Legislature.gov: Function Trumps Form in the Quest to Shine Light on State Policymaking

Often the lack of modern search tools and Web best practices make getting to critical information on state legislative portals a challenge.

by / September 2016

In just the last few years, the public sector has been abuzz with plans to open data and revolutionize the way citizens interact with their government. But behind these well meaning attempts to further the democratic process with technology, glaring inconsistencies remain.

State legislative websites, among other online assets, are a prime example of this point. True, the majority of Americans have likely never been to their state’s legislative website, but there are groups that rely on regular, effective access to session information to transmit what they find through more digestible means.

Journalists who report on congressional goings-on, watchdog groups and lobbyists are just some of the individuals perusing state portals on a daily basis. Often the lack of modern search tools and Web best practices make getting to critical information a challenge.

And while some legislative websites struggle, there are states that are getting it right. Their approaches are worth noting as well.

Where Legislatures Can Improve

We have come a long way since the days of sitting in the gallery and carefully noting floor votes by hand. Today, at the intersection of government and technology, legislatures are embracing streaming video and other tools that bring the happenings on the floor into the offices and homes of those who are invested enough to watch.

Other tools like Google-esque search features allow online visitors to quickly and easily find bills or subjects that matter most to them, and in some states the results of votes are updated the same day.

While the general design of a website is important to an end user, access to the meat of it all is the important part to government watchdog group the Sunlight Foundation.

“The advice that we have given, particularly as different government agencies come to us and [ask], ‘How can we make our website more functional?’ [is] we often point out that the best way to do this cheaply … is to improve the accessibility of your data so that at least it can get used,” said Sunlight Senior Analyst Emily Shaw.

In releasing data, whatever it may be, Shaw argues that other groups outside of government may be able to translate that data into usable information for other constituents. While an easy-to-navigate website is an added bonus, it means nothing if there’s no substance behind it.

With states looking to be as cost-efficient as possible, website redesigns are often what she calls a “hard sell.” Instead of focusing on the overall presentation of a portal, she points to the addition of tools that will improve the timeliness of data, like machine readability.

The Center for Data Innovation agrees that there’s work to be done in making more of the legislative process publicly available. Director (and GovTech columnist) Daniel Castro said there are gaps in the process, especially when it comes to things like scanning handwritten notes and committee votes.

He sees this as cause for collecting more digitally. “Right now in some states you’ll basically have handwritten changes to bills or things like that where it is not being captured electronically — especially committee votes — so it’s hard to actually see that process if the information isn’t digital. Capturing the data well in a digital format is another big thing we are looking at.”

In some states, bills are regularly posted as PDFs, which Castro said is a clear indicator that legislatures need to update their systems. The format can make finding information a laborious and difficult process.

“These types of things are a huge impediment to transparency,” he said.

Another issue is the lack of cohesive standards and best practices. With each state approaching the information it disseminates to the public differently, there are few real guidelines for portal managers to look to when it comes to making the sites they run good vessels for communicating legislative information.

“There are different things that people want access to. I have yet to see real clear and generic rules for how to make legislative information most accessible, or most useful for people,” Shaw said. “I think it’s something that we all know when we don’t feel it, but the articulation of specifically what you need to do in order to make it most usable is a more complicated question.”

Promoting Usability

The next natural step in the progression of government legislative portals is making data available by API, or application programming interface, and structuring the data to maximize its utility.

Castro and Shaw agree that the move toward APIs would allow outsiders to more easily use the wealth of information held by government. Though your average person may not access data sets for his or her own enjoyment, other groups and entities can help to turn data into publicly useful information.

“Something that I think we are hoping to see more states doing, something that leading states like Washington and the New York Senate are already doing, is making their data available by API or Web service,” Shaw said. “As different kinds of analysis start to rely more heavily on API access to their sources of data, it’s going to continue to make this information accessible to the largest number of technical users.”

Castro added that a willingness on the part of those within the federal government to move toward more usable structured data that could easily be used analytically would also go far to advance the mission of government transparency. 

Eyragon Eidam Web Editor

Eyragon Eidam is the Web editor for Government Technology magazine, after previously serving as  assistant news editor and covering such topics as legislation, social media and public safety. He can be reached at eeidam@erepublic.com.