Changing the Mindset on Public Notice

By Jake Seaton · March 22, 2022

An overwhelming majority of the public policy work determining the future of public notice is defensive in nature. If you listen to legislative testimonies, consume print industry podcasts, or read the public notice resources that are produced on the subject, you’ll find the same tired narratives — the fox guarding the henhouse, the government watchdog, the value of independent journalism — repeated over and over.

As Column has gotten more and more involved in the public policy process this year, we’ve encouraged advocates and policymakers to change the narrative, to stop talking about what public notice has been, and start thinking about what public notice might become.

Public notice has been a fixture of our legal system since 1789, when the Acts of the First Session of the Congress required that all bills, orders, resolutions, and congressional votes be published in at least three publicly available newspapers. This concept, taken from British Common Law, traces its origins to a process that has existed since early civilizations posted notices in public squares.

The types of notices that our society currently requires range from public budgets, to notices about public hearings, to notices informing creditors of dissolving corporations. But if you’re not a lawyer who’s filing your hundredth LLC, or a government official posting yet another Notice for Election, or a legals rep at a newspaper who’s required to publish such notices all the time, you probably haven’t had much interaction with public notice. Or, you’ve come into contact with the system only when you suddenly had to place a notice yourself — you wanted to add additions to your home that encroached upon set-back limits for residential yards; you got divorced and needed to place a name change; you suddenly became the executor of someone’s estate; you wanted to auction your vehicle.

With the volumes of public notice legislation increasing year-over-year throughout the last decade, the old narratives spring from a place of anxiety, of fear that public notice and the revenue stream that many newspapers depend on will be lost if things change. As a result, the vast majority of time and energy and strategy is oriented around protecting what currently exists and keeping things the same.

Those that interact with public notice on a daily basis know that the process is thorny, tedious, and time-consuming, with a constant rigamarole of back-and-forth emails and phone calls and snail mail with their local newspaper every time they have to post a notice. It’s no fun for the newspapers either — this side of the business tends to dread the administrative tasks involved, and the process keeps them at work too late, takes up time, and diverts their attention away from other meaningful tasks.

It’s an inefficient, painful process.

At Column, we’ve focused initially on the process — making it as efficient and as painless as possible. But as we scale, we’ve been able to start to see the system as a whole, and we’re pretty inspired by what we see.

What if we changed our mindset around public notice? What if the question wasn’t about how to protect what’s left of public notice, but how to increase the use of public notice and expand upon the number of actions that require the publication of a public notice?

With this new mindset, the questions change. We no longer have to ask: How do we remove the public notice requirement? Or, how do we protect what’s left of public notice to keep local media businesses alive? We can ask instead: What else should we be notifying the public about? How do we expand the public notice system? How can we make public notice a more robust, more expansive part of our communities, societies, governments, and local media businesses?

The barrier to having this conversation about public notice — and dreaming up ways to reinvigorate it — has always been the costs and inefficiencies of the system. But when Column’s software simplifies the process down into something fast and easy, we’re suddenly free to see how public notice can energize communities and inspire coalitions for change. This is the original point of public notice. This is what the conversation should be about.

Column’s technology allows us to move past the issues of process that have long bogged down the conversation about public notice and see why public notice is an area of our society to expand. Local media businesses should absolutely remain the place for these notices to exist. But there can be even more engagement, more transparency, and more empowerment for the journalists who are in charge of distributing such important public information.

If we’re not intimidated by the inefficiencies of the process, we can embrace our belief in the underlying principles. Public notice is a system to not just protect, but refresh and reinforce. Column improves the process so that we can deepen our understanding and utilization of public notice. We’re ready to move past the conversation about how to ameliorate the public notice process, and enter into the next conversation. What might public notice look like for generations to come? Lawyers, government officials, and publishers shouldn’t be the only people who interact with public notice on a daily basis. Let’s make public notice an everything issue.

We want to do more with public notice itself. We want to literally make more public notices.

Shouldn’t we all want more notifications about what’s going on behind closed doors? What if we made laws that require more disclosures? Let’s talk about all the things that could be public notices. There could be public notices about officer-involved shootings, private equity transactions of a particular size, granting of occupational licenses, corporate bankruptcies and layoffs, board diversity, the carbon footprint of companies, changes in curriculum by school boards, concealed carry applications, and so many more important events happening in your community.

In the future that we’re building at Column, public notice will grant access to clean, actionable, and machine-readable public interest information. The way we see it, within every issue that currently requires public notice is a callable API about the occurrences of that event. In such a future, policymakers will have the opportunity to require public notice for whatever issue they care about, and modern software will facilitate the exchange of that notice with the journalistic institution of record. All notices everywhere will be machine-readable and callable, and available for free to the public.

As for the small media business that’s hanging onto public notice— if we can increase the total number of public notices flowing through our society, publishers will benefit. To have all these notices exist in a useful, digital format will unlock valuable opportunities for legislators, newspapers, citizens, activists to team up.

A more robust public notice system will allow publishers to find new partners and build unique coalitions. We see a future where local journalistic institutions exist not just to distribute this public information, but because they are institutionally motivated to ensure compliance with notice requirements, and journalistically motivated to ensure the validity of the information contained in such disclosures. Our dream is to create more public notices in order to support local journalistic institutions and the communities they serve.

This future might sound far-fetched, but we’re already building it.

Public notice is not vestigial; it’s integral. A healthy information system in a community includes local storytelling, investigative journalism, and information transparency about both industry and government. These disclosures, combined with modern software tools, can power an entire ecosystem of applications for that information, to solve real problems for real people. And public notice can power it all.

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