Comments on the draft Declaration on Parliamentary Openness, Sec. 44: Facilitating Two-Way Communication

The following is a comment on the draft Declaration on Parliamentary Openness, Sec. 44: Facilitating Two-Way Communication, which begins: “Parliament shall endeavor to use interactive technology tools to foster the ability of citizens to provide input on legislation and parliamentary activity, and to communicate with members or parliamentary staff.”

Parliaments, like our Congress here, never seem to listen to citizens as much as we the citizens would like. One of the largest problems in public trust is the perception that Congress only listens to moneyed lobbyists. But a recommendation to listen more mostly misses the reasons for the lack of sufficient communication, and so is not likely to be an effective remedy.

There are two very different types of input the public can provide to parliaments. One is sentiment, the other is expertise. When a member of parliament votes against a popular position in his or her district, it is a problem of sentiment. When a member of parliament introduces a flawed bill, it is a problem of expertise.

In my experience here, Members of Congress are eagerly interested in knowing the sentiment in their district. That’s because they don’t want to be voted out next election. Congressional offices here each have staffs dedicated solely to processing incoming mail. So what’s the problem? Well, representatives here have constituencies of up to 1 million individuals (that’s Nevada’s 3rd congressional district; the average size of a district is 710,000) and senators up to 37 million (California). And a lot of those individuals write their representative, which means Congress gets an enormous amount of mail. They couldn’t possibly read it all.

Asking members of parliaments to engage in more forms of communication isn’t helpful. They’re reading as much as their budgets will allow them to hire staff to do that. A better ask could be: allocate more funding to processing mail. But even better is: develop innovative ways to handle communication more efficiently based on whatever particular factors are at work in your parliament. Efficiently means processing mail faster, for instance by making sure citizens submit messages that are shorter, clearer, aggregated, or otherwise easier to process in an automated way. This was a significant component of our approach at POPVOX, a platform for constituent communication that I co-founded several years ago. Yes, that means in some cases boiling messages down to Support or Oppose and  having less actual reading of constituent messages by humans (more by computers).

Of the dozen forms of constituent communication recommended by the Declaration, the vast majority make constituent communication less efficient, and therefore less effective. Email and Facebook, for instance, are significantly less efficient than an online poll.

That said, there are times when members of parliament might find it convenient to ignore the sentiment they are hearing. In those cases, it’s important for the constituent to have the option to make his or her sentiment public (but typically anonymously). You might want to have your parliament handle the openness part, or you might want to ask your parliament to  support the technical infrastructure so a third party can handle the openness part (as in our case at POPVOX).

The second type of communication — expertise — is entirely different. Expertise needs to be communicated in a different channel from sentiment. The reason is that while everyone thinks their own expertise is important, it’s just not true. The reason lobbyists have so much influence is a combination of several factors related to expertise, some of which are: they are experts on a particular subject, they are experts on the current law and the  legislative process and thus can communicate effectively with legislative staff, and they are willing to do whatever additional research the legislator needs to make a decision. Citizens don’t have all three. If they did, they’d be lobbyists.

Better communication of citizen expertise is a conundrum.  While we know what efficient communication of sentiment looks like (e.g. online polls, petitions, or what we did at POPVOX), there are not yet any proven methods of constituent communication of expertise. Some examples to draw from, however, are the MADISON project (collaborative editing of bills run out of the office of a congressional committee here) and especially Peer to Patent.

I want to emphasize why it is a conundrum, to be clear. Obviously we want the expertise that legislators have access to to be correct, comprehensive, unbiased, etcetera. But those aren’t the only factors legislators have to consider. The information has to be readily available, it has to be from a source they trust, and it has to be in language they understand. The communication of expertise is therefore hurt by widening the base of people who can participate if there is no mechanism for determining who can be trusted, who communicates well, and so on.

My suggestion for the Declaration would be not to recommend simply greater engagement, but instead to recommend implementing a two-track system of taking constituent input. One track would be optimized for sentiment: it would encourage concise, easy-to-process messaging with publicly displayed aggregate totals and an opt-in to make messages public. The other track would be optimized for expertise and would focus on establishing trust with citizens who are willing to put in the time to navigate public policy and the legislative process.