The UK Human Rights Blog brought to our attention an interesting development in the UK. On February 11, 2011, the Coalition Government published the Protection of Freedoms Bill that has become the first proposed law to be opened to public comments via the internet on this website.

One of the commitments in the Political Reform section of the Coalition’s Programme for Government was to “introduce a new ‘public reading stage’ for bills to give the public an opportunity to comment on proposed legislation online.” This website is a pilot version of that commitment to garner comments from the public on bills as they pass through Parliament. It gives citizens the opportunity to comment on each clause contained in the Bill until March 7, 2011. The comments will get collated at the end of this public consultation and fed through directly to the Parliamentarians who will carry the Bill through the House of Commons.

The website is simple to navigate and intuitive to use. One of the features that I found interesting is a link to a 90-page explanatory note (available here). This note provides a summary and the background of the bill to help users’ understanding of it before they submit their comments.

As the UK Human Rights Blog points out, “[p]ublic consultations on government bills are nothing new. … But whilst fully considered and expert responses to consultations must continue, the comments system for the new Protection of Freedoms bill serves a subtly different purpose. It deploys the familiar style of website comments to encourage quick and focused responses to specific provisions. And these comments can quickly become a debate between commenters, providing an iterative response which, if constructive, can arrive at the best answer quickly.”

I think the latter element is indeed worth emphasizing as it distinguishes this process from other consultation practices that simply publish a summary of responses when the legal text is finally promulgated. Being able to follow the flow of comments as they come in (note: the comments are subject to this moderation policy) encourages debate among citizens arguably enhancing the deliberative quality of the enterprise.

The impact of this interactive process on the final legal text remains to be seen. At any rate, it should also be interesting to see how this first experience will be used in the elaboration of further bills in the future.