Policy makers and administrators are required to deliberate publicly and to seek public input. This section prepares you to testify orally in a governmental public hearing.
How Hearings Work
In US federal government, “sunshine’ or public access laws mandate open hearings for all legislative functions—making law, appropriating funds, overseeing government operations, investigating abuse or wrongdoing, and approving nominations or appointments to office. Hearings are held in executive and legislative branches of federal government. In state and local governments, public deliberation is mandated, but formal hearings are not as commonly held as at federal levels.
In government organized by a political party structure, the majority party (the party in power) chairs committees and, thus, sets the agenda for committee work including public hearings. Committee chairs (with their staffs) decide whether to hold hearings on topics within their jurisdiction, what the purpose of a hearing will be, and who will be on the witness list. Topics and purposes of hearings reflect the committee's policy jurisdiction and the (majority party) chair’s political agenda. The agenda might reflect cooperation between the majority and minority interests, or not.
Several committees might hold hearings on different aspects of the same topic, especially if the topic concerns a ‘hot’ issue that crosses jurisdictions. ‘Hot’ issues are currently in the news, controversial, or especially significant in some way. Most hearings are not about ‘hot’ issues, however. Most hearings are workaday sessions to oversee government operations, to decide on appropriations of funds, to re-authorize programs, and so forth. They do the routine work of governance.
Public affairs television usually does not broadcast these routine hearings. Selected daily hearings are summarized on the ‘government’ page of newspapers and some advocacy group web sites.
In the executive branch, departments or agencies hold public hearings on issues within their regulatory responsibility. Some are held in the field, or in geographic areas or political districts directly affected. Executive branch hearings vary in format from informal public meetings to formal deliberative sessions. The state environmental agency’s hearing on water protection described in Scenario 2, above, illustrates informal field hearings in which executives, staff, and witnesses freely discuss a topic.
Taking US Congressional committee hearings as the model, hearings typically follow this order of events: after the chair opens the hearing, announces the purpose, and states his or her position on the topic, the committee members then state their positions and, possibly, their constituency's concerns regarding the topic. Next, invited witnesses testify on the topic. Following the testimonies, the usual practice is for committee members to question the witnesses.
In principle, anyone might be invited to testify who can provide information that lawmakers or administrators seek. In reality, witnesses testify at the federal level only by request of the committee. At state and local levels, the witness list is more open. There, you may be invited, or you may ask, to testify. If you wish to testify, you contact the staff of the committee or the agency holding the hearing.
In the communication situation of a typical hearing, witnesses testify as spokespersons for an organization or a government agency. Occasionally, individual citizens testify on their own or their community's behalf. Witnesses must relate their special concerns to a policy context and their agendas to other agendas. Policy makers and witnesses interact face-to-face, and exchanges might be polite or confrontational.
Questioning might be focused or loose. Questioning is always political, and sometimes it is bluntly partisan. The atmosphere might be orderly or hectic. The time limits are always tight—typically one to five minutes for each witness to present testimony and five minutes for each member to question all the witnesses. There might be multiple rounds of questioning. Hearings can last for hours or days if the committee or the witness list is large.
Records of Hearings
Everything communicated in a hearing goes (via a legislative stenographer) into a transcript. This transcript is the official public record of the hearing. There are actually two public records, unofficial and official.
Unofficially, the hearing might be broadcast or reported by news media. These are influential accounts that significantly shape public discourse and the perception of problems. However, they are not authoritative. They would not be included in a legislative history, for example. For the authoritative and official record of a hearing, a stenographer records the statements, questions, and answers verbatim or exactly as they are given.
In accord with current legislative reporting practice, the verbatim transcript cannot be edited, except to correct factual error. The transcript is later (sometimes months later) printed and published by the superintendent of government documents through the government printing office. This is the official, or legal, record of the hearing.
Published hearing records are important for democratic self-governance because they give continuing public access over time to the accurate and full information produced by a hearing. That information is useful for many purposes. Journalists, law clerks, academic researchers in many fields, legislative staff, lobbyists, advocates, and active citizens use hearing transcripts as sources. Published hearings are primary sources for legislative history research, for example. They are also major sources for determining a law’s original intent when the law is being adjudicated.
Significance of Hearings
In the overall significance of government hearings for democracy, witness testimony is perhaps most important. For witnesses, it is an opportunity to make personal or professional knowledge useful for solving problems. For policy makers, it offers a rare opportunity to interact directly with knowledgeable people and to question them. Policy makers appreciate that interaction. Most information they receive is filtered through staff or advisers. They like having the chance to interact directly with information providers.