All posts by Seamus Kraft

eBenchbook Launches: A Critical Tool to Navigate Complex Election Codes

eBenchbook

The public law is the most important information in the United States of America. As such, it should be the easiest civic data you can find, access and understand on the Internet, not the hardest. There should be nothing that stands between a citizen of the United States of America and their laws.

But if you follow our work at The OpenGov Foundation, you know the sorry state of our union’s public access to the public law. Some of our laws are held hostage behind paywalls thrown up by private-sector companies and covered in copyright restrictions, allowing the Political Legal Industrial Complex to charge poll taxes to access what should be our most public resource. Some are locked in books and equally inaccessible paper-based formats like PDFs, which means the very people and businesses who must follow the law cannot even find it. And all of America’s laws are outrageously complex, byzantine and oozing with jargon, preventing public understanding, stifling civic action and denying all but the wealthy and well-connected their fundamental right to know the law.

Even members of the judiciary.

Sitting judges need help, especially those who adjudicate elections disputes. Thankfully, help is on the way. In advance of what is sure to be a hotly contested campaign season, our friends at The Election Law Program just released the first edition of a State Election Law eBenchbook, a web-based legal resource that not only assembles the state election laws of Virginia, Colorado and Florida in one place, but also provides in-line annotations from experts as well as definitions, links to advisory opinions, regulations and relevant case law.

“At a critical time in our democracy, the eBenchbook project marks a tremendous step forward for public access and understanding of the most important information in the United States of America: our laws and legal codes,” said Seamus Kraft, Executive Director of The OpenGov Foundation in the announcement from The Election Law Program.

We are thrilled to see the publication of eBenchbook 1.0, and have been supporting the world-class team behind it. This is, in many ways, a targeted glimpse at the future we building for all parts of the public law here at The OpenGov Foundation through the America Decoded project.

“If we want a truly just and equitable society, election laws— and all types of legal data— must be as discoverable, comprehendible and actionable as possible, with absolutely no restrictions,” continued Kraft in the release. “That’s what the eBenchbook project now delivers for the citizens and judicial officials in three key states. We look forward to supporting this great team and this important effort to bring the power of open election law to the other forty-seven.”

All 50 states absolutely need online eBenchbooks, for their elections law and all topics. We look forward to watching this important project grow, and will continue to support the innovative platform and the dedicated people behind it however we can.

Want to learn more about the eBenchbook? Check it out here, or email Austin Graham and Rebeccah Green who are leading the effort.


Seamus Kraft is the Executive Director and Co-Founder of The OpenGov Foundation.

 

The Top Ten Things I’m Stoked to See in Wichita

I’m heading west to Wichita, Kansas to help kick off their first-ever civic hackathon! I couldn’t be more excited to visit a city full of promise, positive civic energy and whose citizens and elected officials we are now helping govern better, together with our free Madison policymaking software.

Not only will it will be my inaugural visit to both The Air Capital of the World and to the Sunflower State, but I will also be supporting my two favorite Wichitans, who also happen to be fantastic members of The OpenGov Foundation team. Developers Seth Etter and Tanner Doshier are so contagiously enthusiastic for using civic technology to make their great community even better they could run the local Chamber of Commerce.

Seth— who founded and leads Open Wichita, the all-volunteer group spearheading the June 4 and 5 hackathon — has gone above and beyond assembling a solid event team, terrific civic hacking challenges, and strong local supporters inside and outside of city hall. I’m deeply honored to help launch a transformative and empowering weekend.

Before I pack my bags, here are the top ten things I am stoked to see out west.



1 – Wichitans Coming Together to Build a Better City with Tech

There is nothing more wonderful to witness than a truly inclusive, community-focused civic hackathon, where residents, local leaders and job creators forge new connections and start solving shared challenges.


2 – Our “Western White House”

In April, we opened a new office for The OpenGov Foundation in Wichita’s premier coworking space, the Labor Party. It will be a treat to see it with my own eyes and to spend some quality time working elbow-to-elbow with my teammates.


3 – Drafts.Wichita.Gov…In Real Life

Though new to Wichita and her city government, residents and officials are already benefitting from governing together with Madison. From City Manager Bob Layton to CIO Mike Mayta, Mayor Longwell to Councilwoman Janet Miller , I’m hoping to see these agents of positive change and smarter government in real life.



4 – Open Wichita and devICT In Action

Seth and Tanner keep talking about how fast these volunteer groups, respectively the local Code for America brigade and developer Meetup, are growing and evolving. Color me lucky d to plug into that energy.


5 – Local Leaders Governing, Together with the People They Serve

Wichita's Draft Open Data Policy running on the Madison software.

Drafts.Wichita.Gov— and any government technology — is powering high-quality conversation among the citizens, stakeholders and elected officials using it to build better policy outcomes. I look forward to meeting, and thanking, some of these leading civic-minded Wichitans.


A B-29 in flight.
(Courtesy of the USAF)

6 – Airplanes, Airplanes, Airplanes

Visiting a place that calls itself “The Aircraft Capital of the World”— where during World War II, 1,644 B-29 Superfortresses rolled off the line — is a dream for this air power geek. From Beechcraft and Cessna, to Learjet, Airbus and Spirit AeroSystems, Wichita proudly continues to keep the skies full of American-made machines.


