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Thursday, February 10, 2005

GRASSROOTS GOVERNMENT: Here Are Three Ways to Start It

How can the incredible communications tools made possible by the Internet be applied to government to make it more accountable, transparent and efficient? Can the Internet/Blogosphere transform government as it is already transforming the MSM? Is it possible blogs are the most powerful tool of self-government since the creation of the printing press?

I believe the answer to all three of these questions is yes. That is the passion and vision behind Tapscott's Copy Desk. But it's one thing to have a vision and something else entirely to find the practical means of bringing that vision to reality. And that is the goal of Tapscott's Copy Desk, to initiate and participate in a discussion of the practical means of encouraging and aiding the development and growth of Grassroots Government.

Here are three suggestions of areas where I believe blogs can be applied to the daily working of government. It would be great to get some discussion and comment going here on these ideas, especially if you have more ideas on how to make this happen:

* Post bills before Congress: Unless there is a national emergency, there is no reason Congress cannot post on the Web the full texts of all bills reported out of committee to the floor for final consideration at least 48 hours before voting. The Thomas system presently posts the text of bills when they are initially introduced but that is always different from what gets reported out of committee.

Putting the text of appropriations bills for 48 hours would be especially valuable. It took the Blogosphere about half that time to undress Dan Rather and CBS on the Rathergate forgeries. Putting the Blogosphere to work fisking appropriations bills - which are famous for couching the most outrageous examples of pork barrel spending projects in obscure language - almost certainly would provide a powerful incentive for Congress to clean up its act in this area. It would also encourage greater citizen awareness and participation in the legislative process and Lord knows more public attention would be a healthy thing for any Congress.

* Post the federal regulatory comment process: Federal agencies propose and promulgate thousands of new federal regulations - better known as "red tape" - every year. The process by which these regs are developed and commented upon by interested parties in industry and the general public is a relic of the pre-Internet/pre-PC era.

What typically happens is a bureaucratic department decides it's time to issue a new reg, so it drafts one and meets with representatives of the industry being regulated and its critics in the non-profit advocacy community. The revised draft reg is then published in the Code of Federal Regulation (CFR) for public comment for an initial period of 60 days.

If you happen to be a daily reader of the CFR (and please get professional help if you are!), you may be aware of the draft reg. More likely, the only way you know about it is if you are either part of the industry being regulated or are a participant at some level in the advocacy community concerned with that industry. Thus the comments that are submitted to the proposing agency always reflect primarily the concerns of the regulated and, depending upon which industry is involved, the critique or support of the self-appointed watchdogs of that industry.

The agency may or may not revise the proposed rule to account for the comments received during the comment period. The final draft is then published in the CFR, with a date certain by which the new reg becomes law, assuming nobody takes the agency to court to prevent that from occurring. This insular process is why most federal regulation represents the product of the collective efforts of the regulators and the regulated, usually to each other's mutual advantage. Yes, it happens "in public," but it's an "eyes wide shut" deal, as far as the general public is concerned because most of us have far better things to do than sit around reading the CFR to see what outrage is being perpetrated today.

Why not require regulatory agencies to instead post proposed regs on agency blogs which allow public comments by any interested party. The agency could then in real-time explain the rationale for its proposal, encourage a wider discussion of the pros and cons of the proposed reg, open itself to the possibility of better ideas coming out of the comment period and obtain the perspectives and expertise of a much wider range of commentators and interested parties. The result would be to open federal federal rule-making so that it is more truly a transparent and thus accountable process.

The analogy of the wisdom of crowds is especially relevant here: No single federal agency is as smart as the collective expertise, knowledge and skills of all the people and products in the affected industry. A blog-based rule-making process would provide an effective means of aggregating this "crowd" for the public benefit.

* Judicial proceedings: Wouldn't it be fascinating to be the proverbial fly on the wall in chambers when a federal or state court judge or panel of judges is debating a case? What might happen if the judge or panel used a blog to solicit additional commentary and expertise as it deliberates?

This may well be the least realistic or desirable application of the Internet to government in this posting. But there is a growing body of opinion that the federal judiciary needs to be opened up and made more transparent in its functioning. Blogs may be the way to accomplish this much-needed public policy goal.