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The Legislation Will Not Be Televised

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This map distinguishes five levels of legislative web and broadcasting comprehension on a sliding scale from “Best” (including all recommended elements: video formatting of floor proceedings and committee hearings, archived, and broadcasted via a variety of mediums) to “Worst” (missing several of these recommended elements). For more info (or to watch!) see the NCSL's original roundup here.

Open legislative data is integral to a functioning legible participatory democracy. The legislative data canopy covers everything from information about who represents you to the nuts and bolts of the legislative process to final letter of the law, with each element carrying its own series of challenges and considerations when it comes to public access. Timely and archived legislative process data (i.e. bills, amendments, committee meetings, votes, and contextual information, such as: research reports, legislative journals and lobbying information) are crucial to supporting citizen participation and informed voting. Video documentation of the legislative process represents the barebones of open and accountable legislative process data -- passive recordings of events as they happen for prosperity and public inclusion -- and yet this information is still not comprehensively available in most U.S. states.

In February, Sunlight’s Open States team assessed the availability of legislative data sets associated with bill creation and amendments, votes, and bill tracking as a happy byproduct of their efforts (and frustrations) in streamlining and making these data sets available for all 50 states (and the District of Columbia) in one site (Open States). The results were displayed in a Transparency Report Card, which used criteria derived from the Ten Principles of Opening Up Government Information to rate the timeliness, ease of access, machine readability, use of commonly owned standards, permanence, and changelog for state legislative data.

At the time of the Report Card, Open States did not include AV documentation in their assessment because the platform does not currently include this information, but this data has recently come to our attention thanks to new research by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). NCSL charted all 50 states (and D.C., Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands) to review how (and whether) they broad- and webcast floor proceedings and committee hearings. In addition, NCSL notes whether the recordings are available live and/or archived and whether audio and/or video is available.

Comprehensive documentation of legislative proceedings (in other words, records of legislative arguments and procedure for citizens) consists of: video documentation (in addition to transcripts and audio, video provides visual context and information, such as charts, body language, attendee information, etc) of floor proceedings and committee hearings (much of the legislative debate and decision making takes place during committee hearings; a failure to provide both events creates a significant blind spot of context) that are archived with permalinks (to ensure future accessibility and to inform citizens of past and current process) and available through different broadcast mediums, such as television and online services (to serve as many people as possible).

For a detailed breakdown of what floor proceedings and committee meeting info each state releases (or doesn't) see the NCSL's original roundup here.

Although all 50 states provide some sort of (audio or video) webcast of floor proceedings, a significant amount of states (13) provide no live committee meeting documentation whatsoever (in either audio or video format). To make matters worse, only half of U.S. states (26) and D.C. provide archiving of both floor proceedings and committee hearings (see map) in either format, with 6 only providing audio. Sunlight’s own OpenGov Champion Waldo Jaquith tackled this archiving problem in Virginia last year with a fantastically successful Kickstarter project (it took ~3 ½ hours to become fully funded) dedicated to purchasing Virginia archived legislation videos and hosting them online where the public could access them for free.

For public access to be meaningful, it can’t be solely structured around windows of time when only limited members of the public are able to participate. Meaningful public access needs to be lasting so that the citizens not only have the option of voicing their expertise, interest, questions, and opinions in the moment a government is taking action, but so that those who could participate and those who couldn’t have equal opportunity to review information for consideration afterward (and at any time). Archives are also vital to investigative reporters and academics, who need to be able to survey more than just one instant or committee meeting to isolate facts and trends, and to government itself, for whom records of activity are important for procedural reasons, as well as for civilian and departmental accountability. That only half of US states provide archival documentation on floor proceedings and committee hearings indicates not necessarily malaise on the part of the government, but an underestimation of just how important legacy documentation data is.

Comprehensive open access to the legislative process is fundamental to any citizen who wants to properly understand the law-making process, and we hope that more states will take action in response to NCSL’s report to follow in Waldo’s footsteps. Moreover, in a world of falcon cams (my hometown had one: these are literally webcams set up to monitor baby falcons), video documentation is more than readily available and affordable. Food for thought: Here is a falcon cam from Delaware, a state which only provides floor proceedings via live audio and fails to provide any committee hearing documentation (audio or video), any archivable documentation -- or television broadcast.

This roundup showcases where much work is needed to be done!