Free Law Founders Make Strides for Open Government

Elected officials, nonprofit organizations and developers have united under one banner to change the way laws are drafted and accessed in the U.S.

by / May 27, 2015
The Free Law Founders are committed to ingraining open government principles into policy-making. Shutterstock

People have complained for generations about how laws and the legislative process are unduly influenced by special interest groups. Efforts to improve open government practices have flourished in recent years, particularly as open data has given citizens a better look into legislative documentation and activities.

Data portals and sunshine laws have helped, pushing many lawmakers to be more open about their activities. But one recently formed group is raising the bar higher about the need to meld transparency principles into government operations – the Free Law Founders (FLF).

Put together in 2014 and co-chaired by New York City Councilmember Ben Kallos and San Francisco Supervisor Mark Farrell, the partnership of local elected officials, nonprofit software developers, educators and city attorneys is changing how citizens can impact the lawmaking process on the Internet.

Members of the FLF have introduced legislation to put city laws online in Chicago and New York, embraced crowdsourcing technology to draft proposals, are pushing governments to adopt open APIs, and are continuing to use modern tools and data to cut red tape and get citizens more involved in the legislative process.

“I think the concept was there was a realization that there were these two tech-minded legislators on opposite sides of the country who are both trying to get the same thing done,” Kallos told Government Technology. “If we worked together, we could get so much more done than either of us ever thought we could.”

FLF participants have to dedicate themselves to advancing the group’s principles of open law and open legislation. Generally those ideas consist of:

  • Posting complete and machine-readable laws, legal code and legislation on the Internet without fees or restrictions.
  • Agreeing to download, share, annotate and reuse nonproprietary legal data in open formats that are free from restrictions such as copyrights and licenses.
  • Participating in the lawmaking process on the Internet using open-source software.
  • Engageing with the law and connecting with people to collaboratively create and modify laws.
  • Having an expectation that those involved with lawmaking will commit to injecting innovation, iteration and improvement into their work.

In addition to Kallos and Farrell, other notable members of the FLF include Chicago City Clerk Susana Mendoza; Seamus Kraft, executive director of the OpenGov foundation; Oklahoma Rep. Jason Murphey; and a variety of local government leaders, nonprofit associations and legal experts. 

Every two weeks, the FLF gathers on a conference call and shares with the group what they are working on and issues that have come up between calls. Jess Montejano, legislative aide with Farrell’s office, called the calls really helpful in terms of structure.

“I think it gives us all an opportunity to view the different work that we’re all collectively doing toward this common goal that all FLF members have committed to,” Montejano said. “It’s about supporting each other and helping each other move [forward].”

Solving Problems

Chicago has pushed the FLF agenda forward by putting its municipal code online with the help of its vendor, Granicus, and some “open government hackers,” according to Patrick Corcoran, deputy director for communication and policy for Mendoza. ChicagoCode.org gives visitors easy access to the Windy City’s thousands of laws.

In addition, Chicago is working on Councilmatic Chicago, a portal that lets you search, browse, subscribe and comment on everything its city council has done in the last five years. While the project is ongoing, Kallos said a final version should launch later this year.

It’s the best practices gained from the FLF that have really made Chicago shine in the last year. Corcoran recalled that prior to Clerk Mendoza coming aboard, it took about a week to get proposed legislation online and available to the public. But now the city can do it the day of, and is working toward making it happen in real time.

Montejano noted that Farrell introduced a motion last year that San Francisco be the first city in the U.S. to post all of its legislative information in machine-readable format. Mendoza added that while city leaders are also buying into the FLF’s principles, bureaucracy remains a hurdle.

“A separate challenge we’ve experienced … is part bureaucratic – convincing other city departments and agencies that this is the future,” Montejano said. “We have citizens, we have entrepreneurs, and other members of the public who are really demanding access to this type of data. So it’s using the FLF and the great work we’re doing collectively to show the bureaucracy that change is coming and we have to get on board with it.”

Kallos added that as elected officials such as himself and Farrell get policies passed, their focus will transition from policymaking to oversight, working with vendors and with city agencies to help them adapt to a more open form of government. That’s where Chicago’s success will play a vital role for the group moving forward.

“We can pass the best policies in the world," Kallos said, "but unless you have a Clerk Mendoza to lead the way, you aren’t able to demonstrate that this can be done the right way with free and open source tools."

Brian Heaton

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.