7 – Wichita River Fest

Top-notch live music. Open-air art installations. The entire city relaxing along the banks of the Arkansas River. Sign me up for River Fest.


A photo of a statue and bridge in Wichita.
(Ty Nigh via Flickr)

8 – The Keeper of the Plains

This striking sculpture by Kiowa-Comanche artist Blackbear Bosin stands 44 feet at the confluence of the Arkansas and Little Arkansas Rivers in downtown Wichita. At sundown, the surrounding Rings of Fire spectacularly illuminate this singular monument to local Native American tribes, past and present.


9 – The Civic Hacks

While good running code is always a bonus coming out of a hackathon, I am really interested to see what challenges and opportunities participants choose to tackle. Because when it comes to civic tech, what plays in Peoria doesn’t always work in Wichita.


A photo of the new OpenGov Foundation office in Wichita, Kansas.

10 – A New City Embracing Innovation, Collaboration and Openness

At The OpenGov Foundation, we are fantastically fortunate to be building 21st century legislatures that work in partnership with a diverse group of governments spanning the United States of America. It will be a joy to watch as Wichita opens this new chapter in its bright future.


Seamus Kraft is the Executive Director and Co-Founder of The OpenGov Foundation. Send him feedback or Tweet him with fun things to do in Wichita and make sure to follow @FoundOpenGov for updates throughout Open Wichita’s June 4-5, 2016 hackathon.
 

Turn Your Democracy Up to Eleven

A public hearing about the Chicago budget.
(By Daniel X. O’Neil via Flickr)

In a recent New York Times Op-Ed, author and founder of New America Michael Lind asked, “Is there too much democracy in America or too little?”

I believe the real question our country must answer isn’t do we have too much or too little democracy. It is this: do we have strong democratic systems built for smarter 21st century government?

This is a fundamental question that divided our founders, and one I am forced to grapple with every day. We at The OpenGov Foundation make it possible for citizens to better see, shape and understand their government. We make it easier for people to access public information, be heard by their elected officials and hold them accountable. Our mission is to gradually turn the democracy knob to eleven, supporting both a more informed, engaged citizenry and legislatures that can handle the increased volume.

More than a few times, government officials and staff have greeted our work skeptically. “It looks like you’re greasing the wheels for Internet mob rule,” as a senior member of the Maryland General Assembly put it to me. A valid question, but one that belies a tenuous grasp on reality. More than two thirds of his fellow Marylanders are frustrated and want more opportunities to have a voice in the decisions that impact their lives, families and businesses, not fewer. Poll after national poll confirms a large majority of Americans feel the same. The real concern, Lind argues, lies elsewhere:

Over the last few generations, for good reasons as well as bad, the number of policy outcomes that voters can actually influence through the ballot box has steadily declined.

While that may be accurate, I do not think that reversing such a trend is the right remedy to today’s democratic deficit. In fact, increasing the number of complex policy decisions made through divisive partisan elections would most likely hurt more than it would help. And it would edge us closer to the deleterious direct democracy our system of government is designed to prevent.

Lind continues:

Within the federal government itself, much of what was once done by congressional legislation is now done by judicial decrees, agency rules or presidential executive orders…The higher the level of government that makes a decision, the less influence ordinary citizens will have. Corporate lobbies or well-funded NGOs that lose battles at the local level can try to persuade state legislatures or members of Congress to reverse the results. In contrast, working-class Americans on the losing end of a local ordinance are unlikely to prevail in the state capitol or Washington.

That is the real problem facing democracy in America: Citizens lose their leverage once they pull that lever. Even with the best of candidates, once you cast your ballot, you lose all of your accountability options for two, four or even six years. No wonder a scant 19% of Americans trust government to do right by them most or all of the time. And nearly 66% of Americans openly admit anger at the federal government.

Where does one begin pulling up from this nasty nosedive? Lind goes local:

Convincing alienated American citizens that their votes count must begin with empowering the city and county governments in which they have the greatest influence.

I couldn’t agree more. It is the classic principle of federalism at work within our political system. At the local level, we are witnessing a wonderful tectonic shift of decision-making power back to citizens. But it isn’t happening in the quite the way Lind suggests. Voting is but one point on the emerging civic engagement continuum that is made possible by new technologies that are transforming how citizens interact with their government between elections.

In Washington, D.C., citizens, elected officials and stakeholders are using our free Madison software to govern together on the Internet. Everyone has a seat at the table at Drafts.DC.Gov. In the Windy City, high school students are getting a hands-on civic education through Envision Chicago. Powered by ChicagoCode.org, the next general of municipal leaders are engaging directly with City Clerk Susana Mendoza and their aldermen to create better policy outcomes, efficiently, effectively and accountably. It is beautiful, and these communities are only getting started. Lind concludes:

Voter apathy and disenchantment is a political problem that can be solved only by political reforms that give nonelite voters more actual power to affect policy outcomes — not by a new tax credit here or a wage subsidy there.

We do not yet have hard data proving that when citizens and their officials govern together between elections, voter turnout increases. But if someone in Las Vegas would take the bet, I would put big money down that it does.

As we careen closer to November, don’t forget: you have more leverage over government outcomes now than at any time in American history. After pulling that lever, let’s keep our democracy turned up to eleven.


