Improving democracy through use of the Net

Push-based policy alerts and Web-based hearing oversight can help us take participatory government to the next level

I realize almost all of our elected officials have a Web site. But how often do you actually hear from them? Typically, you have to log on to see what they're up to, and if you're lucky, you're allowed to leave a comment.

When it comes to facilitating a more participatory form of government, the Internet has a lot more to offer than that. But to do so, it will likely take some prodding from non-pols like us to make sure the wheels get in motion.

[ Ensuring the legitimacy of elections is the first step to true democracy. See "Open source: How e-voting should be done" for a look at how IT can secure our voting systems. ]

My proposal is twofold. One, that congressman, senators, and even local officials solicit e-mail addresses from their constituents, and using those addresses, they should send out alerts to keep us, the citizenry, informed. (You can bet that if one politician does this, his or her opponent will follow suit.)

The trick, of course, would be to inform the citizenry far enough in advance so that we can be participants in the political process. For example, if there is a committee meeting, subcommittee meeting, or a hearing taking place in Congress, we should be alerted to what the hearing is about and who is expected to testify.

Once we know the schedule, the second part of my proposal is this: Allow us to suggest questions that our representative might ask of those testifying. On top of that, there should be at least one congressional aide or senatorial aide assigned to manning the official's site during a hearing.

How many times have you watched someone testify -- for example, the CEOs of the Big Three automakers -- and said, Why didn't my senator ask them this? Or why didn't my representative follow up with another, more probing question?

Under my proposal, you would be able to send in questions beforehand or as the hearing takes place. I guarantee that if enough people suddenly send angry e-mails during a hearing because a particular question wasn't being asked, the aide would discreetly leave his laptop and whisper that information into your representative's ear.

What would be even nicer is if our representatives gave us some credit for a good question. A la the use of the Internet during one of this year's presidential debates, it would be an act of true democracy to hear a senator at a hearing say something like, "I have a question here from Jane Smith, one of my constituents, and she wants to know..."

On top of that, I would like to get -- not that I would read it all -- transcripts of every hearing and meeting. Under sunshine laws, almost every meeting held is public. And it might be too much to ask, but I'll ask anyway: Along with the transcript, I would like an executive summary.

Aren't we, the public, the board of directors, so to speak, and shouldn't our C-level executives answer to us? If so, it is about time they did a better job of communicating.

There is no excuse. All the tools to do this are available. From digital transcriptions of meetings to simple e-mail alerts, it is all there waiting to be used.

I'd also like to know every amendment my representatives makes to a bill, and I liked to be notified as to how they voted when the bill comes up for vote.

While C-SPAN may do a good job, why can't all of our representatives create a Webcast as well for each public meeting?

Finally, I know when my company sends me somewhere they expect me to file a report when I get back of what I found. Sometimes it turns into a news story, but sometimes it is just to keep my editors informed.

I expect the same from the men and women I pay, mainly those elected officials. If my congressman takes a trip somewhere on my dime, I want to know about it, and I want to hear about the results.

If the price of freedom is constant vigilance, the Internet has finally given us the tools to make it far easier for all of us lazy souls to be far more vigilant than we've been up to now.

Maybe if these kinds of tools were used previously, we wouldn't be in the mess we are in now.

For congressional representatives, here's a link from our own government to help you get started. And here's a link for senate contacts.

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