Though your state senate hearings are publicly available through networks like C-SPAN, what goes on is not usually archived in an accessible way. This makes it harder for American voters to know if their representatives are actually representing their interests.
But a new site called Digital Democracy aims to help voters hold their elected officials accountable by making local government hearings searchable by speaker and subject. You can think of the platform like CSPAN meets YouTube.
Gavin Newsom, California’s Lieutenant Governor, and former California state senator Samuel Blakeslee worked with students at California Polytechnic State University (better known as Cal Poly) to create the new platform. The students programmed a bot for the site that makes daily transcripts of state senate and assembly hearings. It uses facial recognition to monitor who’s talking. Users can see legislators’ financial ties on the platform, and easily share video clips on social media.
The thousands of hearings on the site feature lawmakers, lobbyists, and local agency representatives, with topics including transportation funding, water conservation, affordable housing, and marijuana legalization. The team gathers the footage from state senate and assembly committees, and uploads it to the site within 24 hours.
“In the legislature, it’s almost impossible for anyone to know what’s going on, and that’s largely by design,” Blakeslee tells Business Insider. “There are thousands of bills that are heard in 50 to 60 committees multiple times over the course of a year, and at each one of those very important hearings, the proceedings occur without minutes, without notes, without a list of who provided testimony, without any recording of amendments that were offered. So what you have is a system that’s very opaque and inaccessible.”
Digital Democracy only posts footage from hearings in New York and California right now (the nonprofit launched the platform in California in 2015, and it became available in New York in February). But Blakeslee says that his team hopes to eventually expand the platform nationwide. Digital Democracy has doubled its user base in the last year and plans to add Florida and Texas by 2018, at which point it could reach a third of all Americans, Blakeslee says. (The four states represent approximately 39% of the US population.)
Users can look up hearings by date, topic, speaker, or committee. If you live in California and are particularly interested in immigration, for example, you check out hearings on that topic dating back to 2015. Or if you want to hear a specific speaker, the video will automatically jump to the point when that person starts talking.
The platform’s launch is certainly timely. As evidenced by recent protests at town halls, calls for government accountability and transparency have risen since Donald Trump’s inauguration. Trump has also promised to roll back federal regulation and funding, from reproductive healthcare allocations to EPA rules, which means more power could fall to state lawmakers over the next four years.
“When Trump finally unwinds the Affordable Care Act, when he ultimately tells sanctuary cities or states that federal funding will be contingent upon their policies, when he changes the carbon emissions and environmental goals of the previous administration, these rules will suddenly become very important state issues,” Blakeslee says.
That could make it increasingly necessary for voters to be able to find out what’s happening at state-level hearings.
Blakeslee, who left politics in 2010 to found the Institute for Advanced Technology and Public Policy at Cal Poly, says he understands first-hand how legislation can get passed without public knowledge or input. As a Republican state senator and state assemblyman, he worked to negotiate California’s budget, and drafted bills related to the state’s energy and environmental sectors. He and other state legislators often did this far from the public eye, he says.
“As a former elected, I entered public life with a wellspring of hope and optimism. Through the course of serving, I saw first-hand in public office just how difficult it is for the people’s voice to push through,” Blakeslee says. “Politicians become quickly isolated from the people who sent them, and become immersed and surrounded with lobbyists with money and campaign contributions that cause them to not reflect the best interests of the public.”
Ethics officials in California are attempting to confront this problem as well — in early 2017, sweeping new requirements were proposed for lobbying groups, in response to concerns about oil companies and labour organisations’ influence on state officials.
But Blakeslee believes that a more immediately promising way to push politicians to better represent their constituents, or at least be more transparent, is to let them know they’re being watched. Though the footage on Digital Democracy was already publicly available, the videos had never before been compiled on one platform so went largely unseen, Blakeslee says.
He hopes the platform will encourage constituents to learn about specific bills and speak with their legislators about them.
“Advocates and grassroots organisers will be able to not only visit legislators and identify exactly what their issues are, but also literally follow them day-by-day and see if they follow up with their representations. And if they don’t, they can create consequences and mobilize their community,” he says.
Blakeslee acknowledges that some users could simply peruse Digital Democracy’s site or share a hearing on Facebook without taking any concrete action, like calling or writing their representatives. But at least the information is available to them, he says, which may make it more difficult for politicians to operate under the radar.
“As a politician, it’s easier to do your job when people aren’t watching. You deal with less input,” Blakeslee says. “But ultimately, the government you get is less effective. It’s not a Republican problem. It’s not a Democrat problem. It’s a power problem.”