Seamus Kraft is the Executive Director and Co-Founder of The OpenGov Foundation.

 

Honoring Transparency Improvements from Inside Congress

The Door Stop Awards logo.

Structural improvements are never flashy. But modernizing legislative information is vital to the future viability of our Congress, and critical to creating a federal government that functions like we need it to.

For the third year in a row, the OpenGov Foundation recently joined with the Congressional Data Coalition to share ideas with the House Appropriations Committee on how to continue transforming congressional legislative information from paper-based formats into the best possible open data. Funding these necessary information and underlying process upgrades is a major reason why the legislative branch appropriations process is important.

While I believe our testimony provides important input for those members of Congress and staff steering ongoing innovation efforts inside Congress, I would like to call your attention to something else contained therein: The many largely unheralded advances in upgrading America’s most valuable data that have taken place over the past few years.
“We commend the House of Representatives for its ongoing efforts to open up congressional information. We applaud the House of Representatives for publishing online and in a structured data format bill text, status, and summary information — and are pleased the Senate has joined the effort. We commend the ongoing work on the Amendment Impact Program and efforts to modernize how committee hearings are published. We look forward to the release of House Rules and House Statement of Disbursements in structured data formats.”

Those are huge wins for better government, and they build on consistent and strong bipartisan progress bringing legislative information into the Internet age. These victories, however, won’t get you on the cover of Time or The Wall Street Journal, let alone Fast Company or Wired. They won’t win you an election. And they certainly won’t make you rich.

But they are absolutely worth celebrating. That is why, on April 12, we are co-hosting the first annual Door Stop Awards for Transparency. The Door Stop Awards will recognize some of the members and staffers who have toiled in the trenches to deliver more efficient, effective and open congressional information. Anyone can blast out a press release with a snappy quote on technology, data and disruption; it’s different to hold the doors of Congress open to innovation and structural change over time, when no one is watching and when it won’t get you votes, cash or on TV.

But as our House Appropriations Committee written testimony points out, the small and scrappy community of congressional innovators is growing:

We would also like to recognize the growing Member and congressional staff public engagement around innovation, civic technology and public data issues. From the 18 Members and dozens of staff participating in last year’s nationwide series of #Hack4Congress civic hacking events to the Second Congressional Hackathon co-sponsored by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, there is a growing level of enthusiastic support inside the institution for building a better Congress with better technology and data. Moreover, the House Ethics Committee’s recent approval of open source software and the launch of the Congressional Open Source Caucus means good things are in store for 2016.

This groundswell of support cuts across all ages, geographic areas and demographics, both inside and outside Congress. We are excited for the House’s 2016 legislative data and transparency conference and appreciate the quarterly public meetings of the Bulk Data Task Force.

Good things are, indeed, in store for 2016. So if you care about openness, civic technology or better government, please RSVP to join us on Capitol Hill for the April 12 Door Stop Awards. We are proud to help acknowledge and thank some of the dedicated public servants, government innovators and agents of positive change who have been succeeding — against long odds and with few resources — in and around the legislative branch.

And we are grateful for the support from these sponsors and supporters who have joined with us to make the 2016 Door Stop Awards a fun, bipartisan and meaningful celebration: Google, Data Foundation, Yelp, R Street Institute, Sunlight Foundation, Congressional Management Foundation, TechCongress, Demand Progress, Consumer Technology Association, Congressional Data Coalition, Matt Lira, GovTrack.us and Capitol Bells.

Hope to see you on April 12.


Seamus Kraft the executive director and co-founder of The OpenGov Foundation, and a member of the Congressional Data Coalition steering committee.

 

Launching Envision Chicago with Students, Partners and Sponsors

Students, partners and sponsors of Envision Chicago at the kickoff event at 1871 Chicago.
(Photo via Chicago City Clerk)

Chicago’s City Council just took another big step into the Digital Age — and towards the next generation of city leaders.

Last Friday, we launched Envision Chicago, a new initiative to inform and engage local high school students in the lawmaking process. The concept is straightforward, proven and powerful. Students find issues they care about using a ridiculously easy to use website (ChicagoCode.org), propose improvements to the laws they discover and the best idea earns a $1,000 scholarship.

The truly incredible part? Young Chicagoans and their elected officials are meeting each other on the Internet to engage, share ideas and build a stronger community through smarter laws. As technology keeps improving our personal lives and our work lives, Envision Chicago is harnessing that power to improve civic lives, starting with the generation coming up. Watch the press conference launching Envision Chicago at 1871 Chicago below:

Round one of Envision Chicago is underway in four wards, thanks to the leadership of Clerk Susana Mendoza and Aldermen Napolitano, Austin, Maldonado and Pawar, as well as the generous support of our scholarship sponsors and supporters. The goal is to expand the initiative to include all 50 wards by the end of 2016.

In order to have a healthy democracy and thriving community, we must educate and engage with the next generation of our civic leaders. We must set a strong example of how city government should work. And we must open up our minds to the best ideas for building a stronger Chicago, no matter where they come from and how they’re brought before our City Council.

That’s what Envision Chicago is all about. It’s time for the Windy City’s future leaders to start sharing their ideas for making a cool city even cooler. And it’s time for the City Council to listen, to engage and to bring municipal government into the Digital Age.


