Virtual Venues: Legislators Are Reaping the Benefits of Reaching Citizens Online and Paving the Way for Those Who Follow

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Technologically savvy high-tech lawmakers across the country are gathering insight and ideas from constituents on a host of issues. But they're not going door to door. They're using online discussion groups and conducting virtual town halls using social media and other online tools.

Digital town halls won't completely replace the old-fashioned kind of public hearing, but with so many Americans connecting with political causes and issues online, these virtual venues are becoming increasingly popular and important.

Online Innovators

Once Hawaii Senator Jill Tokuda (D), chair of the Education Committee, made the leap into the online world, it didn't take her long to become quite adept at learning how to use new tools as they become available. Her first experiment came after Hawaii passed a constitutional amendment in 2011 requiring an appointed state board of education. Senator Tokuda faced the challenge of drafting the enabling legislation on a short timeline. "It was a very hot topic, and I wanted to engage all of our constituents in the dialogue," she says. "We looked to social media as the quickest way to engage people in that dialogue."

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Tokuda set up a Twitter town hall, and has since conducted a second one about creating a state-funded early learning system. She's also experimented with Ustream to video stream a live town hall meeting, and used Google Hangout--a group video chat site--to discuss issues with small groups. The Google Hangouts were streamed live and coordinated with a Twitter discussion held at the same time. The video was archived on YouTube, and the Twitter discussions are saved on Tokuda's website.

When Tropical Storm Irene slammed into Connecticut in August 2011, the General Assembly turned to social media to communicate with and respond to constituents. The legislature set up Facebook and Twitter pages called "After Irene CT" to communicate with the public and gather comments. Armed with that input, the General Assembly held hearings in Hartford about the storm and the state's response in its aftermath. It publicized the project, in part, through a video on YouTube.

"We understand that not everyone can come to Hartford, sit and wait for public hearings, and take their turn," says Senate President Donald Williams (D) in the video. "We want to do something brand new. We want to have a new way for folks to provide their stories and their insights."

"After Irene CT" is now being used for public feedback about the state's readiness and response to other extreme weather and disasters, including its recent focus on how best to use $71.8 million in funding to help rebuild communities damaged by Superstorm Sandy.

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Across the country in Texas, the Government Efficiency and Reform Committee came up with the "Texas Red Tape Challenge" to encourage public opinions about how to make Texas' laws and regulations less burdensome. The committee created a "crowd sourcing" website and Twitter account that allowed participants to post comments, read and discuss others' ideas, and vote on their favorites. The website spelled out the rules and had a frequently asked questions section. The project, which ran from July to October 2012, focused on four topics: public school mandates, state agency rulemaking, manufacturing in the state, and occupational licensing.

The challenge was "an extension of a longstanding philosophy that good ideas may be found within the wealth of expertise and experiences of all Texans," says Representative Bill Callegari (R), chairman of the committee, "and those ideas may contribute to meaningful changes in our laws and regulations."

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Public participation on the site exceeded original estimates: 960 online users submitted nearly 100 ideas by the time it ended.

The Trailblazers

All across the country, more and more legislators, legislative committees and caucuses are conducting online forums. …