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Can The iPad Fix The Legislative Process?

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In the age of Google and all things Big Tech, consumers have embraced mobile devices in a major way. They're using new technologies to communicate, find information, share links, discuss community issues, and organize for volunteer efforts. Although mobile devices are poised to pave a new era in the realm of civic engagement, the American legislative process has been slow to keep up.

Today, if citizens wish to be heard by their government, they have plenty of roadblocks to maneuver. Legislators ask citizens to send an email, leave a voicemail, or find time to attend public meetings if they want to discuss key concerns. Numerous staff members are standing in the way between legislators and citizens -- and the gap is taking its toll. Americans are becoming increasingly politically-apathetic and skipping civic engagement efforts: just 5.5 percent of citizens volunteer for civic organizations.

The gap is affecting voting, too. In the 2012 presidential election, about 40 percent of eligible voters -- 93 million people -- opted out of casting a vote. A 2011 Pew Research Center survey found 69 percent of Americans believe politicians don't care what the average American thinks, and another 72 percent said politicians lose touch with voters once elected. Congressional approval has dropped to historic lows, clinging to just six percent.

In the age of widespread mobile communication technology, there's no excuse for the American public to feel ignored in the legislative process. Mobile devices are taking communications by storm, with one-third of American adults now owning a mobile tablet like the iPad -- almost twice 2012's numbers. Even more impressive: as of January 2013, 129 million Americans owned a smartphone. The number of smartphones worldwide hit the one billion mark in 2012, with experts predicting that number will double by 2015.

With mobile device ownership only expected to grow, it's concerning that politicians haven't jumped on the opportunity to pool citizen voices, fuel civic engagement, and improve the legislative process using these technologies. Other legislatures have come close to doing this -- in 2012, politicians in Iceland used social media sites, including Facebook and Twitter, to crowdsource a new constitution. The move was praised as a step in the right direction for open government, but the document was scrapped when Iceland's Parliament dissolved.

In the U.S., some legislators have taken to conducting Twitter town halls, but in general, the virtual gatherings serve only to answer questions, not create solutions, gather data, or pool citizen ideas. Americans can gather support for legislative changes using the White House's We The People online petition platform, but the barriers to entry are high. Whereas an e-petition once required 25,000 signatures in 30 days to get an administrative response, the number was recently increased to 100,000 signatures -- an unattainable standard for many.

Still, there are some governments using mobile technology to show citizens the legislative process is listening. In Austin, TX, the city government launched Speak Up, Austin!, an online portal that asks, "How can we improve the city of Austin?" It allows community members to brainstorm ideas, discuss problems, cast votes, and even receive notifications when city officials are turning their ideas into action. The platform has attracted 2,000 registered users, who have drummed up 800 ideas, cast 5,280 votes, and added 1,055 comments to the site. Their participation has paid off: Austin now has more than 50 civic ideas in action, and 23 have already been fully implemented in the community.

Used in this manner, mobile technology allows government to go beyond automated email responses to citizen concerns -- politicians can show citizens they care about their concerns and are willing to listen to their input in real-time. Government leaders can pool citizen voices without the hassle of sending automated emails, planning events, or having staff members reach out to citizens individually. Online discussions, polls, surveys, and comments allow politicians to crunch the data and access it on their own mobile devices when they need it the most -- right before voting on agenda items or making key decisions.

In an age when mobile technology use is only expected to increase drastically, it's past time for legislators to embrace this new mode of communication. Citizens deserve to know they're being listened to. If legislators are willing to embrace mobile devices, they can squash political apathy once and for all.

Tom Spengler is the CEO and co-founder of Granicus, an award-winning cloud applications provider for government transparency, efficiency, and citizen participation.