 
Seamus Kraft is the Executive Director and Co-Founder of The OpenGov Foundation.

Do We Need a Lot More Lobbyists?

Seamus Kraft speaks his workshop on lobbying at Harvard's Ash Center.
(Photo via Harvard Ash Center)

Lobbying is not a four letter word. We actually need more of it.

Lobbying— nothing more than the right to share one’s views with government— is at the heart of America. It’s right there in the middle of the First Amendment to the Constitution.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging 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.” – The First Amendment

Petitioning government for a redress one’s grievances is lobbying. And it doesn’t matter whether you are an individual citizen or a major corporation. Calling your Congressman? Lobbying. Hiring someone to visit your state senator to share a study or ask for a vote? Lobbying. Emailing an alderman to add more parking on your block, or add more budget for public schools or increase public safety spending? Lobbying, lobbying and lobbying.

Lobbying — it’s everyone’s fundamental right in the United States. But what does our right to (legally) influence an elected official look like in the Internet Age? Can technology give more citizens a meaningful voice in government, and government a meaningful way to truly listen? Put a different way: is it possible, with tools like our Madison online policymaking software, to put a single person on par with a powerful political insider?

That was the thesis I tested last week with a diverse group of graduate students at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, where I am currently a Technology and Democracy Fellow. After two hours of policy research, testing Madison, and enthusiastically exchanging views on how governments and staffers really take in and process information, I am even more confident that the thesis is true. If so, and there is a growing body of empirical evidence to support it, the future is bright for self-government in the United States, and to the many countries looking to us for leadership.

Why? Living one’s civic life on the Internet is rapidly becoming as normal and natural as using technology in one’s personal and work lives. And there’s a genuine hunger for more online civic engagement. A full 68 percent of American voters say that they want more and better online information about their government, and want to use that information to take action, according to our research. We’re clearly past the bright-shiny-new phase. At Harvard, everyone in the workshop immediately grasped Madison, how it works, and the power of open online policymaking. It took mere minutes to get to the “Ah, ha!” That enabled us to spend the bulk of our time together not on the concepts or on the back story, but on specific use cases and opportunities and ways to make Madison even better. Framing Madison as a personal lobbying tool from the outset— as both the right and smart way to legislate— was definitely a new approach for me, but it worked like a charm.

The desire for more and better digital engagement is equally felt inside of government. According to a recent GovDelivery survey of state and local government officials, 51 percent say they want more digital engagement with constituents. But they also said they need help. 54 percent said budget shortages prevent improved and increased online engagement opportunities. Nearly four in ten respondents said that, even though they have the budget, they do not have the trained staff to get the digital democracy job done.

From filling the resource gap with free and open source tools and training, to powering change through public-private partnerships, it is our moment to reconnect citizens and their government.

The tools exist. So does the urgent desire for change inside and outside of governments large and small. All we need are more and better bridge builders, evangelists and educators.

To build better government, we may just need better lobbyists.


 
Seamus Kraft is the Executive Director and Co-Founder of The OpenGov Foundation.

Why Congressional Technology Spending Matters and How to Improve the Situation

An architect's rendering of the U.S. Capitol Dome from between 1853 and 1865 from the Library of Congress.
(Architect rendering via Library of Congress)

Read our analysis of Senate and House tech spending.

As our analyses have shown, without complete, accurate and timely spending data, the public is effectively guessing at where their tax dollars go and what value is returned. It is reasonable to expect that congressional decision-makers are in a similar situation. If you’re shooting in the dark like this, it is difficult — if not impossible — to hit your target. Serving and staffing in Congress is already hard enough without these expensive additional headaches.

Is there another Aaron Schock situation or other Member malfeasance hiding in plain sight? Is one Senator paying more than another for the same tech support service, or same web development work? Are there better, cheaper open source options available? Is Congress getting the best price and best value, or is it getting ripped off? Are there opportunities to pool resources and save significant taxpayer money?

The public doesn’t know. We couldn’t find out. And it is reasonable to expect that decision-makers on Capitol Hill don’t always know either.

The answer is clear: Congress needs to fully overhaul its accounting systems and financial oversight processes. Everything from the software and data formats used, to internal reporting and controls, to how and when it publishes the results all appear to be largely outdated, inefficient and paper-based. From our perspective, every step of the process — from a staff assistant typing in receipts to a citizen sifting through thousands of PDF pages — is a major pain in the posterior and in need of an upgrade. The root causes of this problem must be addressed with nothing short of a full overhaul. Until that transformation happens, Members of Congress, their constituents and the news media will either remain marooned in ignorance or continue to make incredibly important decisions based on a mere sliver of the truth.

Going Further: Garbage In? Garbage Out

Many would wash their hands of all this after suggesting a better way forward. We did not and we will not. Because from our perspective the crucial question to be answered is: why is the data so unreliable and low-quality? It simply is not enough to highlight some of the public-facing problems, most of which have been identified at some level inside Congress. It is not enough to suggest a solution. The missing piece, crucial to anyone invested in doing something about these problems, is understanding why the situation is as it is and how it got that way.

To this end, we went as far upstream as possible in the congressional disbursement workflow: the point where real staffers in real congressional offices document their office’s expenditures for reimbursement out of each Member’s representational allowance (MRA). To put it mildly, going all the way upstream explained pretty much all of our frustrations.

