The Brown Act of 1953: how this positive policy now negatively affects civic collaboration


We were offering up some suggestion on how to get more collaborative with citizens to a municipal government official the other day, but it seems that everything we offered up would not be allowed under the Brown Act of 1953. Stuff like using open to the public Google Groups to correspond between project stakeholders (allowing for citizens to join in and comment and contribute, and, at the very least, lurk), wikis to lay out project plans, forums and blogs to start conversations and thoughts and ask people's opinions of different ideas floating through the heads of officials, etc. None of this is allowed in California. Odd, I thought, so I trotted off to see what this Brown Act is all about. What I encountered was shocking to me:

The Brown Act, officially known as the Ralph M. Brown Act (California Government Code Sections 54950-54963), authored by Ralph M. Brown, an Assemblyman from Los Angeles County's San Gabriel Valley, was enacted in 1953 by the California State Legislature in an effort to safeguard the public's right to access and participate in government meetings within the State.

Um. Okay? So isn't a Google Group or a wiki opening up public access to participate in government meetings? I mean, we in the web world consider the following actions to be opening up meetings for open source projects:

  • IRC channel
  • Public phone-in number
  • Forum
  • Open mailing lists
  • Openly editable wikis
  • Blogs

If, like the Brown Act, they required:

  • Post notice of a meeting and the agenda for that meeting at least 72 hours prior
  • Notify the media of special meetings
  • Hold meetings within the jurisdiction of the governing body

Nothing would ever get done! I suppose the 72 hours works well (most meetings happen on a regular basis to avoid that), but for those who cannot make it to the meetings, IRC logs, open mailing lists, notes posted on a wiki and subsequent blog posts offer up a chance to join in on one's own convenience.

Now, the the Brown Act also gives the following rules, which fit beautifully into how open source and other community projects conduct their correspondence and meetings:

  • Allow non-disruptive recordings and broadcasts of meetings
  • Allow public comment
  • Those attending the meeting must not be forced to “sign in.”
  • All votes made by the governing board must be made in public, and no secret ballots can be conducted
  • All documents distributed at the meeting must be considered public documents.

Yep. Gorgeous and awesome. So, why is it that local Californian Governments cannot use open maillists, forums, irc chat, wikis, etc. for project collaboration online and have to stick with the antiquated notion of driving to meet in a previously agreed to location face to face as their only means of coordination?

Because, according to many critics, there is not enough public access to the internet.

Okay, I can see that the digital divide could be a barrier to some participation. However, I'd love to compare the recent statistics on access to computer terminals with internet connections to those with the ability to get around easily to those with televisions (the provision for the media is for those who can watch the meeting at home on their tvs). We also need to take into account that, even if one doesn't have a computer at home with an internet connection, many public centers, such as libraries provide free terminals with reliable connections. Access does not mean you need to have a computer at home.

As well, I understand that 'Access' does not necessarily mean that you have the ability to reach a connected terminal. There is, of course, the learning curve involved in accessing many of these services we use. I would assume that a large percentage of those without access aren't necessarily offline because they can't afford a computer or get an internet connection: they are offline because they have not had the access to education around using these tools. According to a Pew Study:

It is not, however, simply a question of money or age. Non-internet users do not have very positive attitudes about information technology. Many report worries about information overload and few link information technology to greater control over their lives. Moreover, non-internet users are apt to see the online environment as a dangerous place – that is, a place with inappropriate or irrelevant content.

With the median age of the non-internet users being 59 and a 1/4 of them having income under $20k/yr, there probably won't be much of a movement to go online. Which is a frustrating position to be in. While an increasing number of the North American population is online (over 70% are internet users and 47% have broadband internet connections at home, increasing to over 50% this year), the population that is not prevents adoption of new and amazing collaboration tools between government and citizens.

Perhaps in order to satisfy both needs, one could still provide the local meeting spaces and media notices and also utilize the web medium to get the word out further (as well as create a searchable public record). Perhaps there are other combinations. Either way, it is necessary to look at how the Brown Act could be reformed in order to lead governments towards better, simpler and cheaper public engagement. Hands are tied until we bring these laws up to date and accommodate for new technology that can provide much bigger wins for the future. Diversity runs in all directions.

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