Building detail on Capitol Hill map it

Photo by John Bahr

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New Elements of Democracy

Transforming civic involvement in Seattle

Last year Seattle’s TV channel won the greatest possible recognition, winning NATOA’s Overall Excellence in Programming award. Our city website, www.seattle.gov, has also won numerous awards. We must be doing something right, so why not just keep doing it?

The opportunity is just too appealing to ignore: To be a national leader in using technology to dramatically expand civic engagement and public discourse by transforming TVSea into a multimedia organization that provides compelling content and two-way communication opportunities. This is the goal statement recommended by the Seattle Commission on Electronic Communications, a volunteer citizen group that worked with staff for six months to create a new vision and roadmap to enhance our channel and its website. Consulting with experts from around the country (including Robin Gee from Santa Monica), the Commission recommended content, technology, finance and other recommendations to take our channel to a new level.

The City of Seattle is one of the most “wired” and technologically literate communities in the world, with 82 percent of the population having internet access and 72 percent with that access at home. Seattle also has an active citizenry that is knowledgeable about and engaged in civic and community affairs. And our elected officials are committed to broadening citizen participation.

According to a study conducted for The Council for Excellence in Government late last year, the public’s biggest hope for e-government was that it make government more accountable. When asked about the most important way that e-government could improve government accountability, the three most frequently cited ways were allowing citizens to communicate their opinions on major issues to officials quickly and easily; allowing citizens to tell government agencies about the information they need or problems they experience; and, giving the public more information about the government’s policies and decisions.

Over the years, when I have talked about Seattle’s website with visitors from other countries, I have been struck by the difference in their questions from those I am asked by American visitors. In the US, cities moving beyond using the web for information have focused on transactions with government – paying parking tickets; tracking permits; getting business licenses. But the question I get most often from people outside the US is “how has this technology affected democracy? How has it changed the relationship between citizens and their elected officials.” These visitors also marvel that we have local government run television channels.

We have decided to seize the opportunity and create something we call the Democracy Portal – transforming our television channel and its website, a virtual destination that will provide citizens with the tools and services they want and need to participate in the governmental, civic and cultural life of their city.

So what does this mean? Hollywood would pitch it as a cross between MSNBC and Discovery.com. The picture below is a prototype of a multi-media resource that provides linkages to public information and opportunities for citizens to interact with government and each other across media platforms.

Democracy Portal

Meetings and presentations on television would have companion information on a website. The Internet would also provide easy methods for input, through e-mail, polling and discussion forums, as well as provide more in-depth information about issues and program topics. Scrolls and squeezes could direct people to the web or to other television programming; video streaming would make television programs accessible on-demand.

We are working towards a “re-launch” of our TV channel and its website this fall, with a new name, up-to-date look and feel, and some new contentBut we have already experimented with several of the ideas suggested by the Commission. During some City Council meetings cablecast and video streamed live, we accept testimony via e-mail and in some cases via phone. People can e-mail questions to the Mayor before his monthly studio call-in program. We have enhanced the channel’s website to provide more information about programming and improve our video streaming; the re-launch will include creating a new web portal for the channel with more interactive features and links back to information on our main site.

This is a very exciting project which we are defining as we go. We are going to take risks and try new things and we know not all of them will work. We will have to be creative about how to do this on a government channel size budget. But it is definitely going to be fun.

The full report of the Seattle Commission on Electronic Communications can be found at www.seattle.gov/scec

Rona Zevin, former Director of Electronic Communications
2004

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