EPA takes a people approach to e-gov

EPA takes a people approach to e-gov

BY PREETI VASISHTHA | GCN STAFF

Many electronic-government efforts attempt to fulfill the 'for the people' and 'of the people' parts of democracy. The Environmental Protection Agency this month took a crack at 'by the people.'

The agency drew 1,200 users to a series of national online dialogues it conducted from July 10 to 20 to discuss its draft public-involvement policy.

'This is an example of what we can do with the Web,' said Laurie Maak, a consultant with Information Renaissance, which hosted EPA Online Dialogue. 'We were not only looking at the agency informing the public, but also the public informing the agency.'

Information Renaissance is a nonprofit group in Pittsburgh that promotes the use of networking to support education, community development and economic revitalization.

Users registered for the dialogues from across the country, including Alaska and Hawaii, as well as Guam, Canada and other foreign countries, by logging on to www.network-democracy.org/epa-pip.

The Transportation and Housing and Urban Development departments and several state and local governments also signed up.

Bonner, Kahn, & Carlitz
EPA's Patricia A. Bonner, right, who worked with EPA's Lisa Kahn and Information Renaissance's Robert D. Carlitz, on the online dialogues, called them a 'gold mine of good ideas.'
EPA received about 1,200 messages by July 19, with the greatest number coming from the East Coast.

'The dialogue is a gold mine of good ideas,' said Patricia A. Bonner, lead staff member for public-involvement policy in EPA's Policy, Economics and Innovation Office.

The agency sought comments from citizens to help devise a plan for a policy and its implementation. One of the biggest challenges for Bonner has been perusing all the messages and picking the ones that offered best practices and useful ideas.

The Draft 2000 Public Involvement Policy, released last December, is aimed at helping EPA make environmental decisions that take into account the interests and concerns of affected citizens, promoting techniques for public involvement and setting procedures for public involvement in EPA's decision-making processes.

The agency expects to release the final policy next year.

EPA in May awarded Information Renaissance a $50,000 contract to host the dialogue.
The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation of California provided funds for background material and summaries on the dialogue site. Resources for the Future, a Washington nonprofit think tank, will evaluate the dialogue.

To participate, users needed access to the Internet and a Web browser.

'Before the dialogue, we collected and put in a lot of background information on the site for people who were not aware of the issues,' said Robert D. Carlitz, executive director of Information Renaissance.

A six-member team led by Carlitz at Information Renaissance's office conducted the dialogue on a server running BSDi Unix software from Wind River Systems Inc. of Alameda, Calif.

Except for BSDi Unix, all the software used for the project was open source, Carlitz said.

Free assists

The program ran Apache Web Server freeware, and the database was MySQL from MySQL AB of Sweden.

The system's other freeware included MHonArc for Internet message archiving and Majordomo for managing mailing lists.

A typical day started at 7:30 a.m. with Carlitz, the moderator, posting the topic of the day along with an introduction and messages from a panel of experts.

Participants could either post a new thread or reply to a message. Carlitz scanned all the messages for spam and formatting problems.

The messages were not edited for content and were posted on the site with Majordomo. They will be archived for at least one year.

EPA received about 100 to 200 messages daily, and at 8 p.m. a daily summary was collected from the comments and sent to all the participants.

Bonner said the agency wanted to target consumer, environmental and advocacy groups, minorities, businesses, researchers and education groups.

Topics included identifying potentially affected parties in EPA's decision-making process; finding ways of getting them involved; and getting feedback from states, American Indian tribes, local governments and other organizations.

Bonner said the panelists included experts from the National Center for Small Communities, Alaska Native Science Commission, California Toxic Substances Control Department, Fordham School of Law, Community Right to Know and U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

To boost participation in the dialogues, EPA conducted a marketing push that targeted public-interest and professional groups.

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