They've got mail: Some legislatures go online

Thomas R. Temin

As state executive branches rush headlong into dot-com initiatives, legislatures often seem like quaint backwaters.

Dealing in mountains of paper bills and revisions, they often conduct their business in buildings dating to the 19th century or earlier. How, one might wonder, can issues such as electronic commerce, digital signatures and statewide communications infrastructures be dealt with in such settings?

Looks can be deceiving. As our Page 1 story illustrates, some legislatures are also moving online. Wisconsin is on the leading edge with an all-paperless Assembly, its lower house. It turns out that switching from paper to an electronic workflow is only the first of the issues legislatures must face.

One question is how to deal with e-mail. After all, when your legislative floor desks are fully populated with notebook computers and Ethernet wiring, is it really logical to prevent e-mail and the Internet from reaching the floor, as many legislatures do?

The question is not as simple as it sounds. Legislatures, like countless companies and government agencies, are discovering that when applied to core processes, e-mail and online visibility fundamentally change the way people interact and, therefore, influence one another. The average Joe just can't get in to argue a point with Sen. Bumpkin or Rep. Yokum, whereas professional lobbyists, trade association executives and lawyers regularly bend the ears of legislators. This in itself is not bad. Competing lobbyists bring legislators information they vitally need to make informed decisions. But the process is not inclusive, not in the way the Internet can be.

Wisconsin's Assembly, as GCN/State & Local reporter Claire E. House details, is taking a big step in the outbound direction of an interactive legislature. The state Assembly is putting legislative sessions, complete with sound, on the Web. Citizens can follow debates, while reading bills and background material, on their computers. Think C-SPAN on steroids.

But what about inbound traffic, e-mail and such, to the floor of the legislature? Wisconsin's Assembly has opted to allow it, although individual representatives can choose to filter it out.

As corporations have also found, a few shrill voices with a mail server can make the trivial seem like a national groundswell. On the other hand, what better service can a government offer than the chance for citizens'many of whom are too busy with their lives to get organized'to tell lawmakers what they think?

Thomas R. Temin

Editorial director


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