Civil use of the Net

July 27, 1998|By Neal R. Peirce

BOULDER, Colo. -- Here's an experiment in electronic democracy, small as a mustard seed today, almost certain to spread rapidly in the emerging Age of the Internet.

The idea: Supplement traditional public hearings with a 24-hour-a-day, facilitated, open-to-all-comers, online version.

As the Internet transforms government, driving it increasingly online, this may be one of the most ingenious, citizen-friendly applications yet.

Two pilot runs at official government online hearings, apparently the nation's first, have taken place just this year, both in Colorado and both administered by Alexia Parks, president of Digital Government Inc. in Boulder.

Just think about hearings via Internet and the dividends become apparent. Instead of having to show up at some set hour at a sometimes distant or inconvenient location, citizens are able, from their homes or offices (or maybe the local library), to drop in on the electronic hearing site at the hour of their choice. Hundreds, even thousands, can participate.

They have a chance to review, in peace, what others have said. They don't have to sit waiting for hours on hard seats while paid consultants try to slant the record for their clients.

Leveling the field

Electronically there is no peril of being shouted down by some ideological zealot. Make your argument, thoughtfully, and have it considered on its merits -- not on how well you're dressed or your age, race or level of rhetorical skill.

What citizens must be guaranteed, says Ms. Parks, is that the responsible government officials, just as in regular hearings, will review every comment received.

An online public hearing was commissioned by the Colorado Department of Transportation, anxious to get more public input from commuters and residents on a 20-mile-by-80-mile swath of land on the front range of the Rockies, running north from Denver to the Wyoming border. The area is threatened with gridlock in the next 15 years.

Another online hearing, potentially even more controversial, was posted for the U.S. Department of Energy. The issue: How to recycle, after cleanup, the 6,500-acre Rocky Flats site, a deactivated nuclear weapons facility 15 miles northwest of Denver.

Ms. Parks supervised each discussion, reviewing, within hours, all comments received. When citizens raised fresh questions, she quickly queried the appropriate experts and then posted their replies on the Internet.

In the four-month transportation hearing, city officials in Westminster noted that they had four station stops appropriate for commuter rail. That prompted Ms. Parks to contact the head of government affairs at Burlington Northern, which has tracks running through the area. The railroad submitted a reply so strongly positive about rail service that serious public support started to build.

The two online sites included objective, clear documentation on the issues at hand -- a way for anyone considering comments to understand the context of his or her electronic testimony. Ms. Parks kept adding new information, newspaper editorials or other relevant items.

The sites were also well-organized. Check out the transportation hearing site -- still online, although the comment period's ended, at www.votelink.com/nfr/ -- and you don't find just one big discussion. Instead, comments were invited under such specific topics as new freeways, growth/urban sprawl, commuter rail, biking and dangerous road conditions.

F.A.Q. section

The Rocky Flats discussion (www.votelink.com/rfr/) offered a crisply written F.A.Q. -- frequently asked questions -- section running from "Why did they stop making bomb parts?" to "Does it matter what the community wants?"

Citizens coming online at either site were invited to (but not required) to give their E-mail addresses -- a way they can be recontacted if hearings are reopened. And they had a choice of signing their comments or remaining anonymous.

Ms. Parks' toughest moment came when an anonymous participant posted a comment potentially libelous of Colorado Gov. Roy Romer. Her project manager in the state government wanted the item deleted. Ms. Parks hesitated just long enough to send urgent E-mails to a half-dozen confidants around America.

Within three hours they'd replied and she'd devised a solution: remove the offending message, delete its potentially libelous language, then put it back online with a note that all opinions are welcome -- but not potentially libelous material.

That incident was a real exception, says Ms. Parks. She's found that the overwhelming majority of electronic hearing participants appreciate the right to express their ideas and are civil and courteous -- quite unlike the "flaming" seen on some Internet "chat" lines.

With their reasoned tone in a decade of angry rhetoric and extremist talk shows, Internet hearings qualify both as elixir and a bright signal for the future.

Neal R. Peirce is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 7/27/98

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