Opportunities for the Digital Transformation in the Legislative Process

Read Mark Stodder’s text from Xcential Legislative Technologies based on his participation in LegisTech Series

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📌 This text is the result of the transcription of the panelist’s participation in Bússola Tech’s event


 

Hello, I’m Mark Stodder, president of Xcential Legislative Technologies. Our teams, at Xcential, work around the world on digital modernisation projects focused on one of the government’s most important jobs: Making the laws.

 

The pressure to modernise legislative systems especially with pandemic remote working issues, is higher than ever. Parliamentary councils and technology staff face a lot of common challenges with these projects and I’m going to talk about the most important question governments have to answer before initiating a modernisation effort: Why do this? What can justify the sometimes enormous expense to bring legacy lawmaking technologies forward to modern platforms?

 

We think a digital modernisation project must deliver on three benefits to governments and  taxpayers:

 

  1. increased efficiency;

 

  1. Increased accuracy;

 

  1. increased transparency and confidence in the legislative process.

 

Our work deals with the heart of the legislative process. For nearly two decades, we’ve been developing and implementing modern software applications for drafting and amending laws and regulations. The documents that create the new rules and amend the old ones.

 

We think in a very modern way about the challenge of digitising lawmaking and rulemaking. In our work, we help governments see those documents not as pieces of paper, or PDF files, but as data. When you do that, you find digital modernisation projects end up delivering a lot more than a simple technology refresh with incremental efficiency gains and better websites. They end up changing much more from how we create laws to how we can visualise the impact of new laws and regulations, to how much more transparent we can make the entire rulemaking process. 

 

I’m going to share three examples of governments taking this more holistic data-first approach, where instead of just replacing old computers with new ones, or paper with a pdf, they focused on the data and used the new power of automation to radically change processes for the better.

 

Let’s start by talking about a perfectly normal event in the legislative process, one we can all see every day in state and federal Capitol chambers. A bill, an amendment to existing law, has been drafted and is presented to a committee. The committee makes an amendment to the bill.

Perhaps it makes multiple amendments, perhaps five or ten amendments, or as we saw with a recent piece of legislation in the US Congress, more than 400 amendments. The committee’s rules say the next version of these amendments must be published, they must be engrossed or incorporated into the bill before it can move further in the process, either back to the committee or to the floor. 

 

In most legislatures around the world, this kicks off a difficult and time-consuming process and usually, it means this tends to happen just when there isn’t much time when you’re on a tight deadline.

 

So what happens next? Since most legislatures aren’t fully digital, what happens next can be pretty ugly. The Clerk’s office has to take all those amendments one by one and fit them into the bill so legislators can see the amending language in context. One change, for example, could be simply switching an “and” to an “or”. Another change is the reference to another law and so on, and the process can be repeated multiple times in committees.

 

Today, in most legislatures around the world, this is largely a manual process. Changes, sometimes handwritten, are 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. 

 

Here’s where the modern data-oriented approach is starting to make an enormous difference. What if parliamentary Council could key in those amendments just like you do with track changes in a word processing program, typing directly in the bill in context and then, with the press of a button, those changes can be generated automatically as an amending document, instead of just faster better technology, this kind of modernisation can inspire a radical change in how a legislative process is carried out. 

 

The efficiency gain is stunning. One government we work with that’s now taking this approach saved an overnight shift of work. The Clerks have been required to spend the night before the next day’s session engrossing all that day’s amendments into the bills. Their work is now completed in minutes. 

 

Let’s look at another example of the impact of this data-first approach to digital modernisation. Again this involves the complex process of amending, but this time imagine seeing all those amendments automatically embedded in existing law so you can just scroll through them one by one. On the top of the page, there is a proposed amendment that is inserting a new language into a subsection of title 5 of the US code. Below you can see precisely what that insertion will do to existing law. Further down you’ll see other changes proposed in context. The user can follow the navigation on the left side of the screen to scroll down through the act to see all the changes to the law, now embedded in the law, one by one.

