Have you always wanted to give the government a piece of your mind? The opportunity to communicate directly with the powers that be in Washington may be as easy as signing on to a computer.
The federal Office of Management and Budget is sponsoring a National Electronic Open Meeting, where citizens are encouraged to speak their minds -- electronically. Libraries in Harford County and at the University of Maryland Baltimore County in Catonsville are two of three in Maryland offering free public access through their computer systems to the national meeting, which began on Monday and will continue through May 14.
The "meeting" actually is more of an electronic survey.
Federal officials are asking for citizen input on five different topics, all related to how government -- on the federal, state and local levels -- can use information and communications technology to improve its service to the public.
The meeting is being conducted strictly through electronic networks, including Internet and on-line services such as Prodigy and America Online.
But for those who don't subscribe to services, more than 350 public libraries, schools, offices and businesses across the country are offering free access during the two-week period.
"I think this all stems from the vice president's strong interest in making government information available electronically," said Bud Curnoles, a reference librarian at the A. O. Kuhn Library at UMBC.
He said that because Kuhn is a federal depository library frequented by users of government documents, the university believed it was important to make it a public access site.
Gaining access to the electronic meeting through UMBC is a little more complicated than gaining access through Harford's system, but it also allows participants a higher level of participation.
People who join the meeting there can leave comments but also can browse through "messages" or comments left by other participants. In effect, they will be able to respond to those comments with their own -- as with e-mail. They also can search by topic for comments on areas of specific interest.
Walk-in access in Harford County is available at all nine branch libraries and at the Harford Community College Library.
Computer owners with modems can "phone" into HOLLI, the Harford On-Line Library Information system, said Joe Van Meter, Harford's Computer Support Center manager.
"The intent was to give the average person who doesn't have access to government a way to participate," he said. "We wrote a very simple program in hopes of getting as much participation as possible."
Visitors to the library can join the meeting as easily as they use the library computer to locate a book. A simple menu of choices appears on the computer screen to guide users through the process of participating.
Once logged on to the "meeting," participants can read extensive background information on government in the electronic age and then type into the record their comments on one or more of five topics.
The topics are: services, including health care and emergency help; benefits, such as Medicare or food stamps; information, including the availability of government-printed documents; participatory democracy; and information technology.
Participants might want to make suggestions on how to electronically review their Social Security accounts or how to keep certain private documents private or make public documents more accessible.
"This was intended to be a free-form, give-your-opinion kind of thing," Mr. Van Meter said. "There's no limit to how much you can say. But it's a very rudimentary procedure. This is not a word processor. Most people will probably type a paragraph or two."
He said that by midweek "20 to 30 people had left messages" for federal officials through HOLLI.
Comments will be collected by the government and analyzed in a report to be published later in the year.
The only other Maryland library participating is the Southern Maryland Regional Library Association.
SPEAK YOUR MIND
People who own a personal computer and a modem can take part in an "electronic meeting" with the federal government on five topics. Here's how:
* Dial HOLLI, the Harford On-Line Library Information system, at 638-KNOW.
* Dial (800) 779-3272. Works at baud rates from 1,200 to 14,400, Even parity, 7 data bits, 1 stop bit, using ANSI terminal settings.
* If you have a direct Internet connection, telnet to fedworld.gov. If you're using a World Wide Web browser, the URL is http://meeting.fedworld.gov (may be very busy).
Those without a home computer can participate by visiting the A. O. Kuhn Library at UMBC or libraries in Harford County, including the one at Harford Community College.