Xcential Legislative Technologies
Digital transformation has impacted various sectors, and the legislative process is no exception. In this essay, we will explore the potential opportunities and benefits that can be achieved through digital modernization. Three essential benefits that governments and taxpayers can derive from digital modernization projects include increased efficiency, increased accuracy, and increased transparency in the legislative process. Through real-world examples, we will examine the data-first approach in action, shedding light on its transformative potential for the legislative process.
The Need for Modernization
In recent years, there has been a growing pressure on governments to modernize legislative systems. The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified this urgency, forcing many institutions to adapt to remote working arrangements. Consequently, parliamentary councils and technology staff have faced numerous challenges in initiating and executing modernization projects. Governments must justify the considerable expenses involved in upgrading legacy lawmaking technologies to modern platforms. Successful digital modernization projects must deliver three key benefits: increased efficiency, increased accuracy, and increased transparency.
The Data-First Approach
The data-first approach is central to digital modernization in the legislative process. This approach involves a paradigm shift from viewing legislative documents as static pieces of paper or PDF files to seeing them as dynamic data that can be manipulated, updated, and analyzed. By adopting this approach, governments can automate various aspects of the legislative process, significantly improving efficiency, accuracy, and transparency.
Example 1: Automating the Amendment Process
Traditionally, incorporating amendments into existing bills has been a labor-intensive and time-consuming process. Legislative staff manually insert changes, sometimes even hand-written ones, into the existing text. The amendments must then be published, engrossed, or incorporated into the bill before it can move further in the process. This usually happens when there isn’t much time, resulting in a tight deadline.
In most legislatures worldwide, this process is largely manual, with changes re-keyed into computer systems one by one by multiple teams who then have to carefully proofread each one. This painstaking process can take many hours, and errors can creep in.
The modern data-oriented approach has the potential to make an enormous difference. Imagine if parliamentary councils could key in amendments like track changes in a word processing program, typing directly in the bill in context. With the press of a button, those changes could be generated automatically as an amending document. This kind of modernization can inspire a radical change in how a legislative process is carried out.
The efficiency gain is stunning. One government that adopted this approach saved an overnight shift of work. Clerks, who previously had to spend the night before the next day’s session engrossing all that day’s amendments into the bills, can now complete their work in minutes.
Example 2: Visualizing Amendments in Context
Another example of the impact of the data-first approach to digital modernization involves visualizing amendments automatically embedded in existing law. Users can scroll through the amendments one by one and see precisely what each insertion will do to the existing law. Further down, they can see other changes proposed in context.
This tool is starting to be used by legislative bodies, and it’s already having a significant impact. By showing the change in context, drafters can see if the amendment has been drafted correctly, ensuring much greater accuracy in the amending process. This process, which used to take hours, can now be done in seconds.
Example 3: Tracking Changes and Versions
One of the most challenging tasks for lawmakers, policymakers, and the public is following changes to complex legislation as it moves through different versions. Word processing programs can only track differences between versions to a certain extent, but this breaks down when sections start moving around amid deletions and additions in lengthy bills.
Governments that have moved to a data-first approach can start using much more powerful tools in the legislative process. These tools allow for visualizing changes in a highly detailed way, automating version tracking, and saving time for legislative staff working on large bills. For the public, this serves as a powerful transparency tool, enabling them to track how provisions change throughout the legislative process.
At its core, the data-first approach is about recognizing the structured and hierarchical nature of legislation. This structure, which includes titles, chapters, sections, subsections, and numbered paragraphs, lends itself to being represented as standard data. The international standard for representing legislative documents as data is Akoma Ntoso or LegalDocML, a variety of XML (Extensible Markup Language). This standard has been adopted by governments worldwide, including the United Nations and the European Commission.
The open and non-proprietary nature of this standard allows for consistent tagging of legislative elements, enabling software applications to process and understand the data. This, in turn, facilitates the automation of various legislative tasks, such as amending, tracking changes to the law, and comparing bill versions, promoting efficiency, accuracy, and transparency. It is important to note that these benefits cannot be achieved when data is stored in PDF or word processing files, as they primarily focus on style and appearance rather than the underlying information.
The Role of Modern Technologies
Modern technologies play a significant role in making the data-first approach accessible and user-friendly. While XML-based software applications were initially more suited for developers and publishers than legislative drafters and clerks, this has changed in recent years. Today’s technologies are more akin to familiar word processing programs, such as Word or WordPerfect, yet still provide powerful data management capabilities.
These modern tools are based on standard, lower-cost web technologies, making them easier to work with on the backend. By creating standardized data at the very beginning of the legislative process, they open the door to innovations downstream.
Justifying the Expense of Modernization
The question of justifying the expense of updating legacy technologies driving legislatures today is a crucial one. While some old systems can seem to last indefinitely, they require extensive maintenance and support. However, with legislative data standards at the heart of modernization projects, governments have an opportunity to do much more than simply replace outdated technology.
By embracing digital transformation, governments can introduce new tools and improved processes for lawmaking. They can deliver new efficiencies, allowing legislative council members to focus more on the substance of the law. They can provide tools that ensure greater accuracy in lawmaking, and they can use automation to offer new visibility into how bills become laws. In doing so, they can provide citizens with greater confidence and trust in the legislative process, ultimately justifying the expense of modernization.
Digital transformation in the legislative process presents a multitude of opportunities to improve efficiency, accuracy, and transparency. By adopting a data-first approach and leveraging modern technologies, governments can automate various aspects of the legislative process, bringing about significant improvements. This shift not only justifies the expense of modernization but also strengthens the relationship between governments and their citizens, fostering trust and confidence in the lawmaking process.
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