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Nonprofit Turns Facebook Discussions into State House Testimony

A state nonprofit organization is making it easier for people like you to share your thoughts on bills at the State House. Citizens Count, Live Free or Die Alliance has launched what it’s calling the “Citizen Voices” campaign, which creates online discussions of issues and then summarizes those discussions in testimony before the legislature. Joining me now to talk about Citizen Voices is Jacqueline Benson, the editor of the nonprofit and manager of “Citizen Voices.” She spoke with NHPR’s Peter Biello.

How is the program supposed to work?

The idea is that participating in government is not easy for people. It’s hard sometimes to know what’s even happening at the State House, when hearings are scheduled, and finding time to actually go up there and weigh in and have your say. It isn’t something that necessarily a lot of people can do—take off time on a Tuesday or Wednesday morning to go to Concord.

So what we’re trying to do is bring the hearing to you, where people are, which is on social media. We post questions every day on our Facebook page related to policy issues—either bills that are being considered in the House or Senate or other sort of more hypothetical questions. And we ask people to give their opinion. Come say yes, say no, talk, debate, discuss, and we then take that whole discussion, we analyze it, we break down pro and con arguments that people are making and give kind of a rough picture of where opinion was trending on this and we create a report that we then go in person to Concord and we present it at the hearing on this legislation, if it’s related to a bill. Or, if it’s more general policy issue, we’ll email legislators, special interest groups, other government departments, and basically make sure that they know what people are really thinking. We give them your voices.

The whole discussion is included with that report, so everybody’s words are actually there in the State House record for this bill. So you basically get to give your testimony without leaving your house.

Can you give an example of an issue and how the discussion went?

We did one recently on an issue that I personally thought was really fascinating, which was this question of delaying elections. In March, we had a snowstorm hit on Town Meeting Day and there were 73 towns in New Hampshire that decided to postpone their elections. State law in this arguably is fuzzy. There was a move in the legislature to ratify these elections. A couple of the Democratic senators submitted a late bill that would have said that the legislature says this is okay that we delay this.

So we asked people what they thought. We put a question up: “Do you think towns should be allowed to delay elections in cases of inclement weather?” And the opinion was strongly in favor of allowing towns to do this. We had a few hundred people who weighed in and we took that conversation and we wrote up our report and submitted it and, in that case, we did it by email, because the hearing was scheduled too fast for us to get there in person. But we sent it to the full Senate so all of them were aware of what people thought about this issue before they cast their vote.

In general, how long do people have to make their comments before you close the discussion and start your analysis?

We try not to close the discussion until the discussion is over. The only cases where we’ll stop before people stop talking is if there’s a hearing that’s scheduled and we have to do it right away. In that case, we’ll put the date right there in the question so people know if their opinion is going to make it. But most of the time we try to ask questions far enough ahead so the conversation can go on as long as it needs to. 

How representative do you think online discussions are of how all people in New Hampshire feel about a particular issue?

This is the crux of it. It’s important to note that we aren’t presenting this as a poll because we’re not trying to create a scientific sample. Because of Facebook and the way its algorithm works, we don’t have control over who sees these questions and who responds. We don’t want to. Because the idea here is that we’re trying to throw open a door that as many people as possible can walk through.

But for the sake of curiosity, we have done some work calibrating what we end up seeing in discussions with what some of the polls see. And we find that the results are pretty comparable. We’ll have anywhere from 200 to 2,000 people who will weigh in on a question and there is, I think, a pretty good cross section of New Hampshire’s political opinions that do come through in those discussions.

Have lawmakers given any indication that they find this kind of testimony helpful?

We’ve gotten some really great feedback from people in both branches. Some of them have questions about our methodology and we’ve been able to answer that. We try to provide them with a lot of background information so they can really see where this is coming from, so I would say that, in general, they’ve been really enthusiastic and find it interesting and useful.

Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered and Writers on a New England Stage at New Hampshire Public Radio. He has served as a producer/announcer/host of Weekend Edition Saturday at Vermont Public Radio and as a reporter/host of Morning Edition at WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina.
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