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State legislators using technology to engage the public

March 23, 2007

Recently, the Minnesota State Legislature solicited pubic comment on a number of important pieces of legislation.  What is newsworthy about this story is that they used the Internet to collect the public’s opinion and distribute the results to all committee members.

Legislators received over 15,000 responses to their survey on smoking ban legislation by the end of the open comment period.  The Chair of House Commerce and Labor committee Rep Atkins said, “This survey was used as a tool to provide for those not able to attend the public hearing an opportunity to contribute to this discussion. This survey was not intended to be scientific, but rather an easy-to-use way for Minnesotans to participate in the legislative process.”

Legislators are always trying to gauge where the public stands on controversial issues.  State legislatures around the country will increasingly use this tool to collect citizen input, as will segments of the government. 

In fact, the Governor of Minnesota used these tools almost two years ago as a way to help him develop the state budget.  At that time, the University of Minnesota Legislative Network engaged its advocates to take the survey and urge the Governor to increase funding of higher education.  [Disclosure – I was coordinator of the University of Minnesota Legislative Network at the time.]

The results of the survey found that 62% of respondents wanted an increase in funding for K-12 education and just over half wanted an increase in funding for higher education.  Now at the time, polls said that higher education was about fourth or fifth on people’s priority list.  Yet the Governor’s survey found that it was a close second on the publics priority list.

“Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung said the governor did consider the feedback when putting his budget together.”

The U of M faired well in the governor’s survey because it directed between 3,000-5,000 people to take the survey.  This is a good lesson for any group doing work at the Capitol - legislators will increasingly rely on these online vehicles to collect public input and they will actually listen to that feedback. Advocacy groups will need to develop online supporters that can engage legislators using these types of online tools.

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