter, live blogs and other online tools to try to broaden citizen involvement.

“I absolutely love it,” said state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, chairwoman of the Senate Higher Education Committee and a co-chair of the joint committee. “We don’t make as many copies as we used to, and that saves money, because it’s all online in real time. People can participate from any point in the state without coming to Austin, and it’s much easier for them to be involved.”

For Zaffirini and other lawmakers, a switch to using online meeting software, streaming video and other Internet options has allowed them to avoid some travel expenses and to circulate documents and draft proposals without incurring copying charges.

A live blog of a meeting earlier this month of the Senate Business and Commerce Committee got nearly 1,000 hits — a record, said committee director Steven Polunsky.

In the online blogs, updates about testimony, research materials and written testimony by witnesses are posted instantly.

Viewers can watch and submit their feedback or ask questions. The process is more interactive than simply streaming video of the hearing online.

To assist tech-savvy Texans who attend the Capitol hearings, the Senate panel is now posting QR codes — those box-shaped matrix barcodes used widely by businesses — to allow smartphone users to quickly find the committee’s website.

That lets people in the audience at the hearing participate, as well, as the session is under way.

Polunsky said the changes have been “very well received” by the public.

Sounds good so far. As long as this is being used as an enhancement to hearings and not as a substitute for having them in other parts of the state, it’s all good. I’d say the logical next steps are to incorporate Skype or some other webcam technology and allow remote testimony, and to take questions from the feedback given during the hearings. I’m sure this will evolve in ways none of us currently anticipate, and that’s fine. The whole idea is to improve and build on what we currently do. More information, and more ways to access it effectively, are good things.

I expressed my concerns about this in that previous post. Some unnamed critics express theirs in this story:

Though proponents of online legislating predict it could play a larger role when the Legislature reconvenes in 2013, questions remain about just how available the information might be to many Texans who don’t have the time to sit at a computer and monitor or participate in a hearing or who might not use Twitter or even have a computer.

Um, just how available is any of this information now to Texans who don’t have a computer? I don’t recall seeing any newspaper stories about either of the hearings referenced in this story. Given the cutbacks in the news industry and the sharp reduction of actual reporters filing actual stories from the Lege, the only way anyone would know anything about this stuff is online. Like I said, unless this is used to substitute Austin-based hearings for hearings that would have been held elsewhere in the state, it’s an enhancement to what we have now. If we’re really worried about disconnected people being left behind, let’s work on ensuring there are fewer disconnected people.

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4 Comments

  1. Thank you for the kind comments. Senator John Carona, Chair of the Committee on Business & Commerce, is committed to using technology to increase the transparency of government. We are tracking those uses at http://bandc.posterous.com/pages/technology-initatives . To complete the feedback loop – the “take questions from feedback given during the hearings” you mentioned – we started at our last hearing having Twitter running on a monitor facing the Committee members (actually, Twitterfall.com) set to the hashtag we put in the hearing posting. Legislators can see what people are tweeting and react however they choose to. We used #BandC but there are also some others using that one, so we are looking at changing, maybe #TxLegeBandC but I’m open to suggestions.

    For the person concerned about the digital divide, those whose Internet access is limited, we share that concern. One idea we are working on is a software process that allows someone to make a phone call to a number that converts the message into a tweet. Of course, as you point out, this only augments the existing ability anyone has to contact their Legislators by phone, letter, or in person.

    We are looking for ways to use Skype or Google Plus Hangouts or something similar, but the chances of success in a formal hearing appear somewhat limited by several factors. There are technological limitations — anything we implement, we also need to be able to hook up, troubleshoot and fix on the fly, and we still have a learning curve on just the user interface on some of these things, much less the technical aspects. Another is the need to weigh the effect of each piece on compliance with open meetings and public information/open records laws. For one example, let’s say a Senator reacts to something he sees on the Twitter feed we are providing. Do I need to print out all the day’s tweets and preserve them with the hearing record? Another is that the Texas Government Code (Section 301.022) requires witnesses to testify under oath, which is done by submitting a witness affirmation form in person. The main benefit of that process is that the form, including the person’s name, address, and affiliation if any, is part of the public record and available for inspection by anyone. The law allows the oath to be waived but I am not aware of any time that has ever been done, or why it would outweigh the public interest in having the form for the record to do so. Having the witness swear orally or fill out the form ahead of time and submit it raises several difficulties, not the least of which is a possible electronic logjam at the hearing. We have held hearings where hundreds of people have testified in person, which can be done with some flexibility when everyone is in the room, I’m not sure how we would do that remotely in a formal hearing setting. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t going to try. We are in the planning stages on a testbed event that might include legislators but would stop short of a formal legislative hearing, that would include remote testimony and possibly test some other innovations.

    We are open to any thoughts you or your readers might have. Email reaches us at bc@senate.state.tx.us .

    Steven Polunsky, Committee Director
    Texas Senate Committee on Business & Commerce

  2. Thanks for the feedback. I appreciate your innovative efforts. There’s a lot of potential here to make government more open and responsive, and we will all benefit from that.l

  3. Thanks for sharing my cartoon with your readers, Charles – I’m glad it was apt!

    And I appreciate your comments about the digital divide. It’s an important issue – but I can’t help but feel it’s often raised less because people are genuinely interested in tackling it, and more because they’re suspicious of online engagement. In planning sessions and board meetings, I keep hearing it from folks who raise no objections to print campaigns (literacy issues?), television ads (which demographics are we missing?) and evening public meetings (access for parents who can’t afford babysitters?).

    But let’s take those objections at face value. And let’s take them as a call both to tackle online access issues, and to provide open engagement across several channels, so people can participate in the way that works best for them… and not the way that’s the least challenging to established practices.

  4. By the way, when I say “it’s often raised less because people are genuinely interested in tackling it, and more because they’re suspicious of online engagement,” I’m not referring to the many individuals and organizations who are actively working on digital divide issues. I mean the kind of people who cast about for any reason to object to an online initiative.

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