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As an example, the City of Vancouver is currently holding a public hearing on rezoning the city's neighbourhoods to allow for duplexes. As a resident of Vancouver who has an opinion on the matter in question, this seems like an archaic way of gathering public opinion:

  • The public hearings are always during business hours on a weekday, so anyone attending them needs to take a day off work. This highly skews the attendance to people who are paid to be there and those who are unemployed or retired.
  • Even if they would be done on a weekend when everyone can attend, the attendance is still limited to the physical space in City Hall (or whatever branch of government is holding them).
  • Even if you can somehow allow for an unlimited number of people to attend, the opinion of those gathered in the room would be in no way representative of the opinion of the city/district as a whole.
  • Even if the attendance is somehow balanced to be representative, it's commonplace that only those with the loudest voices get to speak. And such meetings are frequently disrupted by unruly attendants.

So what's the point of these public hearings in the 21st century? Why not use online platforms for discussions and gathering opinion?

Update: looks like this position is now mainstream thanks to COVID.

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Verifiablity

How could the City Council of Vancouver, if public hearing would be replaced by something online, tell that:

  • You are a real person, and not a bot. See the story on the FCC and public comments on net-neutrality
  • You don't use multiple accounts to make statements, thus overrepresenting yourself.
  • You are a resident of Vancouver, and not some random stranger from the internet
  • You are a resident of Vancouver, or at least a Canadian, and not some (insert hostile country of choice) Agent Provocateur

Reach/Outreach/Accessibility

Holding a public hearing as something online, instead of a meeting in the meatspace, essentially excludes many people

  • People with no internet
  • People who are not online-savvy. Getting to City Hall is something everybody can do. However, how many people need assistance for setting up an email account, (insert online-related task), etc.

Robustness

Holding a public meeting in City Hall, insteat of Vancouver's Cyber-Hall (pun intended) is robust

  • If construction workers digging up the ground sever an internet cable, a part of the city is essentially excluded from the hearing. If your internet dies, while you sit at City Hall, your participation is not affected.

Regarding business hours

This can be tackled by extending the hearing period over several days, or stretching the duration.

The fact that people work on weekdays is the reason why many countries hold their elections on a Sunday, other than e.g. the US. Thus, only a minority of voters (nurses, policemen, etc.) have to arrange for an absentee vote.

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  • But again - a very very small percentage of voters will ever make it to the offline hearing - maybe 0.01% of the entire city. What's the point of holding it at all in the first place then? Sep 20 '18 at 15:53
  • Why hold it at all? So people, who have an opinion can voice it. Why not hold an online-hearing? Because that's unsound for the reasons stated in my answer. Something being made/done online may be completely normal for some young persons, however, other demographics would prefer to do things offline.
    – Dohn Joe
    Sep 20 '18 at 15:58
  • 5
    I don't think your points on accessibility and robustness really demonstrate an advantage over online participation, only different groups of people that are excluded. In particular, your claim that "Getting to City Hall is something everybody can do" does not align with my experiences, nor does your "sever an internet cable" seem any more likely than the numerous things that could disrupt conventional transportation. Sep 20 '18 at 20:14
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Two possible reasons:

Cost

Streaming it online costs money. First of all you need to employ someone to film the hearings. Then you need infrastructure to put and keep it online. you could put it on some commercial website like YouTube, but you might not want to depend on a company for keeping all these hearings online.

Privacy

I don't know the content of these hearings, but I can imagine not everyone in them likes to be on the internet forever. If it's all published, people may be more careful about what they say (especially regarding controversial or sensitive topics). That may not be desirable as it might impede the process of the hearings.

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  • Streaming the hearing isn't the issue. The issue is that participating in a hearing is hard, as you have to physically go to City Hall during business hours to do so. Sep 20 '18 at 0:10
  • @JonathanReez if it's no issue then you should email them to ask why they don't do it already. I'm sure there's a reason (the most obvious being the two I mentioned).
    – JJJ
    Sep 20 '18 at 0:20
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Looks like the pandemic finally got rid of offline hearings, at least until the pandemic is over. For example here's a recent public hearing in the City of Vancouver. No physical attendance required.

So the answer to my question is: inertia. Nothing was being done up until forced to do so by the virus, at which point all the concerns over online public hearings more or less evaporated.

enter image description here

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  • What is this picture supposed to demonstrate?
    – bytebuster
    Apr 30 at 2:59
  • @bytebuster a public hearing organized by the Vancouver City Council. Something which was claimed to be impossible prior to the pandemic. Apr 30 at 3:01
  • @JonathanReez To be fair, you asked this almost 3 years ago, pre-Zoom. Video calling systems like Skype and Facetime were not really designed for large meetings like this.
    – Barmar
    May 1 at 17:09
  • @Barmar nothing would’ve changed if it wasn’t for the pandemic destroying previous notions of what’s possible proving that online hearings are indeed superior May 1 at 18:30
  • @JonathanReez Lots of things moved online out of necessity, but they're rarely considered superior. I assume my town will go back to in-person Town Meeting next year, for instance, and no one want to stay with virtual schooling.
    – Barmar
    May 1 at 19:46

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