The Cook County Board of Commissioners is considering an ordinance that could transform access to and transparency of the legislative process in local government.
It’s a brief proposal, but it could mean dramatically heightened public access to one of the largest units of local government in the nation.
Ordinance 17-3293, introduced by Commissioner Larry Suffredin representing the County’s North Side 13th District, puts in motion the development of an online “witness slipping” system. Such a system would allow Cook County residents and advocacy organizations to easily weigh in on pending legislation as it moves through committee by registering their opinion and perhaps providing online testimony on specific pieces of legislation.
“Today I introduced ordinance 17-3293 to require electronic filing of witness slips for all Cook County Board Committees and Board Meetings. This change will be voted on at the next Cook County Board Meeting on June 7, 2017,” Commissioner Suffredin shared in a statement on Wednesday. “The purpose of the legislation is to encourage more Cook County residents to express their opinions on legislative matters before the Cook County Board.
It’s a move strongly supported by the BGA policy unit, which has advocated for this proposal and will continue to work with County officials on its implementation.
|Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin|
Cook County government represents over five million people, second only to Los Angeles County in terms of population. If it were a state, it would be the 23rd largest by population. Its operating budget of $4.4 billion is larger than that of the entire State of Delaware.
And yet of the hearings held by eight major County committees in 2016, two-thirds of those hearings received zero public testimony or heard from only one individual. 
It’s not as though these committees are simply paper pushers – they deal with issues related to housing, criminal justice, and other major issues of public policy that touch the lives of County residents in direct ways.
That level of disengagement in local government is what online witness slipping seeks to change.
What We’ve Seen at the State Level
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least ten states have in place some form of remote testimony system at their statehouse, available to constituents who wish to weigh in on pending legislation but cannot be physically present to do so.
Illinois residents have had access to online witness slipping at the state legislature since late 2011. It’s proven to be a powerful tool for advocacy groups and communities to make their voices heard.
“It is vitally important that local government in Illinois continue to engage technology as democracy moves into an increasingly digital era,” says Josh Sharp, Vice-President of Government Relations for the Illinois Press Association. “Whereas taxpayers have previously written letters, or placed phone calls to their elected officials in order to voice their opinion about a particular measure, they will now have the ability to weigh in using online witness slipping. It’s a practice that works well in Springfield and we welcome its swift approval in Cook County.”
Though the state website takes some getting used to, the process of filing a witness slip is quite straightforward: Using the ILGA Dashboard, locate a House or Senate committee and the bills scheduled for an upcoming hearing. View the “hearing details,” enter your identifying information and submit the slip.
Filed witness slips are immediately made public and also available to committee members as they are preparing to vote on legislation. Users are encouraged to register with the system, allowing for a smoother slipping process and the ability to track legislation and relevant committee hearings.
Prior to implementation of the system, an expert witness, lobbyist or resident had a limited set of options if they wanted to make their position known to state lawmakers: make a phone call, send a letter or otherwise directly contact a legislator, or show up in person to file a physical witness slip and speak directly to committee members. The availability of online witness slipping has removed some of these geographic and resource barriers, amplifying the voices of a wider range of constituents and advocacy organizations.
“The electronic slipping system is vital to our democracy,” says Republican State Representative Peter Breen. “To not have a system that allows people to weigh in on different policy being considered is to stand against the spirit of transparency. In every area of your life you can act electronically, this shouldn’t be the one area you can’t act on.”
Restricting public input on pending legislation to in-person testimony undoubtedly limited access to those with the means, time, mobility and flexibility to travel to and spend time in Springfield.
That’s an obvious problem for representative government.
But online witness slipping also has benefits for policymaking: lawmakers simply have more information available to them as they consider legislation.
“Witness slipping is incredibly valuable to me,” says Democratic Illinois State Senator Tom Cullerton. “I can see who the supporters and opponents are, we can get involvement from people who work during the day and can’t come to a hearing. It’s been a tremendous help and a fantastic opportunity for people to be involved.”
Piloted during the 2011 fall session and fully implemented in 2012, the e-witness slipping system was the key component to a second major round of reconfiguration of the Illinois General Assembly’s website by the state’s Legislative Information System (LIS). Eight years earlier, in 2003, LIS implemented the “Rewrite Project,” a comprehensive effort that updated and integrated many elements of the legislative process into the system now accessible via ilga.gov.
LIS launched the Witness Slip Project to further reduce paperwork and modernize the process by which the public can create witness slips.
Since the system’s inception, over 600,000 witness slips have been filed, and over 23,000 people have registered as recurring users on the site. With the exception of 2012 (the program’s first full year of existence), the system has averaged over 100,000 witness slips filed annually.
The 2011 redesign also created a digital Committee Member Legislation System, which aids General Assembly committee members in viewing information about legislation before the committee, including witness slips.
State Senator Kwame Raoul frequently utilizes the system in his role as chairperson of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“We have a representative democracy, at the federal, state and local level of government. One of the important tools to reflect that it is so, has been the state’s slipping system,” says Senator Raoul. “The system has been a tool that allows advocates and regular citizens to record their position in favor or in opposition to policy recommendations being considered.”
And those positions have at times affected the course of legislation. A 2015 proposal that came before the Senate Judiciary committee elicited an odd array of opponents. Intended to render private college police forces subject to FOIA, amendments to the bill prompted opposition from both sides of the issue, pro- and anti-FOIA, witness slips revealed.
Chairman Raoul acknowledged these unlikely allies and held the bill in committee.
As with any evolving technology, the system isn’t perfect – committee members can’t clearly see which districts online witness slip filers live in, and the website is somewhat dated and not intuitive to navigate. But it’s proven to be an incredibly valuable system worth improving, as Representative Breen and others affirm. They plan to introduce a resolution creating a task force to explore possible system updates.
What We Expect at the Local Level
While some cities have embraced forms of online collaboration and public input for discrete projects, major cities and counties have not yet implemented the sort of routine public bill posting, tracking and polling system the way Illinois and other states have. This move would set Cook County apart in its embrace of public input and transparency.
And it seems as though there is ample need to heighten citizen engagement with local government. A 2014 Governing Magazine survey indicated that public participation in local government is extremely low. Young, low income and new residents have particularly low rates of contact with local elected officials or participation at local government meetings, when compared to their older, wealthier, more settled counterparts.
It all comes down to access.
“Electronically filing a witness slip allows individuals to voice their opinions on particular legislation if they are unable to attend the meetings,” Cook County Clerk David Orr says. “We will be working closely with the Secretary of the Board to implement this common sense initiative to increase the public’s access to the County’s Board proceedings.”
And the BGA looks forward to working with all stakeholders to implement an online system that takes an important step in making local government more accessible, transparent and accountable.
 Committees evaluated include: Business and Economic Development; Criminal Justice; Finance; Workforce, Housing and Community Development; Law Enforcement; Labor; Legislation and Intergovernmental Relations; Zoning and Building