It’s no secret that online commenting is declining in popularity. Sometimes, it feels like the only option we have to express our opinions is writing in a blog post. But public comment periods are essential for open discussion and feedback. They can provide an opportunity for citizens to share their thoughts on important issues and help to ensure that the democratic process is efficient and fair. But what about when online commenters turn into lynch mobs? How should public comment periods be designed? And more importantly, how do they adapt to changes in technology? This article discusses how public comment period should move towards digital public comment platforms.
- Moving Away From Traditional Web Forms
Online forms are notoriously difficult to complete properly and require users to enter information through cumbersome interfaces. This increases turn-around time, wastes valuable government resources and reduces the likelihood of submissions becoming accurate or useful. There has been extensive research on how people use and perceive web forms (for example, see Schulte 2010). So given these findings, there’s little doubt that traditional web forms are not the best way to collect data from citizens.
For this reason, most publicly funded agencies offer electronic submission systems. However, while these may appear convenient at first glance, they are often riddled with bugs and glitches, making them slow, inefficient, insecure, and error-prone. With a shift towards a digital public comment period, agencies could use technology and modern design practices to create user friendly, accessible, and secure electronic platforms to improve citizen participation and engagement.
- A New Era Of Citizen Engagement Online
While traditional methods of communication through social media (i.e., Facebook) and email are still widely used, recent reports indicate that the number of internet users who access news sites online is growing rapidly. In fact, according to NPD Group, 63% of adults in the United States use search engines weekly, while 34% check them daily, while the same report states that 50% of 18-24-year-olds visit social networks such as Facebook monthly.
Even though social media continues to hold great potential for citizen participation and public engagement, so does the internet itself. This presents a greater need for online comment forums and interactive platforms to provide timely and effective ways for citizens to express themselves to facilitate participation better.
- More Participation Means Better Representation:
According to a 2014 analysis by Pew Research Center, “Facebook generates 2 million comments per day, a 30 percent increase over 2011.” That said, the number of comments generated on Facebook has declined dramatically since late 2011 due largely to Facebook’s decision to restrict fake accounts and limit political advertising based on ad policies for foreign entities. Despite Facebook’s efforts to reduce politically motivated abuse, many remain concerned that Facebook’s current rules and capabilities are inadequate to mitigate voter suppression, harassment, and other harmful effects of disinformation campaigns.
Given this concern, some have suggested moving away from Facebook altogether and instead focusing on other platforms like Reddit, Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, and others to create more transparent, decentralized, and open venues where individuals can share their opinions freely (Cox et al. 2015).
- Increased Use Of Social Media & Technology:
The increased availability of free online tools such as SurveyMonkey, CrowdFlower, and Google Forms has made it easier than ever before to conduct surveys online, thus drastically reducing costs and increasing the rate of response. These survey tools are also designed in an easy-to-follow format that makes responding quick and efficient; however, they come with drawbacks. Some users lack basic computer skills, making them unable to navigate the system. Others find it frustrating to fill out long questionnaires without skipping questions that don’t apply easily, and yet others get bored after completing multiple questionnaires.
Moreover, unlike a traditional method of collecting data, the ease of using online forms does mean that data entered via those technologies are less likely to be accurate or complete due to respondents’ inability to proofread what they’ve typed in. The latter issue could become especially detrimental if the questions asked are serious in nature and require an exhaustive amount of information by someone who’s not accustomed to filling out lengthy forms.
Nevertheless, there is no denying that these technologies can serve a very valuable purpose when properly utilized. According to Census Bureau figures, 36% of Americans ages 16+ own smartphones and 58% own a tablet device. A majority of U.S. households now subscribe to at least one form of streaming media services such as Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video, etc., further indicating that technology usage is becoming increasingly pervasive in all aspects of society. This shows how public comment period technology may be able to provide democratic legitimacy to controversial issues in ways that were previously impossible.
- Increased Accessibility & Efficiency
Increased accessibility to digital tools has led to improved efficiency in gathering data and therefore reduced costs associated with collecting data. With the cost savings accrued through online questionnaire systems, organizations can afford to hire large teams of trained professionals to go door-to-door and collect data in person rather than pay for postage, printing, and other expenses required to gather data via mail. As a result, census takers and pollsters have found themselves entering homes and offices throughout America at all hours of the day and night. In fact, according to the United States Conference of Mayors, municipal governments across the nation spend millions annually on “census activities” alone. While this method is still used today, cities and states are beginning to adopt digital methods to save time and money spent on fieldwork.
There are many advantages to doing your research digitally, including the ability to create customized versions of your survey for specific groups (for example, high-income demographics), reduce potential biases because you are avoiding asking sensitive topics about race, religion, sexual orientation, political leanings, etc., as well as being able to take advantage of new technological platforms that allow for real-time feedback and automated follow up campaigns.
However, there are still some disadvantages to utilizing these new forms of communication and data collection. For instance, while it is possible to make most of these forms accessible to blind and visually impaired individuals, they are rarely completely accessible since many do not understand the benefits of using audio cues and symbols instead of visual ones. Another drawback is that people often dislike receiving unsolicited surveys through email or text messages. They feel like this type of survey is invasive and creates an uncomfortable feeling that makes them reluctant to answer any subsequent requests.
Also, the use of social media sites, such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Reddit, Snapchat, Tumblr, Vine, Google+, and countless others, poses another major obstacle, mainly that members of these communities tend to be quite private unless explicitly asked to share certain content, creating a risk of exposure to unwanted scrutiny. Even though social networks can be beneficial in reaching larger numbers of people more quickly, there are significant risks involved in terms of privacy. Therefore, it is important to consider who will access your personal information if a problem arises.
In conclusion, public comment periods should move towards digital platforms, but many problems exist. Some issues are legal, while others are ethical concerns. It would take both a cultural shift within government agencies and the public engagement to overcome some of the challenges involved in moving forward with these types of initiatives. However, there are certain areas where we could begin by adopting these technologies. As technology advances, we must remember that so does our need to protect individual rights and privacy. There must be an open dialogue between government and society to combat these threats, which is exactly what public comment periods are designed to achieve.