About 365 people participate in forums on public school funding
For two weeks in February, the New York City Council did what few governments have done in the Information Age: It held public hearings online.
"This is astounding," said Steven Clift, an international expert on e-democracy. "I can [count] on one hand the number of online public hearings that I know of in the United States in the last five years."
Nearly 200 New Yorkers participated in the online forums to discuss how officials should spend billions of dollars in new funding for the city's public schools. Another 165 individuals sent e-mail messages with their comments to the forums' moderator.
Barry Joseph, associate director of the Online Leadership Program for the nonprofit Global Kids, said the participants' comments differ from discussion postings on Web sites.
"For many, a posting might just be 'I agree' or [it might be] really off-topic," he said. "In this case, I'm talking about 365 very grounded, substantive posts that people spent a considerable amount of time not only writing but often giving footnotes at the bottom about what books and articles they're referring to to back it up."
Joseph's organization provided the online platform and supervised the site.
"This is an opportunity that people really took advantage of because they knew that elected officials were listening," he added.
'Your Voice, Your Schools'
Last November, after a long fight, a New York court ruled that the state legislature must give the city an additional $5.6 billion during the next four years.
The online hearings — dubbed "Your Voice, Your Schools" — were held Feb. 1 to Feb. 15 to help a special 13-member Commission on the Campaign for Fiscal Equity prepare recommendations for the city council on how the money should be spent.
In the online forums, participants
focused on six areas: class and school size; teacher retention, recruitment and quality; after-school programs; pre-kindergarten programs; facilities and technology; and school accountability. To participate, New Yorkers had to provide their names; e-mail addresses; age, gender and ethnicity data; and brief background information.
Andrew Rasiej, founder and chairman of Making Opportunities for Upgrading Schools and Education, said he suggested the idea to the commission's executive director, Tony Alvarado, three weeks before the online hearings were held. He told Alvarado it might be easier for citizens to submit online comments than show up at a hearing at a specific time. He said most of the eight public hearings on the matter were not well attended.
"It's one of the biggest challenges in city government to get the word out that public hearings are happening and then get people to come on the date they're happening and being able to participate," Rasiej said. "So this was a fairly simple way to expand the reach of the public hearing through an electronic method."
In this situation, Clift said concerns about excluding people who don't have access to computers are not an issue.
In a sense, the way most municipal public hearings are conducted is "much more discriminatory against people who have jobs, people who have kids or the disabled," he said. "All these things are things that make it difficult if you have to go to a certain place."
Americans have become complacent and unimaginative about using online tools, he said. The United States is about four or five years behind Europe and Canada in terms of governments taking such issues seriously.
E-rulemaking is the one area in which the United States has had some significant activity, though it's designed to get expert input within a framework that has already been politically adopted, he added.
"We're used to things the way they've been for 100 years, and the citizens aren't clamoring for it," Clift said. "It's not that they're against them, they just haven't thought about it. ... More citizens need to ask their government to give them anytime, anywhere options for viable public input."
Joseph said New York's online hearings were rich in discussions across the
spectrum of issues during the relatively short two-week period. Global Kids usually conducts such forums over four weeks.
The technique used in the online public hearings is called small-group dialogues. Instead of putting 1,000 people in a giant discussion space, Joseph said, you put groups of 50, say, in one room. That way the groups are small enough to have good give-and-take discussions.
Two Global Kids representatives monitored each group's discussion and encouraged participants to discuss all the areas the commission was interested in exploring. But the groups were also allowed to discuss their concerns about other topics.
"I think it showed that ...for gaining the opinions of people in the public about important public policy issues that are being decided by elected officials, it's an excellent model," Joseph said.
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