Washington State Leads the Way With Online Bill Commenting System

Kudos to Washington state legislators for launching E-Comment, a pilot program allowing registered users to more easily share their opinions on pending legislation with lawmakers. As we read on Social Capital Review, the commenting system kicked off last week and will run through the 2013 legislative session.

While we acknowledge this is just the public testing stage and admire the state’s willingness to lead the way, we’d like to see the legislature take some steps to make the system easier to use.

The site’s description of the program certainly makes it sound easy, but presupposes a certain level of experience in the legislative arena:

E-Comments is a feature the Legislature is testing during the 2013 Session. Clicking the button at the top of the bill history page allows you to send comments on that bill to the legislators who represent your district. The first time you comment you will be asked to set up an account with your e-mail address and a password of your choice.

Now read Social Capital Review’s instructions.

Once you know the number of the pending bill on which you’d like to comment, go back to the legislature’s main “Bill Info” hub page and enter just the number of the bill into the box at the top titled, “Search By Bill Number,” and click the adjoining “Search” button to the right. Entering 1007 – for House Bill 1007 – you will land at a “bill history” page for the measure – which seeks to ensure loads of gravel and dirt in open-bed trucks are covered in order to limit damage to other vehicles. The page has links to the full text of the bill, a staff report and digest, a list of the sponsors, video of any committee hearings on it so far, what stage it’s at in the pathway to possible enactment, and on top, a “comment on this bill” button. Click on that, and you will be asked to register; then you can choose a position of for, against, or neutral; and add a comment for legislators to review.

“Once you know the number of the pending bill.” The system would be much easier if users could simply begin the commenting process from the advance search results page without having to go back the main legislative page and search for the bill number.

Our second critique: The testing window is too short. With the legislature adjourning April 28, overseers will be evaluating just three months of data in a system that has not received much publicity. We’d encourage the state to commit to a two-year program and use the time between sessions to make improvements.

E-Comment has the potential to be a great tool for the grass roots. Hopefully other states will follow Washington’s lead.