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Crowdsourcing legislation update

Back in October, I noted an effort by the Texas Senate Committee on Business and Commerce, which is presided over by state Sen. John Carona, to crowdsource its upcoming hearings on payday lending. The Statesman has a report on how things have gone so far.

Source: Noise To Signal

Several times in recent months, the Senate panel and the Joint Committee on Oversight of Higher Education Governance, Excellence and Transparency have used Twitter, live blogs and other online tools to try to broaden citizen involvement.

“I absolutely love it,” said state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, chairwoman of the Senate Higher Education Committee and a co-chair of the joint committee. “We don’t make as many copies as we used to, and that saves money, because it’s all online in real time. People can participate from any point in the state without coming to Austin, and it’s much easier for them to be involved.”

For Zaffirini and other lawmakers, a switch to using online meeting software, streaming video and other Internet options has allowed them to avoid some travel expenses and to circulate documents and draft proposals without incurring copying charges.

A live blog of a meeting earlier this month of the Senate Business and Commerce Committee got nearly 1,000 hits — a record, said committee director Steven Polunsky.

In the online blogs, updates about testimony, research materials and written testimony by witnesses are posted instantly.

Viewers can watch and submit their feedback or ask questions. The process is more interactive than simply streaming video of the hearing online.

To assist tech-savvy Texans who attend the Capitol hearings, the Senate panel is now posting QR codes — those box-shaped matrix barcodes used widely by businesses — to allow smartphone users to quickly find the committee’s website.

That lets people in the audience at the hearing participate, as well, as the session is under way.

Polunsky said the changes have been “very well received” by the public.

Sounds good so far. As long as this is being used as an enhancement to hearings and not as a substitute for having them in other parts of the state, it’s all good. I’d say the logical next steps are to incorporate Skype or some other webcam technology and allow remote testimony, and to take questions from the feedback given during the hearings. I’m sure this will evolve in ways none of us currently anticipate, and that’s fine. The whole idea is to improve and build on what we currently do. More information, and more ways to access it effectively, are good things.

I expressed my concerns about this in that previous post. Some unnamed critics express theirs in this story:

Though proponents of online legislating predict it could play a larger role when the Legislature reconvenes in 2013, questions remain about just how available the information might be to many Texans who don’t have the time to sit at a computer and monitor or participate in a hearing or who might not use Twitter or even have a computer.

Um, just how available is any of this information now to Texans who don’t have a computer? I don’t recall seeing any newspaper stories about either of the hearings referenced in this story. Given the cutbacks in the news industry and the sharp reduction of actual reporters filing actual stories from the Lege, the only way anyone would know anything about this stuff is online. Like I said, unless this is used to substitute Austin-based hearings for hearings that would have been held elsewhere in the state, it’s an enhancement to what we have now. If we’re really worried about disconnected people being left behind, let’s work on ensuring there are fewer disconnected people.

Crowdsourcing legislation

Perhaps the wisdom of crowds might help shape better legislation. It’s worth a shot.

[Steven] Polunsky is the director of the Texas Senate Committee on Business and Commerce, which is presided over by state Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas. In anticipation of the next legislative session, in 2013, the committee intends to try to crowdsource legislation addressing the issue of payday lending.

Payday lending is a divisive topic, and legislators are vigorously lobbied on it by the business community. Carona believes that the new electronic forum will help bring forward the experiences of people who may not have access to representation at legislative hearings.

“You really have to be careful in the legislative process that you’re not guided or overly influenced by special interests,” he said.

The committee is still determining what form the project will take. For example, it could operate like an entry on Wikipedia or incorporate communication tools like Twitter. The committee may team up with transcription services that would allow contributions over the telephone.

“We think the more people that can be involved, the better the legislative outcome,” Carona said. “I’d rather be making policy based upon what I know to be strong public sentiment than to leave it to guesswork here at the Capitol.”

Let me say up front that I think this is a worthwhile idea, I hope it works out, and I commend Sen. Carona for his efforts. I will be very interested to see how this goes.

Having said that, I have two concerns. One is that I’m not sure that a payday lending bill is the best vehicle for this. To my way of thinking, crowdsourcing works best when nobody really knows what the best practices are and there’s no good examples of how other entities have tackled the problem to study. But as we saw in the 2009 Lege, the policy wonks have a pretty good handle on what the specific problem is in Texas and on what needs to be done to fix it. I’m absolutely not saying there isn’t value in soliciting input from the public, especially from those who have direct experience with payday lending. By all means, that should be done. What I am saying is that this doesn’t seem to me to be a real test of the concept of crowdsourcing legislation because we’re far from starting from scratch. I expect the input that this may generate will help at the margins, but is unlikely to change the 2009 bills in a way that will make anyone say “We never would have thought of that”. That’s the sort of thing I’d love to see get thrown to the crowdsourcers. Which is easier said than done, because off the top of my head I can’t think of such an example.

The other concern is more fundamental and more mundane. The reason that a good payday lending bill didn’t pass in 2009 wasn’t because the bills that were put forward were somehow insufficient. The problem was that the good bills were beaten back and watered down by industry lobbyists, aided and abetted by a single unethical member of the House, Rep. Gary Elkins, working in his own self interest. Crowdsourcing isn’t going to help with those problems, unless you’re talking about something like Kickstarter as a tool for unseating the likes of Elkins. Again, this is not to say that the idea isn’t a good one. It’s just that the experience will have nothing to do with the ultimate fate of the bill it produces.