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Public Participation as Public Media: Digital Participation and the National Broadband Plan

We're pleased to present this guest post from Christopher Ali, doctoral student at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. Ali holds an MA in Media Studies from Concordia University in Montreal and his research interests include local and community media, broadcasting, and telecommunication policy in Canada and the United States.


The Center for Social Media defines "public media" as platforms and projects that convene publics around shared issues. In this post, I'd like to take that notion one step further, to include that of public participation in policy making through digital platforms.

Take for instance the National Broadband Plan (NBP). For the past few months the Federal Communications Commission has scoured the nation in search of information related to and about broadband Internet as part of its fact-finding mission to draft the country's first National Broadband Plan. They've talked to experts, they've talked to industry representatives, they've talked to telecommunication companies, academics, and foreign and domestic government alike. Significantly, they've also talked to members of the public - a fairly new concept for an agency that has (more than once) banished the public from its policy-making deliberations. Most interestingly, the Commission has gone about soliciting public involvement in interesting and (for the FCC) novel ways. Joining the traditional notions of public participation - public hearings and the steadfast file-and-comment procedure - the FCC has launched several initiatives to foster public participation using digital technology. They launched a website, www.broadband.gov, to give users access to pertinent information. Connected to this, they launched a discussion forum to give the public an arena to voice their concerns and responses. They've also streamed and archived meetings and hearings, held primarily in Washington, but also in other parts of the country; and they launched a blog space (the "Blogband" ) for agency commissioners and staff to share information and experiences regarding the NBP.

With all of this in mind, I ask the question: can public participation in the policy -making process using digital venues be understood as an example of public media? I answer: absolutely. Both public participation (or "e-participation") and public media share an ethos of using new and digital media platforms to strengthen the democratization, participation, dissemination, and inclusionary possibilities of news and information. Moreover, they both strive to protect and grow public expression in a media era dominated by industry.

The pressing concern, now that this has been established, is whether or not public participation as public media has been fully realized during the course of the National Broadband Plan? Alas, it is here where the waters become murky …

True, the NBP effort has launched new digital participatory initiatives to foster public participation, and the Commission and its representatives-most notably Chairman Genochowski and Commissioners Copps and Clyburn- have rhetorically praised and committed to the project of public participation. This in and of itself is an accomplishment considering the shunning the public received under Chairman Powell. But this process both can be and needs to be strengthened to fully align digital public participation in communication policy making with the project of public media. The FCC can learn much from the proponents and strategies of public media when thinking about strengthening its promotion of public participation through digital media. For instance, the Commission can:

  • Promote a stronger and more permanent dialogue between participants and the staff and commissioners of the agency, through online chats and by having FCC representatives comment on the discussion forums, rather than simply blog.
  • Make the material available on Broadband.gov (or any future iteration) both more accessible (for instance, improving readability through the use of non-legal language) and interactive (allowing users to create their own content using these documents) as is suggested by Philip Weiser (available here).
  • Promote blogging, not just by FCC personnel, but also by the public. This can be accomplished by allowing interested members of the public the opportunity to sign up for a blog spot, or by selecting members from the discussion forum to contribute further insights on the FCC site.
  • Promote and distribute interactive media beyond the confines of the written word (i.e. video, podcasts).

Most importantly however, the FCC needs to adopt a unifying policy to ensure that these public voices will be heard and admitted into the final record; what Coglianese, Kilmartin and Mendelsen have called a "Public Participation Plan," (from the article, "Transparency and Public Participation in the Federal Rulemaking Process: Recommendations for the New Administration." The George Washington Law Review. Issue 77. June 2009, pages 924-971).

With 49 days before the National Broadband Plan is due before Congress, it is unlikely that these suggestions will be taken up for this policy inquiry. Nevertheless, the FCC has laid the groundwork for public participation in communication policy through digital media. The next steps are to first to see how the current iterations are incorporated in to the National Broadband Plan, and second, to then conceptualize and put into action the ways that these strategies can be strengthened for the next rounds of policy-making. It is in this way that we can encourage a more democratic policy process and fully realize the connections between the goals of public participation and the project of public media.