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Legislators Should Live in a Glass House

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

A little-known new project could make it easier to hold congressmen of both parties accountable.

If America has been a nation of ideas, then the very first was transparency in government. But when it comes to using the Web—the most transparency-enabling invention of our lifetimes—Congress is stuck in the ‘90s. The information superhighway of the last millennium was static compared to what we have today: news and calendar feeds, map and photo mash-ups, video sharing, and collaborative editing. With legislators talking the talk over ethics and openness, it’s time now for Congress to get an i-tune-up.

Fortunately, Speaker Nancy Pelosi is listening to ideas from the public for how the House can improve its Web presence, and the public is stepping up to the call. The Open House Project launched this month to collect suggestions and turn them into a series of concrete recommendations that the House can act on. The group will be looking for low-hanging fruit: easy improvements with a big impact—such as online posting of committee votes, which are mysteriously difficult to find despite their great importance as the first hurdle that any new bill must pass through. Other recommendations will touch on the availability of video records of committee meetings and the posting of the text of legislation online before votes take place.

The group will be looking for low-hanging fruit: easy improvements with a big impact.

One of the most important recommendations may be to make data available in what are called structured data formats—data formats that computers, rather than people, can process. These new tools let the user, rather than the publisher, decide how data will be presented and organized. RSS is one example of a structured data format. By providing headlines in RSS, blogs and news sources allow their articles to be read at the user’s convenience with feed readers, rather than requiring the user to go to each source for updates. With the status of legislation available in a structured data format, computers could help citizens track the bills that interest them and be better informed about what their elected representatives are doing on their behalf, watchdog groups could more easily find earmarks, and equally, lobbyists could more easily track and attempt to influence the legislative process.

Structured data has already been picked up throughout the government, by the SEC in their Edgar program and by the Census Bureau, among many others. In each case it enables the public to get a different important angle on the information available. The Center for Responsive Politics provides a searchable and categorized interface to campaign contributions based on the structured data files published by the Federal Election Commission. Putting structured data online is what it means to be on the Web in the year 2007.

Congress has been bold with the Web before. After the last power shift, in 1994, the new Republican leadership in the House established THOMAS—a website run by the Library of Congress that makes current legislative information available to the public. It will be fitting, then, if this year’s new House leadership sticks to their promises for better accountability by bringing Congress up to speed with today’s Web.

The merits of these and other ideas will be blogged about (by me and others) on the Open House website over the next month.

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