There is an epidemic of fake participation in American government. Fake participation occurs when governments seek the democratic legitimacy but not the accountability that comes with public participation. Fake participation allows politicians to say, "I gave you an opportunity to speak on this legislation and you didn't take it."
In the Hitchhikers Guide to the Universe, there are several great scenes with fake participation. They are funny because, for those of us with experience of government, they ring so true. Here is one of those scenes:
Mr Prosser: “But the plans were on display…”
Arthur: “On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them.”
Mr Prosser: “That’s the display department.”
Arthur: “With a torch.”
Mr Prosser: “Ah, well the lights had probably gone.”
Arthur: “So had the stairs.”
Mr Prosser: “But look, you found the notice didn’t you?”
Arthur: “Yes,” said Arthur, “yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying Beware of the Leopard.“
Fake participation is an element of the much larger and more troublesome phenomenon of fake democracy. Countries with 99% presidential re-election rates or very high legislative incumbent re-election rates are likely to have many fake democracy components. The U.S. is pretty good at limiting most types of fake democracy, if only because we have a genuine two-party system, but fake participation tends to be a sore spot, especially at the local level of government.
What steps can be done to identify fake participation? The key is to use enhanced public participation transparency to make fake participation more costly for public officials. What public officials seek to do, as simply a matter of common sense, is control public participation so that unfavorable public participation information becomes more costly for the general public to access than favorable public participation information. Here are a few reforms to limit such bias:
Disclose, as part of the web-based public meeting record, all official steps to publicize a meeting, including how much was spent, who spent it, and where and when it was spent. For example, tiny public meeting notice ads in newspaper classified sections should no longer be viewed as legally adequate (even if they are a significant source of revenue and thus government subsidy for our failing local newspapers).
Disclose, as part of the web-based public meeting record, which public officials invited a particular individual to represent the public on a particular committee and the press release or other official statement explaining why they chose that individual.
Disclose, as part of the web-based public meeting record, the written comments of the public meeting participants. The documents need to be in a searchable format, not, say, in a pdf format.
Disclose, as part of the web-based public meeting record, the exact method used for selecting public speakers; e.g., a copy of a blank signup sheet, the place of the signup sheet, the time at which it is publicly posted, the criterion by which the signup sheet is closed, the order of names taken from the signup sheet (e.g., first-come, first-serve), and the guidelines for submitting written comments.
Webcast and archive online all public meetings with public participants and allow the participants to attach their written testimony to the webcast/archive so the video is indexed and can easily be searched.
When federal and state governments require local public participation, such as public hearings, in order to receive grants (e.g., educational technology grants), include provisions such as the above to discourage fake participation.
This is just a preliminary list of policy recommendations. The key first step is to recognize how widespread and serious is the problem of fake participation. Fortunately, thanks to today's information technologies, public policies can readily be implemented to make fake participation more transparent and thus politically costly.
--J.H. Snider, President
For the author's recent work on related subjects, see:
Should the Public Meeting Enter the Information Age?, National Civic Review, Fall 2003
The Failure of E-Democracy, paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, August 2005
Would You Ask Turkeys to Mandate Thanksgiving? The Dismal Politics of Legislative Transparency, working paper prepared for the Shorenstein Center at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, Spring 2008 (published in the Journal of Information Technology & Politics, May 2009)