Since the US existed as colonies of Great Britain, constituents desired input into the government and rule and law making. When the colonies became the US, the government ensured that it included the ability to provide public comment any time a major change in law or agency rules occurred. The idea was and still is that the public should guide the law, providing input into their own governing. The citizens of the US first illustrated this belief before becoming a country by staging the Boston Tea Party.

Today, public commenting still provides opportunity for citizens to provide input into the development of law and agency rules. For centuries, the town meeting provided this opportunity to comment. In modern times, marketing practices merged with political practices and the government began relying on stakeholder meetings, focus groups, surveys, and social media to gather public input. While it still provides a period of time for public comment, typically about 90 days after announcing a policy or rule change, it uses the other public opinion and information gathering methods before making the rule or during its development.

As the Internet gained popularity, the federal government also began offering digital commenting through various methods. This trickled down into lower levels of government – to states, regional councils of government (COGs), counties, and municipalities. One of the main tools used for intake, tracking, and analysis of these digital comments, Smart Comment, provides a simple way for the public to enter comments, and displays them on a comment dashboard that makes it easy to sort and access. You can take advantage of interactive maps, digital bracketing, and manage staff in charge of the comment period. The efficient comment management tools simplify analysis and organize comments in an easily readable way.

While an inherent part of our country’s development, offering a period of public commenting and integrating their opinions and positions into your organization’s new policies also contributes to building a positive organizational culture. In business we hear the term company culture consistently, but the need for an accepting culture that fosters positive interaction, mutual respect, and enables development proliferates all organizations, including governmental bodies and non-profits.

Cities, states, and countries with a participatory culture will find it easier to grow and develop. One of the first steps in developing this participatory culture is removing barriers to participation in rulemaking.

What is a barrier?

Everything from apathy to a lack of transportation can form a barrier to participating in a public comment period. Lack of trust in the government or organization ranks as one of the most frequently named barriers. Many people become accustomed to their existing mayor’s and city council’s way of doing things and don’t trust a new set of elected officials when they enter office wanting to involve the public more.

Using digital commenting can help alleviate many barriers to participation. This means once uninvolved groups can easily offer their opinions by entering them as a comment directly on a website, via email, or via digital letter. Since smartphones became ubiquitous – 61 percent of US adults own one – most people can use their phone to access the Internet. Those unable to do so can phone in their comment because 91 percent of the US owns a mobile phone. Using digital commenting options gives every citizen the ability to offer their opinion on governmental changes involving structure, rules, and policies.

The mere introduction of digital commenting on public policy can begin to alleviate the apathy and the mistrust barriers. Once provided an opportunity to voice their opinion, many will do so. This, however, leaves it to the governmental organization to utilize those opinions and give them weight. Mistrust continues if, after gaining the input of constituents or citizens, the organization ignores it. A comment period for show only simply continues the feelings of apathy and mistrust.

Until the COVID-19 pandemic, many organizations eschewed the notion of video meetings. Zoom has taken hold as a go-to method of meetings though and has proven itself capable of viably hosting conferences with thousands of participants. This provides ample opportunity to create workarounds for those without transportation options as well as those with physical disabilities that would render them incapable of attending or severely impede the likelihood of their attendance.

Companies Using the Digital Public Comment Method

But companies can use digital commenting, too. These software options provide them an avenue for collecting and analyzing brand and product knowledge from its best source – its customers. Focus groups, surveys, and public comment periods while developing the next version of a product can help your firm uncover blind spots and pain points it had no idea existed.

Customers know products by what they do for them and what they wish the product could do. Your widget can become the best widget by gaining the input of its users.

You can also sway public opinion by asking for input and integrating stakeholder knowledge and needs into your company policies. For example, an oil well drilling operation could elicit public engagement from the public on its plans to drill in an area near an environmentally protected area. Prioritizing the public’s opinions and integrating their input into the potential drilling operation can alleviate backlash.

Integrating customer feedback can reverse dissatisfaction. Your prioritization of their feedback can vault you beyond your competition while ignoring public opinion and providing no feedback mechanism can do the opposite.

You’ve got to ask for this opinion or comment with the right language, too. Use humble and respectful language that personalizes the public engagement request without getting too familiar. The public can spot a fake, so fake friendly language or a sales pitch will fail. An honest statement that you want their opinion because you feel it is important to include citizens or customers in the policy or product development process usually works.

You can gain the feedback you need. A public comment period using digital methods of commenting can lower participation barriers and increase the number and quality of digital public comment you receive.