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June 23, 2009 10:46 AM

Taking The FCC's Website To 2.0

So the FCC's website is horrendously outdated. While perhaps cutting edge in the 90s, it's painful to use today, especially the public commenting system, which is difficult to navigate, find what you're looking for, and even read that information once you find it. For the best walkthrough and subsequent indictment of how bad things are, check out David Isenberg's post lamenting his experiences with cries of, "Oy, oy, oy!"

I can tell you that as a first-time commenter this year I've found the whole process to be frustrating, artificial, and distant. It feels like I'm just throwing my comments down a hole. While I know they're being read as they have to by law, I don't know how well they're actually being considered nor is it immediately obvious if anyone's commenting on my comments. It's also cumbersome replying to the comments of others as gathering and reviewing all the data is time-consuming, and the response mechanism again makes me feel disconnected from the decision-making process.

Yet we now live in an era where interactive participation is the new norm on websites, where there's a host of new technologies that can be used to facilitate conversations and interactions, where the public can engage in a true dialogue with government to aid in the formulation of effective public policy.

Luckily, it also looks like we're soon to have an FCC Chairman in Julius Genachowski that understands the value of embracing this new level of online engagement and who has already voiced his commitment to establishing a new FCC website that utilizes new technology rather than holding onto old ways of doing things.

So to help further this conversation along I wanted to share some of my thoughts on how we can enable an FCC 2.0.

Most of my thinking in this area revolves around the need for the FCC to have its own social network.

Basically what would happen is if you're an individual or an organization that wants to comment on an FCC proceeding, you sign up for an account, which opens up a slew of features including:

Easy comment/reply submittals - Site remembers your information, provides easy-to-use forms, and archives all your comments/replies.

FCC proceeding tracker - Flag relevant proceedings, get notifications for deadlines, and follow comments as they come in, also be able to follow replies to comments including your own.

More robust reply system - Instead of just written replies citing comments, have things like reply trees that branch off of comments so you can track threads easily, more informal discussion boards to facilitate conversations about comments, private boards that groups can setup to discuss and coordinate responses to comments, also consider introducing public voting/ranking system to inform which comments have the most public support. Another thought would be to enable a system for easy in-line commenting so that replies can target specific areas rather than just having to be standalone documents.

Commenter ratings - The site should have some way of highlighting the opinions of accomplished and/or frequent commenters. Perhaps the public can vote on whether they like or dislike comments and this input then produces a commenter rating. Or social network members could recommend other commenters, the more commenters who recommend you the higher your rating. The higher your rating perhaps your comments show up first in search results.

Commenter classifications - This is a bit more out there, but I'd like us to consider having commenters identify which camp they're in: Public, Private, or In-between. For many communications-related issues there are clear fault lines between those who believe in a market-driven private and a government-guided public approach, so why not get the biases out there? It may help foster collaboration between like-minded entities thereby refining messages and hopefully helping bring us closer to consensus on various issues by uniting mindshare.

Public requests for information - Instead of being a formal RFI process, I'd encourage the FCC to set it up so they can request information from their social network on a much more regular and informal basis. By collecting all the best brainpower on communications issues in one place they'd be one step away from any answer to any question they might have.

Deputize some commenters - I include this idea because setting up a social network like this will likely create a lot more input coming into the FCC. The challenge that creates is the point I mentioned earlier that they're mandated by law to read all public comments, and they already have a massive challenge getting through the number of comments they get with today's system. What I'm suggesting to resolve that is create some way to deputize trusted commenters to extend the FCC's reach. Count their actions reading and responding to comments as part of the FCC's overall response. This may not work for everything, like the official comments on FCC proceedings, but perhaps it could for the new class of conversation this site would be enabling.

Empower some commenters as moderators - While it will have to be closely watched to insure any power given isn't used to suppress any voices, by charging some members with the responsibility to keep certain conversations moving forward we can make sure this site continues to keep discussions progressing.

Consumer complaint section - If the FCC wants to truly be useful to the public and not just those of us inside the Beltway trying to make policy, then it makes sense to have there be a place in the FCC 2.0 for the public to notify the FCC of suspect or illegal activities. This section could serve as the repository of information and rallying point for coordination around identifying the misuse of communications technologies.

Regular video updates - This can be as simple as having an intern make a videoblog reading the happenings of the last week at the FCC, or it can become a more robust way of helping the FCC communicate its messages to the public that could include comments from FCC Commissioners and public service announcements related to communications issues that are meant to go viral through sites like YouTube. The FCC should embrace the fact that video's the dominant form of communications in the 21st century and start using it more. This function could also be crowdsourced to the social network as there are already some in the broadband policy space who've begun creating their own videos in an attempt to help keep the public informed and up-to-date.


These are just some of the many ideas that an FCC 2.0 can be incorporating into not just their website but also the way they do business so as to drive new efficiencies and open new opportunities for the kind of more robust public input that can help the FCC be more effective in its actions.

The biggest point to remember in all this is that arguably more important than the technology of the network is the sociology behind how you bring people together. Notice that most of my ideas aren't about technology; they're about how to better facilitate conversations and the dissemination of information.

Also know that I'm not claiming ownership over any of these ideas. I'm just trying to pull together the first ones that pop to mind so that we can start sketching out what we should be expecting from an FCC 2.0 website.

I know there are lots more ideas out there, though, so if you have any not mentioned above please speak up and share them in a comment below! If you have any thoughts that build off of anything I've listed in this post, or if you don't agree with one of my suggestions, let us know!

The more voices we hear from in this process the stronger the outcome will be.

The time has come for the FCC and its website to enter the 21st century. Let's help them make it happen in the best way possible!

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Comments (1)

There are some interesting ideas here. I think it would be important to have discussions moderated to some degree to keep things on track. Part of the key to successfully having the public become involved will be to present issues in a way that non-lawyers and non-engineers can understand. This will involve framing issues in ways that can generate meaningful public input. Clearly some issues will be hard for the general public to comment on (technical rules, for example) but there are ways to distill even complex rules into chunks of data that laypeople can digest.

Another major aspect of "FCC2.0" -- though having worked there in the past, the FCC web presence has actually been reinvented several times already -- will be meaningful search tools, especially with relation to license data. The current data tools are very difficult to use, and the public, entrepreneurs and incumbent carriers would benefit from easily being able to see who the FCC has licensed where and what they are authorized to do. With mapping technology it should also be possible to show users areas of coverage.

Clearly there is no shortage of ways the FCC could improve its public interface!

Posted by Brett Tarnutzer on June 24, 2009 11:38 AM

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