I will be traveling to Canada to talk about legislative transparency at the GovMaker conference.
— RRPS-NB-SPRN (@RRPSNBSPRN) October 11, 2016
“You need to think through all the way to the end,” Polunsky cautions, “so that people feel not just that they had their say, but that they were listened to.”
Ross Ramsey interviews me for a Texas Tribune article about public testimony over the Internet.
by Ross Ramsey
At the direction of the Committee Chair, Senator John Carona, the Committee implemented a proof of concept to make state data more available and understandable using formats such as Google Fusion intensity maps. Our proof of concept interactive map showed permits issued by the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission on a county-level basis. Using data supplied by the TABC, the map provided county-level information on the types and numbers of permits issued and active. Developing the map required requesting and receiving the data, locating a polygon set that matched the county outlines, and creating and linking a Google Fusion table. The resulting map is no longer available. The Committee appreciates Matt Stiles for his help in this effort.
For others, it may be their first time in the Capitol, and they may not even know the questions they need to ask in order to get the most out of their presence and participation.
We created a looping video that ran before each hearing on monitors in the hearing room. This video answered questions like:
Note: This slideshow may run automatically, with animations, or it may require you to advance the slides manually.
In 2010, Congress passed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act to create the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB). This agency serves as a consolidated federal consumer watchdog over financial products. Its authority covers almost every consumer financial product or service in the market excluding insurance and securities.
CFPB has an active and laudable program to use technology in its efforts, building open source tools to protect Americans from unethical banking practices. The source codes for a variety of uses are available at https://github.com/cfpb.
Through its Technology and Innovation Fellowship, CFPB hopes to find talented people in software product development, cybersecurity, and data, whose ability to leverage technology will help make financial products and services work for consumers. Applications are due July 31, 2014 for the second round of fellowships, see http://www.consumerfinance.gov/jobs/technology-innovation-fellows/.
The Texas Senate Committee on Business and Commerce (Senator John Carona, Chair) also had an initiative to use technology to inform consumers. One aspect of that was a payday loan calculator, provided as a courtesy by Hugh Chou, well known on the Internet for his mortgage and finance calculators. Chou’s calculator requires three of four variables — loan amount, loan fees, duration of loan, and annual interest rate — and calculates the fourth variable.
Chou describes it as “I took my old “Find the Missing Value” calculator, and modified it a little so that now it is adapted more for the common payday or auto title loans where you pay a flat fee to receive an advance on your paycheck for a certain number of days.”
Note that there is disagreement about whether or not the annual interest rate/annual percentage rate (APR) is a reasonable measure. The industry believes APR is misleading because it is an annual measure where the term of a typical loan is two weeks, so it is not the actual loan interest rate. Consumer organizations dispute this interpretation.
WITH NEW TECHNOLOGIES, POLICY HEARINGS CAN SERVE MANY AUDIENCES AND PARTICIPANTS
Policymaking committees are subsets of larger official bodies such as state legislative chambers, the U.S. House or Senate, city councils, or public commissions. Drawn from the larger bodies, their members address specific administrative or policy issues and make recommendations about new legislation or ordinances and modifications of pending measures. Often, policymaking committees convene public hearings to further deliberations among members, gather information, and give public visibility to the issues at hand.
At first glance, policy hearings may seem to involve only the members of the panel and whoever happens to show up to the official session. That may once have been the case, but current information technologies have opened up many new possibilities to reach distinct audiences and sets of participants in various formats. Hearing materials and proceedings can now be communicated in various formats to panel members, attendees, and citizens watching from afar.
Serving Panelists Who Prefer Paper or Electronic Copies
Committee members who arrive at a hearing bring different levels of background and preparation. Formerly, preparatory materials were provided on paper, possibly in binders holding hefty volumes of news reports, articles, background analyses, and the texts of any actionable items in front of the panel. Today, however, many policy-formulating bodies are moving away from this paper-based approach, reducing the expense of purchasing, storing, reproducing, and disposing of physical copies. They are creating and distributing hearing documents electronically, using the devices now widely available to store and display documents in real time for “paperless hearings.” Current software allows electronic documents to be written on or marked up in much the same fashion as paper documents once were, so policymaking bodies can adapt their systems of record retention to include iterations of electronic documents.
A fully paperless approach has not yet arrived, however, because we are in a transitional period that requires accommodation for committee members who prefer the printed page and those who embrace the new electronic possibilities. The need to accommodate both types becomes more pronounced when certain committee members are not physically present for a hearing and have to participate by conference call, Skype, or watching the hearing on a screen. For some, physical copies may have to arrive by mail in advance, while others can use electronic copies as they also participate by electronic means.
Informing the People in the Room
Hearing attendees who are not committee members or staff tend to fall into three main categories – some of whom want announcements or paper handouts, and others of whom can use advance or on-the-spot electronic documents that can be inexpensively disseminated.
Welcoming Old and New Media Reporters
Reporters from “old media” – wire services, newspapers, radio and television stations – are likely to be accredited and familiar with how hearings unfold. They will want more access than the public usually gets in order to have the best camera angles, microphone placement, and posthearing interviews. To do their work, they may need and expect specialized equipment (such as multi-boxes and raised platforms).
“New media” refers to online-only electronic news generators, such as bloggers, podcasters, and online content providers. These kinds of news outlets are much harder to define without resorting to Internet searches or metric reports, but they often have a reach that exceeds traditional media and can get the word out very quickly. A committee holding a public hearing is well advised to prepare for – and accord the same courtesies to – new and old media reporters, even if traditional outlets get some priority because of established ties and routines.
Meeting Citizen Needs and Preferences
Many committees now stream their hearings over the Internet. While some hearings are provided only in audio or time-delayed formats, real-time video is widely available via the Internet or telephone and should be considered the desirable standard. Of course, hearings can also be archived to provide later access. When viewable versions are allowed, acoustics and visuals are paramount. Committee members should be easily recognizable; readable nameplates or superimposed names should be visible; and URLs offered for viewers who want to find more information about members.
At times, members of the public want to broadcast hearings themselves using handheld cameras and online services like Ustream. Such spontaneous live-streams can seem preferable for various reasons. Commentaries can be provided online; official sources may not be fully trusted; and certain audiences may want dedicated ways to view proceedings not available to all. Legislative committees and public commissions have an obligation to accommodate these citizen efforts, as long as they do not obstruct the rights of other legitimate audiences or participants. What is more, attention must be paid to the special needs of people with hearing, sight, or speech impairments. Currently available technologies make it readily possible to provide solutions, such as video captioning or set-ups for disabled witnesses to testify effectively.