How Public Comment Periods have Changed Recent History And how They Will Continue to Change History

Dominick Montgomery
August 28, 2020

Most of the public attention paid to lawmaking falls on large government bodies and the charismatic, sometimes controversial people who are their members. Open debate between politicians and policy-makers is flashy, and makes for entertaining TV programming, and it's true that its effects can be far reaching.

Still, it's only one part of the rule making process. Especially in times where so many major issues in society are demanding the attention and action of its citizens, it can be easy to forget the more humble methods of making and affecting policy. Getting caught up in the drama of newsworthy politics can distract from the ways in which even a single citizen can change the way an entire country is run.

Amid the Pandemic, Citizens Voices are Still Heard

All across America, public comment software is still in use to collect feedback concerning proposed policy changes, both those directly related to the pandemic, and those concerning other issues.

In Montana, Governor Steve Bullock requested public comments to help decide how coronavirus relief money for the state would be used. The request generated 1,426 public comments, meaning that less than one seventh of a percent of the state's total population responded. Despite that, the information was enough to guide the use of the relief funds, revealing that citizens were primarily concerned with business relief, health and social services, and relief for the tourism industry.

Public comment periods don't need to see hundreds of thousands or comments to help improve policy. Even a small sample of the population can provide invaluable information to ensure that the actions of a government body are in harmony with the needs of the population it serves.

The Importance of Accessibility

That said, for democracy to be most effective, every citizen needs to have the opportunity to make their thoughts known, even if not everyone takes that opportunity. Certain comment procedures aren't always equally accessible to all the citizens concerned. In person methods like town halls and open forums are difficult for those who work long hours to attend, and methods requiring comments to be physically mailed in can consume time and money that disadvantaged individuals might be reserving for other uses.

For certain public comment periods, this is less of an issue. For example, the policy surrounding traveling by air with service animals will affect relatively few people. Other comment periods will have much greater effect, and those are the ones that most necessitate an accessible method of submitting comments.

One such important public comment period that's active at the time of writing is that surrounding new policy in response to the recent and ongoing national conversation on police brutality. The Chicago Police Department has drafted new guidelines on use of force in general, as well as the use of specific tactical options such as pepper spray and tasers. They're currently soliciting public comment on these new policies so that they can be updated in the future to more closely align with what the citizens of Chicago want.

The stated objective of this comment period is to build a safer Chicago and "grow trust within the communities we [the police department] serve." It's an admirable goal, but it will only be possible if all the citizens of Chicago are aware of the opportunity to comment, and are able to do so if they choose. The communities most in need of police reform have often been left out of the lawmaking process one way or another, and any attempt at reform that fails to include them is ill-conceived. Fortunately, the CPD accepts online comments, which makes the submission and organization of comments much more efficient than other methods, and is considerably more accessible than more traditional styles of public comment period.

How Public Comments are Changing America

Chicago isn't the only city to request citizen input on the subject of police reform. Following the death of George Floyd and subsequent calls for policy change, lawmakers across America have realized that acting without consulting the people that they govern will only make things worse. Minneapolis, the site of Floyd's death and of many of the protests that followed, has recently collected public comments on their plan to replace the city's police force with a department more generally focused on public safety. The process is only just beginning, and many aspects of the plan are still taking shape. With an effective comment management, those ideas will be shaped by a wide variety of voices in the community, and better fit the needs of the city as a whole.

Of course, those systems were influencing policy in America long before the recent protests over police violence or the pandemic, and they will continue to do so for years to come. Some of the first comment periods in America concerned the management of national parks and other wilderness areas, and to this day, comment periods are used to help guide environmental policy.

Small changes like redefining the word "habitat" for the Fish and Wildlife Service combine with larger actions, such as the Clean Vehicles Act, to nurture a cleaner and more environmentally friendly country. Comment periods associated with environmental legislation have been used by citizens not just to pick out flaws in the proposed rules, but often to push state or federal governments to take more extreme action and set more ambitious goals. This sort of cooperation doesn't just benefit citizens by allowing them to voice their opinions, but also connects government bodies to experts on the subject of legislation, giving them access to information that can help inform effective policy.

The Future of Public Comments

As communication technology becomes more advanced, the toolbelt of democracy expands. Since the drafting of the US constitution, America has been slowly refining its system of government and involving more and more of its people in the process of governing. If these tools are used well, then the citizens of America and other countries around the world might be able to look forward to a future in which their needs are better served by the governments that support them.

The input of the public through comment periods, town halls, and other methods will be a driving factor in making current democratic systems more effective and inclusive. In order to get that input, the systems that support comment periods must be well designed and easy to use, both for governments and citizens. These kinds of digital tools already exist, and continue to be developed so that people's voices can be heard even more clearly.