Digital Public Participation in the Pandemic And what We can Learn from it for the Future

Dominick Montgomery
July 8, 2020

Since the birth of our nation, the United States has had to continuously adapt to maintain a true democracy and mold our laws around many different issues. When the constitution was first written, voting rights only included a small class of land-owning free men. But today almost all adults in the country can vote. The US has tacked voting fraud and moved on from political machines that were common through the gilded age.

But still today we must adapt to grow to meet a host of similar issues. Some have gotten plenty of press, like gerrymandering and regulations designed to limit certain demographics' access to the polls. Other, less dramatic problems, for example the issue of citizen input on more specific regulations, haven't seen as much discussion.

According to data collected by NCR, 81% of those surveyed reported that they had not in any way contacted a representative of their local government in the past year. 76% reported that they had not attended any sort of public meeting such as a town hall. This data was amalgamated from surveys in 200 communities, and in certain municipalities, the statistics are even more disheartening.

While it would be easy to blame the low rates of participation on laziness or apathy, the truth of the matter is that the traditional avenues allowing citizens to provide input on how they are governed can be difficult to access and complicated to use. Many citizens may not even be aware that such avenues exist.

Not only are methods like letter or postcard writing and in-person meetings difficult for some citizens to make use of, but they can also make the organization and use of comments difficult and expensive for government agencies. Comments can slip through the cracks and be lost forever, and sorting them according to specific qualities is labor intensive.

One of the longest standing and most successful of those analog methods for public engagement is that which the forest service employs. In a Grist article on the public comment period process, the National Forest Service one received hundreds of thousands of postcards every time an important environmental issue was raised. Now, 90% of the comments they receive come via email.

Already, the advent of COVID-19 and the resulting quarantine has started to push our democracy online, though not necessarily for the same reasons as were listed above. Government reliance on physical meetings to get input from citizens has forced adaptations that may have a positive long-term effect on how our democracy functions.

Many local and state governments across not only the United States but the world have moved their citizen consultation methods online, but some found solutions with existing infrastructure. The Orange County Register mentions that in Montebello, citizens called in to a council meeting, and in Riverside, some even drove up to record videos at a camera that had been set up for that purpose.

Neither of those methods, though, turned out to be as popular as sending comments via email or submitting online forms. It's fortunate that websites like regulations.gov, which are specifically dedicated to helping citizens voice their concerns within a public comment period, existed before the outbreak. On their own, though, they're not enough.

It's for that reason that so many agencies and organizations have turned to services like zoom to hold meetings and open forums. Zoom in particular has done surprisingly well despite higher demands on its infrastructure than ever before, but doesn't afford government agencies the control that they would need to prevent bad-faith participation, i.e. "zoom bombing."

It's difficult to say how long the pandemic will last, so more effective systems may be developed for online public engagement, or the crisis may have subsided before they can be rolled out. If the latter is the case, then it would be a waste to allow the changes that have begun with the coronavirus to stop once the pandemic ends.

The benefits to digital public comment systems don't end with their increased accessibility and their immunity to unusual circumstances like the coronavirus crisis. A well designed system could help to address long-standing issues in our democracy and give more of a voice to underrepresented communities and people.

Data stored digitally, including public comments, can be fed into processing tools that will extract metadata that could be useful in governmental decision making. Data like how many people within a certain municipality are in favor of a tax increase to fund education, but also data on how many respondents mentioned teacher salaries in their comments. This sort of specific information could give policy makers incredible insight into the will of the people.

Throughout the twentieth and twenty first century, it's been rare to see a turnout of more than 60% of eligible voters for even a presidential election, and that figure drops to 50% for midterm elections. In decades past, there have been more practical challenges to increasing voter turnout, like citizens' difficulty in traveling to the polls. Those reasons no longer apply.

Now, with an internet penetration of 90% in America, it's difficult to justify low participation in government. Though presidential elections require voters to mail in ballots or visit locations in-person, digital public comment systems allow nearly all US citizens to have a direct input on government decisions that will affect their lives in some tangible way.

One possible reason for the relatively low usage of such systems is that they are difficult to navigate, and another is that many citizens are never exposed to them. The adaptations in government resulting from the coronavirus pandemic have begun to address both of those problems out of necessity: new systems must be especially user friendly to be widely adopted, and must be brought to the attention of potential users in order to be used at all.

It is the responsibility of the United States government to ensure that its citizens' voices are heard, and the work that has been done to make sure that still happens despite current circumstances has been amazing. The next step is to make sure the spirit of that work carries forward after circumstances change. Government bodies at every level must pursue innovative public commenting solutions that will allow more people than ever before to have input in government than ever before, and allow that input to be processed in such a way that it can actually be taken into account.