(this idea was also submitted to Google's "Project 10 to the 100" at www.project10tothe100.com/)
More background on this idea is available at:
WHAT ONE SENTENCE BEST DESCRIBES THIS IDEA?
This idea improves upon the common notion of a "public hearing" by taking it "to scale" and capturing the opinions of all participants anywhere they meet.
DESCRIBE THE IDEA IN MORE DEPTH.
Using a "distributed" public hearing methodology, more people can participate, more opinions can be collected, and more nuanced consensus can be revealed than is evidenced at any typical public hearing. Distributed public hearings scale more easily to larger systems of public participation.
This new idea for distributing public hearings -- called the "Citizen Councilor Network" -- is CURRENTLY BEING MODELED in King County, Washington. The people of King County recognize that many have difficulty participating meaningfully in government processes that rely primarily on public hearings held at locations that are often distant from their residences or workplaces or held at inconvenient times, and so petitioned for the enactment of Initiative 24 in 2007.
The focus of the Citizen Councilor Network, as it is currently modeled (but which could be easily scaled up or down in size), is its "Countywide Community Forums." Each forum is a small face-to-face meeting of four to twelve self-selected and registered "Citizen Councilors." The whole process is impartially overseen by the County Auditor. Reports are tabulated and analyzed by citizen volunteers and results are again reviewed by the auditor for fair and accurate interpretation. The entire process RECEIVES NO TAX DOLLARS and is FUNDED ENTIRELY BY DONATIONS by participants and civic-minded businesses and foundations: a partnership of private, nonprofit, and government organizations.
WHAT PROBLEM OR ISSUES DOES THIS IDEA ADDRESS?
This idea addresses the "problem of scale" when trying to increase civic engagement in deliberative systems such as government.
Ultimately, it is not physically possible for ALL people to meet face-to-face at one time and place to talk together. This is why scientific polling was developed -- to get a sense of everyone's opinion without having to talk, literally, to every one.
But scientific polls, while mathematically meaningful and informative, do not meet the emotional needs of people to constructively contribute their own opinions and ideas in a representative democracy -- this is why we vote.
Only a distributed system (such as voting and this Citizen Councilor Network) -- and not a centralized system (such as regular public meetings) -- can ever hope to offer universal opportunities for civic engagement on a local, regional, and national scale.
All opinions collected by a Citizen Councilor Network would be measured by direct survey of each participant. All measured opinions are 100% accurate for the participants as a whole, but because the participants are "self-selected" and not randomly chosen, the results would only be meaningful as a measure for those who participated. But, like voting itself, our decisions are shaped by those who contribute their voices and act on the results. The opinions of the participants will help shape the public discourse until a final, and binding, vote of all the people is eventually conducted.