Completing the circle on journalists and public participation

Journalists, politicians, and foundations are all tinkering with forms
of amateur input: inviting bloggers to major events, quoting popular
online sites in newspapers, etc. But
Capital News Connection
has really jumped in full-tilt with
Ask Your Lawmaker.
A creative combination of public input and ratings with professionals
who have their boots on the ground in the US Capitol building, Ask
Your Lawmaker is a case study in progress concerning how to get
experts and the public to work together.

I heard a talk from CNC founder and executive director Melinda
Wittstock this evening at the
Ethos Roundtable,
a forum for non-profits in Eastern Massachusetts. CNC gets consulting
input from Ethos Roundtable organizer Deborah Elizabeth Finn,
and Wittstock came looking for volunteer help with such matters
as developing a Facebook or iPhone application. As Wittstock said, Ask
Your Lawmaker is still working on how to complete the circle of public
input, feedback, and outreach.

Step one is the simple form (on the
web site’s “Ask A Question”
for submitting a question to any Congressman or Senator of your
choice. Step two is the simple voting mechanism, reminiscent of the
pre-inauguration site.

At this point, the journalists working for CNC–who have years of
experience at leading media sites–take over. They don’t merely choose
the highest-rated questions. Sometimes a question shouldn’t have to
wait around and gather votes because the topic is hot. The reporters
use their judgment in combination with votes to pick timely and
provocative questions, and sometimes direct a question to a more
appropriate lawmaker (such as the sponsor of a bill or the head of a

The next step invokes the power of professional journalism. CNC sends
its reporters into the Capitol and congressional office buildings
daily. Although they have regular routines with their typical
journalists’ questions, they throw in citizen questions where
appropriate and tell the lawmaker how many people voted for each
question. Wittstock mentioned that it’s very hard for a
congressperson to dismiss a question that came from a constituent,
especially one that got a lot of votes.

Videos are very hard to make in the Capitol, unfortunately, because
filming is severely restricted there by law and the lawmakers are
understandably leery of allowing themselves to be filmed any place at
any time.

The next step goes from real-time back to the web site, along with
conventional radio stations. Questions and answers are taped and
transcribed so they can be offered as both audio and text. CNC has
contracts with a number of PBS stations who work public questions into
regular news broadcasts.

Podcasts and texts are posted on the web site and served through an
RSS feed, but you can also follow
AskYourLawmaker on Twitter
or search for hashtag #ayl. (Right now they’re discussing the
talk I attended.) This can bring the answers back to those who asked
the questions.

Ask Your Lawmaker also offers a feed that visitors can add to their
own web sites, and an iframe for each individual report, suitable for

Most powerful at all, citizens’ questions can change policies.
Lobbyists harangue lawmakers day after day, but sometimes they’re more
impressed by a simple question revealing a deep-seated need in their
communities. They have been heard walking away from journalist
interviews saying to their staff, “Brief me about that issue.”

All very impressive for an effort that’s so provisional, the
journalists run the web site themselves. Several weak points remain
before the circle is complete.

  • Ask Your Lawmaker doesn’t get enough publicity. It may or may not be
    mentioned on the radio station that reports its results. Hardly any
    listeners, I wager, realize that questions were generated by ordinary
    citizens, much less realize that anyone can ask a question.

  • The site needs a way to accept questions through SMS. Attendees at
    this evening’s talk speculated about the power of accepting questions
    for US lawmakers from victims of wars or globalization policies around
    the globe.

  • The site doesn’t exploit the potential for social networking to let
    questioners promote the site. Someone whose question is chosen should
    be informed when the answer is posted or broadcast on the radio, and
    should be encouraged to invite her friends and fellow workers to view
    the answer.

CNC is looking for ways to complete the circle–and will gladly accept
volunteer help, as I mentioned–but they’re doing a lot in the
meantime to firm up their appeal and raise funds. They plan to allow
cobranding and to let sites select the length and subject matter of
the material they post, just as they now serve up very customized
reports to the radio stations they serve. They may start accepting
advertising, and they’re looking for fun contests that will publicize
their work.

Ask Your Lawmaker demonstrates a unique solution to a situation whered
for amateur input can augment expert practice and expertise can
augment what the public has to offer. In this regard, Ask Your
Lawmaker is worth comparing to the landmark
project and to two commercial ventures I
a few months ago, uTest and TopCoder.
The opportunity for a virtuous cycle of public input, professional
processing, and listener loyalty–especially in a field whose death
has been predicted by many–puts Ask Your Lawmaker into an intriguing
category of its own.

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