Opening day of a legislative session is good for the soul -- particularly if that soul is cynical or defeated. It is the one day that is about the institution, not the personalities who are its temporary caretakers.
Legislators pass portraits of their giant predecessors as they file into the chamber -- their shoes as polished as the marble floors and brass rails guiding them to their desks to take up the public's business.
It is a timeless picture -- except the inkwells of an earlier era have been replaced by laptops, and legislators' neatly pressed suits are increasingly packed with pagers, cell phones and PDAs. Such is the intersection of historic deliberative legislative processes and the on-demand world of modern computing.
The scene is validated by the findings of the Center for Digital Government's Digital Legislatures Survey, which are covered earlier in this issue. Eighty-six percent of state legislatures provide their members with networked laptops to manage their calendars and constituent contacts while on the capital campus. That number drops to 69 percent when it comes to equipped, networked district offices.
All responding states reported that the current session's status of bills and amendments are available and searchable online for citizens and legislators alike, and lawmakers can submit bills and amendments in real time. Three-quarters of responding states make bill status tracking and session voting records available to citizens online (but notably, only 6 percent say citizens can search and sort the voting records).
Though not quite ubiquitous, the numbers suggest legislatures are serious about outfitting their members with contemporary tools and using IT to get out from under the crushing volume of paper required to document and vet both good and bad ideas as they wind their way through the process.
Now comes the hard work. Two fronts in the continuing campaign for digital government are uniquely the purview of the legislature: funding and statutory modernization.
IT advocates come to the funding discussion somewhat sheepishly as the public-sector revenue recession drags into a third biennium, recognizing that in a competition with cops and kids for scarce public resources, IT is not the most sympathetic choice.
There has been no safe harbor, however, for IT during the so-called budgetary perfect storm. As states lurched into the new century, allocations for technology have decreased and performance expectations have increased. Many technology investment decisions have been deferred to balance the current year's budget in the hope that things will be better next year, or the year after that, or ...
Unfortunately repeated deferrals make even the most robust systems brittle over time.
At the same time, few legislatures can tell whether technology-related spending proposals are consistent with government modernization, or simply prop up old, tired processes. The second, harder and even less sexy issue for legislatures is reform of arcane statutes and administrative codes that are not, at the highest level, technologically neutral. Much of the codified language is hard wired to the age of the printing press, deeply embedded with assumptions rooted in the innovations of Johannes Gutenberg and Alexander Graham Bell rather than Tim Berners-Lee.
Consider, for example:
oLong established statutes for the conduct of "official state business" too often require paper filings and the retention of paper records as physical artifacts;
owithout a clear legal differentiation between "signing" and "proof of authorization" (which were treated synonymously on paper forms but differ widely in terms of cost and complexity when conducted online), public entities tend to err on the side of the heavier burden of a signature; and
oeven some ethics laws set bizarre traps for public employees using government property -- a quick phone call home is OK, a short e-mail message home is not.
These historic accidents are no one's fault, but must be fixed. Who better to do it than this generation of digital legislators? In large measure, the executive branch and constitutional officers have done all they can in pursing digital government under existing statutes.
The next move -- and a determinative one at that -- belongs to the legislatures.