Mic Check: It’s On, But Not Working for Democracy

December 7, 2015 – Mike Cohen


The San Francisco Chronicle recently spotlighted a rash of public meetings gone wrong. The article describes a handful of incidents throughout the East Bay, including a council chamber scuffle that ended in two arrests, alleged free speech infringements, and possible open meeting violations.

The columnist points out that in each of these instances, there is “shared blame, alternative reasons, and a history of disputes”. These examples identify a troubling truth: three minutes at the microphone doesn’t always allow for fair and inclusive public comment—and in some cases, it actually undermines the democratic process.

Packed chambers can quickly become hostile and intimidating. Stepping up to the podium during public comment often means standing in the line of fire. Consequently, the vocal minority dominates the dialogue, which can lead to misguided decisions on the dias that alienate the quiet, polite majority, and ultimately erode public trust in government.

An emerging solution to this problem is for government agencies to augment their conventional public hearings with online public forums that are civil, insightful and legally compliant. These online public forums don’t replace the in-person public hearings. Instead, the addition of an online communication channel can complement, and in many cases supplement, the in-person forums.

Moreover, an online forum provides the opportunity to hear from more people—many of whom have moderate views informed by solid facts, and are willing to provide input online, but not in-person.

By setting the stage for a more accessible and inclusive public process, government agencies are ensuring that better-informed government leaders can make high-quality decisions. That’s how we build public trust in government.

Category: Civic Engagement