How A Paper-Based Legislature Works

Part one of a series examining The OpenGov Foundation’s work in Chicago. Also see: part two.

A Chicago City Council Meeting Seen Through the Eyes of a Civic Technologist

On Wednesday, July 29, 2015, I attended my first Chicago City Council meeting to see firsthand how Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Clerk Susana Mendoza and the 50 Aldermen legislate. To understand the process, and to better learn the challenges that Chicago policymakers and staff face, I needed to see the City Council in action.

Walking out four hours later, I was overwhelmed. Not by the votes or the speeches or the gavel-banging, but by the incredible amount of paper being pushed, printed and produced.

There has to be a better way.

At The OpenGov Foundation, where I serve as lead software developer, our mission is to help governments discover that better way. We have partnered with Chicago City Clerk Susana Mendoza and the Office of the Clerk to transform their operations from the paper-based world of last century to the digital-first world in which we live and work today. That is why I’m in the Windy City. And that is what brought me to the July City Council meeting.

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Reams of legislative documents stacked next to the

Chairman of the Committee on Zoning, Landmarks and Building Standards

The first thing I noticed, before the City Council meeting even began, was the massive amount of paper being carried into the Council Chambers. There were more than 1,400 legislative documents to be considered in just that one monthly meeting; the U.S. Congress, with vastly more resources and staff, averaged roughly 20 legislative documents considered each month during the 113th Congress.

Beyond the sheer volume, many of those 1,400 documents ran hundreds of pages long. All were printed on paper, with a copy of each made for each of the 52 elected officials on the Council. And the most paper came from the Committee on Zoning, Landmarks and Building Standards, almost blocking my view of the committee’s chairman.

Let’s step back and look at the process and how this pile of paper came to be. An ordinance, order or resolution — the official names for City legislation — start off as a digital document. Proposed ordinances are created with software like WordPerfect or Microsoft Word. These documents are printed by the sponsor — whether the Mayor, an alderman or the City Clerk — then brought to the Council chamber to be introduced as legislation. As each piece of legislation is introduced, it is referred to a committee for consideration. After a bill receives a committee hearing and recommendation, it returns to the City Council for a final vote. The majority of ordinances are voted upon in bulk when they return to the Council in order to move things along a little bit faster.

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A tracking cover sheet is added to each of the thousands of bills

considered each time the Chicago City Council meets.

Introductions , and those that have received a final vote, are then carried from the Council chambers to a back room. There, a mountain of paper is piled onto a cart for sorting by the City Clerk’s staff. Yet another piece of paper — a tracking cover sheet with a real life barcode — is added to each policy document. The ordinances are then dropped into a box depending on the legislation’s content. There was a box for each committee: Finance, Zoning, Pedestrian Traffic & Safety, and for specific types of legislation, such as resolutions, and so on. This process is repeated over and over, for the entirety of the meeting, to keep up with the large volume of paper being processed.

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Stacks of legislation being carried out of the Council Chamber to be sorted and tagged

Once the meeting is adjourned, the Office of the City Clerk — City Council Division receives a Mount Everest of paper. They spend the next two to three days chipping away at it, typing and scanning these paper documents back into a digital format so that they can be uploaded into the Office of the City Clerk’s website (specifically, the Legislative Information Center) for public view.

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Legislation being tagged and sorted by hand into subject matter bins

This re-digitization process starts with a workout. Staff transport the issue-specific boxes of legislation downstairs to the City Clerk’s Office, where staff manually enter the information from each of the 1,400+ paper documents into the City’s legislative document management system — Legistar. It is a tedious task, to say the least, for each individual document to be logged and manually scanned into the City of Chicago’s digital system so that the public can actually view the laws that are introduced and passed by elected officials. The digitization process then relies on optical character recognition (OCR) to convert the scanned images of legislation into a PDF or Microsoft Word document.

For those keeping track, there are at least three paper versions of each document considered by the Chicago City Council, not to mention the potentially dozens of drafts that pass from digital formats to paper and back to digital. This can cause many problems.

First, it can sometimes be difficult to ensure that the correct printed version is being used by the Council at a given step in the process. Authenticatication of the legislative information before lawmakers is mission-critical, but largely manual. It is even harder to reconcile multiple hard-copies of an ordinance should confusion arise. And at the end of the policymaking process, when OCR technology is used to re-digitize legislation, 100% accuracy isn’t guaranteed.

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Reconciling the paper-based versions of legislation after a Council meeting.

What I witnessed at the July 29 City Council meeting reminded me of the telephone game. One player begins the game by whispering a message to the person beside them, and as each player whispers the game’s message to their neighbor, the message invariably mutates into something completely different. All of these documents start as digital drafts. Then they’re printed, revised, and re-printed multiple times. Then scanned and re-digitized, every one of the thousands of pieces of legislation considered by the Council each month.

In the age of iPhones and Google Docs, is this the best system for running a major city, or any government for that matter? If legislation and laws — the most important information in every democracy — are born digital, shouldn’t they stay digital throughout their lifecycle?

If a legislature can fully enter the digital age, we believe it will significantly reduce the time, money and manpower it takes to turn the gears of government; moreover, it would increase accuracy and efficiency for the city, while boosting access, transparency and accountability for the taxpayer.

As a software developer and as a citizen, I want to live in that kind of digital democracy. Don’t you?

Chris Birk is the Lead Developer at The OpenGov Foundation.