One of the longstanding problems noted but not generally addressed before in FCC policy has been how to get the word out to folks not already plugged in as insiders to file comments. Traditionally, the FCC (like most federal agencies) has taken a very passive attitude. (Indeed, the FCC has traditionally been ahead of the curve. Many federal agencies have made it downright difficult for members of the public to find out what has been going on, or to file comments.)
In the last few weeks, the FCC has taken a number of steps forward on this. It started modestly with Twitter. Then came the the blog, including a video blog of Chairman Genachowski. As if that werent enough, last week the FCC launched a slew of social networking and crowdsource tools including an RSS feed, a crowdsourcing platform, and a site to track all the social media tools, such as the FCCs Facebook and Youtube pages. And, perhaps more important from the perspective of actually considering the public comments, FCC Spokesperson Mark Wigfield stated that comments on the blogs will become part of the official record.
All of these are tremendous steps forward and worthy of applause. Yes, there is still lots to do on making things like the electronic comment system or the Universal Licensing Service more usable. But folks at the FCC have acknowledged this time and again, and deserve credit for doing the things they could do quickly first. Steps forward deserve encouragement, especially when they keep on coming.
Its been nearly a year since Public Knowledge and the Silicon Flatirons Center held its FCC Reform conference, and the FCC has moved slowly but steadily towards addressing many of the concerns raised at the conference and the paper submitted beforehand.
One concern raised by a number of the conference participants was some of the unintended consequences of the Government in Sunshine Act. The Sunshine Act was intended to ensure that agency business is not done behind closed doors. This is certainly a noble goal, but by prohibiting more than 2 Commissioners (3 is a quorum for the 5 member FCC) to meet unless an open meeting is held and public notice is given, power has trickled down to unappointed and unconfirmed FCC staffers, who are under no such prohibition and who serve as secret brokers for their bosses. After staff finish their horse trading, the actual open meeting is like Kabuki theatre – Commissioners read from prepared statements, there is little or no debate and the outcome is predetermined.
Assuming the Federal Government opens for business on Thursday (and I am not taking bets), we can expect to see Genachowski taking another substantial step to make good on his pledge to reform how the FCC does business. The agenda for the Commission’s open meeting for Thursday, February 11 lists three items. Two have to do with changing FCC rules to make the agency more open and more streamlined, the third has to do with reforming the E-Rate Program under which schools get money to subsidize broadband.
We can expect that to the extent the press cover this, the focus will go to the E-Rate story. At least people understand about broadband in schools. But for long term difference that matters, the FCC process stories — while phenomenally boring and unsexy — have much broader impact.