Still Relying on Written or Emailed Public Comments? Here’s Why You Need to Upgrade

Thomas Mullen
September 30, 2015

We were excited to announce the news last week about our latest client, the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality, chucking its former comment period process in favor of a fully integrated electronic comment management system from SmartComment. In charge of protecting the beauty and natural resources of that state, the Wyoming DEQ will now use our public comment software to manage more than 1,000 comment periods per year related to air and water permits, environmental rule changes and other sensitive ecological matters — assuring that the viewpoints of the public members they serve are heard and handled with the most secure, convenient, and easy-to-manage method available.

Here are the top five reasons we think your forward-thinking, publicly engaged regulatory agency should follow their example and switch to SmartComment as well:

Retain Specialist Knowledge

It’s an office nightmare even worse than a copier meltdown: You need to retrieve planning and comment files on a public works project that got approved, oh, about a decade ago. So you do what any earnest, hard-working person would do and initiate a full-on excavation of the office filing system. Document cabinets, stored boxes, the emails of ex-employees – nothing is spared. In the end, you spend a week of office manpower to recover about a third of what you needed, and now get to spend another fun-filled week trying to organize it all while writing a report about what happened to all the other stuff. So how do you make sure this never happens again? Start a subscription with SmartComment, which will immediately deliver you from the administrative dark ages. We put all of your planning documentation, comments, and responses on a cloud-based system that will forever remain a mouseclick away and under digital lock and key with your department instead of disappearing into the nooks and crevices of your document logs, or walking out the door the next time one of your prized employees moves on. I mean those documents from past reports have been vetted and forged by specialists, scientists and sometimes the courtroom. So why not be sure you can always have them around to learn from them? In short, SmartComment does for your public comment files what did for your family tree and Facebook did for your vacation pictures. No more drawer digging, no more email snooping.

It’s Your System… Made Better

We know you’ve got your process for responding to comments down pat. You run your comment periods and get through the tedious task of responding to comments. It might not always be organized, but you know it inside and out. You’re open to something new, but you like your overall process and don’t want to shut down the letter and email options. No problem! SmartComment accepts ALL forms of traditional comments – at the same time accepting electronic comments. And if you’re already accepting electronic comments through a system your old IT guy cobbled together in 2007, SmartComment can step in and seamlessly take over with its superior set of tools, allowing you to organize and analyze your comments, as well as respond to them through our unique comment management interface. No matter where your agency falls on the comment-management spectrum, SmartComment can take your system to the next level – and allow you to retain whatever you like from your current system. We call that a win-win. You’ll just call it easier.

Get Full Community Engagement

If your proposal comes out of the public comment process facing opposition, the complaints frequently focus on the argument that the community wasn’t given an adequate opportunity to weigh in on it due to a flawed or incomplete comment process. And if you’re still relying on public comment cards, they might have a point. So why not go into your next comment period equipped with the transparency and public engagement innovation offered by SmartComment? Besides acting as an unassailable safeguard against these kinds of complaints, SmartComment puts on full display that your agency is doing everything in its power to ensure a well-run and transparent public comment period. Don’t believe us? Just ask the Wyoming DEQ. They’re already winning applause from an environmental watchdog group for their move to a fully integrated electronic comment system from SmartComment – and they’re just getting started.

It’s The Right Thing To Do

Public engagement has long since graduated from being one of those office terms that companies throw around – but then barely pay lip service to in the real world. Nowadays, companies live and die by how widely they throw open the door for customer participation — from the funding hopefuls putting their gameplans and strategies on display to the world on Kickstarter, to that food truck whose Twitter updates have you driving all the way across town to try their latest Korean BBQ-seaweed taco. As in life, “please” and “thank you” go a long way. For agencies that take public comments, it can be as simple as setting up a SmartComment station with open laptops at a public hearing to show (not tell) community members that you want to hear from them. Or sending them a digital receipt to let them know when their comment is received. It’s engaging, disarming and it’s the way things should be done – from proposed rule changes with a high amount of commenters on down to pending permit approvals at the department level that generate only small amounts of comments.

It’s Going to Be This Way Eventually

It’s inevitable that electronic comments – like traffic lights and power steering – will one day be government mandates instead of convenient features. So why not embrace it now? After all, history is kind to those who turn into the curves rather than sit back to see where they go. Or, to borrow a lesson from my childhood camp counselor, it’s always best to jump into the pond before he comes over and throws me in. Make no mistake, the days of written and email-based comment systems are going the way of cassette tapes and filling out your taxes with a pencil and calculator. In fact, it goes back to the very idea of SmartComment three years ago when we incredulously found ourselves forced to submit a written letter to weigh in on a local matter and asked one simple question: “Why the heck isn’t there software for this?” Well, now there is.