Legislatures forge digital agendas

Legislatures forge digital agendas

Lawmakers use the Internet to keep themselves, citizens on the same electronic page

By Claire E. House

GCN Staff

The digital age is gradually changing the way legislators follow the hallowed traditions that pervade state capitols, but the Wisconsin Assembly is taking a more direct route.

Through e-mail messaging and online forums, constituents gain a seat at the legislative table, Minnesota Sen. Steve Kelley says.

'One of my goals is to drag state government kicking and screaming into the 21st century,' said Scott Jensen, speaker of the state General Assembly's lower house.

Spurred on by the digital agenda that Jensen laid down a little more than two years ago, the Assembly last month implemented paperless lawmaking processes. It no longer hands out paper copies of legislative documents to members; it maintains official copies of bills in an electronic format until signature time.

World is watching

The Assembly also last month launched a Web site that lets the public attend sessions virtually. The site integrates a daily agenda list with live audio, legislative text links and legislator information.

Jensen is even examining the legal and technical requirements for digitally signing legislation.

Wisconsin is not alone in its use of technology to both support the internal legislative process and provide historically unparalleled public access (see The 50 States, Page 6).

Many state legislatures are striving to artfully integrate digital access with time-honored processes.

A handful of states have chosen not to network the floor. Many others whose legislatures are networked have not mandated digital access; some legislators carry notebook PCs, and others carry folders of paper. And some legislatures that allow computing in the chamber block outside e-mail and Internet access during sessions.

'We're working with traditional people that are maintaining the integrity of historical bodies that have been around for more than 100 years, so that plays into how we implement things,' said Sharon Crouch, systems director for the Virginia House of Delegates and chairwoman of the Executive Committee of the National Association of Legislative Information Technology.

The Virginia General Assembly first installed a wireless network but found the 2-Mbps speed cumbersome. It eventually installed a wired setup and now lets legislators tap both systems.

'You can't just gut a room and start over,' Crouch said, because many of the building's fixtures have historical significance.

Another question is how legislators will use the technology. The wired Minnesota Senate debated whether e-mail and Internet access should be allowed on the floor during sessions, Senate information systems director Jim Greenwalt said.

Wisconsin Rep. John Ainsworth, left, Rep. Dave Hutchison and their colleagues follow floor action and access legislation through notebook PCs during their first paperless Assembly session last month.

Some reservations

Members were concerned that Web surfing senators would read newspapers, set up travel arrangements or fiddle around on www.ebay.com, as one Florida legislator did, rather than conduct state business. They were also worried that senators would call up inaccurate information for use in arguments.

As for e-mail, members worried that lobbyists following the session on cable TV would attempt to send messages trying to sway representatives during the closed-door process.

The Senate ultimately decided to let members determine responsible use, and staff members stress the importance of scrutinizing Web information sources and of arriving with prepared research.

Greenwalt's staff also sets up e-mail filtering for senators based on their preference. Some block all e-mail; some block external e-mail; and some, such as Sen. Steve Kelley, prefer complete access.

'I see some real power in the technology to equalize the power of different interest groups and the average citizen with respect to better-financed interests'but only if legislators are actually using the technology,' Kelley said.

The Wisconsin Assembly also lets representatives choose e-mail access levels during sessions. But since the sessions went paperless, legislators must log on to the chamber intranet to effectively follow action on the daily calendar and access legislative text.

The General Assembly, like many of its counterparts, had worked much as it did when Wisconsin became a state in 1848, Jensen said. The speaker pushed for digitization in part because he wanted the legislature to reap the advantages of technology just as businesses do.

Assembly legislators had more than a year to adopt the technology after it was installed and before paper was abolished. The intranet app gets data from a variety of systems supported by the Legislative Technology Services Bureau.

The Text 2000 (T2K) system is where it all begins. T2K's 1,000 custom programs generate and track the bulk of the Assembly's textual information, including statutes, acts, bills, resolutions, amendments, briefs, daily journals, schedules and calendars.

T2K holds document content and attribute data in an Oracle7 Release 7.3 database running under SunSoft Solaris 2.6 on a Sun Microsystems Ultra Enterprise 2 server with eight 300-MHz RISC processors and 10G of storage.

T2K runs Interleaf 6 Composition publishing software from Interleaf Inc. of Waltham, Mass., and Documentum 3.1 workflow software from Documentum Inc. of Pleasanton, Calif. As documents move through the legislative process, the custom programs convert them to various
formats for availability across the network.

Formats include the Hypertext Markup Language, Adobe Portable Document Format and Folio, a proprietary format created by Open Market Inc. The Burlington, Mass., company's Folio 4 lets users run complex cross-format searches of legislative text. The Folio format puts documents into what the company calls infobases, electronic files holding large amounts of text that allow full-text searching of free-format data as if they were a single document.

Folio also hyperlinks to related documents in other formats for quick searching. For example, it will reference PDF files so users can search through the Folio search engine but print the identical, superior-quality PDF file. It also calls up scanned documents such as related press clippings.

The intranet application was developed using Microsoft Visual Interdev 6.0 and Active Server Pages. Supporting it is a dual 400-MHz Pentium PC running Microsoft SQL Server 7 and Internet Information Server 5.0 under Microsoft Windows 2000.

Folio runs on both the network and on the Legislature's public Web server. A firewall separates the intranet from the Web server, which runs Apache Server from the Apache Software Foundation under Solaris on a Sun Sparcstation 20.

Visitors can follow the daily calendar along the left side of the screen, pull up documents as legislators see them, hear live audio of arguments, click on legislator information and send e-mail to legislators. The integrated Web sessions are available at www.legis.state.wi.us/insession/assembly.

'People can play the game with the Legislature and do everything they do except vote,' Jensen said.

The Assembly plans to provide video access, as well.

Legislators' acceptance of technology is growing, Minnesota's Greenwalt said. He points to the Texas legislator who got up to debate a bill and referred members to a Web address containing a visual presentation of his argument, and to the Minnesota senator who accesses notes on her notebook PC as she shares her opinion with the floor.

'My guess is we'll probably find more of those instances as people become more comfortable with the machines and as technology makes it easier for people to put things together,' Greenwalt said.

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