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Documenting government accountability

This article appears in the issue May 2005 [Volume 14, Issue 5]


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At the federal, state and local levels, accountability has become the watchword in government. Just as Sarbanes-Oxley is mandating a new level of transparency in corporate behavior, a new standard is being set for decision-makers in government to show that their decision-making process is valid and backed up by the right documentation.

On a day-to-day level, local decisions often affect citizens more immediately than those at the national level, and foster greater involvement. Therefore, issues related to zoning, public school funding and traffic are closely watched in cities and counties across the country. The city of Muskego, Wis., launched a comprehensive initiative to bring the records of its operation within easy reach of its citizens through its Web site (Muskego, Wis.,). The site won an award from the University of Wisconsin in recognition of the public benefits that resulted from its implementation.

In order to provide an extended history of its activities, the city arranged for records to be scanned dating back to its incorporation in 1964. To deal with that backlog, the Information Systems (IS) Department was able to benefit from technology already in place at the state level to scan and OCR its records of meetings, ordinances, resolutions and other documents. The state had a high-speed scanner and OCR system that allowed the city to quickly produce both PDF and TIFF files from its hard-copy records.

"We wanted our citizens to have access to searchable files and a copy that looked like the original," says Joe Sommers, director of the IS Department, "so we went with PDFs. But we also wanted the insurance of a non-proprietary format as a fallback in case we needed it, so we also kept TIFF files."

Keeping Citizens aware

After the collection of historical records was converted to electronic form, the city began a new system for posting documents related to its ongoing activities. Minutes of meetings are posted in draft soon after the meeting takes place. After the final version is approved, the draft is replaced with a PDF document that includes the minutes and any materials that were not in electronic form, such as maps or documents with handwritten signatures. The scanning is done by a local company, which began handling the work after the backlog had been scanned.

Since 2002, audio of many meetings has also been provided on the Web site. For example, meetings of the Committee of the Whole, as well as of the Common Council, in which the mayor and aldermen participate, are recorded and the audio is available in MP3 format. "People can listen to meetings at their convenience if they were not able to attend in person," adds Sommers. By listening to the discussions or reading the meeting minutes, citizens are able to understand the basis of decisions that govern their community.

Visitors to Muskego's Web site who may not know the location of the desired information can launch a search powered by ISYS Search Software. The search brings up a list of documents sorted by relevance, date or one of a number of other parameters. The hits are highlighted, and documents can be viewed either through ISYS or in their native format.

Most states have an online database of their bills that includes a document containing the text of the bill, along with an indication of its status. The exact procedure for filing bills varies somewhat from state to state, but all have the same basic steps: A document is submitted to the Senate or House of Representatives for consideration, it is sent to a committee that discusses it, adds amendments, it is discussed on the floor, sometimes reconciled with a similar bill from the other side of the House, and then, if passed by both houses, sent to the governor for signature. Making that information available to citizens requires a combination of content and process information.

Personalized service

The state of Nevada has a personalized bill-tracking service on its legislative Web site that allows citizens to track up to 10 bills. A paid version is available for those who want to track greater numbers of bills. The paid service includes e-mail about when the bill will be heard, what was introduced and other actions. The system uses MS Word for documents, the Microsoft database SQL Server, PowerPoint for displays and ISYS for search.

"The database contains records of each action, such as committee or floor actions," says Allan Smith, the manager of the Nevada Legislature's IS unit. "If a bill is amended, the database contains the amendment and then the new version of the bill." The documents are displayed by linking to them from the selected bill's status page.

The Nevada Web site also offers streaming video of its meeting in real time, for committee and floor sessions. The dialog in one committee is being captioned through a service that listens to the meeting and creates titles. "We are trying to put as much information out to the public in forms that are accessible and easily understandable," Smith observes.

Monitoring legislation

In some cases, private companies are bringing more details about government activities into view, by providing additional legislative information services beyond those available through government Web sites. GalleryWatch provides online legislative information services for real-time monitoring of the Texas and federal legislative process.

"One of the things the public does not have access to when using the state tracking system is real-time access to the collection of documents (floor and committee amendments, voting records and collateral information) that may be attached to a bill," says Albert Cortez, director of marketing at GalleryWatch. "We have a large staff on the floor of the Texas Legislature when it is in session, and we can make information available within minutes of its being introduced." GalleryWatch staff obtain a copy of a bill, which is then scanned and OCR'd. In addition, GalleryWatch has its own technology and collaborative tools that simplify the ability to find and monitor any bill that someone wants to track.

Customers can query the database for topics of interest using keywords. Structured information about the bill, such as date of introduction and sponsor, is stored in a SQL Server database. Pointers from the database link to the bill itself, which is stored as a document on a separate server.

User alerts

"If our subscribers want to know how a new version of a bill differs from a previous one," says Cortez, "they can look at other similar bills by querying the database using a search tool we developed." An overlay document similar to "compare documents" in MS Word shows what has been removed and added. Searches of the database can be stored along with a request for notification so that users are alerted when changes are made and informed about what the changes are. Users can also employ a drop-down menu to post a note on a bill, and then send it out directly from the GalleryWatch Web site.

All of GalleryWatch's customers are organizations that are potentially affected by filed legislation, including corporations, associations, advocacy groups and state agencies. State agencies might need to be able to anticipate the fiscal impact of a bill, for example, or whether they would need to change their staffing to respond to new legislative requirements.

"GalleryWatch provides a legislative analysis workflow tool that lets organizations manage their legislative process through their organization," Cortez adds, "and so they can track their own review process." For example, a coordinator might send a bill to agency analysts, get a series of questions back, aggregate them and upload the questions into an Excel spreadsheet. The coordinator can then approve the analysis, and send it to another state agency. GalleryWatch also creates a record of those analyses that is stored centrally, so that if issues related to the legislation reoccur later, the analysis can be retrieved.

In addition to providing tracking of legislation in Texas and the federal government, GalleryWatch also offers news on the U.S. budget, transcripts of committee meetings, presidential statements, briefings and speeches, and online access to Congressional Research Service reports.


Judith Lamont is a research analyst with Zentek Corp., e-mail jlamont@sprintmail.com.


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