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Congress Turning to State Legislatures for IT Ideas

By Pam Greenberg  |  July 29, 2019

“States are a great laboratory of wonderful ideas,” U.S. Representative Tom Graves (R-Ga.), vice chair of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, said last week during a hearing on “Modernizing Legislative Information Technologies: Lessons from the States.” The hearing featured testimony from top legislative technology officers from Washington and California.

Members of the select committee, five of whom are former state legislators, heard from Mike Rohrbach, chief information officer and director of information technology for the Washington Legislature, and Diane Boyer-Vine, legislative counsel and head of the Legislative Data Center in California. They also heard from Nelson Moe, state CIO for Virginia.

Rohrbach spoke first, highlighting ways the Washington Legislature encourages citizen engagement in the legislative process. “Increasingly, citizens want a consumer-quality experience when interacting with their government,” he said. Signing up to testify before a committee should be as easy as booking a hotel room, tracking a bill should be as easy as tracking a package, and citizens should be able to do both from a phone or tablet, he added.

The Washington Legislature (a past winner of NCSL’s Online Democracy Award) has worked to make its website accessible and compatible with mobile devices. Citizens can subscribe to receive emails or text notifications on bills, topics and committee hearings, and they can use real-time legislative information from the legislature’s Web Services. Remote video testimony means constituents who live far from the capitol can testify at legislative hearings.

Rohrbach also described services that support the legislative process—in the chamber, in committees or anywhere and anytime legislators or staff need information. The legislature is using cloud services for email, documents, collaboration sites and disaster recovery. Cybersecurity training is custom-tailored for the legislature. Multifactor authentication was just implemented in the legislature this year (a “big deal,” Rohrbach noted) to help prevent unauthorized access to legislative information.

Boyer-Vine described California’s “Member Portfolio” web application. Members can access all types of legislative information on iPads, including letters of support or opposition to bills, messages, staff and caucus recommendations, the daily file schedule and real-time vote information.

She also described the “As Amends the Law” feature: Each time amendments to a bill are adopted, the bill as amended is posted on internal and external websites. In addition to showing the different versions of the bill, the feature also shows the changes to the underlying existing law.

State legislators and IT staff will be interested in the 24 recommendations approved last week by the select committee, including restructuring IT services and resources, making cybersecurity training mandatory for members, and requiring all broadcasts of House proceedings to be closed captioned. The select committee’s earlier recommendations also included adopting a standardized format for legislation that would show bill changes, visualizations, and analyses of legislative text.

State legislative information technology professionals have the benefit of learning about and exchanging these and many other innovative ideas coming from their colleagues in the 50 states.

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