In #HackWeTrust – The House of Representatives Opens Its Doors to Transparency Through Technology


Yesterday, members of the House of Representatives hosted a ground-breaking public discussion on how to give the public better access to congressional information. Around 300 developers, policy wonks, hill staffers, and others crowded into the Capitol Visitor Center to discuss how to use technology to make the legislative branch more open, transparent, and accessible. The event was sponsored by Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer.

Matt Lira, the Director of New Media for Rep. Cantor, opened the conference by hailing it as “our television moment,” hearkening back to when House proceedings were first televised so they could be watched by the American people. Steve Dwyer, Rep. Hoyer’s Director of Online Community and Technology, expressed his hopes that the day’s conversation posed “a new model for collaboration between Congressional staff, advocacy groups, and private companies, where we can come together and meet face-to-face over common goals.” We could not agree more. Open government is the common ground shared by leaders in both political parties, and we applaud them for their herculean effort to bring people together to work on these issues.

A lot of important information about the ongoing work of the House was publicly revealed at the conference during the first hour, but equally as important, the remaining three hours had attendees break into smaller groups to tackle persistent problems, resulting in incredibly important conversations between staff, technologists, and advocates that rarely occur, and never before on this scale. Intrepid reporter Alex Howard has already published video and photographs from the presentations, and Rep. Cantor posted a short video.

One of the most edifying presentations was made by Reynold Schweickart, the technology guru for the Committee on House Administration, regarding ongoing House efforts to open itself up. Here are the highlights:

* Next week the Committee on House Administration will likely hold a hearing to consider and adopt legislative data standards.

* Along a similar line, the committee is working on improving/implementing legislative drafting in XML, including how to make the data more accessible internally and to outside users. (We can only hope that this includes discussion of bulk access to this information.)

* There are plans to  start publishing floor and committee documents in a machine readable format at permanent URLs. In addition, there will soon be naming conventions for documents that the House rules require to be made publicly available, with the goal of having permanent URLs by 2013.

* GPO, which has begun publishing historic statutes at large online, will start publishing the historic slip laws as individual files, so that you can easily see (and link to) legislation as it was enacted by Congress. (I have a lot more to say about this here.)

* A meeting was held with representatives from all the offices that are involved in creating and disseminating legislative data. If a true collaboration arises, what this could mean is the creation and use of data standards to describe legislation (and its constituent parts) from when it is drafted, through the amendment process, at passage, and upon codification. This would be revolutionary.

* There are ongoing improvements on how video from committee hearings is recorded and made available to the public, with an emphasis on standardizing and making available meta data. (While not a lot of detail was offered, Carl Malamud, who has long advocated for broadcast quality video from the floor and committee hearings, probably has a lot to add on this issue.)

* There’s also ongoing efforts with respect to how constituent communications are received by members of congress, and efforts to make it easier to hire capable vendors.

* Finally, there was a stated willingness to consider to what extent the House Rules need to be amended to allow technological modernization that will make the chamber more transparent.

Later on, Darrell Issa, who chairs the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, announced the launch of “Madison” — a tool whereby the public can comment on legislation as it is being drafted. Here’s a rather grainy photo. Rep. Issa explained the concept: “When a member introduces a bill, it should be interoperably commented on, and [those comments] should be part of the markup consideration. Under the Madison initiative, [interest] group’s input will be noted and appreciated, and exposed to the world in real time.” While similar in concept to PublicMarkup and Open Congress, the difference is that it would be managed and monitored by the office responsible for reviewing the legislation, giving the opportunity to track ideas (and influence) as it occurs. Indeed, after the conference ended, Rep. Issa’s staff hosted a hackathon to help improve the tool so it can be unveiled for public use. Stay tuned.

I haven’t even begun to speak about the break-out sessions, which I will briefly summarize. Participants broke into four working groups that focused on the following topics: legislative correspondence, legislative workflow and data, public relations and press relations, and casework and constituent services. We reconvened at the end of the conference to discuss our recommendations for improvements. It’s too lengthy to go into here. But, on that topic, I would be remiss to not point to an earlier collaborative effort, the Open House Project, which in 2007 raised many of the same issues and outlined a series of recommendations. (And I can’t resist plugging this list of ideas for improving THOMAS).

The outstanding question in my mind is: where do we go from here? Much of the conversation can continue on these open policy and technology listservs, at the hashtag #HackWeTrust, and on pages being set up by Facebook* (who sent many developers to participate in the conference). Even so, it would be great to harness this enthusiasm to hold additional events that bring together experts, staff, technologists, and advocates to address the important but complex questions of how to make the legislative branch open, transparent, and technology-friendly. Similarly, it may make sense to institutionalize this discussion as well, perhaps through working group(s), listservs, or other means.

* Updated to include the Facebook page. Also, check out this colloquy between Reps. Cantor and Hoyer that took place today and discussed yesterday’s hackathon.