Your interoperable democracy

Greg Nash

Anyone who has worked on Capitol Hill or in a district office knows that there’s no easy method for organizing the information generated by the first branch of government. From recorded votes to scribbled notes on the back of a napkin, Congress is a raucous mining camp of data. With the onset of electronic communication, Congress has experienced exponentially more demand for access and connection, but with diminishing capacity to manage it. Fortunately, the new Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress is staking a claim on behalf of the institution to make sure that our digital future serves American democracy.  

In today’s world, digital infrastructure is necessary to organize technology and data for governing–especially in a diverse and geographically dispersed population like the U.S. The executive branch acted on this realization in 2009 with the Obama administration’s Open Government Directive. The House established the Modernization Committee in January,  2019 a decade later and just days before President Trump signed the Open Government Data Act into law. The law mandates chief digital officers in the agencies, and makes most federal data open and machine readable.  

Congress must now figure out how to best make use of these data assets in the executive branch. Ideally, the law will prompt Congress to experiment with integrating multiple data streams into the legislative and deliberative processes. This means Congress will also need to figure out how  to automate time consuming parts of the legislative workflow like finding, retrieving, sorting, filtering, sharing and storing. Pursuing this digital future will not only be a big deal for your average legislative assistant, it will be a huge step forward for the whole first branch. From the National Archives to the Government Publishing Office, Congress will be the main player in organizing the data of modern democracy.

Although Congress does not yet have a chief data officer (or even a chief technology officer) the Modernization Committee has already adopted a set of transparency recommendations.  

Interoperable Democracy arrives

The whole list of recommendations is commendable, but the first one is uniquely important: to adopt a standardized format for drafting, viewing, and publishing legislation throughout the lawmaking process. This may sound bland and bureaucratic, but as democracy goes, it is transformative. Our American format is called USLM (United States Legislative Markup) and will allow Congress and the public to view text in the workflow of legislation using modern tools. USLM builds on a standard format that has already been adopted on a global scale. (Format just determines how a person interacts with text, like a return address and a salutation in old fashioned correspondence. Coders call these “schemas” which help define the rules for formatting, so don’t get thrown!). It also means that the House and Senate and executive branch will someday be able to more seamlessly integrate and share data. Today, this feat is a navigating challenge some would liken to crossing continents with yellow sticky notes as a guide.  

Importantly, this standardization means that rule of law nations can help each other far more effectively. It means that –at long last– democratic values might be able to beat the trolls, out compete data mercenaries and diminish the information weaponization that is paralyzing democracy worldwide. This global democratic resilience will be especially important when we arrive at machine learning, artificial intelligence and algorithms. Will we build an auditable public good system? One that can visualize and help forecast implications of policy? One that is able to identify misinformation and financial conflicts of interest in the data supply chain?  Or, will this new openness become yet another opportunity to commodify, privatize and capture democratic functions?

The USLM recommendation is a happy occasion for democracy. And is not an accident, but an outcome. Congress’ small technology team, working with a first branch and civil society support network, began laying the groundwork for this goal decades ago. Back in 1997, the Clerk’s Office began  a document exchange standard that allowed the creation, and exchange of House documents using XML (stay with me, XML was Congress’ first machine readable format for text) This included customizing an XML editor for the creation of bills and resolution. But there’s more! That action was rooted in a 1996 directive from the Committee on House Oversight (now known as the Committee on House Administration) and the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration to the Clerk of the House and Secretary of Senate, respectively, to work together toward establishing common data standards for the exchange of legislative information (2 U.S.C. 181)  The USLM format is an extension of this work and is considered “second generation” XML.

Like many unheralded but positive outcomes in Congress, staff built the relationships and traction for success. The XML working group and the Bulk Data Task Force deserve much credit for today’s modernization push. The Congressional Tech Staff Association, Tech Fellows,  the Transparency Caucus and all the other member-led tech caucuses also deserve mention.

Congress needs a solid foundation to govern in a method befitting the 21st century. Yet at this early stage, the goal of congressional data should be less about data volume and more about building a digitally equipped institution, worthy of public trust. Neither the private sector nor any non -profit coalition is going to step in and do this heavy lift for Congress. They can be supporting actors, but this is a first cranch self-help challenge. If it even has a prayer to catch up to the executive branch, Congress must give itself more resources for systemwide digital infrastructure.

And there’s much we can do starting now. Over the coming years, members and committees should create models and experiment. Like a big maker-space for civics, Congress can use technology and data to create prototypes, iterate and share. In this way, it will become a laboratory for data governance for its own benefit. And maybe, at long last, the first branch can take its place as a truly co-equal branch of government.

Lorelei Kelly is a Fellow at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University.

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