Opinion: In praise of … government onlineA screenshot of the Zoom meeting of the Development Authority of Fulton County on Aug. 25.
By Maggie Lee
Georgia and its counties and cities and courts do lots of their business in the open. Vote on taxes, sentence people to prison, decide how to run elections.
However, even if the doors are open, it’s not necessarily easy to know how to get in there or what’s going on inside.
The Georgia state House panel that hears testimony from industries asking for tax breaks long made its home in a room behind another room in a basement. The hearing room didn’t have microphones but it did have a noisy refrigerator running in the back.
Courts? Leave the 21st century at the door of Atlanta’s federal court building — except for lawyers, you pretty much can’t bring a phone that has a camera in there.
County courthouses are relaxed about phones, but try live-streaming a hearing and a bailiff is liable to shut that down. (Unless you knew ahead of time that there was a form you should have filled out to ask for permission to record.)
And then there are the obscure “authorities” and boards that do important work and have open meetings but that civics books don’t even cover. Who ever heard of the development authorities that authorize commercial property tax breaks? Who ever went to a meeting of any county election board?
And sure, most of this wouldn’t be must-see TV. Many of the people who actually go to witness government have to be paid to watch it: advocacy organization staff, reporters, consultants, lobbyists.
But yet government’s public work should still be amplified and clarified as much as possible. Putting it on the internet is a start.
Government is complex and complexity favors insiders. The way to cut the insider’s advantage is to make engaging with government easier. Putting it online is one way to do that.
Government belongs to all of us, so its work ought to be accessible to as many people as possible. Clicking on a link is much easier than figuring out the building to go to, when to go there, where to park and then sitting through the parts you don’t want, just to have the part you do want to see delayed until after lunch.
Metro Atlanta’s bigger cities and counties tend to be government broadcast winners: Fulton, DeKalb and others have long published meeting agendas ahead of time, then they livestream meetings, then they publish videos you can watch any time.
Some governments, like Atlanta City Council, even seek attention and post on social media.
Some courts, like the Supreme Court of Georgia, broadcast oral arguments on the internet. (Those oral arguments don’t include things that make other courts wary of video recorders, such as victim testimony.)
Of course, I’ve heard lots of arguments against internet broadcast of public meetings.
The Georgia House and Senate have both broadcast their floor procedures for years and years; and in large part lately, smaller panel hearings on bills. But lack of staff has hindered full broadcast of everything, they say, including those subcommittee meetings in the little microphone-less room.
Smaller cities and counties cite trouble or expense of broadcast.
And it is true that internet meetings do shut out those who don’t have internet access.
But that’s why broadcast should supplement physical meetings. It should not replace physical meetings. Physical meetings have advantages too, like being able to meet and talk to the other folks there.
Several parts of government that have been resistant to broadcast or online meetings were forced into it by COVID-19.
The federal district court headquartered in Atlanta, the one that won’t let you bring in a camera phone, is sometimes allowing the public to connect to its online proceedings during the pandemic.
Some Fulton County Superior Court judges now have hours and hours of proceedings on YouTube.
On Zoom, even the most obscure authorities and boards have an audience, even if it’s small.
If Zoom is costly or fiddly, or the recordings are too large to store, Facebook and YouTube can handle that. Or Periscope or Twitch or Vimeo.
There’s lots of internet broadcast technology out there; here’s hoping more folks in government embrace it.
So if COVID-19 has proven anything, it’s that yes, government can in fact do internet broadcast.
Want to follow along at home? There are some social media handles for that:
Georgia House of Representatives: Twitter
Georgia Senate: Twitter
Supreme Court of Georgia: Twitter
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