The main menu of the Congressional Accounting & Personnel System (CAPS).
(Main menu screenshot via CAPS User Manual)

Introducing: Congressional Accounting & Personnel System (CAPS). This is the software platform most used by congressional staff comply with their boss’ public reporting requirements and internal compliance procedures.

In brief, here’s how spending data input process can work. A Member or staffer buys a thing or a service that supports official business. If and when the Member or staffer remembers to do so, they hand junior staff paper receipts and handwritten voucher cover sheets for submission to the Finance Office and entry into the internal finance system called PeopleSoft. One by one, interns or staff assistants painstakingly type each expenditure into CAPS, which eventually feeds into PeopleSoft, deciding how to classify each expenditure, vendor and purpose. Recalling one of our earlier examples, one staff assistant could type in “LEXISNEXIS” (no space) while another types in “LEXIS NEXIS” for the exact same purchase. Given this reality, Congress just doesn’t have the right tools, or sufficient staff, to resolve the countless issues that then arise downstream.

The voucher cover sheet menu in the Congressional Accounting & Personnel System (CAPS).
(Voucher cover sheet via CAPS User Manual)

Alternatively, offices can fill out a paper voucher form with receipts. Those documents can be scanned and sent or physically dropped off to the Finance Office for entry into PeopleSoft. Some offices directly enter their data into PeopleSoft with scanned receipts. Among the options, most offices submit through the CAPS system. All of these methods involve significant data entry and records conversion that can frustrate even the most diligent staffers.

Want to learn more? We obtained the full 200 page user manual for the Congressional Accounting & Personnel System (CAPS), which you can read here.

Congress Can Fix This

This critical situation is not the fault of any one person or office. But it is a growing problem that must be addressed as soon as possible. Fortunately, current leaders in both the House and the Senate should have a firm grasp on the issues at hand. After all, this is a Congress that recently spent four years securing passage of the watershed DATA Act, which requires that the Executive Branch transition its grants, loans and contracts spending information to modern, open data formats produced by modern software. Before that, Members of Congress and staff marveled at how well Recovery.gov fulfilled its oversight responsibilities to stop waste, fraud and abuse of billions of dollars of stimulus spending. And it is safe to say that everyone on Capitol Hill is familiar with the benefits of personal online banking.

Congress clearly understands the problem, and how modern technology and open data formats can solve it. And while there are many off-the-shelf products and services that would mark a vast improvement over the current CAPS system, we recognize the challenges posed by such sweeping changes to key congressional systems, not to mention its culture of compliance. That’s why there are many outfits like ours that stand ready to assist in upgrading these systems and procedures. The time is now, for the problem grows larger–and the solution, more costly–with each passing day.

The good news is that, within the House, change is coming. From reading 2015 semiannual report, it appears that the Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) of the House is making progress towards implementing a new system, Hyperion. From the CAO report:

“Staff who handle finances in House offices will have a powerful new tool to help them. Hyperion software is a faster and more efficient way to plan office budgets with real-time numbers that can easily be adjusted to offices’ changing needs. The Office of Finance is currently testing the system. It is scheduled to go live with phase 1 of the project on October 1, 2015. The system will launch with the Office of Budget Policy and Planning (BPP) along with all House Fiscal Year Offices. Phase 2 will be an expanded rollout for Member, Committee and Leadership (MCL) offices and other non-CAO offices for the replacement of the Congressional Accounting and Personnel System (CAPS) budgeting functionality.”

We count that as progress; however, if our Congress is spending taxpayer money to implement a modern, custom-made accounting and finance system, we believe that the public should be able to access the source code without restriction, and that other government bodies — first and foremost the U.S. Senate — should be able to reuse the code and build off of the system developed by the House. Unfortunately, the owners of Hyperion software, Oracle, places such ridiculously heavy and straight-jacketing restrictions on all of its customers that even the most powerful government of the most powerful country in the history of humanity doesn’t appear to be able to break free.

Still, this is a positive development; moreover, on page 1047 of the December 2015 omnibus spending bill, it appears that $1,300,000 in funding was set aside “for upgrade of the Legislative Branch Financial Management System.” We hope that this amount is sufficient to allow rapid deployment of the software by the House CAO. Completing the overhaul of the House’s financial systems should be a, if not the, top priority of whomever becomes the next Chief Administrative Officer of the House. And if the Senate hasn’t started its long-overdue upgrade, it should get moving without any further delay.

In the year 2016, no one, especially those in charge of the legislative branch, should have to fight as hard as we have to find out how Congress is spending taxpayer money. No Member or staffer should have to spend countless hours on financial compliance, when there are so many better and faster ways to fulfill their fiduciary responsibilities. And no one should cast aspersions on those who serve in Congress, or make negative assumptions on their spending decisions, without first taking the time to understand how incredibly hard it is to work on Capitol Hill in this age of shrinking budgets and growing workloads.

Now more than ever, all Americans must take a step back and reflect on the potentially dire consequences of the larger problem before us. We are continuing to force the men and women serving on our behalf in government to try to tackle our shared 21st century challenges without providing them the basic 21st century tools to get those wickedly hard jobs done.

Seamus Kraft is the Executive Director and Co-Founder of The OpenGov Foundation.

