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OpenGov Voices: Demystifying Honolulu's legislative website

by guest author Burt Lum
An image of Burt Lum
Guest author Burt Lum from Hawaii Open Data

2013 was a fruitful year for open data legislation in the state of Hawaii where an open data policy was passed both at the state level and in the city of Honolulu. Advocating for open data legislation in both jurisdictions meant following the legislation process closely at the state and municipal level, which provided an instructive lesson in the trials and tribulations of following local and state legislation online

Hawaii’s Open Data Legislation

During the state legislative session (which runs in Hawaii from January to June), House Bill 632 — a bill for an act relating to open data — was introduced into the House of Representatives and successfully completed the review process. On July 3, 2013, the bill was signed into law by Governor Abercrombieturning it into Act 263.

While the bill was in the review process, I started doing the rounds with legislators and used Hawaii’s handy legislative website, which aggregates all the information about a bill in one central location. I was able to test drive a few features which the site offers, including: the ability to track specific bills by bill number, review testimony, receive alerts on bill status, track multiple bills and create custom measure tracking lists.

By codifying an open data act for the state of Hawaii, the departments and agencies under the executive branch now have guidelines and procedures to make public data more accessible through the pre-existing Hawaii open data portal and in formats that are machine-readable. Our sights then were set on codifying similar legislation for the city and county of Honolulu (who also had a pre-existing Honolulu open data portal) to ensure guidelines and procedures for opening data across jurisdictions.

Honolulu’s Open Data Legislation

Now I’ll walk you through my first-hand experience of using the current Honolulu City Council website to follow open data legislation, including opportunities for improvement in accessing Honolulu legislative information.

To find information on the status of Honolulu’s legislation, I first had to go to the Honolulu city website, search for city council links and then settle on the ambiguously titled “City Council and Committee Meetings” link. After that, I had to click a link titled “Bill, Resolutions & Other Resource Documents from 2004 to Present” in a list of bulleted links that then finally opens up Honolulu’s Docushare web front end.

As you traverse the system, you immediately notice you are traveling deeper into the file structure of the Docushare database. In order to get back to the higher level of folders delineated by years and legislative document type, you need to retrace your steps. Once in Docushare, all the bills are listed numerically. The web folder of 2013 bills available as PDFs contained 183 bills listed by number, not title. Luckily for me, not many bills contain the phrase “open data” and a keyword search delivered the bill I was looking for, which was numbered as Bill 53 (2013).

The next challenge was in finding out when Bill 53 was scheduled to be heard. While the city council’s agenda is posted on the Council’s calendar site (see below), key information about the life of a bill is not available online.

In my search communicating with the council member who introduced the bill helped tremendously in locating and tracking the bill. I was told that Bill 53’s first reading was to take place at the full council meeting on Aug. 7, 2013. However, if you look for a listing of Bill 53 on the agenda available online, you will not find it. Evidently, it is not a requirement to list the introduction of new bills, not even under “New Business.”

Next up, I searched for the next opportunity to provide testimony for the bill and discovered that it was in the committee meetings. For Bill 53, it was scheduled to be heard on Aug. 20, 2013 in the Public Safety and Economic Development Committee. One thing to note, (which can also be confusing to those not familiar with the ins and outs of the legislative process) is that the "Full Council Calendar" is different from the "Committee Calendars," which means citizens need to look in different places to find whether or not a bill is on the day’s agenda. You will realize (as I did) that the Council website, especially for bill tracking purposes, is based on an internal database perspective and not on a front end citizen’s perspective. As an example, you can find a comprehensive history of Bill 53 here. If you click on the first version of the bill, you will see a page with the voting history for the first reading, but if you then click on the link for the actual bill, you will go to an internal Docushare link, which you cannot access from outside the city network. This workflow of submitting documents to the back end and then making them publicly available is cumbersome to say the least, and with so many bills to keep track of it’s not surprising that broken links exists.

There are other idiosyncrasies about the process, but one I would finally point out is the email submission for testimony (pictured above). In order to appear in person to testify, you need to send in an email. If you want to submit testimony you need to send a separate email. These links will launch your internal email client from which you email in your request to speak and/or submit testimony. Each committee and full council requires a separate email link to a different set of recipients. This can get quite confusing especially if you are tracking several bills.

As you can see, there is lots of opportunity for improvement. In all fairness to the current administration, this is a result of years of old technology and the accommodation of a back end office system like Docushare, which is not as citizen-centric. In Honolulu, there is talk about trying to use a system like Capitol.Hawaii.gov, but there are implementation challenges in changing systems; internal workflow processes need to be coordinated, not to mention integrating systems. It’s like opening up a wiring closet that never had a structured wiring plan. It can be a complicated mess, but one well worth fixing for the sake of better open government and citizen engagement.

Burt Lum is the Executive Director of Hawaii Open Data, a non-profit dedicated to advancing the principles of open data and has more than 30 years in Hawaii's technology and communications sector. He is an Instructor at University of Hawaii in the Information & Computer Science Department where he teaches Intro to Social Media. He also co-hosts a weekly sci/tech program on Hawaii Public Radio and is a regular guest on Hawaii News Now, Sunrise Edition. You can get in touch with him at bytemarks@gmail.com.

Interested in writing a guest blog for Sunlight? Email us at guestblog@sunlightfoundation.com