Civic Voice and SIDE Environmental Events

On May 15, 2020, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 965, 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.

This resolution takes a significant step forward on Congress’ path toward modern digital capacity; it allows remote electronic documentation in the regular paper-based workflow of committees. This means that the institution is opening the door to more civic input in its most important public deliberative function. Committees are the institutional subject matter memory of Congress. This change means that Congress will now be able to build legislative history with a much broader cross-section of input, both geographic and topical, and meaningfully include a wider array of constituents. OEDP collaborator, Lorelei Kelly, Fellow of the Georgetown University Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation has compiled information in response to the new measure, and in broader support of the use of digital, searchable Congressional repositories, or “Civic Voice Archives”. This information includes a spotlight on the SIDE (Stakeholders, Individuals, Data and Evidence) Event — a meeting method where the Member can bolster civic voice by entering district-based, standardized public witness testimony in the official committee record. The SIDE Event is now available for House Members and their staff to activate in their districts right away.

This collaboration between OEDP and Lorelei -- to build a local Civic Voice Archive of environmental data -- has exquisite timing. The First Branch of Government,  includes both the national legislature (House and Senate) and the institutional memory of US democracy (Library of Congress, National Archives, Federal Depository Libraries, Government Publishing Office, etc.). Congress’ highly productive select Committee on Modernization will end its tenure this year, and so the institution is poised to take the next steps on its modernization journey.  The most positive contribution that public-serving collaborations can take is to pilot ideas and establish proof of concept for moving forward.

Why

Members of Congress and their staff have important roles to play in ensuring that constituent input is included in the legislative process, especially during the disruption brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, members consistently need diverse options for constituent engagement on policy topics. The SIDE hearing will modernize how Congress gains feedback from constituents. Importantly, it takes advantage of digital methods for archiving community input in a legislature that is increasingly machine-readable. And, it introduces an agile mechanism to a tradition-bound institution. The SIDE hearing is an adaptation of what members know -- a compromise between open mic town halls and rule-restrictive committee hearing.

The legacy systems of Congress have limited and constrained the use of valuable civic feedback in the deliberative process of policymaking. Three-ring binders and old metal file cabinets symbolize this paper-based tradition. Today, however,  Members and their staff can collect and maintain civic input in digital archives as well and SIDE hearings are an efficient and effective way to collect such valuable data. The first step in creating this repository is structuring this input for the record so that it can be readily located and accessed.

What we’re doing

While the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the in-person, hard-copy status-quo, it has also opened the opportunity to build a more modern, inclusive system. A SIDE Event allows Members and their staff to effectively use the record of Congress in two ways: to ensure constituent input is included as Congress deliberates and to offer a way to include more data from wider geographic areas into the subject matter memory of lawmaking.

The SIDE Event is especially useful amid the COVID-19 disruption of regular operations in Congress. It can address the need to hear directly from communities on how they are coping, making use of relief funds, and organizing themselves to respond. Importantly, Civic Voice Archives will provide a new method to audit the supply chain of information into law. Long-term, SIDE frameworks might offer a way to improve representative government, build legitimacy, and enrich the knowledge base for lawmaking.

With an Environmental Protection Agency that is on track to create the most significant environmental regulatory rollbacks since the Agency opened, the Open Environmental Data Project sees 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 will be focusing on the (at many points interrelated) topics of environmental pollution, natural resource conservation, and the climate crisis. Our work will include:

  • Piloting SIDE environmental events in congressional districts
  • Documenting the model for wider dissemination
  • Developing and offering a series of workshops and trainings on hosting SIDE environmental events
  • Scoping and developing a non-federal Civic Voice Archive, for congressional district reuse and access to public witness contributions
  • Model an approach for integrating district SIDE events into a federal catalogue system