BLOG POST

Engaging with government, even as we’re physically distant

,

In the year of coronavirus, government decisions are impacting our daily lives more directly than at any time in recent memory. At the same time, our ability to stay involved in those decisions is diminished. Not only is it harder than ever to find time and energy to devote to anything beyond staying healthy and keeping the refrigerator stocked; it’s also the case that we can no longer safely attend in-person public meetings.

The good news is, government can adapt. Policymakers at the local, state and federal levels have two tools at their disposal: delaying non-urgent decisions, and ensuring remote access.

For policy decisions that are not urgent - for example, approving construction projects that won’t move forward until the crisis has passed - government officials can simply suspend the decision-making process. Agencies in states including New York, Michigan and North Carolina have already done so.

If a decision isn’t urgent, it’s reasonable to delay it. But some public officials are still operating with a business-as-usual attitude. For example, the Trump Administration’s Department of the Interior (DOI) is barreling ahead with auctions for oil and gas land, and regulatory revisions concerning wildlife protections. According to E&E News, the DOI and its agencies “have more than 20 public comment periods set to expire within the next 30 days, covering a wide range from reclassifying the humpback chub from an endangered to a threatened species to a proposed Gulf of Mexico outer continental shelf oil and gas lease sale.” 

But! In some cases, delaying the process of policymaking or governing is not an option. In those cases, government officials should prioritize giving the public the ability to engage with the process from home. 

This is critical both to give the public a say, and to avoid - or avoid the appearance of - anything nefarious. For example, the New York Times wrote that in Waterville, Maine, the city solicitor revealed that “a new panel formed to address the coronavirus had been illegally meeting in secret and making decisions, including to suspend the city's plastic bag ban.” Not a great look.

Elsewhere, however, policymakers have created remote access to meetings and hearings, and given constituents new ways to share feedback. These examples have provided lessons to follow:

  • In Texas, virtual access laws include several smart standards to follow: at least 72 hours written online notice for public meetings; free phone and video access; agendas published online before meetings begin; two-way communication by audio or video; and recordings published online after the meeting is finished. 

  • Providing virtual access to meetings may be easier at the state and federal levels than for county and local governments, where resources are more limited. But that shouldn’t mean that the public is left out of the process. While states should provide funding and technical assistance where needed, some local governments may also be able to turn to local organizations for help - as in Bedford County, Virginia, where Liberty University streamscounty meetings online. 

  • Public comments submitted online are an important way for people to make their thoughts on new policies or projects part of the public record. In light of the current crisis, some public agencies - like the Oregon Transportation Commission - have opened up some projects for online comments for the first time. And the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts, is now accepting public comments through Zoom teleconferencing software, and has posted instructions for commenting online.

The transition to online public participation is not always smooth, and more work must still be done to ensure that new virtual systems provide adequate levels of service. The Times reported that in Rhode Island, Facebook video streaming froze during meetings, frustrating the people trying to watch Board of Election meetings. But overall, citizens need - and appreciate - the ability to participate. 

Still, big questions remain. Who’s to say what’s urgent and what’s not? What systems do we need to ensure the public is sufficiently notified about upcoming meetings? What funding and technical resources do local and county governments need to maintain a high level of access? How will folks with limited internet access - particularly given library closures - stay involved and aware? 

It’s the job of citizens in a democracy to monitor government function in order to ensure that decisions are made that fully reflect the public interest. By working hard to keep the public involved, policymakers have a chance to not only meet the problems at hand, but also to create durable 21st-century systems that improve the public’s ability to engage. And that will improve our democracy for years to come.

Photo: Maryland GovPics via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)