Government officials are receiving some much-needed schooling on how to use the web to improve lawmaking.
The Sunlight Foundation just launched PublicMarkup.org, the first site to collaboratively and publicly "markup" a bill before it becomes law. Markup is when a bill is discussed, debated, and revised by lawmakers, but in this case anyone may participate.
Through this markup process, PublicMarkup.org allows many-to-many communications. It allows concerned citizens to discuss the pros, the cons, the alternatives, and to build off of others' ideas. It is what participatory democracy is supposed to be.
Meanwhile, it is widely-accepted that the federal government's attempt to use the internet for regulations commenting (Regulations.gov) has been a failure.
During a Senate committee hearing in December, both Senator Lieberman and OMB's Office of Electronic Government and IT Administrator, Karen Evans, agreed that the site and its usage levels have been disappointing.
It is not surprising; Regulations.gov is little more than an electronic version of the Federal Register with its time-honored approach:
Government publishes bill.
Citizens submit comments.
Comments enter the void.
As on Regulations.gov, most government agencies use the internet only to digitize their existing processes. But the best organizations use the internet to invent altogether new processes. This is what the Sunlight Foundation has done.
So while government agencies continue to debate and worry about letting people talk to each other online, I am confident that PublicMarkup.org will show the Feds that the benefits outweigh the risks.