 

This is a tool that’s just starting to be used by the U.S. Congress and it’s already having a big impact by showing the change in context. Drafters can see if the amendment has been drafted correctly, does the language makes sense, does it amend the correct subsection of that title of the code. This is now all done in seconds, not hours, and it ensures much greater accuracy in the amending process.

 

Finally, we know one of the most difficult challenges for lawmakers, policymakers and the public, is to follow changes to a complex piece of legislation as it moves through different versions. With word processing programs you can track the differences between versions only so far, but that breaks down when sections start moving around amid deletions and additions in a 200 or 300 or even 1,000 page bill.

 

Once again, governments that have moved to a data-first approach can start to use much more powerful tools in the legislative process, now a way to visualise changes in a highly detailed way. This legislative versioning tool is now in use at the U.S. house and it’s having a big impact on both efficiency and transparency.

 

Automating version tracking is a huge time saver for legislative staff on big bills and for the public it’s a powerful transparency tool for watching how provisions can change through the legislative process. This is a key point with these governments. The data-first approach can automate transparency. So, what do we mean by data first?

 

Let’s start by remembering a consistent characteristic about legislation. It has structure and hierarchy, titles, chapters, sections, subsections, numbered paragraphs and more. That consistent and standard structure lends itself to being represented as standard data. In fact, there is now an international standard for how to represent legislative documents as data, data that can be read by machines, by software applications. That standard is called Akoma Ntoso, or a LegalDocML, and it’s a variety of XML, more extensible markup language, and it’s been adopted by governments around the world, including the United Nations, the European Commission and, with some local variation, the U.S. Congress.

 

It’s an open standard, non-proprietary, no company owns it, and it’s regularly updated by the Oasis XML standard  Committee so it can be used by any government. That means that each of those titles, chapters, and sections can be tagged in a consistent way that a software application can follow and process. This is what enables the tools I just showed. Automation of amending, tracking of changes to the law, comparisons of bill versions, and more that promote efficiency, accuracy, and transparency.

 

You can’t do this when your data is a PDF or word processing file. A PDF really is just a digital print, digital version of paper. And the data underneath the word processing file is mostly about the style and appearance of what you see on your computer screen, the type, size, the font, whether it’s bold-faced, the spacing of the indents, and such.

 

This is where the data first approach becomes so important. When legislation begins as standardised structured tagged data at the headwaters of the legislative process, those modern tools can be applied throughout. Data first is really about information first, using the information and formatting later. Legislators around the world have been using XML data technologies in one way or another for more than 20 years, usually in downstream processes like publishing, printing, consolidation.

 

That’s because the software applications around XML have been more friendly to application developers and publishers than legislative drafters and Clerks. They used to be complex, heavy-duty tools, pretty daunting to the user, but this is changing. Today’s modern technologies are starting to look a lot more like “word” or “word perfect”, but still powerful tools to manage data. They’re based on standard, lower-cost web technologies, which also make them a lot easier to work with on the backend and they’re creating that standard data at the very beginning of the process, opening the door to innovations downstream.

 

Remember that question I posed at the start of this discussion? How do you justify the expense of updating those legacy technologies driving a legislature today? Obviously, some old systems can’t run forever, though sometimes it can seem like they will. We’re in the middle of replacing a mainframe system in one U.S. state that’s lasted for four decades, but those systems require a lot of expensive care. But now, with today’s legislative data standards at the heart of the smart modernisation projects, you can do a lot more than just eliminate the risk of keeping old technology around. 

 

Now you have an opportunity to bring important new tools and better processes for how we make laws. You can deliver new efficiencies that give the legislative council more time to work on the substance of the law. You can provide tools that ensure greater accuracy in lawmaking. And you can use automation to provide new visibility into how bills become laws, providing citizens with greater confidence and trust in the lawmaking process.

[header image source: unsplash] 

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