One cornerstone of the bestseller, The World is Flat, by New York Times Columnist Thomas Friedman is that the world has changed in fundamental ways courtesy of the interconnectedness of ideas offered by 21st century technology.
According to April's Harvard Business Review, the one-billionth user connected to the Internet last year, likely a 24 year old woman in Shanghai. What does this have to with legislatures and representative democracy in the states? I am convinced that the ramifications are profound, but I'm not exactly sure how.
Perhaps my visit to Alaska working on a staff salary survey offers some insight into how legislatures may adapt to the "Flat World." Legislating in Alaska poses some unique challenges for two primary reasons--the state is geographically enormous (I know, Duh?) and the capital is physically isolated in the remote, southeast corner of the state. Juneau is hundreds of miles from the vast majority of Alaskans and is not reachable by car unless you use the ferry system, which can take days.
So how can regular Alaskans hope to have any input into the deliberations of the legislature when geography and the location of the capital conspire to make it very difficult to visit a committee hearing in person? To its credit, the Legislature goes to great lengths and expense to overcome the hurdles. The Alaska Legislative Affairs Agency staffs and maintains 22 Legislative Information Offices (LIOs) throughout the state that are equipped with the latest teleconferencing technology. The offices are nonpartisan and actively reach out to their communities (varying in size from the largest city, Anchorage, to remote towns in the "bush" such as Bethel and Dillingham.)
At these LIOs, any resident can show up and listen to a committee hearing or floor session. And using the latest software and wired committee rooms, moderators help connect far-flung witnesses, allowing them to testify before legislators in Juneau. Legislators can also use the technology to "meet" with folks back home and host "virtual town meetings." It is an extraordinary effort to connect diverse constituents to the legislative process, and many take advantage of the opportunity to engage in the process.
A former NCSL colleague used to quip that legislatures were 15th century institutions racing into the sixteenth. The observation contains an element of truth, but the embrace of technology in Alaska to solve unique Alaska challenges provides some evidence to the contrary. The Alaska Legislature is using the connectedness of the world and new technologies to redefine how citizens contribute views and ideas to their government.
By the way, I post this from 340 miles north of the Arctic Circle in Barrow--location of the northernmost state legislative office in the world.