Sleepless, but Civic, in Seattle

King County makes access to information and public interaction a 'round-the-clock affair.

by / December 31, 1998
On a Monday at 5 a.m., a mother of three awakens to start her day. While her children sleep, her husband showers and the coffee percolates, she turns on the family computer and starts typing her official testimony regarding the King County, Wash., annual budget. In other houses, fellow residents do the same as they participate in the county's landmark Cyber Democracy program.

Online Community -- 24/7

Home to Redmond's Microsoft Corp., King County implemented its Cyber Democracy program during the 1997 budget process to solicit greater participation from constituents. Geographically large and technologically and environmentally rich, King County includes Seattle, its urban core, and many rural towns. John Chelminiak, communications manager of the Metropolitan King County Council, said the Cyber Democracy budget site received hits 24 hours a day as the council contemplated a budget of almost $3 billion.

"Somewhere in Seattle, a citizen is involved in civic duty at 4 in the morning, looking at government documents and providing his or her opinion," Chelminiak said.

Traditionally, localities begin annual budget discussions in the fall. Local governments are required by law to hold public hearings that accept testimony from constituents. Chelminiak conceded that nothing is better than eye-to-eye contact with an elected official, but also praised the new method of access.

"Cyber Democracy provides citizens with access to the same documents the council uses to make budget decisions, and gives them the opportunity to participate in their government from the comfort of their home computer," he said.

Numbers Tell the Story

After deciding in October 1997 that an online testimonial system would be beneficial, King County's technical team created an easy-to-use system for its citizens within weeks.

"The county council has made a strong commitment to open government in the Electronic Age," Chelminiak said.

During the '97 budget process, King County received 26 electronic testimonies from the public, about as much as they'd hear in one nighttime community hearing. Cyber Democracy played an important role again during the formulation of the county's comprehensive plan, from last June through December.

Chelminiak reported that in November 1997, the county conducted 396 user sessions with 1,689 hits for the budget. During the subsequent comprehensive plan, the county held 537 user sessions with 2,205 hits to the site.

"These statistics exclude internal use by King County employees," Chelminiak said. "And by the way, that was an additional benefit. Internal communications is greatly improved when managers and workers can access this information in the budget process."

Enthusiastic over citizen-participation levels during the '97 budget hearings, King County began soliciting testimony for the 1998-1999 budget process in October, expecting similar or increased figures.

Point, Testify and Send

Residents who want to participate online simply access . The testimony page presents a pop-up screen on which people must enter their full names and addresses via various fields and drop-down subject lines with specific titles. A text field accepts testimony input of up to 300 words. That's brief, but residents appearing before the county council get only three minutes to speak. If a person omits a field and tries to send testimony into the system, it replies with a "reject" message, requesting that any empty fields be filled. After the resident completes all the necessary information and hits the send button, the system replies with a thank-you message.

"[The testimony] goes to an e-mail alias for a staff member on the budget and fiscal management committee," Chelminiak said.

"From there, we set up a folder that routes e-mail with the specific title to specific folders," said Doug Brennan, acting public relations manager for Metro King County Council. "This helps the staff person to keep track of the different testimony without necessarily having to read the full testimony to find the subject." It also helps the
staff member accurately route testimony to each of the 13 council members.

During each public hearing, the staff notes and enters all e-mailed testimony into the public record.

Techie Challenges

As with all applications deployed on a large scale, King County's Cyber Democracy program faces unique challenges. For example, every public budget process involves myriad spreadsheets with number-crunched facts.

"Budget documents oftentimes have charts, tables and graphs, which help a reader understand long and often complex budget items," Brennan said. "These types of files, especially Excel files, do not convert easily to HTML code."

According to Brennan, after the program's deployment, the Cyber Democracy technical team spent nearly a year investigating ways of electronically providing these complex files to the public while maintaining the integrity of the data. The team even asked budget staff members if they would be willing to rewrite their reports without graphs and tables -- an ill-received suggestion. Everything appearing on paper had to be displayed online for Cyber Democracy to have its full effect. To satisfy this requirement, the Cyber Democracy team made budget documents available via Adobe's Portable Document Format -- .PDF files, readable in Adobe Acrobat.

King County has not received any superfluous or "crank" e-mail since it launched Cyber Democracy, Chelminiak said.

"On several occasions, people copy-blocked the sections of the budget
ordinances they were referring to and included it in their testimony as reference, " he noted. "This showed they were reading the documents. All of the testimony was straightforward and polite."

He added that making the submission process formal by requiring real names and addresses for testimonies to be accepted has helped make e-mail a more serious form of communication.

King County plans to expand Cyber Democracy into an electronic legislative management system that will provide residents greater access to ordinances and staff reports of the legislative branch. This expansion will continue through the year.

Myrna Dingle-Gold is a Galt, Calif.-based writer. Email