Past Issues of Government Technology

Online Bill Drafting For Virginia Assembly

The Virginia General Assembly is using workflow management tools to enhance and streamline the bill drafting process.

by / June 30, 1996 0
Drafting legislation on paper is arduous work. In the Commonwealth of Virginia, nearly 6,000 drafts and 2,000 bills move through the legislative process each year. Coordinating, scheduling and tracking this amount of paper is a tremendous task. Bill Wilson, director of the Division of Legislative Automated Systems (DLAS) for the Virginia General Assembly, found a better drafting solution in Lotus Notes.

Before the conversion to Notes in 1994, drafting bills on paper was a time-consuming, labor-intensive process. It started when an Assembly member asked for new or amended legislation. An attorney would research the legal issues involved, then draft the new language for the bill. When the draft was complete, it was sent to a centralized word processing facility for entry into the correct format. The document was printed, sent to proofreaders for corrections, then returned to the Assembly member for review. When additions or corrections were required, the bill drafting process was repeated.

In paper form, tracking and coordinating the numerous versions of each bill was a complex task. Computer operations staff stood by high-volume laser printers waiting to remove and sort the printed drafts. After collating the drafts, they bundled them into large custom-made file folders called shucks. Runners loaded the shucks onto mail carts and delivered them to the attorneys and proofreaders throughout the building. During the drafting process it was common for many versions of each bill to exist on paper. Version control was accomplished by the daily printing of status reports for each draft. Requests for status were often delayed while the staff searched for the draft or the status report. Being static, the reports were only accurate at the time they were printed.

The solution to the legislative paper chase was Lotus Notes. "In 1993, we ran 100 of our 2,000 bills through Lotus Notes and found it significantly enhanced the bill drafting process," said Wilson. During the following year, DLAS chose Notes to process the 6,000 drafts they create each year. All participants in the process now have access to the draft in realtime. Every draft moves between the drafters, attorneys and proofreaders without anyone leaving their desk. At the touch of a key, the status and location of each draft is readily available.

The Notes drafting process begins when a member of the General Assembly makes a request for legislation. A manager or staff member accepts the request with a brief description, then assigns it to a drafter. Using Windows, the drafter opens a Notes View related to the particular type of legislation requested. Using Word for Windows, the drafter creates a document within Notes. Folio Views retrieves the standard statutory language for pasting into the draft. Word for Windows provides the standard strike-through type styles required by the draft whenever wording is changed. When the draft is completed, it is assigned to the proofreaders.

Proofreaders obtain the document from the Notes server to check it for grammar and typographical errors. Whenever the document is revised, the changes appear in different colors. Each participant is assigned a color code for identification purposes. When complete, the proofreader returns the document to the drafter. At this point, the drafter obtains manager approval of the document. This final approval provides another set of eyes to ensure the member's requests are satisfied. The completed document is then printed, bound and given to the member. The bill is now ready for introduction by the member.

Groupware automation provides many benefits. Note's highly visible workflow reduces duplication of effort. For example, if two assembly members were independently working on similar bicycle helmet legislation, Notes makes this duplicated effort easier to identify. The staff examines each new request to determine if a similar request is currently in work.

Notes also provides a complete audit trail for every document. The status, location and dates of revision are retained for everyone who works on the document. The groupware solution provides both a communications vehicle and a peer review process. Participants can communicate with each other and inspect the documents without regard to the place or time.

Replication between database servers is a strong suit of Notes. Changes to both documents and applications are synchronized across all servers. Users are assured of having current data, no matter where or when they access the system. Any changes made to the Notes applications are automatically replicated to the other users.

Although replication adds another layer of data protection, it is not a substitute for regular backups. Wilson said, "Having the Notes backup server makes me feel better. The chance of both machines going down simultaneously is pretty slim." However, the inherent power of replication can be a double-edged sword. Mistakes are replicated throughout the system as easily as data is.

When the legislative session is concluded, the DLAS staff plans a migration to Notes 4.0 and its companion document imaging system. "We are mandated by statute to maintain historical records for bills that become laws," said Wilson. The current imaging system is a stand-alone process that will eventually be incorporated into Notes. Then, images will be as easily accessed as drafts are today.

Drafting legislation is easier today than in the past. Paper is out, and groupware is in. Using Notes, the Virginia General Assembly's bill drafting process is now efficient and manageable.

Although Notes servers are fully supported on both Windows NT and Netware, neither was chosen by DLAS. For reliability and compatibility concerns, the Notes database servers were installed on their native OS/2 platform. Compaq machines were chosen for both the primary and backup servers. Each server has a CD-ROM, 128MB of RAM, and 3GB of RAID-5 disk space. The LAN topology is 16 Mbps Token Ring.

Only the Notes databases are kept on the OS/2 servers. Netware 4.1 servers provide all file and print services for the 500 users attached to the LAN. User workstations are 486-class machines with 8MB of RAM and minimal hard disks. Windows and Notes application programs reside on the Netware servers. Performance in this thin-client environment is sustained by using a Cisco router and limiting each Token Ring to 45 users.

To speed the drafting process, DLAS keeps all previous drafts available on the Notes servers. Drafters can quickly search the online database without resorting to opening storage boxes, or digging through reams of paper. Fast access ensures that investments made in previous research and statutory language are put to good use. Older drafts can be easily retrieved from the database and adapted into new legislation.