Council Wants Public To Comment On Proposed Bills With Online Forum

Matt Cohen,, June 24, 2014

If you've ever sat through a public hearing to comment on a bill proposed by a D.C. Councilmember, you know that it can sometimes be a maddening process. For example, a recent joint committee hearing for two proposed amendments to D.C.'s medical marijuana laws lasted nearly six hours with dozens testifying, many of whom couldn't fit in all they wanted to say in their allotted time. Now, some Councilmembers are working with The OpenGov Foundation—a D.C.-based nonprofit working to open government processes and increase transparency for the public—to make it easier for people to weigh in on proposed legislation.

Recently, OpenGov, with the support of Councilmember David Grosso (I-At Large), launched the beta version of MadisonDC, an online forum that allows citizens to directly comment on, propose changes to, and debate current legislation floating within the Council.

"What we're hoping is, this will encourage more public engagement in the legislative process," Grosso told DCist during a recent phone conversation, "and we'll be able to consider all public input on proposed bills." MadisonDC launched a little under two weeks ago with three of Grosso's recent bills posted online, open for public comment: The Urban Farming and Food Security Act of 2014; Open Primary Elections Amendment Act of 2014; and the Marijuana Legalization and Regulation Act of 2014.

It's not unlike message boards or the comments section of many websites. Once you register for a free account, you can read over the proposed legislation and add your own comments, questions, support, opposition, or thoughts to any part of the bill. All the comments will then go to the Councilmember who introduced the bill to read over, consider, and answer before it goes to public hearing.

Though it's still in its beta phase, MadisonDC has already attracted the attention of other Councilmembers, with bills introduced or co-introduced by nearly every Councilmember currently on the website for public comment. At this time, the website hosts thirteen bills and one ballot initiative open for public comment, including contentious ones like the D.C. Soccer Stadium Development Act of 2014, the Wage Transparency Amendment Act of 2014, and marijuana legalization ballot initiative that the D.C. Cannabis Coalition is currently gathering signatures for.

But for those who value the current process, MadisonDC doesn't aim to replace public hearings for proposed bills. "This won't eliminate the public hearing process," Grosso says, "but work in tandem with it, so that we'll be able to as much public input as possible."

OpenGov first launched Madison as a tool to battle the Stop Online Piracy Act. It soon grew into a platform for citizens to participate and voice their questions, comments, and concerns on documents and bills proposed in Congress.

Seamus Kraft, OpenGov's Executive Director and one of the organization's co-founders, tells DCist that he launched it in 2011 with Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Ca.) as a way for citizens to more easily connect with proposed legislation. "There was no way for me to bring together all the input I was getting to implement into our process," says Kraft, who was working as the Director of Digital Strategy and the Press Secretary for the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee when he launched OpenGov. Since launching Madison, Kraft says there's been a "pretty overwhelming response in Congress," as it "makes the policy making process more open for citizens."

But with all that transparency and openness in the lawmaking process—allowing nearly anyone to chime in and share their thoughts— it's easy to see how this could backfire. With no filtering process during registration, couldn't that open up MadisonDC to Internet trolls, much like the comments section of a certain D.C. news website? Grosso doesn't think so. "We have to put trust in our residents," he says.

Though Kraft says there is "no moderation or filter beyond the 'George Carlin filter'," he says that of the millions of page views and thousands of comments on Congressional bills, they've only had to remove six comments.

"The bar is very, very low to sign up and get involved," Kraft says. "We view ourselves as the platform for citizens to swiftly and easily connect with lawmakers and bills, and we have to trust they won't abuse that."