It’s time to move beyond the FOIA process. Public information is for public consumption, and the Freedom of Information Act is there to enforce the delivery of that information, however, if both the request processing and the delivery is automated, requiring no human resources, there’s no longer a need for the typical FOIA struggle. A number of cities that have successfully automated the delivery of public legislative information are seeing as much as a 95% drop in FOIA requests.
As you may have guessed, simply posting agendas and minutes PDFs on a website won’t do the job. Even putting up entire agenda packets, complete with supporting documentation won’t cut it. More than the quantity of information, the quality and organization of that information is critical to open government success. Here are seven essential components for an effective online legislative research center:
1. Complete Meeting Calendar
Having a calendar of past and upcoming meetings scheduled for the year is great for the city council or other primary legislative body, but listing all committee and board meetings creates a more tangible and connected community. Comprehensive calendars like this need search and filtering tools to ensure ease of access: date range and meeting body selection are a must have. This is where most people will want to go to find agendas and minutes.
2. Legislative Data Granularity
Large documents full of information for many different agenda items aren’t very useful. When data is broken down into smaller pieces (e.g. titles, recommendations, actions taken, movers, votes, dates, etc.), they can be reused, organized, searched, reported on, and displayed in many different ways. This creates more than accessibility, it creates usability.
3. Agenda Item DNA
Agenda items are more than a paragraph on a page: they are the sum of their history. As agenda items go through revisions and get passed around to committees for recommendations, everything that happens to it is a critical part of the record. These histories, as well as supporting documentation and video clips of discussion on the items, create the DNA of the item on the agenda, and really the fundamental meat that most FOIA submitters are looking for.
4. Hyperlink Organization
The convenience of legislative data granularity allows for hyperlink organization that makes sense. Users should be able to read the vote on an item and click on a voter’s name to see what other items the elected official has sponsored or his complete voting record. Clicking on an agenda item should provide extensive details about that item – the agenda item DNA. When all data is cross-linked like this, accessibility is at its apex.
5. Indexed Meeting Video
Just posting meeting video on YouTube isn’t enough, and few municipalities even go that far. Video of meetings is long and cumbersome to work through, which is why many government agencies won’t bother. The only way to take advantage of the massive and growing popularity of online video is to index it with agenda items. This means that people will be able to click on a video link that will show meeting discussion specific to that item.
6. Robust Search
Searching is implicit in creating an online legislative research center, but aside from having a simple search box that will accept and look for a word or phrase, more complex searching is necessary to easily find pertinent information. When citizens are looking for tree ordinances, they don’t want to see resolutions dedicating memorial trees. When elected officials want to find a public hearing from the first quarter of last year, they don’t need to see everything prior or since. Being able to search specific data elements, like the date an agenda item was first introduced, or particular sponsors of items, or using combinations of search filters creates extremely accurate and efficient search results.
Citizens and public servants often want more than to just look something up from the past, they want to know if anything else happens to a particular piece of legislation or if a certain topic comes up again. RSS and other notification subscriptions are critical to keeping people engaged and informed.
With these seven components, any online legislative research center is an open government success, sure to reduce FOIA requests, increase operational efficiency, and better engage the public. Check out how the City of Long Beach has incorporated all of these elements.
If you’re wondering how to get your data into a format that would support such granularity, DNA, and organization, then it’s also time to look at streamlining and automating your legislative management process. Check out this Granicus webinar, The Future of Digital Government, for a Q&A with an in depth look at tools that can tie together the cutting edge needs of open government, efficient legislative management, and civic engagement.