Counting Up Congressional Technology Spending for 2014 – The U.S. House

A growing workload. Increasingly complex policy decisions. Frustrated constituents. Fewer resources to do the job. This is the new normal for the United States Congress, where Members and staff must do much more with far less: personal office budgets have been slashed 21% since 2011, according to the House Administration Committee. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

There are three rational responses to this difficult new reality: Congress weakens itself to a point where it can no longer fulfill its constitutional obligations; Congress reverses its severe, self-imposed spending and staffing cuts; or Congress turns to innovative technologies to accomplish its critical mission for America.

From budgeting to staffing, constituent communications to lawmaking itself, every aspect of Congress is in need of innovation, and an overhaul. Developing and deploying better technology and more tech-savvy staff on Capitol Hill is no longer a choice, but a necessity. And while recent initiatives in and around the legislative branch — such as the bipartisan Bulk Legislative Data Taskforce, hackathons and new technology fellowships — are showing promise, those are far from sufficient solutions for an institution as large, tradition-bound and paper-based as the United States Congress.

These are challenging times. But failure is not an option–all Americans have a stake in successfully creating a 21st century Congress. And we here at The OpenGov Foundation, along with many civic-minded allies, are contributing open source code and collaborating with dedicated Hill staff to support ongoing institutional modernization efforts.

Helping Congress make the most informed, effective and sound innovation investments possible is precisely why we have been pouring over House and Senate disbursement information. If each half of Congress and all legislative branch support agencies must overhaul their systems, culture and processes — something everyone should be able to agree upon— decision-makers must have a crystal-clear real-time picture of three data points, down to the penny: exactly how much Congress spends, on what Congress is spending, and what bang America is getting for all those billions of taxpayer bucks. Only then can one fully and accurately assess whether Congress is spending wisely — or if adopting new, tech-powered approaches is truly the best pathway to a 21st century legislative branch.

$288,356,000 Spent on Tech in 2014?

We recently analyzed available Senate disbursement data in attempt to find out how much the upper chamber spent on technology and tech-related staff in 2014. By our methodology, the answer is at least $106,356,000.

Applying the same methodology to disbursement information published by the House, the lower chamber spent at least $182,000,000 in 2014. The 2014 total across both houses of Congress: at least $288,356,000. [Note: this amount does not include legislative branch support agencies, such as the Congressional Research Service or Government Publishing Office, for which granular spending information was not publicly available.]

Is $288,356,000 too much? Too little? We don’t know due to serious, perhaps fatal, data quality issues. That said, $288,356,000 is the best publicly available tally of tech- and digital-related congressional disbursements. We have published all of our data and work on Github so that anyone—especially those in and around Congress with access to better spending information—can build off our work. As with the Senate, we won’t judge the wisdom or efficacy of these spending decisions; however, for those who are interested, we have visualized some disbursement data at the end of this post to make it easier to understand.

We repeat: while this analysis is far from complete, it is teed up for anyone wishing to build on it. If that is you, we would love to hear from you. For those thinking of continuing our research, we want to be upfront and transparent about what we went through to get to this point. So here is a taste of what you’ll face.

The Impact of Inaccurate & Incomplete Congressional Spending Data

Here are a few examples of what it is like to work with the spending information published by the House and the Senate. Remember: this is the only publicly-available means for anyone — journalist, citizen, or good government group — to find out where their taxpayers go on Capitol Hill. So we set aside our experience with Congress, stepped back and queried the cleaned up disbursement data (tip of the cap to the Sunlight Foundation).

Query: How Much is Spent on Telecommunications?
Example House Expenditure: Verizon
Telecommunications technology is critical to congressional operations. It is also expensive. Costs can vary wildly from vendor to vendor and product to product. A flip phone is much less expensive, for example, than a brand new iPhone. How much is being spent on all telecom tech? Given the data issues, that is impossible to answer comprehensively and directly. So let’s query smaller: in 2014, how much did the House spend on a single telecom vendor, “VERIZON.”

Results: Using this spreadsheet, search for the vendor name. What you’ll find is at least 12 different results. Is the expenditure to “VERIZON,” or “CITI PCARD-VERIZON RECURRING PAY” or “CITI PCARD-VERIZON ONETIMEPAYMENT” or “CITI PCARD-FSI VERIZON” or “CITI PCARD-VZWRLSS”? If you stopped after tallying up just the “VERIZON” expenditures, you would have missed tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars.

Query: How Much Is Spent on Web Development & Support?
Example House Expenditure: Lockheed Martin
Using the same information, we attempted to find out how much the House spent on web development and support. For the same reasons, that was a dead end. So let’s query smaller: in 2014, how much did the House spend on a single, large web vendor: “LOCKHEED MARTIN.”

Results: Is it “LOCKHEED MARTIN DESKTOP SOLUTIONS INC.” ($1,422,813.38)? Or “LOCKHEED MARTIN SERVICES INC.” ($9,677.05)? Without knowing the company (it provides constituent management and email services) you would have missed the $6,448,356.32 spent on “DESKTOP SOLUTIONS, INC” and the $172,800 spent on “LM SERVICES DESKTOP SOLUTIONS INC.” That’s more than $6.5 million in technology-related spending one would miss.


