Connecticut General Assembly Uses Social Media for Public Comment

Connecticut's General Assembly is asking its constituents to testify at an upcoming public hearing via Facebook and Twitter.
by | September 19, 2011 AT 11:00 AM

Connecticut will join a growing list of states and cities utilizing social media to solicit public comments from their constituents, the Hartford Courant reports. The state has established Twitter and Facebook pages under the moniker "After Irene CT" to give its residents an opportunity to weigh in on the storm and the state's response prior to a Sept. 26 hearing. In Connecticut, Irene left 700,000 without power and inflicted millions of dollars in damage.

Senate President Donald Williams tells Governing he was inspired after witnessing the state's citizens and civil leaders employing social media to exchange information despite a power outage during the storm. In one instance, he says, officials connected through Facebook to coordinate efforts to clear fallen trees that had blocked dozens of roads in one small town.

Those platforms can be an easy, cost-effective and convenient way for constituents to provide public input. "It certainly makes sense in this day and age to employ all the technologies that are available to provide for public input," Williams says. "I think there's a very good chance that this will not be an isolated event, but this could be a blueprint for the future."

Connecticut isn't the first state assembly to experiment with social media in an official capacity. According to the Courant, Utah's state legislature held an online forum in 2007, and lawmakers in Indiana did the same in 2009. According to a study by the Public Technology Institute in 2009, 72 percent of local governments were already using Facebook and Twitter in public outreach.

The concern with these Web 2.0 functions, however, is: How do government entities ensure that open meeting and sunshine laws are being followed in this online environment?

Legislatures have been grappling with these questions since Hawaii began accepting e-mail submissions for public comment in 2002, says Pam Greenberg, a senior fellow with the National Conference of State Legislatures who tracks technology issues. Because government transparency laws vary from state to state, it's up to each individual entity to ensure they are compliant with their state's requirements.

The transparency issue will remain relevant, Greenberg says, as public officials have become keen on developing their social media savvy in recent years.

"We're seeing more legislatures that are using the tools the citizens are using," she says. "It's just a natural place where people are interacting with each other, so it's a great place for legislators to get feedback and communicate with their constituents."

Connecticut's General Assembly will add all comments via social media to the record, "as we would if someone mailed in a submission," Williams says. Legislators will have an opportunity to review those remarks before the public hearing on Sept. 26.

The "After Irene CT" Facebook page has already garnered its fair share of suggestions and complaints. One Caroline P. Curtis posted:

"In Guilford our power did not come back on for 6 days. If this had happened at a hotter time of year it would have been a tragedy -- no air conditioning, fans, running water (if on a well) etc. in the heat of summer would have caused many deaths. Something should be done to be sure clean-up and repair crews are sent out sooner. Also, we were told emergency info was sent by telephone message, however what about those with no telephone service after the storm as we were? There should be a better way to inform citizens of emergency information in such a situation."

Williams sees that kind of input as a sign that social media could serve as an effective means of gathering public testimony. "Right now, we're not worrying so much about the technicalities," he says. "We think that the most important goal here is to invite as much constructive commentary as we can."