FCC launches social media projects, but critic raps transparency shortcomings

Agency reaches out on Web, but electronic comments system 'antiquated'

The Federal Communications Commission has launched several new social media tools on the Web for more interactive dialogue with the public. However, a critic calls the projects misplaced priorities when the FCC’s official electronic public comment system falls short on transparency.

On Sept. 10, the commission said its chairman, Julius Genachowski, had posted his first online video blog, and the commission debuted an online Web dialogue that invited the public to comment on the commission's National Broadband Plan. The dialogue had generated 21 ideas and 192 votes by this afternoon.

Meanwhile, although the reaction to those developments was generally positive, Berin Michael Szoka, a senior fellow at the Progress and Freedom Foundation, said the FCC should make improvements to its official Electronic Comment Filing System (ECFS) a higher priority to allow greater accessibility to the public rather than establishing new Web sites for similar purposes.

Currently, the comment filing system contains about 10,000 public comments on the FCC’s broadband plan. Szoka described the system as "antiquated" and "horrendous" in its limited functionality.

“It seems pretty obvious that the top priority ought to be making official government documents available,” Szoka said today. “Unless you can make those comments accessible to the public, you essentially have no transparency. ”

Szoka said the EDFS is very difficult to use and of limited value because it cannot be readily searched. Limited searches are permitted by specific pre-defined categories, but it is a cumbersome process with many shortcomings. “The basic functionality is just horrendous. You cannot search the text of the [public] comments,” Szoka said. “It really shuts out the public from being able to access information.”

An FCC official today acknowledged that the system needs substantial improvement. However, he defended the new initiatives as having a short-term and immediate benefit.

“We are working on improvements to the [ECFS], but it is not a zero-sum game,” said Mark Wigfield, a spokesman for the FCC.

The Web dialogue “provides another way for public comment, and with great ease. The comments [collected in the Web dialogue] will be included in the record,” Wigfield said. “This is just providing another avenue and hopefully, in the not-too-distant future, the ECFS will be easier to use and easier to search.”

Art Brodsky, a spokesman for Public Knowledge, a nonprofit group that advocates citizen access to technologies, did not take issue with the FCC’s priorities.

“There is no reason to wait to start a Twitter account or a blog,” Brodsky said. “I think they recognized that and brought it up quickly. It is a good first step for them to modernize their face to the public."

The FCC has agreed to revamp the ECFS but it will take time to accomplish that, he added.“To start a Twitter account takes about five minutes; a blog is about 10 minutes,” Brodsky said. “To redesign a Web site is a more complex task.”

Although Genochowski scored points for being apparently the first FCC chairman to debut a blog, other federal agency executives have been actively blogging for a year or more.

Overall, the FCC is earning kudos for reaching new audiences on the Web. “We think it’s very promising to see the FCC reaching out beyond its traditional constituency,” said Amy Fuller Bennett, program associate with OpenTheGovernment.org.

However, it's too early to know how successful the FCC’s Web project will be. “In general, we are cautiously optimistic about the use of the Internet to engage citizen in the policy-making process," Bennett said. "The administration has launched a number of similar initiatives, but it is still too early to judge the results."

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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