Example House Expenditure: LexisNexis
Legal research is a core task performed in congressional offices. Most of the research is done using subscription-based legal information providers. For the same reasons as above, a House-wide answer is impossible right now. So let’s query smaller: in 2014, how much did the House spend on a single legal data provider: “LEXISNEXIS.”

Results: Unfortunately our simple query for how much taxpayer money goes to the biggest private-sector legal data company in the world failed.

Is the taxpayer money going to “LEXIS NEXIS MATTHEW BENDER” ($4,034.00)? Or to “LEXIS-NEXIS” ($633,175.79)? Or to “MATTHEW BENDER & COMPANY INC” ($42,800.67), yet another sibling of LexisNexis operating under the Netherlands- and London-based global behemoth RELX? Again, it is all but impossible to accurately account for tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of hard-earned taxpayer dollars.

Visualizations of House Tech and Digital Media Spending

There are clearly many disclaimers when looking at this information because of the poor data quality in the way spending information is reported publicly. Also, due to fluctuations in reporting periods and the inaccuracies in expenditure years, we had to combine multiple spreadsheets to make a more comprehensive analysis of possible spending in 2014. Using raw data from the Sunlight Foundation’s House Expenditure Reports Database, we created and sorted the data to identify and classify technology-related spending. All these classifications are available here on Github and we encourage anyone to investigate and improve on this analysis.

A chart of the six different categories of spending and their totals listed for 2014 by the Chief Administrative Officer of the U.S. House.
 


A graph of the top 11 U.S. House Tech and Digital Media payees as reported by the Chief Administrative Officer for 2014.

Click for full size chart.

Payees Over $1 million (According to Available Data)

  • Unknown — $14,883,008
  • CDW Government Inc. C/O ISM IN — $10,860,945
  • Novitex Government Solutions LLC — $9,178,103
  • Verizon — $8,230,925
  • Desktop Solutions INC — $6,849,585
  • AT&T — $6,448,356
  • iConstituent LLC — $3,416,076
  • Intelligent Decisions INC — $3,173,513
  • Fireside21 — $2,211,533
  • IronBrick Associates INC — $2,051,750
  • CQ Roll Call INC — $1,958,783
  • Housecall — $1,880,722
  • Switch Communications Group — $1,824,299
  • Avaya — $1,750,893
  • Bloomberg Businessweek — $1,589,371
  • Cybermedia Technologies INC — $1,554,336
  • Lockheed Martin Desktop Solutions INC — $1,422,813
  • The Franking Group — $1,266,900
  • Xcential Group LLC — $1,215,816
  • Dell Marketing LP — $1,066,327
  • Advance Digital Systems INC — $1,035,021

 


A chart showing the top 11 purpose activities reported for 2014 by the Chief Administrative Officer of the U.S. House in Tech and Digital Media spending.

Click for full size chart.

Top 11 Purpose Activities (According to Available Data)

  • Technology Service Contracts — $23,732,965
  • TelecomSRV/EQ/TOLL Charge — $21,469,624
  • Non-Technology Service Contr — $13,030,416
  • Publications/Reference Mat’l — $12,627,844
  • Printing & Reproduction — $11,799,142
  • Maintenance / Repairs — $10,364,370
  • Computer Hardw Purch Greater than or = $25,000 — $9,002,703
  • DC Telecom Tolls (Transfer) — $7,207,420
  • Computer Hardw Purch Less than $25,000 — $6,475,924
  • Web Dev Hst,Email & Rltd Serv — $4,279,438
  • Utilities — $3,900,676

 


A chart showing a selection of seven different legislative support offices from 2014 House Tech and Digital Media spending reported by the Chief Administrative Officer.

Click for full size chart.

Spending of Selected Legislative Support Offices (According to Available Data)

  • Chief Admin Ofcr of the House — $62,578,355
  • Clerk of the House — $5,416,184
  • CAO Advanced Business Solution — $3,556,368
  • Communications Services — $2,348,162
  • Legislative Counsel — $1,343,259
  • Law Revision Counsel — $1,021,309
  • Sergeant at Arms — $907,380

 
 


A chart showing the top seven committees based on U.S. House Tech and Digital Media spending from the Chief Administrative Officer.

Click for full size chart.

Spending of Selected Legislative Support Offices (According to Available Data)

  • Committee on Appropriations — $1,778,012
  • Joint Committee on Taxation — $1,409,675
  • Comm on Oversight & Govt Reform — $879,793
  • Committee on Financial Service — $849,069
  • Committee on Ways and Means — $794,703
  • Homeland Security — $766,561
  • Committee on Energy & Commerce — $723,831

 


 
Seamus Kraft is the Executive Director and Co-Founder of The OpenGov Foundation.

A Citizen’s Guide to Commemorative Resolutions in the Chicago City Council

A photo the Journal of Proceedings of the Chicago City Council taken by Daniel X. O'Neil.
(Daniel X. O’Neil via Flickr)
Part three of a series examining The OpenGov Foundation’s work in Chicago. Also see: part one and part two.

When we started to build a 21st century municipal legislature with the Chicago City Council, we did not begin with software or data.

Instead, we first dove deeply into the history, culture, work products, systems and the processes that exist today. We wanted to walk a mile – or ten – in the shoes of the men and women who make the council run, from the most senior alderman to the newest staffer. Not only do we believe that this is what good partners do, we believe that it would help surface the best possible place to launch this long-term legislative transformation. It’s building with not for.

