Why not a paperless Congress?
A love of paper and the lack of a standards-based process stand in the way, House panel told
- By William Jackson
- Jun 17, 2011
Congress is synonymous with paperwork, but a House panel on June 15 heard testimony on the feasibility of electronic creation and delivery of legislative information.
The technology to enable electronic collaboration, creation and distribution of documents exists, witnesses told the House Administration Committee's Oversight Subcommittee, but a love of paper and the need for a standards-based system to support the full life cycle of legislation make it unlikely that Congress will go paperless anytime soon.
Experts agreed that an Extensible Markup Language schema probably is the best choice for an electronic data system, but standards for supporting both congressional workflow and long-term public access while ensuring security and reliability have not been fully developed.
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The hearing on “Modernizing Information Delivery in the House” was driven by the rapid adoption of personal mobile technology by House members and their staffs and the need to bring a paper-based process that has changed little from the 18th century to the 21st century.
“We have no choice but to cut long-term costs and adapt to the electronic delivery of information and bring more transparency to the legislative process,” said subcommittee Chairman Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.).
Eighteen years after passage of the Government Printing Office Electronic Information Enhancement Act, the House still spends $1.7 million a year printing introduced bills, 97 percent of which do not become law, he said.
Rep. Michael Honda (D-Calif.), appearing as a witness, said that GPO is not a villain.
“We like to receive information digitally and then print electronic documents, sometimes multiple copies,” he said. And GPO often can do that more economically than consumers. “According to GPO, it costs taxpayers 7 cents for a member’s office to print a single-sided document. GPO can copy or print that same document for 5.5 cents, and if a press were being used, it would cost taxpayers only about 1 cent.”
Honda also pointed out that 68 percent of the GPO cost for producing the daily Federal Register is in the pre-print development of electronic files that are used both for online and print versions of the publication.
Still, adoption of electronic documents offers the promise of reducing congressional workloads, saving money, making information more available and usable, and improving citizen interaction by spurring development of applications for personal devices, said Thomas Bruce, director of the Legal Information Institute at Cornell Law School.
The institute has nearly 20 years of experience in digital legislation, putting the first primary legal information on the Web in 1992, developing an electronic version of the U.S. Code with GPO, and working with the Library of Congress to develop alternate data models to those used in its Thomas legislative database.
Bruce called the results of the work “undramatic but pervasive,” such as including the paragraph and section symbols in the standard symbol set for HTML. He said a long-lived, standards-based system for legislative workflow and preservation should be based on XML.
“Legislative data needs to be created and presented in open, interoperable, machine-readable formats with documented schemas and metadata models,” he said. “In modern practice, XML is the preferred format for this. Page-description formats like PDF fail the test of machine-readability, as well as being far more difficult to work with.”
Kent Cunningham, chief technology adviser for Microsoft’s U.S. public-sector division, also supported Open XML as a way to protect document fidelity throughout the life cycle. He provided illustrations of technology available for collaborative creation of documents, including the Associated Press’s use of SharePoint Server 2010 and Word 2010 in its newsroom.
But he also pointed out that the security required by Congress is not readily available in consumer-grade tools that were not built with security in mind.
“This subcommittee could help modernize information management in the House by developing a single, interoperable platform that accommodates users’ desire to choose their own devices and applications and that also supports institutional and legal requirements for data security and retention,” he said.
Bruce warned against rigid centralization, however.
“No matter the source or force of standardization efforts, internal constituencies can and will remain intransigent in the face of centralization if they believe that it increases burdens and not benefits,” he said. “The best approaches to centralization may, in fact, resemble the South Beach Diet: not the most effective diet science can imagine, but the most effective in practice if only because it is one that people will follow.”
He recommended creating standards and practices based on use cases of stakeholders. “The result is likely to be a highly connected federation of activities, linked by common standards and protocols, operating under the oversight of different administrative entities,” he said.
Cunningham outlined an 18-month effort to improve efficiency with the use of collaboration:
- Deploy a Web-enabled document collaboration platform to facilitate co-authoring of legislation, reports and other documents that also could automate workflow.
- Enable ad hoc online workgroups that transcend office, party and committee boundaries.
- Publish the House Directory in an easily accessed, always up-to-date electronic format to make it easy to find out who is working on a particular issue.
- Enable presence features to show who is available and how best to reach them.
- Federate with outside institutions to allow communication with outside experts and stakeholders.
Bruce said the process needs to start with creating standards for the unique congressional environment.
“That will happen most quickly and efficiently if the effort is kicked off by a process of standards development, accompanied by the administrative innovation needed to effectively develop public-private collaborations around the use of legislative data,” he said.
William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.