Another sign that it’s time for online legislature

Published 10:18 am Friday, May 18, 2012

Twenty-plus years ago, I was editing the daily newspaper in Fergus Falls, Minn., where the biggest employer was the Regional Treatment Center — a state-run residential hospital for people with developmental disabilities.

One day, the chief executive at the RTC called to say that they had installed some new technology that would allow them to hold meetings via videoconference, and he wondered if I would be interested in coming out to see it in action.

Although it may be hard to believe in this day of high-bandwidth internet-based communication, holding a meeting where people didn’t even have to be in the same room to see and hear each other was at one time cutting-edge stuff. Especially in outstate Minnesota.

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So I drove up to the RTC to sit in on a sample meeting, did a couple of interviews with the participants, went back to the paper and wrote the story. By today’s standards, the meeting process was incredibly clunky, requiring much advance planning, huge computing power and special cameras.

A couple of days later, it occurred to me that the state’s investment in super-cool, futuristic meeting technology could be used for all sorts of stuff, not the least of which would be to make the state Capitol building obsolete.

I wrote that week’s column about the wonder of a newly envisioned video-conference Legislature and Congress, a utopian democratic system in action where the people’s representatives would do the people’s business not in some distant metropolis but from convenient offices downtown in whatever community they called home.

This idea — which I later learned was not original — clearly has not caught on in government. But it came back to mind as this year’s legislative session wound to a close: It would have been a perfect time to try out the legislate-from-home concept. While lawmakers will trumpet the session’s accomplishments, the reality is that very little got done. Engines were revved, wheels spun. But not much actually happened until a frantic burst of energy at session’s end produced a bonding bill and a new stadium.

Could not this work have been done via videoconference? It would certainly have saved the people of Minnesota a lot of money, since legislators would not have had to travel to the Capitol or rent housing in the St. Paul area.

More importantly, if legislative functions were conducted in each of Minnesota’s communities via videoconferencing, any Minnesotan who cared to could pop by his local lawmaker’s workplace and see the process of government in action. Instead of being surrounded by other legislators and fleets of lobbyists as they wrestled with tough decisions, the people who represent the people would be accessible.

That would be a giant step forward for democracy.

The concept’s viability is self-evident. It works for business and industry, which have cut travel costs and increased communication with low-cost internet-based videoconferencing. It works for colleges; many, maybe most, reputable schools offer at least some of their curriculum on-line and via video.

In fact, the process of connecting people for conversations and meetings is so simple that it can be implemented almost instantly. On one of the few bad weather days last winter my wife and several other seminary students who were scheduled for a late-night class in the Twin Cities simply asked their professor to conduct the class via Skype. He agreed and it went off perfectly (and I got one free night of grad school by looking over my wife’s shoulder). No one had to drive through a storm. Everyone got educated.

Dispersing the process of law-making out of St. Paul (or, on a bigger scale, Washington) makes sense for virtually everyone involved. Anything that puts government close to the people helps demystify the process and surely leads to better decisions.

There are deep traditions surrounding the way the legislative branch of government works. But an institution that won’t change to meet the realities of the world around it is an institution that can not long be useful.