The House of Representatives has led the charge towards better public access to legislative data in three major ways. First, it established a House-wide transparency portal, docs.house.gov, where tremendous amounts of legislative data are made available to the public in machine-readable formats. Second, it established a task force focused on improving public access to the congressional data that supports THOMAS. And third, it held a series of public meetings that provide an important focal point to the communities that are interested in improving access to legislative data.
House-wide Transparency Portal docs.house.gov
The House of Representatives took a tremendous step into the 21st century in December 2011 when the Committee on House Administration unanimously adopted "Standards for the Electronic Posting of House and Committee Documents & Data." Sunlight has always considered better access to House data to be a priority in the transparency movement.
Taking effect on January 1, 2012, the resolution instructs the Clerk of the House to maintain a single website where the public can access all House bills, amendments, and resolutions for floor consideration in XML. In addition, committees are encouraged to post their documents on that site in XML whenever possible -- and searchable PDFs when not -- with the expectation that mandatory publication requirements in XML will soon be imposed. The House is also storing video of hearings and markups, and working to implement standards "that require documents to be electronically published in open data formats that are machine readable," thereby enabling transparency and public review.
On January 13, 2012, the House made good on this promise, launching http://docs.house.gov/, a one stop website where the public can access all House bills, amendments, resolutions for floor consideration, and conference reports in XML, as well as information on floor proceedings and more. Information will ultimately be published online in real time and archived for perpetuity.
After a successful year of making available all plenary level data, the House of Representatives has begun to publish committee-level data, effective January 2013. Docs.house.gov is organized around a new calendar of committee activities which, for the first time, provides a comprehensive advance view of hearings and markups, provides links to witness statements and testimony, adds video and draft legislation, and provides it all in machine-friendly XML.
Bulk Data Task Force
Starting in the fall of 2012 and carrying on into 2013, the House has held a series of meetings of its "Legislative Bulk Data Task Force" that in many ways is a response to our advocacy around requiring bulk access to the legislative data behind THOMAS. A coalition of organizations led by Sunlight met with the task force in October 2012 and again in January 2013, submitting a series of recommendations and cheering the small progress with respect to THOMAS data that's already been made.
A less obvious but equally important facet of these meetings is that it brings together, for the first time, all of the internal stakeholders who are responsible for generating and/or publishing legislative information. The importance of these regular meetings cannot be overstated, as it allows for a level of coordination and information sharing that simply has not existed before. It also is a sign of the importance that the Republican and Democratic leadership has assigned to this issue.
Major Transparency Conferences
Also at the end of 2012 and continuing during 2012, the House held three major meetings on public access to legislative information.
In December 2011, the House hosted a modified-hackathon that brought together stakeholders from across the government. The information conversations and networking that took place provided the groundwork for much of what has followed.
The second meeting, taking place on Thursday, February 2, was entitled "Legislative Data and Transparency" and discussed how legislative information is created, how it is made available to the public, what the impact is of current levels of public access, what improved public access would look like from a technological perspective, and the benchmarks to determine and benefits that would come from a truly transparent Congress. A representative from Sunlight gave remarks on benchmarks for measuring legislative data transparency.
The second meeting, taking place in late February and co-sponsored by the UN and the International Parliamentary Union, brought together representatives from parliaments and CSO from around the world, and was entitled "Achieving Greater Transparency in Legislatures through the use of Open Document Standards." A Sunlight representative made remarks at the convening.