An important aspect of the decision-making process of governmental agencies is the gathering and analysis of public comments. Unfortunately, that essential component has experienced some significant failures lately, and that failure is a threat to participatory democracy.
Last fall, when the Federal Communications Commission was collecting comments about its plan to repeal net neutrality, at least – at least! – one million of the comments were from “bots,” automated programs that artificially multiplied support for the repeal.
Bots aren’t inherently bad. The same technology allows groups, from the NRA to PTA, to help their members communicate with an elected official at the click of a key. Sending one easily can be a good thing; sending many multiples unconnected to any constituent does not create an accurate picture of public opinion.
That’s one flaw in the public-comment system. Then, this week, when the Bureau of Land Management tallied comments on its report on amending rules for sage-grouse conservation, nearly 100,000 comments were missing. Approximately 267,000 individuals are reported to have submitted comments, on behalf of about 20 environmental groups protesting the revision. Only 170,000 comments came out the other end, and those organizations noticed their comments were missing.
The BLM contacted the National Wildlife Federation with assurances that the omission was the result of a technical error, not an intentional process. If that’s the case, the missing comments could just as easily have come from agriculture and energy producers wanting relief from the policy.
So we have bots, some benign, and some perhaps controlled by foreign powers, and we have computer foul-ups. There’s still more: intentional interference by the agency collecting the comments. According to The Washington Post, last December, the Department of Health and Human Services defended withholding comments critical of new abortion and transgender policies.
Then we have elected officials perpetually full office voice-mail boxes, those who avoid town hall meetings so they aren’t confronted, face to face, with constituents with something to say. We have problems. What we don’t have is a safe system by which Americans can submit comments to their government with considerable confidence that they will be received, counted and considered. That leads to the belief that government officials don’t really want to know what their constituents think.
That’s a hard belief to counter, because these problems could be fixed. They certainly should be, both with improved technology and with a universal insistence that public input must be valued and respected.
Americans should be represented by elected officials and by agency staff making sure the government actually runs. The FCC, BLM and HHS are among those agencies, and accurately accounting for public comment is among their responsibilities. If the processes intended to gather information from constituents don’t work well, it’s hard to see how the nation can.