Tennessee Statehouse Goes Digital to Save Time and Money

All 132 members of the Tennessee Legislature can review papers for committee meetings, hearings and research for the various departments on iPads.

by / August 20, 2014
Tennessee Statehouse in Nashville Flickr/Christopher "Rice"

It used to be a hard life for Tennessee lawmakers: Confined to a legislative process built on a foundation of paper, lawmakers were forced to push wheel barrows holding thousands of pages of bills and legal analysis throughout the capitol in Nashville. Special ramps were installed for these paper carrying wheelbarrows, making it impossible for people to navigate the halls.

Okay, none of that is true. But you get the idea: Just last year, Tennessee lawmakers were going through a ton of paper -- about 1 million sheets of paper each session, tens of thousands of dollars’ worth, said Vinay Dattu, IT director for the Tennessee Office of Legislative Systems, adding that that’s not even counting all the hours wasted in preparing and distributing these documents. State officials audited those hours and found legislative staffers spent about 1,000 just at the copier and distributing the binders.   

But what if they switched to a digital system? “So, we created a new system called the dashboard,” Dattu says. “It means all 132 members [of the Tennessee Legislature] can review papers for committee meetings, hearings and research for the various departments on the iPads. The impetus behind this project is the vision from Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, Speaker Beth Harwell, Senate Chief Clerk Russell Humphrey and House Chief Clerk Joe McCord. Without their leadership, this project would not have become a reality.”

Building the App from Scratch

Of course, it wasn’t that easy. First, Tennessee had to figure out how this content system would function. Officials decided that on the back end, they wanted to create a system similar to what’s used in media and other dynamic content – a one-stop portal where documents, photos, charts and other content could be uploaded simply by staffers. 

Also because “all” of the lawmakers use iPads, according to Dattu, the system is built in HTML 5 so it can be fully accessed by current lawmakers. However, if a new round of elections bring in a round of Android-loving tablet users, Dattu says the system will fully conform to that platform as well. 

Meanwhile, on the front-end, Dattu and his staff wanted the system to be as simple to use as possible. 

“They’ll have real-time information that can be scanned and searched, and they can go through a bill by swiping their screens,” Dattu says. 

The new system also offers up the day’s meetings and long-term legislative calendar. And in the bill section, legislators can get into the nitty-gritty of proposed amendments, fiscal notes and other additions to any proposed law in Tennessee. 

While this system may seem incredibly attractive to lobbyists and other interested parties, Dattu says it will only be open to members of the Legislature and other officials. Lobbyists and the general public can follow the bills on the state’s legislative website.  

A Substantial Savings to Taxpayers 

The state expanded an existing contract with NIC, one of the biggest providers of governmental IT services in the United States. Dattu says the entire project cost about $20,000 to complete, but will save $880,000 in costs thanks to shredding the paper system. 

Kelly Berg is the Director of User Experience for NIC in Tennessee, and she says the process was much easier than many other rollouts. 

“It was pretty much we turned it on, and it was done,” Berg says, laughing. “I was pretty nervous, as I am with all rollouts, but it’s been really satisfying because there’s been 100 percent adoption, so that’s been great. And Vinay [Dattu] has been great to work with … very familiar with private sector partnerships.”

And Dattu says they're very excited about the rollout. “We’ve gone live and so far," he said. "Everything’s been great!”

John Sepulvado

John Sepulvado is from Southern California. He enjoys writing, reading and wants to take up fishing. He wrote for Government Technology for a short time in 2014.