The following is a guest post by Kirsten Gullickson, senior systems analyst with the Office of the Clerk, United States House of Representatives and co-chair of the Legislative Branch XML Working Group. She also served as a judge for the Library of Congress Legislative Data Challenges.
It was a great honor for me to represent the United States House of Representatives at the sixth World e-Parliament Conference held on May 8-10, 2014, at the Korean National Assembly in Seoul (Republic of Korea). Deputy Clerk Robert Reeves and Chuck Turner, professional staff with the House Committee on Appropriations also attended the conference on behalf of the House. A special thanks to the Law Library for asking me to share some highlights of the conference with you.
The World e-Parliament  is “the biennial forum of the community of parliaments on their use of information and communication technologies (ICT). It addresses, from both the policy and technical perspectives, how ICT can help improve representation, law-making and oversight and increase parliament’s openness, accessibility, accountability and effectiveness.” The Conference was co-organized by the Inter-Parliamentary Union and the National Assembly of Republic of Korea, in cooperation with the Global Centre for ICT in Parliament. Over 69 countries were represented with approximately 550 staff, members of parliament, and others in attendance.
Each parliament represented has the shared challenges of preparing, managing, distributing, and archiving its official documents in the 21st century. In the past, these tasks were confined to the paper version of the document only, but now they also include electronic documents and data.
ICT systems in parliament should help meet the goals of accountability, transparency and accessibility of the government, empowerment of the public and citizen engagement and provide a higher quality of information to all. Additionally, ICT systems adopted by a given parliament must be quick, flexible, and meet the changing needs of the public and the members of parliaments. Furthermore, there is an expectation by members of parliament, its staff and the public that parliament ICT systems have no interruptions, no failures, no risks and cost very little money. With these things in mind, as well as the conference theme “lessons learned and future horizons,” conference participants engaged in thoughtful presentations and discussions over the three days of the conference.
An example of a system meeting the goals mentioned above was presented by Ms. Ines Kerle, the head of digital media and corporate design for the Parliament of Austria. The redesign of their website makes finding information about parliament activities easier for their members and citizens by providing “less clicks” and a search tool with filters – simple current best practices their old site did not provide. The site also provides tab navigation and a graphical overview of the law making process that is similar to the Library of Congress system, Congress.gov. (Slide 24 of Ms. Kerle’s presentation illustrates these features.)
Members of parliaments from around the world discuss social media
A number of members of parliament from around the world attended the conference. From my observation, the members of parliaments in attendance were eager to learn from others and willing to share their ICT experiences. Between sessions, I had the opportunity to explain a technical detail (the difference between a DTD and a schema) to a member from the House of Commons in the United Kingdom. She was very grateful for the explanation and happy to learn that she only needed to know the high-level explanation and none of the granular details. She and other members in attendance remarked how crucial they thought it was to engage and create authentic dialogue with their constituencies through the communication channels offered by social media. For more information on this topic, I recommend the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s Social Media Guidelines for Parliaments (version 1.0).
The panel discussion about adding social medial channels to a parliament’s communication strategy was lively. Mr. Odirile Motlhale, a member of the National Assembly from Botswana talked about the “Botswana Speaks Project”, which has the goal of increasing information flows between the members of the National Assembly and the electorate, including the use of mobile technologies. In its pilot phase, over 980 use cases were documented and the most active group was youth from the ages of 18 to 24. Next Mr. Choi Minhee, a member of the National Assembly from the Republic of Korea, provided a presentation about social media, the crisis of modern democracy and representative politics, the limitations of traditional media and how to expand citizen engagement using social media. Mr. John Pullinger, the Director General of Information Services of the House of Commons in the United Kingdom, closed the panel with a presentation about questions and best practices that parliaments should consider when crafting a social media policy for its members. He said, “good social media practice means listening, responding, asking and sharing: it’s about being an active participant in the network.”
