STATE LEGISLATURES MAGAZINE | april 2015
Here are some innovations that will have you shaking your head and saying, “I should have thought of that.”
By Pam Greenberg
Google, Apple and Microsoft aren’t the only ones who can think outside the box. At least seven state legislatures debuted a whole new look for their legislative websites in 2015, and many others are adding great new features for legislators, legislative staff and citizens. All make it easier to find information, interact with legislators, and participate in and follow the legislative process.
This subjective review of some of the newest features of legislative websites spotlights 15 must-steal ideas from 2015, but don’t stop with these. Visit other legislative websites for a virtual tour of our representative democracy.
Some of these ideas may appear easy to copy, but don’t try this at home! First, consult with your legislative information technology staff about the kinds of skills, time and money it would take to adapt these ideas to your state. Just because they seem easy, doesn’t mean they are.
And for all the geniuses behind these 15 ideas, congratulations, job well done. We admire you. And remember, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
1. South Carolina
Dashboards to Multi-Task
In technological terms, a computer dashboard, like a car’s, displays constantly updated information in an easy-to-view format, allowing you to keep track of several different key indicators at once. South Carolina’s legislative dashboards for the House and Senate show the current bill or amendment under consideration, the calendar, the journal and the meeting schedule for the week. View these in up to six panels on your screen, or close one or more of the ones you don’t need to track. Expand the panel to view the bill, amendment or other information in full screen. And for those who need it, an accompanying “how to” video demonstrates the use of the dashboard.
Have you ever wondered how many people really watch legislative proceedings that are streamed on the Web? The Iowa House no longer has to wonder—it knows. Iowa’s legislative website features viewership reports by week, displayed in a bar chart format. The House, for example, had close to 300 people viewing proceedings on Jan. 4, 2015. This helps in knowing what issues are drawing citizens’ attention.
An Eye on Rulemaking
RuleWatch Ohio gives citizens an easy way to keep track of proposed rules and regulations. The website was developed by Ohio’s Legislative Information Systems for the Joint Committee on Agency Rule Review, which oversees state executive agencies to ensure they do not exceed their rule-making authority. In addition to making proposed rules easy to find, citizens can sign up for email alerts to track them, and they can send their comments about proposed rules to committee members. The website also displays the top five most-tracked rules of the past 30 days.
It’s easy to find the bills or topics most in demand on the Pennsylvania General Assembly website. A tab at the top of the legislature’s home page lists the “Most Popular Pages”—the top-viewed bills over the past seven days and 30 days, and the most popular webpages within the site in the same time periods. The “Find Your Legislator” tool is one of the most popular features on the site. Wait, is that two great ideas in one?
Virginia’s Division of Legislative Automated Systems has a webpage that describes information technology projects the division plans or has underway. Its current projects, for example, include a Disaster Recovery and Cloud Computing plan and a Budget Amendment System. The site also offers basic tips and tricks and security guidance that should be helpful to anyone.
Eye for Pies
In Indiana, you can see which issues dominate legislative sessions in terms of the number of bills filed. The General Assembly’s “Top Legislative Subjects” webpage produces a pie chart that displays the distribution of bills filed during session by legislative subject matter. (Bills from only the top six categories are represented.) Click on a wedge to pull up links to the bills in each category.
The Minnesota Revisor’s Office provides authenticated copies of legislative documents that are considered official electronic records under the Minnesota Uniform Electronic Legal Material Act. All material viewed on the Minnesota Office of the Revisor’s website is sent through secure servers with encryption. The site gives instructions about how to obtain an official record or verify the authenticity of a session law, statute or administrative rule.
Compare and Contrast
This feature on the California Legislature’s website makes it easy to identify and compare the changes between two versions of a bill. After selecting a bill, all you have to do is click on “Compare Versions” and select the version you wish to compare. The system displays the changes between the two bill versions. Added text is displayed in blue italics, and deletions are displayed in red strikeout. Utah also offers a way to compare different versions of bills on its website.
Keep it Simple
Finding current and past versions of statutes in Missouri is made easy with this redesigned website. Colored “Next Section” and “Previous Section” buttons allow for easy navigating through code sections, and a single click on a date will display prior (now amended) versions of the section text below the current version. Search within the displayed page, and the resulting search terms are highlighted. Familiar envelope and printer icons make it easy to email or print the displayed page.
Quick and Customized
The Connecticut General Assembly’s brand new website has lots of great features. One is a bill search tab that appears at the bottom middle of each webpage. Click on it, and up comes a small box for a quick bill search. Another feature is the General Assembly’s schedule of events, which you can customize to view by month, week or day; print a formatted copy; or add an event reminder to your Outlook, Google, iCal or Yahoo calendar application.
Help and How-to’s for Citizens
Integrated throughout the Oregon Legislative Assembly website are clearly explained answers to frequently asked questions about the legislative process or how to use the website. Read about how to testify to a committee and how to submit exhibits, and then watch a video that walks you through the process. Learn how to use the audio and video on the website, including how to use a trimming tool to create a clip from the recording to embed in another website, how to share a link to recordings to a social media site or email, and answers to other FAQs. While you’re there, view other information videos on the site or on the legislature’s YouTube channel.
12. Indiana and Texas
An increasing number of state legislatures are offering bill information in standardized and open, nonproprietary electronic formats so that anyone can download the data in bulk to analyze or republish. Indiana and Texas provide detailed information on their legislative websites explaining acceptable uses, file structure, availability and other technical information.
Meetings Made Easy
The Virginia House of Delegates’ House Meeting Schedule webpage offers a real-time schedule of all House meetings that can be filtered by committees, subcommittees date or other criteria. Like Connecticut’s website, it includes a one-click “Add to Calendar” icon that will save the meeting on your personal electronic calendar.
Search and Rescue
Vermont’s new website has a couple of slick ways to search for bills, acts and resolutions. You can search for a single bill without guessing how to enter it, since examples of formats are front and center. Or, from the left column of the search page, select all bills, all House or Senate bills, bills passed or vetoed, and so forth, and then refine those results by entering specific terms in a search box. View, print or export your search results to a spreadsheet file.
Map of the Week
Geographic information system experts produce a map each week for the Iowa General Assembly that displays statistical data on issues important to Iowans. Examples include property tax rates, licensed Iowa breweries, violent crime rates, an interactive map of Iowa legislative districts and earned income tax credits by school district. The legislature’s website also includes a “Map Gallery” with links to interactive mapping applications. A link to the map of the week is tweeted out on the Legislative Service Agency’s Twitter feed.
There you have it: Fifteen innovative IT ideas from 2015. All are worth bringing home to your state. If you don’t, someone else will.
Pam Greenberg visits legislative websites almost daily while doing research for NCSL.
NCSL has been rewarding great state legislative websites for 10 years through its Online Democracy Award. It is given each year to a legislature, legislative chamber or caucus whose website helps make democracy more user-friendly.
Sponsored by NCSL’s Legislative Information and Communications Staff Section and National Association of Legislative Information Technology, the award recipients are announced every summer at the Legislative Summit.
Winners are chosen based on the website’s design, content and use of technology. Judges (legislative staff from states that have previously won the award) ask questions like: Is the site easy to navigate, simple to understand and user friendly? Does it make finding legislative bills, state statutes and the state constitution simple? Are citizens offered an easy way to identify and communicate with their legislators? Does the site give legislators the opportunity to share their message with citizens and the media? Does the site load quickly and efficiently? Is it highly searchable? Does the site reflect an effort to be accessible to all types of users?
Will your website be the next winner?