Civic Voice and SIDE Environmental Events

In 2020, the House of Representatives passed an emergency measure in response to COVID-19 that allows for Congressional deliberations to occur at a distance, with remote committee procedures and proxy voting. By allowing for remote electronic documentation in committees’ regular paper-based workflows, this resolution opened the door to more civic input in its most important public deliberative function. Congress can now build legislative history with a much broader cross-section of input and meaningfully include a wider array of constituents.

In response, Congressional members have explored the use of SIDE (Stakeholders, Individuals, Data and Evidence) Events—a meeting method allowing Members to bolster civic voice by entering district-based, standardized public witness testimony into the official committee record. In conjunction with SIDE events, models for “Civic Voice Archives,” or digital, searchable Congressional repositories, are being explored.

OEDP is collaborating with Lorelei Kelly, Fellow at the Georgetown University Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation, to pilot these events and explore models of federated data movement, for example through a local Civic Voice Archive of environmental data. Importantly, Congress’s highly productive select Committee on Modernization will end its tenure this year after being reauthorized twice, so the institution is poised to take the next steps toward modernization.

Why SIDE?

Members of Congress and their staff need diverse options for constituent engagement on policy topics. The SIDE hearing modernizes how Congress gains feedback from constituents and leverages digital methods for archiving community input in legislative records that are increasingly machine-readable. It introduces an inclusive and agile mechanism to a tradition-bound institution, adapting what members know and creating a compromise between open mic town halls and rule-restrictive committee hearings.

A SIDE Event allows Members and their staff to effectively use the record of Congress in two ways: (1) to ensure constituent input is included as Congress deliberates and (2) to offer a way to include more data from wider geographic areas into the subject matter memory of lawmaking. Rep. Ann Kuster (NH-02), for example, used SIDE to explore PFAS chemical contamination in waterways, and entered tagged and structured witness testimony from the event into the committee record to support the PFAS Action Act of 2019.

Importantly, the SIDE event model provides a new method to audit the supply chain of information into law. Long-term, this framework might offer a way to improve representative government, build legitimacy, and enrich the knowledge base for lawmaking.

What we’re doing

With an Environmental Protection Agency and administration moving forward advance significant environmental justice legislation, we see the SIDE framework as an important way to move environmental science information from the community-level to lawmakers in the legislative branch on committees such as the House Natural Resource Committee. We are focusing on the (often interrelated) topics of environmental pollution, natural resource management, and the climate crisis. Our work includes:

  • Piloting SIDE environmental events in partnership with Congressional Members, local community organizations, and researchers
  • Documenting the model for wider dissemination, building on the Beeck Center’s SIDE Event Playbook
  • Developing and offering workshops and trainings on hosting SIDE environmental events
  • Exploring models for a Civic Voice Archive for congressional district reuse and access to public witness contributions
  • Model an approach for integrating district SIDE events into a federal catalog system

If you are interested in working with OEDP on a SIDE event, please reach out to Emelia Williams at Emelia@openenvironmentaldata.org.