The New House.gov

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The House of Representatives is showing off a preview of their new website, over at preview.house.gov. It features a brand new design, a modest expansion of available data, and more educational material for citizens about the House and its functions.

The site’s CSS lists its author as Navigation Arts, a UX firm and sometime government contractor out in McLean, VA. It’s hard to know all the parties and all the cost involved in making the new website, but there is an item in the House Disbursement reports for Dec 23, 2010 that lists a payment to Navigation Arts in the amount of $81,979.78 for “WEB DEV HST,EMAIL & RLTD SERV”. (To see this, visit our database of the disbursements, and search the “2010 House Disbursements Detail” table for “navigationarts”.)

From a data standpoint, the main new thing is the Schedule of committee activity, given for both the current day, and as an archive (though retroactively only for April). The old website featured a couple of sparse black and white pages literally exported from MS Word.

That the House’s committee activity is listed in a centralized place at all is a great boon, and will make it substantially easier for citizens to catch relevant hearings, and for third parties like us to create databases of committee hearings that we can then disseminate through other channels. It also brings the House closer to parity with the Senate, which also has a central list of committee hearings.

But the Senate also provides an XML version of its hearing schedule, with links to associated bills and documents, and unique identifers for committees. The House’s Schedule cries out for an RSS feed at the very least, but would be best served by following the Senate’s lead and publishing XML, with identifiers.

The House is not in session at the moment, so it’s difficult to judge yet, but I hope that when the site launches, it also provides a list of upcoming hearings. Without them, the schedule’s usefulness is crippled. The calendar does have a forward arrow, but it only goes forward one month. Let’s hope that when the House returns to session, one can see upcoming hearings, whenever they may be scheduled.

The site boasts that it has “an expanded public disclosure section”, but it’s really just expanding their prominence. The front page now links to a bevy of disclosures, filings, and reports — but the House disbursements report has been out for over a year, and the other reports are still hosted on the House Clerk’s site, where they’ve been for years. Still, giving these disclosures more exposure will only increase their effectiveness, and the power of public oversight.

The educational section is actually pretty impressive. The old House.gov mostly outsourced that job to THOMAS and other websites, aside from one long page about the legislative process. The new website takes the time to go over many more aspects of the House, but breaks it out effectively so that a long page of text is never dropped onto the reader.

Particularly interesting is the candor with which the new House site discusses the duties of a representative (emphasis ours):

Whether working on Capitol Hill or in his / her congressional district, a representative’s schedule is extremely busy. Often beginning early in the morning with topical briefings, most representatives move quickly among caucus and committee meetings and hearings. They vote on bills, speak with constituents and other groups, and review constituent mail, press clips and various reports. Work can continue into the evening with receptions or fundraising events.

Whether or not receptions and fundraising events fall under the scope of “work” of a representative is debatable, but it’s still laudable that this very real, very large part of a representative’s time in Congress is described on the House’s website.

The House’s new website may offer only a little to open data advocates, but it comes across as a good faith effort to give citizens better information, and to engage them more in the workings of the House.

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