Kobza: The place for public comments

Government needs both old and new modes of communication to truly tap the wisdom of the crowd.

As the new administration takes shape, a debate has begun over the role social media will play — or should play — in public participation processes. There is rising tension and confusion over the appropriate place for social media alongside traditional public comment.

Both sides have their vocal proponents, but in my view, Government 2.0 needs both. Each has its purpose.

“Public comment” is a term of art — a legal standard that requires comments to be relevant, free of profanity, and offered with full attribution and identity. Public comments are a matter of public record and are to be shared as a matter of law. Think of it as a modern version of a town-hall meeting, a formalized process that requires participants to provide their names and places of residency, and speak on-point while contributing informed input.

The rising acceptance of social media does not alter this historic governmental process. As observed by Cass Sunstein in “Infotopia: How Many Minds Produce Knowledge,” the purpose of public comment is not to engage in social interaction but rather to allow citizens the opportunity to share an opinion, one that is not influenced by social fear, to advise their representatives. In return, decision-makers benefit from the opportunity to discover that one good — and perhaps dissident — idea that might shape new solution possibilities.

Social media is different. The perceived value of social media is in part based on peer-to-peer communication that promotes the sharing of ideas. Social networks are designed to facilitate social exchanges that lead to collaborative problem solving and often unplanned or unexpected responses. Ideas are built collectively one meme at a time.

Consider the widely publicized Citizen's Briefing Book, a compilation of citizen input regarding the issues facing our nation. The response was impressive. More than 70,000 people participated, casting half a million votes on suggestions and generating tens of thousands of ideas, according to President Barack Obama’s Change.gov site.

The Citizen's Briefing Book demonstrates that many people find the discussion and sharing of ideas to be highly relevant — enough so to move them to contribute and participate in a way that traditional public comment processes have not. With a lack of transparency and failed expectations, public comment processes have not delivered. One might argue that social media solves these problems.

So, public comment and social media have their place in Gov 2.0. If we truly believe that maximizing citizen engagement is a worthy goal, it follows that as government, we have to do both.

We must provide a means for engagement that enables simple citizen-to-government communication. On the other hand, peer-to-peer communication through the use of social media will enable government agencies to take advantage of the value inherent in citizen networks and will welcome even more citizens into the process.

Government will best meet rising citizen expectations by making sharp, thoughtful distinctions between the old tried and tested public comment and the new promising world of social media. But there is a difference.

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