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Conference Takes Deep Dive Into Legislative Data and Transparency
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Posted On August 16, 2016
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The executive branch has been better at transforming services for the public, but Congress is looking at four aspects of the system that need repair: constituent services, lawmaking, procurement, and oversight. The panel’s hacks to address these issues were the following:
  • Hack #1: The public now has an array of commercial apps to engage with Congress (e.g., Contacting the Congress), but Congress members need the ability to engage with constituents. Communication with constituents currently occupies 50% of staff time, so staffers need better tools to help them set priorities and better organize their work.
  • Hack #2: Congress members need collaboration tools that align with workflows in Congress and that are secure, robust, and easy to use. Employing Excel spreadsheet pivot tables to create charts (to gain insights into why constituents are calling) may be commonplace, but clicking the 3D map button at the top of the table is an alternative that is seldom used. Data.gov is seen as a terrific repository for accessing government data. The panelists also spoke about the Power BI app, with its Ask a Question feature that creates visualizations in seconds.
  • Hack #3: The ability to access and understand data needs improvement so that individual lawmakers, committees, and the legislature can ask better questions prior to making decisions.
  • Hack #4: Better oversight and compliance would ensure that taxpayer dollars are managed wisely.
  • Hack #5: Constituents must have confidence in their representatives. Congress’ 16% approval rating can be improved through the use of open and transparent government data.

Making Congress Members More Transparent

The afternoon session opened with a panel discussion of past efforts to create a more open government, how the efforts left off (or will leave off at the end of this legislative session), and recommendations for how the incoming Congress could build on these promises. Mindy Finn of Misschief Media and Steve Johnston of Google suggested that the government rethink their datasets with granular level updates, digitize committee reports, and create better alerts and APIs. They asked the following questions:

  • Can we use data requests to anticipate the data that would be of interest to constituents, and how do we present that data (or point to it)?
  • Can we use bots to take the pressure off some of our constituent services? For example, correspondence with Congress has increased by 548% from 2002 to 2010 and is dealt with by a congressional staff of 710,000 people.
  • How can we make better use of live and on-demand video to engage the public? For example, given the popularity of mobile video in the current political race, one could envision video interviews of Congress members as they go in to cast their votes, providing greater context for their decisions.

Dealing with amendments is frustrating, and the House clerk is grappling with how unique amendment ID numbers could provide greater immediacy in reporting votes. (The Senate does not use electronic voting at all, which is an indicator of the cultural differences between the two houses.)

As many users of Congress.gov look no further than the bill summary, a suggestion was made to include minority titles as well as majority ones and to make the summaries more meaningful to the public by having each bill carry two summaries, one in support and one in opposition of the decision. Also, Congress could consider calling on experts to enrich the hearing process. Videos of Congress members might explain the importance of the work they are doing, providing much-needed context for the public.

Open Source and XML

This panel was followed by Joshua Tauberer’s presentation on the need for members to embrace open source, “Mr. Smith Goes to an Open Source Washington.” Two international perspectives on legislative modernization were featured in the afternoon: the Legislative Drafting, Amending, and Publishing Program in the U.K. (which is managed by Xcential, a company that also works on building the XML schema for the U.S. Code, Amendment Impact Program, and LLL) and the New Zealand Legislative Modernization Program.

House speaker Paul Ryan addressed the group during the session Cultivating a Modern Congress, in which he spoke about what’s needed to take an outcome-based approach to legislation and how we can use the work being done on open legislation to better understand what lawmakers were thinking as they drafted bills in years gone by. He said that the first step is to convert “all legislative measures” to XML. According to FedScoop, this “would allow developers to scrape the data and also make legislation more searchable.”

Publishing Federal Documents

Late afternoon sessions included Consuming the Law and Future of Publishing Legislative Data and Documents. Beginning with the premise that laws should be formatted to maximize their utility, panelists looked to attendees to help them make decisions about whether the government should continue to print the U.S. Code—in particular, how it compiles the cumulative supplements. The process of compiling the official record of a Congress (a 2-year term) takes a significant amount of time and effort for each of the 52 titles. Should Congress design a modern web-based XML editing system around a dated requirement for printed annual supplements? What method best meets today’s data requirements?

Progress has been made to bolster the argument for eliminating paper. For example, the electronic version of the Federal Register is considered the legal equivalent of the print product for presentation in court. Reducing the number of print copies of a range of government publications—relying on the electronic version only—means making decisions about the number of copies that need to be kept. (Is four enough?)


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Barbie E. Keiser is an information resources management consultant located in the metropolitan Washington, D.C., area.

Email Barbie E. Keiser

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