Legislatures need to get serious about modernizing

Commentary: All legislatures need to become Internet Age institutions. The transition will be a massive task, but breaking down the basic functions of the legislature can help.

It may come as a shock, but while most of us live in a time empowered by iPhones and digital technology, America’s legislatures seem cast from the last century.

Innovation and technology, it is safe to say, have not yet made it easier to serve in a legislative body, or to interact with your elected officials as a citizen. Perhaps worse, many legislatures are teetering on the brink of dysfunction when it comes to interacting with the public and fulfilling their critical constitutional obligations.

Make no mistake: A technology and information sea change is underway across American society.

From our view at The OpenGov Foundation — we see a real need to help city councils on up to the Congress adapt to this new reality and transform their legislatures into the effective, efficient, Internet Age institutions they must become.


And we see variety of small, but important players across the civic tech community pitching in to transform legislatures and upgrade the most critical governing feature of a truly free society.

At the federal level are outfits like GovTrack and Capitol Bells, Quorum and the new TechCongress Fellowship, to name a few. At the local level the groundswell is even larger. Across America, people like Traci Hughes and Matt Bailey in Washington, D.C.; Council Member Ben Kallos and David Moore in New York City; Datamade’s Councilmatic and City Hall Monitor in Chicago; Supervisor Mark Farrell and in San Francisco — not to mention all of the Free Law Founders coalition — are leading the charge for change.

These are tremendously talented allies, to be sure. But it is clear that we have chosen for ourselves a titanic task. It will take years, perhaps decades, to fully accomplish. And it will require a radical reimagining of representative democracy as significant as those caused elsewhere by personal computers, the Internet and mobile technology.

For the far-too-small community of innovators focused on the legislative branch, it is safe to say, there is plenty of work to go around. How much work? Perhaps the better question is: What kind of opportunities await a creative, talented technologist who signs up to help create modern legislatures?

One place to start is by breaking down the complex monolith of “legislature” into the more concrete functions that every legislature typically must accomplish — and both the vast array of problems to solve and the diverse skills and people needed to succeed.


Here’s a partial list to consider:

  • Lawmaking — The soul of every representative democracy is writing, reviewing, modifying, voting upon and broadly collaborating on the development of new law through legislation. Right now, this is where we at The OpenGov Foundation are focused.
  • Correspondence and comunications — If lawmaking is the beating heart of every legislature, correspondence and communications is the circulatory system.
  • Research and fact-finding — Often overlooked, research and fact-finding duties are as central to your local council as they are to Congress. This encompasses everything from legislative hearings to Congressional Research Reports, impact statements, witness testimony, briefings with experts, digging into legal cases and yes, though few staff admit to it, even Wikipedia.
  • Budgeting and spending — At all levels of government, this is how the legislature allocates and accounts for taxpayer money.
  • Publication, production and promulgation — Legal theorists from Aristotle to St. Thomas Aquinas agree that, in a free society, laws are not laws until they are promulgated to the people who must follow them. Today, that means publication of laws, legislation and legal information in digital and open formats. Far too often, promulgation to the public still means printing up a dead tree edition.
  • Constituent services — Elected officials and staff work for their constituents. This covers all that means, from answering phones and scheduling tours to ensuring potholes get filled and benefit checks get sent.
  • Engagement — “Congress shall make no law,” reads the First Amendment to the Constitution, “[A]bridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” That right there is the constitutional foundation for what is now called “civic engagement.”
  • Administrative — From reimbursement requests to spending compliance, office budgeting to securing staff benefits, this is the “backroom” of every legislature and legislative office, without which nothing would run.
  • Oversight — Making sure that both the executive branch and its own officers and staff spend taxpayer money as efficiently, effectively and accountably as possible.
  • Procurement, development and innovation — Buying, building and maintaining a legislature’s tools and infrastructure, from software and information technology to the facilities.

No legislature will be capable of fulfilling its obligations in the 21st century without overhauling and upgrading each of these functions.

But legislatures need to get started if they are to stay connected and respected by the populations they serve.

Seamus Kraft is the executive director and co-founder of The OpenGov Foundation. Drop him a line at and follow him on Twitter @SeamusKraft.

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