Thirty years ago Thursday, C-SPAN 2 took the first step in promoting transparency in government by sharing the proceedings of the U.S. Senate with the general public. At the time, sitting members of the legislative body rallied around what it would mean for transparency and accountability in American politics. Today, however, many say more work is needed to make the lawmaking process truly accessible to the citizenry.
Back in 1986, televised floor sessions were a big deal that brought proceedings right into voters' living rooms — if you were into watching that sort of thing. And by all accounts, the shift away from what then-Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.V., called the “dark ages” of communications would add a layer of accountability, a permanent visual record, as it were.
“Today as the US Senate comes out of the communications dark ages, we create another historic moment in the relationship between congress and technological advancements in communications through radio and television,” Byrd said in June 1986.
Others, like Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio, joked that cameras monitoring Senate members would add an element of vanity to the otherwise routine daily happenings.
His comments, though sprinkled with comedy, also pointed to the importance of access and transparency for the citizens being represented.
But the larger system, even in today’s high-tech world, is far from perfect. Despite the great strides made in government transparency today thanks to such organizations as the Sunlight Foundation, California's Digital Democracy Project and President Obama himself, to name a few, smaller committee hearings are not always shared in a timely manner. Those with disabilities — like deafness — for instance, are often left waiting for a transcript of what happened and who said what, according to Sean Moulton with the Project on Government Oversight (POGO).
“In terms of individual committees in Congress, it’s hit or miss in terms of how well they use video – especially streaming video online now. It hasn’t been without some hiccups, one of the things we hear back from Congress are concerns over access for people with disabilities and ADA compliance,” he said. “Technologically, it’s about getting the right tools in place that will address those issues, but for the most part it has been a real help to understand the discussion and decision-making that goes on in Congress.”
Moulton would tell you that the Senate videos have made a huge impact in the way journalists, watchdog groups and the general public access the happenings of government, but he qualifies there are gaps and improvements that need to be made — especially when it comes to a cohesive set of policies.
“I think it was a big step forward,” he said. “It allowed you, if you were in Hawaii or Alaska, you could be in the room listening to a hearing, watching people make statements on the floor, watching votes occur, and it doesn’t require you to be in the same city and building at the exact same time as your representatives. It creates a sort of indisputable record as to what was said.”
Perhaps more than some shiny newfangled technology, Moulton argues that a well-defined set of best practices would go a long way to improve the collective permanent video record of the U.S. Congress.
On the other hand, new technologies will likely play a part in opening Congress even further.
In California, the Digital Democracy Project made accessing the state’s legislative video media easier for anyone interested in viewing them when it launched in May 2015.
Through a Google-like search feature, thousands of hours of video are sortable by topic, speaker, word, bill, etc.
Doctor Sam Blakeslee, who headed up the Digital Democracy effort under the umbrella of the Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo Institute for Advanced Technology and Public Policy, said publicly available video has helped to bridge gaps in not only physical distance, but in understanding as well.
“I don’t think there’s any question that recording and archiving legislative proceedings results in a more transparent and accountable government. Broadcasts and video archives offer virtual access to the decision-making process to the millions of citizens and stakeholders who don’t have the luxury of traveling to the capitol to sit through hours of hearings,” he explained via email. “And compared to reading the bill text drafted by lawyers or complicated budget line items, video of lawmakers and witnesses debating these issues in plain language makes government deliberations more accessible to the public.”
With a substantial amount of video amassed during each legislative session, Blakeslee argues much of its value is lost without the ability to syphon through it to reach the relevant content.
“Video recording government proceedings is necessary but not sufficient. These records must be easily searchable, and ideally offer relevant companion data and context,” he said. “Just as the 1.2 million terabytes of information on the Internet are virtually useless without a search engine like Google or Bing, the thousands of hours of government hearing videos are of little practical value unless they are searchable.”
Blakeslee, who was a former California lawmaker in both state Senate and Assembly, said that while national legislators have the likes of C-SPAN to provide valuable content to citizens, there are gaps at the state level that need to be addressed when it comes to effectively sharing video with the larger constituency.
“Congress has the benefit of being the focus on significant transparency efforts. C-SPAN is to be applauded for its work to make Congressional videos more accessible. C-SPAN offers transcripts, speaker identification and clip-sharing options that allow stakeholders to use this content to inform and engage their networks,” he said, noting the gaps at the state level. "More attention should be paid to improving statehouse transparency policies and increasing searchable video archives.”