Policy keeping up with technology and understanding unintended consequences

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There’s a drive to bring open meeting regulations into the new century by no longer requiring meeting organizers to post notices in print. I think there are some good reasons to do this – and some good reasons not to make the change. (There’s a nice information brief on open meeting if you need a refresher.)

I would love to see technology be used to make it easier for citizens to get involved in government. One way is making it easier to attend public meetings. To facilitate that goal, I think it’s a great idea to encourage meeting organizers to post notices anywhere and everywhere they can – online and print. Many of us would look online to get this info and increasingly government agencies (and boards, nonprofits and others who are required to abide by open meeting laws) have websites. That’s the logical place to look for info on upcoming (and past) meetings. Unfortunately some people do not have access to computers and/or the Internet. So until access is ubiquitous, I think meeting notices need to be made available in print and online.

If the goal is to encourage greater civic engagement, I think meeting organizers should be encouraged to go farther – by making meetings available online. Legislative meetings have gone online – and it makes it so much easier to follow legislative issues; opening up (and encouraging or even requiring) meetings to be available and archived online helps citizens stay informed and get involved in issues before they go to the legislature. If the broadband discussion is typical – conversation is complete or nearly complete by the time it gets introduced to legislators. The time for the public to get involved is during monthly Minnesota Broadband Task Force meetings. Now adding an online component does not save money – even if the technology is cheap – someone has to run it. I think it comes down to the goal – is the goal to save money or encourage an informed citizenry?

Maybe video doesn’t make sense – because of cost and logistics, but technology opens a toolkit of social media tools that make it easier to get citizens involved. A recent article in the St Cloud Times indicates that meeting organizers would like to use some of the funding that currently goes to print notices to greater use of social media…

As technology has changed, so have the methods that local governments communicate with residents. All 87 counties and three-fourths of Minnesota cities have websites. Many also use social media tools including Facebook and Twitter.

That’s led to a renewed push this year at the state Capitol to allow local governments to skip printing legal notices in newspapers, which they say costs thousands of dollars every year and is no longer the best way to reach most residents.

“More and more people are going online to get information, and less so going to newspapers,” said Ann Lindstrom, lobbyist with the League of Minnesota Cities.

However, just last year legislation was introduced to remove barriers of open meeting rules from social media communication. Again the difficulty seems to be in defining the goal.

The same article outlays some of the expenses in posting notices in newspapers…

[Senator John] Pederson said the counties, cities and townships within his district spend a combined $100,000 a year publishing legal notices — money he says would be better spent elsewhere.

Minimizing that cost can be a good thing but is minimizing the cost the ultimate goal because it will be a blow to local newspapers mayb impede access to citizens as the St Cloud article points out…

Pete Mohs, publisher of the Echo Journal and president of the state newspaper association, said in an email that it’s “critical” that public notices continue to be published in newspapers as a third party independent of government.

“That has always been the intent of the public notices law,” Mohs stated. “Newspapers have done an admirable job not only posting public notices in their print publications, but also on their websites.”

Readers know where to find the legal notices in their newspaper and can get them all in one place, instead of having to search several websites, said Mike Austreng, editor and publisher of the Cold Spring Record.

I think it’s important to keep that third party as part of the process – but I also think it’s a wise investment to keeping a local paper going and again if the goal is encourage participation a local newspaper helps and an unintended consequence here might be the closing of more local newspapers.

It a tough call – optimize use of technology to reduce costs or optimize technology to increase participation? Either way until everyone has access to the new means of posting information, I think they will have to keep doors open on both side of the digital divide. Or to spin that a little – maybe the State needs to ensure ubiquitous access before realizing budget cuts in other areas.