Public Comment

Commentary; A Public Comment Process Without Central Control

By Robert Vogel and Simona Carini
Friday October 26, 2007

Most of the world today has access to competing sources of news, each claiming to present a balanced version of truth. While the professional media reports from multiple primary sources and permits a variety of opinion in letters to the editor, no single source is truly capable of “balance” in reporting the news. At some point, an editor ultimately controls what gets published; at that point “balance” is compromised and the editor’s bias inevitably influences public opinion and policy. 

Balance can only flow from the free expression of competing views. We founded 18 months ago to promote that expression. We envision a competitive marketplace of ideas informed by traditional news sources yet free from central control; a place where every idea from every citizen has an equal opportunity for presentation and consideration. No one person sets the agenda on Kitchen Democracy—all editorial control is exerted democratically by our users. At the end of this “public comment process,” the most persuasive ideas influence public opinion and policy. 

This vision is not new. The traditional town hall meeting has played that role for centuries. What’s new is the number of people who, thanks to the Internet, can now participate. The town hall meeting is no longer limited to those who can afford to attend (or send their representative to) late night meetings. Anyone with access to a connected computer, including those at the public library, can contribute to our marketplace of ideas on their own schedule. 

Unfortunately, the Internet—like the town hall meeting—can become a hostile cacophony of spontaneous utterance. Our challenge has been to craft a framework which encourages thoughtful, civil expression in the absence of central control. Over the past 18 months we have evolved the Kitchen Democracy framework so that now in our established communities: 

• Any user can propose any issue for public comment on 

• Other users confidentially suggest improvements to issue proposers, making the formulation of issues a community process. 

• Users democratically select which issues open for public comment. Only issues which are rated sufficiently “Actionable,” “Balanced,” “Clear” and “Important” actually open. 

• Each user can add their statement, anonymously or signed, to the public comment process. In either case, the user must confidentially provide us their email and home address to help us verify that each user submits at most one statement per issue. This policy encourages shy residents to contribute, while restraining others from dominating the process. 

• Statements are monitored for personal attacks and inappropriate material. This is the only compromise we have made to the idea of “central control,” and it has been quite successful: Less than 0.1 percent of users receive invitations to rephrase offending statements, and most of them do. 

• Responses to statements made on Kitchen Democracy are not encouraged. Instead, statements are grouped together by ‘position’: All the yeas are presented together, and all the nays are presented together. This keeps the process focused on the issue, rather than flame-wars between participants. 

To date more than 3,500 East Bay residents in four communities have contributed insightful civil statements which regularly influence public policy. Though this represents substantial progress, we still have work to do. There are concerns that our public comment process may be interpreted as a scientific sampling of public opinion, or worse, as a referendum which binds elected officials to follow trends in Kitchen Democracy statements. Though the website clearly states that the process is neither, and though official decisions do not always follow Kitchen Democracy trends, we may have inadvertently contributed to those concerns by labeling each user’s statement a ‘Vote’. 

In response to those concerns, we changed the language on the website. Starting with issues suggested this month, the word “vote” no longer describes a user’s contribution; instead we call it a “statement.” The vote process is now called a “public comment process.” We hope these changes will help clarify that like a town hall meeting, ours is a process designed to facilitate the formulation of public policy—not to conduct public opinion research or a binding referendum. 

As Kitchen Democracy evolves, so we hope will our users’ relationship to our public comment process. Because there is no central edit or, the responsibility to identify pressing issues and frame them in an unbiased fashion rests with our users. With every freedom comes a responsibility; in this case, the freedom from central editorial control imposes a responsibility to propose, select and/or state your position on the issues of the day. 

Please take a few minutes to exercise your power and help set public policy on If you don’t, someone else will.