Collaboration in Civic Spheres

Washington legislature adds online bill comment feature

by February 5th, 2013

Since it debuted last week, more than 850 Washingtonians have signed up to use a new feature on the state legislature’s Web site which allows registered users to comment directly to legislators on a bill’s merits from the bill history page rather than hunting around for a series of email addresses and having to go into a new window to send the emails. The pilot project will run through the 2013 legislative session, after which officials will evaluate its usefulness to lawmakers and the public. In the meantime, among the pending bills upon which you can comment are several which would further restrict disclosure of public records.

How to use the feature
Here’s how the bill comment feature works right now. Once you know the number of the pending bill on which you’d like to comment, go back to the legislature’s main “Bill Info” hub page and enter just the number of the bill into the box at the top titled, “Search By Bill Number,” and click the adjoining “Search” button to the right. Entering 1007 – for House Bill 1007 – you will land at a “bill history” page for the measure – which seeks to ensure loads of gravel and dirt in open-bed trucks are covered in order to limit damage to other vehicles. The page has links to the full text of the bill, a staff report and digest, a list of the sponsors, video of any committee hearings on it so far, what stage it’s at in the pathway to possible enactment, and on top, a “comment on this bill” button. Click on that, and you will be asked to register; then you can choose a position of for, against, or neutral; and add a comment for legislators to review.

The comments go into an internal database for legislators and staff. They can review comments only from constituents in their own district if they wish, or from all commenters in the state, or specific cities.

Because the project is just getting off the ground, there are some limitations to its features, functionality, and planned metrics.

Public face of feature opaque, not transparent
The comments are not “open” as on a news or blog web site, meaning that one commenter cannot see what another has written, or know what legislators can see about how many comments are received for or against a measure, and where the comments are from. As an engagement tool, its public face is almost entirely opaque rather than transparent.

And the metrics to be used to evaluate its success are somewhat murky at present. Gerry Sheehan, Staff Coordinator for the State of Washington’s Legislative Center, did say in a phone interview, “It costs money to create this and we will have to decide if it’s creating value for the members and the public.” That decision will be based on “the quality of the comments and their usefulness to legislators and the public,” he added. It’s not yet clear how the public would be able to evaluate the usefulness of the feature, although being able to see other comments, and being assured of getting replies to questions posed through the comment form, could be among the criteria.

It’s a bug, not a feature
There are still some technical issues to resolve. The comment button does appear on any bill history page for any current measure that is accessed through the legislature’s main Bill Info hub, as described above. But as this writing the comment feature does not appear on a more graphically plain version of the same page, which is accessed through the legislature’s current Bill Status compendium, such as this one for HB 1007.

Sheehan says that is to be fixed this week.

Give with one hand, take away with another?
The comment feature may please some who advocate broader and deeper possibilities for online engagement between constituents and legislators but it’s introduction coincides with tension between public bodies and transparency advocates over current legislation that would tighten the state’s open records laws.

For instance, HB 1128 would cap the dolalr value fo the amount of time a government agency spends responding to public records requests at 1 percent of its annual operations and maintenance budget; and would allow legal blockage of requests deemed to be harassing, intimidating, or retaliatory. SB 5577 on page 12, lines 1 through 6, would amend state law to bar from public disclosure any documents in ethics investigations of state employees.

To follow what legislation is being introduced in Olympia, constituents have several options at the legislature’s site. There is the afore-mentioned daily bill status compendium which provides direct links to bill history pages for each measure. You can also zero in on pending measures by topic, listed alphabetically. There is also a bill tracking system, for which you can sign up, to track measures as they advance through committee toward full votes on the floors of the respective chambers.

Software support and integration with the Legislature’s web site for the new comment feature is provided San Francisco-based Granicus, Inc., which also makes online document sharing systems for local governments.

Along with other state legislatures, the U.S. Congress has also been considering online tools to strengthen constituent ties. At the Congressional Facebook Hackathon last year federal legislators and staffers brainstormed about online transparency solutions including a repository of legislative text showing who made what changes when; crowd-sourced planning of committee hearing guests, questions and sub-topics; auto-updates on social media sites of lawmakers on how they voted on bills; Facebook message tabs on lawmaker Facebook pages tying in to their legislative email systems; and a constituent casework tracking portal.

RELATED: Public Data Ferret’s Washington State+Open Government archive

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