Access to parliament documents through cooperation and structured data formats
Both Deputy Clerk of the House Robert Reeves and I were able to speak during the conference. Mr. Reeves spoke on the panel titled, “Access to the law and legislative documents.” He highlighted the work of the U.S. House’s Bulk Data Task Force and some of its key findings about making data available to the public.
I spoke on the panel, “Inter-parliamentary cooperation on XML,” and shared the U.S. House of Representative’s lessons learned with the implementation of XML for legislative bills and the U.S. Code. I also highlighted the Library of Congress data challenge to map UK and US legislative bills to the emerging international standard for legislative documents, Akoma Ntoso. I gave a brief explanation of the chrome plug-in solution submitted by the first place winner, Jim Mangiafico. Mr. Mangiafico gave a more detailed demonstration at the U.S. House’s Legislative and Data Transparency Conference on May 29.
The Korean Assembly: A digital plenary chamber
On the last day of the conference, the Korean Assembly provided the conference participants with a tour and demonstration of their new digitalized plenary chamber. As background, each member of parliament is provided an assigned desk. The desk is equipped with an individual computer where the member searches in real-time for documents and information about the plenary activities. During the demonstration, we were allowed to sit at a member’s desk and use the computer. While most of the material presented to me was in Korean (some in English), the user interface on the touch screen was friendly and I was able to find a bill and a committee report. I was also able to use the messaging system to send a “hello” to the person sitting next to me. There is a video and digital brochure available on the Korean Assembly’s website.
The IFLA Trend Report
During the closing panel, Donna Scheeder, president-elect of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions, shared findings from the IFLA trend report. She reminded us that access to information is important to a civil society and libraries will continue to be important in the distribution of information. The five top level trends from the report are:
- New technologies will both expand and limit who has access to information.
- Online education will democratize and disrupt global learning.
- The boundaries of privacy and data protection will be redefined.
- Hyper-connected societies will listen to and empower new voices and groups.
- The global information environment will be transformed by new technologies.
The document, “Insights from the IFLA Trend Report,” pulls together all the information contained in the Trend Report website. It is just 15 pages and easy to read.
The challenge: making parliament information available and understandable
The closing remarks for the conference were offered by Secretary General-elect for the Inter-Parliamentary Union Mr. Martin Chungong. He noted a number of trends since the last e-parliament conference in 2012, including:
- A growing political commitment to openness and transparency from parliaments around the world
- A definite shift towards a paperless environment within parliaments
- A greater use of technology abolishing the barriers of distance and geography
- An increase in the number and quality of mobile applications allowing members and citizens to access data and engage in dialogue wherever they are located.
He urged members of parliament and their staffs to remember that “citizens should be able to understand easily what is going on in a parliament” and nobody knows better than us “how complex an institution it is, and how complex the law-making process can be.” He challenged us to build systems that not only make parliamentary information available but “available in a way that can be easily understood by the ordinary citizen.” It is a challenge I hope all parliament staff take seriously. I know I do.
If anything was affirmed for the attendees at the conference, it was the idea that a “digital democracy” is here to stay and our parliaments must change and adopt to 21st technologies. The Speaker of the UK House of Commons, Mr. John Bercow, highlighted this in his address by saying “Representative democracy is a wonderful principle but what it is to be representative has to be re-examined constantly. It is a process, not an event.” World e-Parliament conferences provide a forum for this re-examination process.
The IPU and the Korean Assembly did a fabulous job organizing the 2014 conference. I look forward to our continued work in the U.S. House and across the Legislative Branch in this area – publishing more open data and modernizing systems to meet the needs of our members, their staffs and the public. It is a privilege and honor to be a public employee.
For more information about World e-Parliament 2014, including opening and closing remarks by Secretary General-elect for the Inter-Parliamentary Union, Mr. Martin Chungong, and participant presentations, go here: http://wepc2014.org/about/.
For information on past World e-Parliament Conferences, go here: http://www.ictparliament.org/world-e-parliament-conferences.html.