Launch point? Commemorative resolutions, which officially recognize an outstanding achievement, like a victorious youth sports team, or significant milestone, like turning 100, in the lives of Chicagoans. Commemorative resolutions are the most straight-forward, least complex pieces of legislation drafted, voted upon by the city council and promulgated to the public. These documents are regularly created by all 50 aldermen, the Mayor and the City Clerk. Even better, resolutions contain most components included in more intricate kinds of Chicago policy documents – both process and data-wise – but in an easier fashion for a technologist to transform from paper to the digital world.

It’s a perfect place to start. Our next step was to distill real resolutions down to their very essence, which means answering two fundamental questions: what information is contained in each one of today’s paper-based commemorative resolutions? And what are the distinct steps in the policymaking process behind resolutions? Let’s answer the first one by “tearing apart” a real paper-based resolution to uncover the enormous amount of civic information locked therein, waiting to be turned into modern, structured open data. Numbers 1-9 reference information on the document tracking sheet, while numbers 10-13 reference vital information contained in the legislation itself.

An exmaple of a commemorative resolution cover sheet for the Chicago City Council.

  1. Barcode: These are added to each Chicago City Council paper-based bill for document tracking throughout the policymaking process. The barcode represents the unique document number below, in this case “R2014-641.”
  2. “R”: The letter at the front of the document number indicates what type of legislation it is. In this case, “R” signifies “resolution.”
  3. “2014”: This piece of the unique document number indicates which year the bill was introduced to the council.
  4. “-641”: This piece of the document number is what makes it unique. These numbers are sequentially assigned to legislation in the order in which it was introduced to the council, and are what makes the document number unique. For example, this was the 641st resolution introduced in 2014.
  5. “Meeting Date”: The date of the Chicago City Council meeting during which the legislation was introduced. Note: frequently these commemorative resolutions are adopted on the same day through either the suspension of the City Council’s Rules of Order or when included on the Agreed Calendar.
  6. “Sponsors”: Indicates the elected official, or officials, who authored the bill. In Chicago, all 50 aldermen, the Mayor and the City Clerk may introduce legislation.
  7. “Type”: Indicates the type of legislation, in this case, a resolution.
  8. “Title”: The name of the legislation itself, often providing a brief summary of the bill’s purpose.
  9. “Committee Assignment”: As legislation moves through the council, it is often assigned to a committee of jurisdiction for consideration before moving to the full city council. This bill, however, was not assigned to a committee.
  10. An example of a commemorative resolution in the Chicago City Council.

  11. “Whereas” Clause: Resolutions commonly contain at least one “whereas” or preamble clause, which provide the reasons for which this Chicago citizen, organization or event is being recognized by the city council.
  12. “Be It Resolved” Clause: Every resolution must contain at least one “be it resolved” clause, which stipulates the official action to be taken should the commemorative resolution be adopted by the city council. In this case, the action is simply recognizing great work done by the Smart Chicago collaborative.
  13. “Be It Further Resolved” Clause: Resolutions may stipulate more than one official action to be taken, indicated by the addition of a “be it further resolved” clause. In this case, the action is to create an embossed parchment version of the commemorative resolution and deliver it to Daniel O’Neil of the Smart Chicago collaborative.
  14. Signature: Sponsors and co-sponsors sign the bottom of the paper copies of legislation prior to introduction. The signature is meant to authenticate the policy document and sponsorship, verifying that each elected official listed as a sponsor is, in fact, a sponsor.

Added together, these 13 pieces of information turn a couple of pieces of paper into a real-deal commemorative resolution. By now, you should be able to see that each nugget of printed information is ripe for transformation into far more useful, digital document metadata. But that chapter of the story must wait for a future post.

Now that we understand the information contained in a resolution, we can tee it up to be turned into open data. In the next post, we’ll answer the second question posed above: how does a resolution come to be authored, introduced, considered and passed through the mostly paper-based systems and processes of the Chicago City Council?

Seamus Kraft is the Executive Director and Co-Founder of The OpenGov Foundation.

Statement on U.S. House Chief Administrative Officer Ed Cassidy Retirement Announcement

WASHINGTON, D.C. (December 9, 2015) — The OpenGov Foundation’s Executive Director Seamus Kraft released the following statement on the the announcement that Ed Cassidy, Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) of the U.S. House of Representatives, will be stepping down at the end of 2015:

“Ed’s remarkable breadth of experience, institutional knowledge and true love of Congress shine through his work. He will be missed both in the CAO’s office and across Capitol Hill.

“As Chief Administrative Officer and under Speaker Boehner, Ed spearheaded critical initiatives aimed at creating a more efficient, effective and open legislative branch. We’ve been lucky to have the chance to watch and learn up close as he helped steer the historic transformation of our country’s laws and legislation into open data, introducing previously unheard of levels of public and stakeholder engagement to the process. He’s created a fantastic model for those seeking to modernize state, county or local legislatures.

“Ed accomplished all of this and more in a challenging environment, with a knack for always finding a good balance between the best of congressional tradition and the demands of the 21st century. We look forward to continuing to work with the wonderful teams Ed has built as CAO and building on the innovations he’s introduced to the People’s House.”

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