Re-Engineering Government

By pbrantley | 18 October, 2013

opengov group photo at fastcaseDuring a time of intense political change and government dysfunction, a focus on open government—bringing transparency to government affairs and information, while facilitating engagement by citizenry in the governing process—is on everyone’s mind.

On October 4, with the federal government in full shutdown mode, a hardy band of open government advocates, public officials and civic hackers gathered in Washington, DC to brainstorm about the future of annotation, law-making, and re-engineering the workings of government.

We – the OpenGov Foundation and – assembled these individuals from within and around federal and local government. Their work runs the gamut, including regulatory affairs, technologists, policy experts, and legal counsel. OpenGov co-founder Representative Darrell Issa (R-Ca) came too, shedding light on timely opportunities for opening up legislative work to both Congressional staff and the general public.

Issa honed in on several government deficiencies that could be corrected through greater openness in the legislative process and open annotation of bills as they move through Congress. The ability of citizens to directly annotate draft legislation would allow Members of Congress to rapidly and efficiently highlight areas of greatest concern, focusing on the places in legislation that need the most work.

Existing feedback mechanisms – like fax or email “blasts” – do little to usefully identify challenges or catch mistakes and ultimately frustrate effective policymaking dialogue between citizens and government, and even among elected officials themselves. Specific places where legislation could be improved – from the words used to the legal mechanisms adopted – would be easier to draw out with the entire Internet’s eyes on policy documents. Informed citizens and domain experts collaboratively contributing their ideas to the legislative process results in policies that work better for everyone, as the Madison Project (pdf) [code on Github] has begun to demonstrate.

Open legislative annotation benefits both Members of Congress like Issa as well as We the People. With today’s technology, greater engagement is not just the right way to run a representative democracy, it’s the smart way. For Members and their staff, having an always-on, living digital library of their legislation – with clearly identified constituent concerns, proposals and alternate ideas all in one place – would increase the speed and accuracy of the drafting and amendment process, eliminating bottlenecks with busy legislative counsels who are already overloaded and yet have exclusive control over the process.

The benefits for citizens are fundamental. With open legislative annotation, they could begin to have insight into what their elected officials are doing, become involved, and hold their representatives accountable. Annotation has the potential to level the playing field, putting citizens on equal footing with high-powered lobbyists. Alerts and notifications on specific issues of interest, as well as key legislative waypoints like committee markup, should allow constituents to track what they wish and get involved when it will make the greatest impact.

Two positive side-effects of openly annotated legislation also emerged from the conversation: preserving legislative intent and creating restriction-free public law. As the annotated policymaking process is captured, it secures the real-time intent of legislators and citizens for posterity. These crucial insights – valuable to judges, historians and students – are largely lost today with each successive PDF of end-product policy posted online. Developing law with open source software and services like Madison, and other tools is the best way to ensure public access. In particular, it should mean no one can use copyright to restrict access to, or reuse of, the public law and legal data.

With the mountain top of openly annotated legislation in sight, conversation turned to blazing a trail to the summit. Waldo Jaquith, creator of the State Decoded, took the first step, asking, “What data opportunities are hiding in plain sight?” Exploring that question together led to others: Where are the collections of rules, definitions, and procedures that could be normalized and made available? How can we enrich policymaking with civic data sources already on the Internet? Could taking advantage of semantic value sitting on the table – from in-line legal term definitions to richly cross-linked sources and references – enable discovery of a specific piece of legal data faster and easier for users both inside and outside the government firewall? It may seem obvious, but it bears repeating: rich data sources already exist online, and stitching them together in any open annotation environment is a great way to start.

After identifying a number of active open annotation projects and use-cases, the conversation turned to the final leg of the journey. How do you actually employ open legislative annotation? What can we do to prepare the ground for the next policymaking battles – like SOPA or PIPA – that cry out for public scrutiny? How do you raise an annotation army that represents diverse interests, backgrounds and domain expertise while ensuring everyone has an equal chance to contribute equally and accountably? The consensus was that we’re only scratching the surface, and need to continue to build quality, open tools while we experiment with different approaches.

The experimentation and building began in post-lunch breakout groups. These two examples demonstrate how open legislative annotation can succeed faster by mining rich veins of legal information already online while building upon proven open-source projects that already exist.

  • The Urban Dictionary for the Law” – Understanding technical legal terms in context is fundamental to deciphering legislation, and a prerequisite to collaborative policymaking. To help untangle legal jargon, the team of Waldo Jaquith, Eric Mill, Greg Elin, Peter Brantley and Balazs Czifra worked on creating a human-editable, machine-usable, restriction-free glossary of legal terms and definitions. Users could add or expand upon definitions, and initial content would come from copyright-restriction free sources like the 1913 edition of Black’s Legal Terms. This would be an invaluable repository that platforms from the State Decoded to Madison could harness right away. Watch Eric Mill demo the prototype.
  • One-Click Codification” – Honing in on the DC Code of Laws, the team of Sean Meloy, Dan Whaley, David Zvenyach worked on cross-annotating PDF and HTML versions of DC law with The current process of codifying the law – the process of translating and transforming legislative changes to the law into textual updates to the code itself – is a byzantine mess. The city’s lawyers must deal with one locked PDF document for the legislation, and another locked PDF with margin notes on referenced sections of the DC Code. Today’s codification process involves jumping back and forth across these and many other PDF documents, making updates by hand, and comes with all the headaches and mistakes a paper-based system causes. Dropping an annotation layer like onto these documents would physically link them together, with annotations potentially creating a legislative “pull request” to the DC Laws stored on git, bypassing lengthy submissions to external vendors. This is a potential design revolution for production of the law, and Sean, Dan and David are committed to delivering it.

Enriching, connecting and engaging with information gives it life, turning dead data into useful insights and opportunities. This is what the Internet already enables with information such as sports scores and status updates. Our shared mission is to unleash open annotation to improve the processes at the heart of our civic lives – the activities within, and information flowing through, our federal, state, and local governments. Open annotation leads to open dialogue. Linking and enriching public knowledge means connecting and enriching the people who access it and depend on it. Opening the corpus of government translates to real-world improvements in our lives, helping to to address the pervasive legislative dysfunction that defines our times.

Share this article