Sharon Brown and Mike Padden: Videoconferencing the next step in Washington’s participatory democracy

Oct 4, 2015

This guest column was pubished in The (Spokane) Spokesman-Review, Oct. 4, 2015. During the 2016 legislative session, opportunities for remote testimony were expanded as the Senate added Skype capabilities to its communication apparatus. Further upgrades to switching equipment in Senate hearing rooms were installed during the interim between the 2016 and 2017 sessions.

By Sen. Sharon Brown, R-Kennewick, and Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley

Sen. Sharon Brown, R-Kennewick

Sen. Sharon Brown, R-Kennewick

Noted author and publisher Dan Poynter once challenged members of an audience to always keep moving forward toward reaching their goals. “Each step you take reveals a new horizon,” he told them. “You have taken the first step today. Now, I challenge you to take another.”

It’s the same challenge we have made to the Legislature when it comes to providing Washingtonians an opportunity to testify at legislative hearings using remote videoconferencing technology.

The Tri-Cities are a drive of roughly 4.5 hours from the state capital of Olympia, and Spokane Valley is even farther away, at 5.5 hours. However, laws passed in Olympia have a direct impact on the people of Eastern Washington. The people of Spokane and Kennewick have a right to voice their opinions at legislative hearings, but for many citizens, participation in their state government is simply not practical or affordable.

Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley

Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley

In order for our constituents to testify on a bill or participate in a committee work session, they would normally have to miss a day of work, make a long and sometimes dangerous winter drive, and possibly pay hundreds of dollars for fuel, lodging and other expenses.

During this year’s legislative session, we worked with Senate administrators, local leaders and other experts to conduct a pilot program to allow remote testimony.

“For decades, the people of Eastern Washington had to travel to Olympia [to testify at legislative hearings],” Chris Cargill with the Washington Policy Center told KXLY’s Casey Lund.

“For the first time, [citizens] don’t have to take that long trip. They can testify before a legislative committee right here in Spokane or right in their neighborhood. This is the first time in our state’s history that our Legislature has done something like this, where it has allowed testimony from a remote location in Washington.”

The results from the pilot program are highlighted in a report completed this summer. Nineteen videoconferences to Olympia took place during the 2015 session. Six policy committees utilized remote testimony, with 44 people signing up to testify. Six remote facilities were used, including locations at Spokane Community College, WSU-Spokane and Columbia Basin College in Pasco.

Among those who testified from the remote location at SCC were two Spokane Valley police officers: Chief Rick VanLeuven and Deputy Todd Miller, a drug-recognition expert.

The Senate analysis identified a number of positive results from the pilot program. For starters, the opportunity for, and experience with, videoconferencing was well-received by committee chairs. Feedback from the news media and the public has also been favorable.

The analysis also found that there was a high level of cooperation from the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges. Our partners, who hosted remote locations, went above and beyond to help make remote testimony a reality for their communities.

The report specifically highlighted the extraordinary efforts of Columbia Basin College’s president, Rich Cummins, and his staff as a model for others to follow.

Not everything went smoothly. According to the report, because of technical limitations at the Senate (such as standard-definition versus high-definition equipment, and limited Internet-connection bandwidth), the image quality was often less than optimal. The WSU-Spokane Riverpoint location could not be utilized to the degree desired because of connection failures.

The good news is that legislative technical staff are confident they can make changes to remedy these glitches, and much of the work to accomplish this has already begun.

One of our key goals moving forward is also to increase participation by improving how the public is notified about remote-testimony opportunities.

What is clear is that remote testimony is an idea whose time has come.

Having taken this step toward remote testimony, it is important that we come back in January ready to take another. Increasing the openness of government and the public’s access to lawmakers is a matter of basic fairness. A ZIP code should never be the determining factor in whether a Washingtonian has a voice in the people’s Legislature.

Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, represents the 4th Legislative District and chairs the Senate Law and Justice Committee. Sen. Sharon Brown, R-Kennewick, represents the 8th Legislative District and chairs the Senate Trade and Economic Development Committee.